In his article “The Best Possible Life,” Seth Zuiho Segall argues that Western Buddhism will become more relevant if it can emulate a modern cultural adaptation of Aristotelian virtue ethics and ancient Greek Stoicism. The goal and aim of Western Buddhism, he argues, should be the cultivation of eudaimonia—or what is known in positive psychology as “human flourishing.”
As a Buddhist modernist, Segall resorts to the typical colonialist denigration of traditional Buddhism as being quaint and outmoded, full of otherworldly notions such as nirvana. Although Segall is quite correct in noting that Buddhist teachings have been modified by existing norms as they have met different cultures, his suggestion so distorts the dharma as to render it not Buddhist at all.
While Segall’s depiction of traditional Buddhism is itself problematic, our real issue with his article comes down to this: the difference between the mundane and the supramundane in understanding the Buddha’s message.
Does Buddhism have the mundane goals of happiness and well-being? Segall’s answer is clearly yes. Eudaimonia is essentially a compromise that makes the best of an otherwise difficult situation; it accepts stoically that suffering can never be escaped totally.
But the Buddhist Middle Way teachings should not be confused with the Aristotelian golden mean or the Stoic ethic of “moderation in all things.” The Middle Way teachings offer a radical third option that is truly supramundane. They are aimed not merely at improving and enhancing our mundane happiness but at so thoroughly understanding the operations of mind and the processes of world construction that suffering can be totally uprooted. This difference is crucial. By knowing dukkha [suffering], we open the door to understanding its causes; rather than making a stoic compromise with it, we can go beyond it.
The buddhadharma from its very beginning is a supramundane teaching that does not have happiness as its primary goal. Along with its result may come happiness or human flourishing. But that is not its primary aim, nor can any reading of the four noble truths support such a position.
–Ron Purser and Richard Dixey, Dharma College, Berkeley, California
Seth Segall responds:
I want to thank Ron Purser and Richard Dixey for their comments and the editor for providing me an opportunity to respond. Let me begin by saying that nowhere in my article do I address the question of which forms of Buddhism are either truer or better. Instead, I consider how modern Westerners might deal with aspects of the tradition they cannot give their whole-hearted assent to, considering their other vital philosophical commitments.
If the tradition asks us to admire and emulate the nonattachment displayed by Vessantara when he gave his children away—an action we are thoroughly repulsed by—how ought we to negotiate this tension? If the Lotus Sutra says that the Buddha spoke before an assembly of gandharvas, nagas, asuras, garudas, and devas, how ought we to handle our modern belief that these are fictional beings? Are we being condescending and disrespectful toward a tradition if we do not take everything it says at face value? Not necessarily.
We all understand things as we can. Do we lose something in doing this? Yes, of course, but we have no other choice. As much as we may wish to, we can never fully understand the ancients the way they understood themselves. I similarly reject Aristotle’s views on women and slaves. I don’t think this is being disrespectful to Aristotle—he’s my favorite Western philosopher—but the only way I can read him is as a person with modern beliefs and attitudes.
“As much as we may wish to, we can never fully understand the ancients the way they understood themselves.”
Regarding Purser and Dixey’s central assertion that the supramundane goal is essential to Buddhism: What can one do if, no matter how much one tries, one simply cannot believe in those aspects, and yet one still finds Buddhist practice to be of inestimable value? Despite a quarter century of practice, I still cannot believe in some final apotheosis in which we permanently transcend the human condition. In fact, my own practice experience points in a different direction—that a nirvanic endpoint is not only implausible but inconsistent with what I believe the best possible life ought to be like. We should aspire to be more fully human, not transhuman. Our time might be better spent doing something less grandiose, working at becoming more mindful, more compassionate, more skillful, and less self-obsessed.
I regard the Buddhist tradition as a means of cultivating one’s heart and mind, developing practical wisdom, and enacting one’s best possible version of oneself for the benefit of all beings. Gradual improvement seems like a very good deal to me, but I will never begrudge others if their experience tells them more is possible. I only ask that their belief in this “more” be grounded in their lived experience.
In his article “Karma is Individual,” the monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu argues that recent references to collective karma are not grounded in traditional texts. That may be how some Buddhist schools interpret the Buddha’s words, but certainly not all of them.
The Mahayana, which arose about half a millennium after the Buddha’s death, has emphasized since its earliest days that the Buddha’s enlightenment entailed not just the cessation of his own suffering but also the responsibility to teach the path to cessation to others. (That’s why to aspire to full buddhahood—to be a bodhisattva—is tied to the vow to help all beings achieve liberation from suffering.) For these schools, karma, as the Buddha taught it, must be understood as both individual and collective.
