Sects vs. Schools

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Casual observers in the West tend to have a romanticized view of Buddhism.  The popular notion is that Buddhism is an easy-going religion with a focus on mediation, karma, and reincarnation.  All of these things are true, of course.  But this is a grossly simplistic view that ignores the more nuanced and/or controversial aspects of the faith.  There are, for example, Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka who persecute Muslims.  20th-century Japanese militarism was given both support and social credibility by certain influential Zen priests.  There have been periods in Chinese history where certain Buddhist leaders exerted political influence to harass and persecute rival monks or teachers.  My point, of course, is not that Buddhism is “bad” or somehow flawed.  Quite the contrary.  Rather, that Buddhism does not somehow make its adherents magically moral, unselfish, and non-violent.  One must put the tenets of the faith into practice in order to cultivate a compassionate mindset and nature.  The same is true of any religious faith.


Even recognizing that Buddhism — in the abstract — is not some cure-all for spiritual malaise, I do believe that there are some aspects of Buddhist thought that are potentially instructive for Western religionists.  One aspect worth pondering is the general Buddhist approach to mediating opposing views.  There is no central authority in Buddhism and while some forms of Buddhism — most notably Tibetan Buddhism whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Llama — emphasize the role of clergy-as-authority, Buddhist thought is generaly anathema to any strident commitment to abstract belief and notions of authority.  This lack of central control has two primary effects.  First, it creates an environment where the fundamentals of Buddhist thought (the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination, etc.) can be molded an adapted to fit both culture and time without losing or diluting any core aspects of the ideas themselves.  As a result, Buddhism has been incredibly successful and popular across diverse cultures.  When the first Indian Buddhists brought the religion to China it was not simply picked up wholesale by new Chinese adherents.  Rather, the fundamental ideas of Buddhism were adopted and modified to complement existing Chinese social mores and religious attitudes.  


The second effect arising from a lack of central authority is what I would describe — quite broadly — as a level of respect and acceptance even in the face of serious doctrinal disagreement.  Such respect is reflected in the plethora of Buddhist schools.  Differing positions within the Sangha on the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings began even before the Buddha’s death.  And, in the simplest terms, when those positions diverged sufficiently, new schools emerged.  The most significant division within Buddhist thought is reflected in the differing of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.  Theravada is the first of all Buddhist schools and keepers of the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures.  Not surprisingly, Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and more philosophically dualistic than is Mahayana.  Mahayana came much later than Theravada and was an attempt to demonstrate that despite their surface differences, Mahayana (the great vehicle) and Theravada (Hinayana, or lesser vehicle) teach the same fundamental Dharma.  


This isn’t to say that differing Buddhist schools are not critical of one another.  The very name of “lesser vehicle” Mahayana Buddhists applied to Theravada is itself a critique, albeit delivered politely.  One of my favorite Buddhist scholars is a Western-born Theravada monk.  In this monk’s writings — especially when commenting on the Pali Canon — arguments for the correctness of Theravada views are confidently put forward.  And while other Buddhist traditions are not mentioned by name is is quite obvious that this monk takes exception to broad Mahayana views of enlightenment and especially Japanese Zen-inspired metaphysics.  He does not condemn these views but instead demonstrates his position that certain doctrines are well-supported by the Pali Canon while other — and generally later — views are not.  Such differences go well beyond mere semantics. The difference in metaphysical outlook could not be more stark between some of the largest and most well-known Buddhist traditions.


But when we refer to our fellow religionists as beloning to a separate “school” as opposed to a competing “sect” we communicate both respect and an acknowledgment of legitimacy.  Neither of which imply agreement.  Of course, in the Eastern traditions such an approach is made easier by the foundational cosmology and the near-complete absence of eschatology.  But at the same time, the disagreements between Christians — disagreements so severe as to cause schisms and animosity even to the point of violence — tend to be about issues considered central to the Christian faith much the same way as fundamental disagreements give rise to various Buddhist schools.  And yet in the West, our impulse is to divide and delegitimize — as if our preferred view is the only acceptable one.  How arrogant!  How insulting to the very idea of an emenent God.  


Of course, in Protestantism sects are generally considered “schools” by other Protestants.  The Methodists, for example, fully accept Anglicans as fellow Christians.  Baptists accept the Assemblies of God.  Only the most radical of Protestants would claim Catholics are not real Christians.  Just as only the most radical — and I would argue completely misguided — Buddhists persecute Muslims.  


I just can’t help but think that religious dialogue in the West could be improved by simply dropping the idea of sects and embracing the notion of schools.  


