Moving goal posts and Buddhist practice

Posted by on Jul 8, 2014 in Buddhism | One Comment
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I read an article recently about a study that seems to prove how some plants have enough consciousness to respond defensively to the sound of caterpillars eating them. Some vegans may find this uncomfortable reading!

It made me think about the Buddhist approach to ethics, and why I think it’s so useful.

The ‘first precept’ of Buddhism is about not killing. It’s about non-harm. You could even say it’s about love. And everything else is pinned on it.

This has led to a lot of Buddhists being vegetarian (particularly in the West). Many choose veganism.

My dad’s bigger than your dad

When we start to choose more ethical living, we start to feel better about who we are. This is a good thing. For one thing, it stabilises our psyche in a way that is very conducive to developing a strong meditation practice. And out of that, wisdom can arise.

It only gets less good when we feel that it makes us better than other people. Especially if we then decide we now have a platform from which to look down and berate those other people for their cruelty.

I’ve noticed this over the years. Some people use ‘ethical living’ as if it were a lifestyle accessory or a cool brand of clothing. Others choose it as a way to channel their anger and hatred that feels OK to them.

And some are genuinely humble and live as ethically as they can because they think it’s the right thing to do. Those are the people I’m interested in. They tend not to be as easy to spot.

In Buddhism, ethics is seen as a spectrum, not a dichotomy. That is, you can always get better at it. There’s no such thing as the black and white ‘right/wrong’, ‘good/evil’, ‘saint/sinner’ thing.

This ‘spectrum’ model works well in a world where plants have consciousness.

We must eat to live. This means, we must cause harm. We must take life purely as a condition of being born human.

If ethics is a spectrum, the goal therefore is not to become a saint, it is to move further along the spectrum in the direction of ethical living. And to keep doing that. Forever.

Buddhist ethics are largely about intention. It’s not possible to use ‘ethical living’ for vanity or hatred. If that’s what you’re doing, by definition you’re not living ethically!

Striving for more from yourself

This is by no means intended to be a vegan-bashing session. Veganism is a great achievement for anyone who manages it. I’ve managed it for a few months at a time and would love to be vegan the whole time (the last time I stopped was last year as a result of getting injured, needing a blood transfusion and losing a whole bunch of weight – and I’m now on a very strict diet of a different kind).

What I’m trying to point out here is that we shouldn’t be bashing each other under the guise of ethics, or political conviction, or religious conviction, or whatever takes your fancy.

This can be tough! We all have lots of frustration within us. We get passionate about things. We see injustice of one kind or another and we want it gone. Now. Completely.

The temptation to lash out is always there. To defend our position. To expand our dominance.

Spiritual practice for me is about learning how to manage these drives to destroy that which we dislike and appropriate that which we find appealing.

To really achieve that we need to undermine their causes, and move on to a more mature way of being.

That’s not to say we should be quiet about injustice. And I’m not even saying we shouldn’t forcefully stand against it where necessary. I’m just saying watch your heart and your mind.

And remember that the person you’re standing against is a person, not so different from you.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. cmwyoung
    July 8, 2014

    Great post. Excellent.

    Palm oil is in lots of foods eaten by vegans and vegetarians, but its cultivation has caused untold suffering (and even local extinction) to wild animal populations. After ten years of increasing self-righteousness I stopped being an ego-vegetarian and came to terms with being an omnivorous source of suffering. But humble veggies, vegans and fasting Muslims all get my respect!

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