This is part two of the series
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The Stairway to Heaven is the Game of Life. Playing it well brings happiness, purpose and meaning moment to moment and leads us progressively towards the ultimate goal, Nirvana. It is also the key to the development and maintenance of civilisation because it provides the means for recognising what and who is spiritually superior and inferior, furnishing communities with common values, goals and methods around which they may meaningfully organise themselves and cultivate and select healthy leaders. Put more simply, we need to live for something bigger than ourselves and civilisation happens when we work together to achieve that goal and select leaders who are most capable of leading us there.
The next few posts will be devoted to explaining different aspects of the Stairway. Let’s call the central pole of the Stairway, the Pillar of Virtue. Virtue (Sila) is classically defined in Early Buddhism by the Ten Wholesome Principles (Dasakusaladhamma). Virtue is the backbone of the good life no matter how far we progress. Fully enlightened beings maintain their loyalty to Virtue even though they have completed the Path. When we fail to hold with integrity born of deep faith and wisdom to the principles of Virtue, then the good life and civilisation is lost, just as the Stairway is broken when the Disk breaks the Pillar.
While its probably fair to say that many pre-modern people were ignorant and superstitious, modern people tend to get too clever for their own good. Our habits of thinking are moulded in overly discursive education systems and we’ve become perversely good at rationalising our lack of Virtue.
The roots of our weakness lie in hubris: our unwillingness to believe in anything higher than ourselves. When the Buddha instructs us to not kill, then we retort that that rule is too simplistic and that we as clever modern people who have embraced complexity can see that sometimes killing can lead to good long-term consequences so long as it is managed ‘scientifically’. So, apparently, dropping nuclear bombs on people can be a good thing. So too can gulags and sweat-shops. Forget about ‘mass murder’, such words fail to grasp the subtlety of intertextuality. Don’t talk about ‘gulags’ or ‘sweat-shops’, lest you give away how ignorant you are of cultural context. Please get out of the way of unsentimental, scientific government.
This is the danger of not tying the human mind to concrete and reviewable standards. The mind gets so crazy it can’t tell it’s crazy anymore, much like a drunk chastising bar staff for refusing further service. Unreality becomes the new reality. Murder and theft become the norm. Bad becomes good. Black becomes white. Man becomes woman. And doublethink and doubletalk and complete hypocrisy become the way to heal the world.
The roots of the mess are the sins of the Father. I’m not picking on Christianity here. I mean the ‘Father’ in the archetypal sense of ‘faith leader’. We bear deep scars from the past abuses of institutional faith leaders. Institutional religion has rightly lost its sway over the masses as result. But the collateral damage is the loss of our general capacity to consciously hold and develop faith and trust in anything we cannot see for ourselves. We cannot accept that some people are rightly capable of declaring truths that are beyond our ken. Eyebrows are raised and such claims are peevishly dismissed as being part of the shackles of a past from which we ‘enlightened ones’ have been freed. Like abused children we rebel against everything and become simultaneously miserable and narcissistic as a result. Like ignorant frogs in little ponds who think the pond is the universe, we conclude that our own worldviews are all there is to know because challenging our own biases makes us feel unsafe.
The Buddha presented to us a universe that is governed by laws that are timeless, universal and impersonal. His claim was that these laws can be discerned empirically through gnostic practices. That is, we can know these laws for ourselves by way of correct and arduous training of body and mind. By reviewing the state of the universe through both time an space, he could see that breaching the Ten Wholesome Principles can never lead to good long-term outcomes, they can never lead to Good, they can only ever lead to bad long-term outcomes, they can only be Evil. He taught that on the individual level, breaching the Ten Wholesome Principles leads to lower rebirth as an animal, ghost or in hell, and that preserving the Principles leads to higher rebirth as a human being or as a deity in the heavens (Sāleyyaka Sutta). On the social level, he declared that breaching the Ten Wholesome Principles leads to the decline of civilisation and their preservation leads to its regeneration (Cakkavattisīhanāda Sutta).
And so … there is no such thing as just war. War is always wrong because it breaches the first Wholesome Principle. There can never be legitimate automatic and compulsory taxation because it breaches the second Wholesome Principle. We like to concoct every manner of clever rationalisation for these sorts of things, like “by killing we’ll save more lives in the end,” and “we need to force people to collectivise their resources or else governments can’t help them”. Then we conveniently elide the fact that killing leads to killing and that a thief cannot spend stolen resources as well as those who have made their wealth through honest means (who don’t need governments to ‘help’ them in the first place). But it’s hard to hold to common sense when the ‘experts’ tell you that you’re an ignoramus for being so simplistic. But hold to common sense, I say. They tell us we’re stupid because their is nothing a fool in the glass-tower of academic hypocrisy fears more than the hammer of common sense.
Fearing that hammer, the talking heads on the idiot-box whisper into our ears like little devils on our shoulders. Whatever immorality we cannot manage to rationalise ourselves is covered by the bamboozling arguments of post-modern professors and economists. When out goes Virtue and common sense, out too goes our moral backbone and we become pudgy jelly-fish awash in the seas of marketing and fashion — perfect putty in the hands of the powers that be.