Marketing & Ethics

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Yesterday I was searching for a few blog posts my friend Patrick had written regarding presuppositional apologetics and logic. While doing so I came across another entry that piqued my interest.  Patrick, a student of philosophy, attended a presentation on marketing and was “reminded … about how it seems honesty is always demanded and assumed in personal relations but how quickly that demand is forgotten when it comes to effective market strategizing.”

I couldn’t shake a discomfort I had about appealing to people’s unconscious fears and greed to get a foot in the door. It reminded me of Aristotle’s book on rhetoric where he draws a sharp distinction between the practice of rhetoric and dialectic; the former being the art of persuasion and the latter being a strategy of getting at the truth of the matter between two conflicting viewpoints.

I agree, quite wholeheartedly, with Patrick’s assessment.  This, despite the fact that a significant portion of my work life involves marketing technology products and services.  However, Patrick’s observations on marketing — as a philosopher — caused me to think of some of the moral and economic nuances that must be considered in considering the ethics of marketing more broadly.

It is important to note that while there are some broad “universal” marketing principles, some specific practices are common to certain industries.  Marketing the iPhone is vastly different from marketing heavy-duty construction or mining equipment.  To speak generally, I would argue that developing ethical marketing strategies for consumer products like the iPhone, cars, tooth-paste, or toilet paper presents unique challenges not usually experienced by those who market to government or commercial buyers.

Patrick compared rhetoric and dialectic and I think to a large degree, consumer product marketing must rely on rhetoric because these product messages are aimed at irrational, emotional, sentimental human beings who generally make these types of buying decisions in isolation.  A marketer of toothpaste, for example, is competing against many other brands all vying to become part of a consumer’s evoked set; the constrained set of brands consumers relate to any given functional product.  This marketer wants the consumer to become aware of their brand so that when then think toothpaste, they automatically think of the brand.  Because the field is so populated and there is really not much marketers have to work with as far as product differentiation goes, they must rely on what we know about consumer behavior — even at the psychological level.  But in the end, a fair exchange has occurred between buyer and seller.  The buyer gains value from the toothpaste and the marketer enjoys profits from the transaction.

Where all of this can go horribly wrong is when products that have absolutely no efficacy and provide absolutely no value to consumers.  The marketplace is full of useless products with clever names.  When consumers buy these products, often as a result of targeted, manipulative, and untruthful marketing messages, I don’t think anyone would question that a moral wrong has been committed by the marketer of the useless product.  The key here is value.  In a moral business transaction, both parties gain real value.  I say real value in contrast to perceived value.  It is possible, and far too common, for marketers to position their products in such a way as to instill a perception of value for the consumer when, in reality, the consumer has received no benefit.

I also think that as a consumer marketer it is important to simply be a decent human being.  It is one thing to understand that certain colors or smells evoke certain mental reactions within consumers.  It is quite another to use some thin young women — made even worse by the doctoring of photographs —  to convince other young women of the inadequacy of their bodies.  All for the purpose of exploitation.

In commercial or business-to-business transactions I actually do think that marketing must be more dialectical.  That is, marketing in this context must be able to help the buyer understand how a given product or service will provide more value for less cost.  Certainly some of the same techniques employed by consumer marketers are also used by their commercial counterparts.  However, these are only effective in garnering initial attention.  Commercial transactions are (mostly) rational.  Another business will only buy my product or services if I can demonstrate real value.

Again, I am speaking very broadly here and I think the bottom line for all markets is be honest.  Find ways to provide value to your potential customers and demonstrate that value.  Be mindful of color implications when designing your brand logo.  But don’t manipulate the vulnerable in order to exploit the very fears you are responsible for instilling.

Karma

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Karma is one of those words used so often in its most basic and popularly understood sense, that we often don’t think to consider it’s deeper applications or, perhaps, even its potential manifestations. The popular understanding of Karma, of course, is something along the lines of whether you do good or ill, it will come back to you. In the West Karma is generally referenced within the context of this present life while in some schools of both Buddhist and Hindu thought, where the transmigration of souls is an accepted doctrine, Karma spans many thousands of incarnations.

It is important for me to say that I am a student of Buddhism and Hinduism and not a scholar in this regard. What I write here represents my current understanding and I fully recognize there may be factual or other errors in my writing due to my unfamiliarity with the wealth of literature available on Eastern thought. Having said that, I have done my best to represent a view on Karma faithful to both the secondary and primary sources with which I am familiar.

My personal interests are in Buddhism. But of course, to understand some central Buddhist doctrines one must become familiar with the essential aspects of Hindu thought; in particular, Vedanta. Buddhism is represented by an incredibly diverse set of ideas, schools, doctrines, and practices heavily influenced by regional cultures and Eastern religions present during Buddhism’s long expansion across Asia. While there is broad agreement on the doctrines of The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and related ideas, there exists between Buddhist schools significant disagreement on nearly everything else, including Karma. Buddhism has no central authority. Each school has its own recognized canon. However, there are certain sutras which are almost universally recognized. These are found in what is known as the Pali Canon; the earliest sutras as written in Pali (sutta).

