Buddhist ethics can be a difficult topic to study or discuss in the contemporary age. Ethics as a category of peoples’ lives has come to seem too prescriptive, too authoritarian, too distant. The communal and developmental ideals embodied in traditional systems of thought, from Buddhist to Aristotelian to Christian, have been largely set aside by what my philosopher friend Amod Lele calls Qualitative Individualism.
Qualitative Individualism signifies the contemporary quest for finding our “true self” as individuals, with the implication that there is something unique and special about each of us. This true self transcends, if that is the correct term, our society and heritage. And, of course, it transcends the dictums of philosophers or religious communities. Lele clarifies that this is not the same individualism that one finds in the ethics of Kant, in which one seeks to develop one’s rational autonomy (one’s moral self) and overcome heteronomous or external drives and desires (our animal or irrational self). We might add that it also differs from any kind of Buddhist individualism which might follow from the Buddhist reflection:
“I am the owner of my actions (karma), heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.” (AN 5.57)
For both Kant and the Buddhist contemplating this teaching, our reflection does lead us beyond any kind of “true self” which is unique in the world. It points instead to a universal moral commonality, which can feel a bit deflating to the person in search of their own specialness.
But it also suggests a profound sense of responsibility. We’re not just a product of invisible forces in our society: cultural norms, levels of wealth, age, gender, and so on. These may have profound influences on us, but it is our actions (which the Buddha clarified are intentions, cetanā) that shape our destiny.
Returning to our Buddhist poker player (Scott Wellenbach), we might wonder what is particularly Buddhist about his acts. After all: non-Buddhists play poker. And sometimes non-Buddhists donate winnings to charity. In fact, Buddhist teachings warn us against gambling, so without reflection we might denounce the man’s acts as “un-Buddhist.”
However, looking more closely, we see that the Buddhist aspects of Wellenbach’s actions are right where we would expect them: in his intentions.
He plays poker to get to know fellow players and to enjoy a community of friendliness and conversations among the players. He brings his practice to the game, one which can be inherently stressful for players. As such, he relaxes, accepting the fact that he has no real control, and in turn exercises kindness toward himself and fellow players.
In this, he is not seeking his “true self” as many contemporary folks do, or to satisfy individualistic desires and inclinations, which both Kant and so much of Buddhism warns us against. Instead he is bringing his practice, and the awareness that arises from it, into his modern life in a way that others can see and perhaps emulate.
One might respond with some suspicion: is this really his intention? Or is he simply using these ideas and ideals to mask over some truer, deeper intent? To this the Buddha and Buddhists might simply shrug. This search for one’s truest or deepest intentions seems itself to be a product of qualitative individualism, wherein the “masters of suspicion” play. Instead we might look a bit at the causes and conditions around Wellenbach’s life: he is a translator of Buddhist texts. He is said to live humbly and within his means.
As such, his altruism might be said to be an aspect of Buddhist ethics in action, something we can learn from and perhaps even emulate in some way in our own daily lives.
The material conditions of qualitative individualism (Love of All Wisdom)
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