Unfortunately, in the face of this onslaught, most people really have lost their moral backbone and have failed to keep the hammer in hand. Fair enough, you know. It’s hard to have courage when you can see that you’re just a little fleshy thing in a big-bad-wolf of a world. I can’t imagine how anyone could do it without recourse to some kind of religious authority.
But given that religious authority has so often led us down the path to hell, would it not be contrary to common sense to go back that way? This is where we need to note that out of the smorgasbord of religious authorities available today, the historical Buddha was something special.
Before we get to that though, let’s at least acknowledge that even if we’re not into religion, all of us are into faith of one sort or another whether we like it or not. To live functional lives as a human beings, we have to believe in something. The universe is too big and complex and interconnected for us to make decisions based on the facts that we know for sure for ourselves. We have to make assumptions and have faith that our assumptions are true in order to create an abstract representation of the world that makes decision-making possible and meaningful. To live without faith is to dwell in cognitive paralysis. How do you know that the shampoo you use on Wednesdays and Sundays hasn’t been mixed with Draino by some sick’o at the shampoo factory in Thailand? Should we just pack it in and sit shivering with fear inside our rooms and play the X-Box all day?
Everybody believes in something. However, quite a substantial number of modern homo sapiens have fooled themselves into believing otherwise. This, ironically, makes this ‘Age of Enlightenment’ darker than the Dark Ages. At least, in the Dark Ages, people were conscious that they believed in stuff. Of two fish who are in water, the one who knows he’s in water is in a superior position to the one who denies that he’s in water.
Here’s an example. The average person believes that central banking is normal and good and that central bankers are trustworthy and competent. This assumption allows him to get on with his life with a general sense of security. But so long as he does not even know that he relates to central banks with the faith of a born-Catholic he will be unable to question that faith, nor will he be able to question the object of that faith. When modern man left traditional religion behind, he did not enter into a New Age of Enlightened thinking, eschewing all blind faith and superstition. Instead, he just picked up another delusional religion to replace it — The Church of the Dollar. Today we wait monthly for the interest rate pronouncements of the high priests of finance in the way we used to wait for Popes to make Papal Enactments. At least in the past people used to pay the Catholic Church indulgences for forgiveness of their sins. Today central banks rig economies to reward people in this very life for their decadence and corruption. It sure is getting hot around here. Would that be because we’ve gone out of the flame, into the fire? (I’m speaking in moral terms here. I’m still undecided about whether anthropogenic climate change is real).
Faith can be used for Evil. But it can also be used for Good. So where does the historical Buddha stand in all this? Is he just another snake oil salesman who has taken millions of people for a two-millennia ride? No, the Buddha was different to other faith teachers in that while he did constantly exhorted those with ears to hear to have faith in him and his teachings, he did so whilst teaching that it is the conscious use of faith for the sake of personal investigation of the truth which leads to Enlightenment. He spent his roughly forty-five year teaching career training others in the skills they needed to confirm or deny his teachings for themselves. He did not castigate his disciples for questioning his authority, nor did he casually dismiss inconsistencies as being a form of ‘crazy wisdom’ or as being a part of the ‘mystery’ of God, nor did he put himself into a political position where he could coerce others, directly or indirectly into adopting his belief-system. In other words, he abstained from all the usual tricks people use to veil the delusion and deception in their pronouncements.
Now, given that we have to believe in something or someone, whether we like it or not, I’ve personally chosen to believe in the historical Buddha of the Pali Canon (there are many versions of the Buddha, not all of them are paragons of integrity and Virtue). I made that commitment years ago when I became a monk, and I have been testing his teachings using the laboratory of the ancient wandering monk’s life ever since. Through all these trials and travails, the Buddha is still my man. I have lived as authentically as these mortal bones will allow in line with Virtue in the form of the Ten Wholesome Principles (and other rules laid down by the Buddha as well). I am a better man for it, and a daresay the collective life of those I associate with as well has improved.
Civilisation can only maintain itself through unyielding commitment to the Pillar of Virtue. We must be vigilant to stave off clever excuses for abandoning the Post. Don’t be mistaken: No matter how clever, enlightened or holy we think we are, there is no excuse for shoddy integrity and immorality. While the world may, unrepentantly, hide its mendacity inside the spinning miasma that is complex modern society and global economy, we can still find our way if we hold to non-esoteric, concrete principles of Virtue as our guide, support and backbone.
PS: Virtue in Early Buddhism is also defined as acting in body, speech and mind for the long-term non-harm of both ourselves and others, and acting out of non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion and non-fear. These more general definitions become more meaningful as we develop the wisdom to see long-term consequences and the capacity to recognise and counteract the internal forces of greed, hatred, delusion and fear. In the meantime, concrete injunctions like the Ten Wholesome Principles stop us from getting a little bit too cute.