Other-Power

Why self-mastery is self-defeatingDavid Brazier

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The logic of morality is often based on a wish, an assumption, or an aspiration toward self-mastery in service of a spiritual or worldly goal. Buddhists in the West, for instance, often present morality as the necessary basis for meditation, as a means of gaining a personal stability that allows one to practice beneficially. Another kind of moral logic is based on calculation. This might manifest as fear of retribution, whether in terms of karma or as sin against divine law, or, conversely, as hope for a reward. Even secular morality often has this attitude: if I am good to others when they need help, then I’m creating social capital for when I need help. Modern Western Buddhists often include in this kind of logic of morality a calculation about gaining happiness: if I am good to others, I create the conditions for my own mental well-being.

Pureland Buddhism has a different starting point. Pureland moral logic starts with the recognition that self-mastery sets the self against the self and thereby undermines the very thing it is attempting to do. Pureland instead aims to undermine the calculation involved in trying to master oneself. It does this by directing us to be grateful for the support of others for whatever good we are able to do. Our meritorious actions are only possible because of countless others who conspire unknowingly to guide us, help us, and create the conditions in which our typically confused and ambiguous efforts to do good don’t backfire on us. Pureland’s faith in other-power and nembutsu (keeping Buddha in mind) lays a basis for a radically different approach to spiritual practice than what many meditators bring to it. Let us, therefore, consider the possibility, whether or not one is a Pureland Buddhist, that Pureland ideas can reorient and enrich how we understand morality, resting it on a foundation that does not set the self against itself and that starts not from how we imagine we’d like to be but from how we actually are.

At the core of morality is morale; a person in good morale is less likely to act in an unprincipled manner. Morale is essentially a matter of faith, which is the mainspring of motivation. People do things that contribute to what they have faith in, be it a goal, an ideal, certain values, an institution, or some other base. Obviously, faith is not always positive. No doubt the Gestapo had faith in the supremacy of the Aryan race, for instance. Or as Dale Carnegie points out in the original self-help book How to Make Friends and Influence People, even Al Capone regarded himself as a good man who was simply implementing the values he believed in. This is all in line with basic Buddhist thinking that wickedness is mainly a matter of error. Acts that are akushala (mentally unskillful or unwholesome) rather than kushala (wholesome or skillful), to use the Indian terminology, are basically mistakes flowing from wrong belief rather than sins or disobedience to an overruling deity.

The Pali Buddhist texts contain repeated descriptions of sila, samadhi, and prajna. The moral guidelines (shila) precede descriptions of meditation (samadhi) that in turn precede descriptions of wisdom (prajna). It is common, therefore, to understand that morality is a foundation for meditation and that meditation is a foundation for wisdom. It is, however, also possible to read the causal relationship in the reverse direction, seeing morality as the surface level, dependent upon a rightly ordered mind, which in turn depends upon wisdom...

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