The Yogacara school, an early Mahayana school that began in the first centuries of the common era, was very influential in the development of Tibetan and East Asian Buddhist traditions, producing numerous commentaries on this subject. Yogacara authors took special interest in the fact that different classes of beings experience distinct forms of suffering. Drawing on the Buddhist teaching that beings are born into different realms (human, animal, god, hell, and hungry ghost) based on their karma, the Yogacara authors asked not just why an individual was born into a certain realm but how those realms come into being at all. They followed the Buddha in the view that different worlds of experience are the result of different kinds of past actions. And they took seriously one crucial implication of this idea: that because similar kinds of beings share so many aspects of experience, worlds of experience themselves must be collectively constructed. This means that the specific features of a realm are the result of the past karma shared by all the beings born into it. The great 4th-century Yogacara thinker Vasubandhu gives an extended example of this idea in “Thirty Verses,” where he writes about the “shared karmic ripening” that leads to all hungry ghosts experiencing their objective world in the same way.
A further implication of this is that individual beings are, at least in good part, intersubjectively constituted. Yogacara focused on how our shared concepts and language shape our experiences of the world and the world itself.
In presenting these ideas, Yogacara thinkers, like Vasubandhu, were very attentive to hermeneutics and understood themselves to be offering faithful accounts of the Buddha’s own teachings. So when we look to the history of Buddhist thought, we cannot ignore or overlook such major, well-established, and influential schools as the Yogacara.
If the Yogacara school is right, if karma is both individual and collective, then we are obligated to turn our attention toward the other beings in our shared world. But it is not easy to parse which aspects of our own experiences are individual and which are collective, and it is, likewise, challenging to find the right balance between individual and collective responsibilities. This is one reason that, as Buddhist texts often remind us, the bodhisattva path is a difficult one to walk.
–Joy Brennan is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon College and a Soto Zen priest at the Mount Vernon Zen Community in Ohio. @joycbrennan
Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:
The idea of collective karma I was addressing is the one that holds you responsible for actions you didn’t do but were done by other members of your collective, however that collective may be defined. When the Buddha, in the Pali canon, describes karma, he leaves no room for such an idea.
Evil is done by oneself,
by oneself is one defiled.
Evil is left undone by oneself,
by oneself is one cleansed.
Purity & impurity are one’s own doing.
No one purifies another.
No other purifies one.
— Dhammapada 165
Also, the Buddha never claimed that he could save all sentient beings. After his awakening, he didn’t even feel obligated to teach. Only when he saw that teaching others would yield results did he freely choose to do so, as a gift. When asked why not all his listeners attained awakening, he answered with the simile of giving directions to travelers: It was up to the travelers to follow the directions. If they didn’t choose to—that choice was their karma—what could he do? He was simply the one who pointed out the way.
We have every right to judge whether Vasubandhu was right or wrong in inferring such a thing as collective karma from what the Buddha taught. Shortly before his total unbinding, the Buddha said to judge any version of the dhamma, no matter how great the authority of the person advocating it, against the suttas (discourses) and the vinaya (disciplinary rules). Only if it is consistent with those sources should it be accepted as genuine dhamma. Not everything included in Buddhist traditions passes this test.
As I said in my article, the fact that we share some experiences in the same world can be adequately explained without recourse to the idea of collective karma. We simply bring similar individual karma, past and present, with us to each interaction with one another. As I also stated, we don’t need to believe in collective karma to be kind to others.
As Professor Brennan points out, the idea of collective karma makes it harder to follow the path to awakening. So if the idea is unnecessary, is inconsistent with the dhamma, and places needless obstacles along the path, why adopt it?
What’s your favorite line from a Buddhist poem?
A light snow
Three Thousand Realms
Within those realms
Light snow falls
(Ryokan [1758–1831], trans. John Stevens)
—Ayya Dhammadipa (Rev. Konin Cardenas)
Without resistance in all four directions,
content with whatever you get,
enduring troubles with no dismay,
like a rhinoceros.
(Khaggavisana Sutta, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The subtle source is clear and bright; the tributary streams flow through the darkness.
(Shitou Xiqian [700–790], trans. ZCLA)
Oh the morning glory,
it has taken the well bucket,
I must ask elsewhere for water.
(Chiyo-ni [1703–1775], trans. Robert Aitken)
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
(Kobayashi Issa [1763–1828], trans. Robert Hass)
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