Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buddhism Doesn't Make You Nicer

Does Buddhism make you a nicer person? Gniz over at Reblogging Brad Warner thinks not. Citing his own experience, the many ugly scandals throughout the history of Buddhism, and the current wild west shoot out going on over at Brad Warner's blog, Gniz concludes that it's foolish to assume that our practice will make us behave better than anyone else.

Here's what I'd say are the central points of his post:

expecting Buddhists to behave better than Catholics or better than non-Buddhists is just silly, and clearly it's not the case. Why should it be, really? Let's just say that the practice of Zen makes us happier. Well, is it true that only unhappy people are assholes, act immorally, etc? Is everyone involved in war or criminal activities an "unhappy" person? I don't believe so. Not at all.

Morality has nothing to do with happiness.

Although I will agree that I tend to be nastier when I'm feeling unhappy and down, I'm not necessarily a model person when things are going well for me, either.

So my point is, there's almost nothing Zen or any kind of meditation can do to make us better people. Yes, you'll get practitioners TALKING about how much nicer, kinder, more tolerant they've become. But I'm not sure I buy it. Listen to Born Again Christians sometime. They'll tell you that Jesus did the same thing for them. Made them better, changed them.

And yet, from my POV, so many of these religious true-believers are just deluding themselves about how nice they've become, how compassionate they are, etc.

I'm inclined to agree (with some reservations) with Gniz's comparison between convert Buddhist self-assessment speech and that of born again Christians. There's definitely a segment of people who call themselves Buddhists who have simply placed the sheet of Buddhism over their crappy, old bed of the self. And even people who have practiced a long time, with deep sincerity, are still fooled some of the time by the languging they have adopted to describe their behavior. (I consider myself part of that second group.)In other words, you act a certain way, label it through a Buddhist frame, and then move on, failing to see the actual reality.

However, I do think people change. I've seen people in my sangha become more open, more outwardly caring about the basic details of life. I think I have changed too. Others would probably agree with me that I have changed. Not that I've become some saint, or anything, but I don't react and fixate on many things that arise in my life the way I did in the past.

In my opinion, Gniz's focus on niceness is actually a mistake. Being "nice" and behaving "better" aren't really helpful, nor are they really the drive of Buddhist practice. Take the paramitas, for example.

We Zen types tend to focus on the following six, but there are others, depending upon the school of Buddhism.

1. Dāna paramita: generosity

2. Śīla paramita: virtue, morality, discipline

3. Kṣānti (kshanti) paramita: patience, tolerance, forbearance

4. Vīrya paramita: energy, diligence, vigor, effort

5. Dhyāna paramita: one-pointed concentration, contemplation

6. Prajñā paramita: wisdom, insight

Neither being nice, nor happy - which Gniz and so many others have said is a main goal or outcome of Buddhist practice - are really focal points in the paramitas. And as far as behaving "better," based on what criteria? And who's judgment? A few weeks ago, I questioned the origin of a new requirement for us teachers and got half a dozen responses in return. Some felt I was being obstructive. Some thanked me for asking the question. One thought I was brave. Another seemed to be annoyed that the conversation was evening happening. The way I see it, speaking about "better or worse" is usually about narrating the surface of life, without any connection to the wisdom lurking beneath that surface.

Now, anyone ready to dismiss Gniz's questioning and doubts best be careful. I think he's pointing us towards the many ways in which we confuse the surface appearance of things for the whole of reality. I think it's very true that a person can emanate a certain amount of happiness and still commit horrible acts. I remember seeing a collection of photos recently of Nazis in their "off hours" having a wonderful time singing, dancing, and playing with their friends and family. The people captured in those photos did not fit the image most of us have of Nazis working in concentration camps, but there they were, offering a more complex view for anyone wishing to look. That's an extreme example, but think about your own life, how you probably have acted unskillfully at times even when you were happy. One might call this a happiness without wisdom.

Another thing I notice, though, about Gniz's commentary is a certain streak of perfectionism coming through. I don't think Buddhist practice is about being or becoming a "model person." That sounds a little too much like those good old Catholic saints that never touch the ground or take a shit after eating a meal. Again, what constitutes a "model person"? It seems to me to be just another construction to get fixated on.

Now that the snow is melting around here, I'm enjoying looking at the photos I took when there were piles of it. What's under that snow pile in the photo above? There's an easy answer, of course, but are you sure that's the only answer? Look closely. Be patient. Doing so won't make you nicer, but that probably wasn't your deepest intention anyway, was it?


Was Once said...

"Not that I've become some saint, or anything, but I don't react and fixate on many things that arise in my life the way I did in the past. "

I can't agree more for whatever reason...age, fear of becoming gumpy, meditation...or just finally waking up and seeing what does not work.
Now when I find myself in worry or anxious state and then meditate..the cloud lifts.

Algernon said...

The fixation on "being nice" as an outcome of practice is just checking mind. Usually, people aren't asking whether practice has made *them* more nice; they're checking other people to see if they're getting any more nice. The problem, thus, is all those *other people.*

But actually, there's no problem and, as you pointed out, no "nice" (outside of self-affirming opinions). We don't practice in order to see things as more beautiful; we practice to see things as they are. (Which might be rather beautiful in itself. But maybe not. Don't hold me to any promises!)

DQ's Windmill said...

Compatible bed partners, nastiness and happiness? Hmm. I like that. Sure, of course, others will say the twisted person who is happy doing crazy shit is twisted, that he doesn't really understand what true happiness is. But happiness is a relative state, like time, so who can measure it objectively? And even on everyday level - aside from the crazy shit - I can very easily be rude and then return to my relative bliss bubble, especially if my practice is serving me, and I'm good at returning to presence, and can quickly forget I've been rude.

Good post!