I have found the Pali Canon Sutras present a view of Karma (or as it would be written in Pali, kamma) more expansive and perhaps, less mystical than is popularly understood. Similarly, my study of Zen Buddhism and its almost non-existent canon presents Karma in a relatively broad sense. My understanding of Karma is based, primarily, on these sources.

Karma is consequence. Every action, good, evil, or morally neutral has consequences and impacts, perhaps even in imperceptible ways, everything and everyone around us. Karma, then, is not a “magical” concept wherein our deeds reflect back on us in the form of good or bad fortune. Rather, Karma is the recognition of the interconnectedness of all events and intentions. No event occurs in a vacuum. It is the consequence or result of something that came before. The simple act of turning on the light switch is the result of karmic motion or direction: Edison lived in a prosperous and burgeoning century providing the conditions wherein he could invent a viable light bulb which helped promote the rapid spread of infrastructure etc. Every event since the Big Bang has been the consequence of that which came before. Karma both recognizes and describes this connectedness. As a result it is important for us to develop both mindfulness and wisdom such that we are aware of our place within the Karmic milieu.

I think an incredible example of this view of Karma can be seen in a BBC documentary about adults, born in Germany as part of the plan to develop a so-called master race, and their struggle to come to terms with their origins as the children of SS officers, and women escaping the social shame of unmarried pregnancy or those chosen or encouraged specifically for the purpose of producing offspring:

In particular, the story of Guntram Weber is at once heartbreaking, inspiring, and instructive. Weber was the son of an SS officer responsible for carrying out several murders and atrocities in Poland and he, Weber, carried a significant emotional a psychological burden due to the barbarous and heinous acts of a father he never knew. And indeed, Weber only became aware of his true father’s SS identity much later in life.

Weber travels to Poland to learn more about his father’s crimes. And also to personally visit the daughter of one of his father’s victims: 91 yr. old Jadwiga Polakoski. Weber meets Polakoski at her apartment and, after ensuring she can understand him, apologizes for the actions of his father. Holding his hand, Polakoski responds with a simple “thank you.”

Weber and Polakoski spend time together and Polakoski describes her experience of watching her father being taken by the SS. She speaks of the courage shown by her father as he was led towards what he must have known to be certain death.

At one point Polakoski takes Weber to the shallow mass grave where she, in a horrific and terrible moment, came upon the remains of her murdered father. Polakoski pulls no punches. She is blunt, direct, and honest. She does not shy away from the fact that the consequences of her father’s murder caused her immense pain and longing sadness. This pain and sadness persisted throughout Polakoski’s life. Yet, Polakoski is strong. It is clear that she accepted what happened in her life and despite her pain, she decided to carry on with courage.

Weber was deeply affected by Polakoski’s words. They hurt him. Weber wanted to know the truth and Polakoski was willing to tell him, as straightforward matters of fact, what had occurred. But Polakoski does something else; something remarkable. She, in a beautiful act of compassion, comforts Weber, the son of her father’s killer. She holds his hand. She tells him that what happened was not his fault. Weber, of course, understands this intellectually. But his pain is real and the personal impact of his father’s barbarity is undeniable. Out of this personal pain — both Polakoski’s and Weber’s — emerges an incredible and unexpected relationship defined by forgiveness, kindness and tenderness.

I believe the interaction between Polakoski and Weber is instructive in several ways.

First, we can see how the actions of both Weber’s and Polakoski’s fathers had a direct and lasting impact on their children’s lives. The actions of Weber’s father caused pain and sadness while the courage of Polakoski’s father inspired strength and fortitude.

Second, Polakoski’s choice to carry on without the burden of cancerous and all-consuming hatred and anger demonstrates that even when presented with the most heinous, unjust, and tragic of circumstances, we can find a measure of peace. And, as Polakoski so compassionately showed, it is possible for victims of injustice to extend and promote peace. By so doing, putting an end to the potential cycle of anger and revenge which could consume, define, and overwhelm many generations to come.

Third, the story of Polakoski and Weber reminds us of how our choices and actions will, absolutely and unequivocally, impact the lives of not only our descendants, but also the descendants of our friends, neighbors, and even those whom we may never meet. As such, it is important to remain mindful of the influence of our present actions will impact the future.

Regardless of what we choose to call it or how we may describe it, the presence of a causal relationship between events past, present, and future is undeniable. In my view, this, at least in part, is Karma. Clearly or present actions have immediate and recognizable consequences in the short-term. But our present actions and intentions — be they good or ill — will also resonate long into the future.

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