Refusing A Surgeon: Abstraction as Impediment to the Spiritual Life

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In the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta — a sutta found in the Pali Canon — Malunkyaputta is described as contemplating abstract cosmological ideas and being frustrated that the Buddha (The “Blessed One”) has not addressed/declared some of these very theoretical ideas, notions, and questions.  For example:

  • The cosmos is eternal
  • The cosmos is not eternal
  • After death a Tathagata (Buddha) exists
  • After death a Tathagata does not exist
  • Etc.

After expressing frustration at the lack of clarity provided by the Buddha on these subjects Malukyaputta declares if the Buddha will not address his questions “then [he] will renounce the training and return to the lower life.”

Malukyaputta approaches the Buddha, lays out his concerns and reiterates his intention to renounce. The following exchange ensues:

“Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, ‘Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“And did you ever say to me, ‘Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ or ‘The cosmos is finite,’ or ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ or ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ or ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata exists,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,’ or ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’?”

“No, lord.”

“Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?

The Buddha goes on to explain that Malukyaputta’s position is like that of “a man … wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison” whose “friends, companions, kinsmen, and relatives [would like] to provide him with a surgeon.” But before accepting the life-saving services of this surgeon the injured and dying man insists:

I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.

Succinctly the Buddha states: “The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

The Buddha continues:

In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that ‘The cosmos is eternal,’… or that ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,’ the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata.

The reason such abstract and theoretical concepts are left undeclared by the Buddha is “because they are not connected with the goal, [and] are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are left undeclared by [the Buddha].”

And what is declared by me? ‘This is stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are declared by me.

I think that too often we become fixated on the abstract to the point where we lose sight of the goal or spiritual or moral living. As the Buddha points out, if our interest in, fascination with, or discussion of the abstract prevents us from seeing immediate spiritual and moral needs right in front of our nose, we have fundamentally missed the point.

Membership in the LDS Church

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Over the past 7-8 years I have written and spoken publicly about Mormonism and the LDS Church many times. And, while I have at times been critical of LDS Church policy or practice, my primary focus has been on retaining faith (not necessarily belief or knowledge) in the face of doubt. I have advocated a pragmatic approach to religion and spirituality wherein the spiritual life is not necessarily tied to specific beliefs, doctrines, or dogmas but rather, is defined by the cultivation of charity and an experience with the divine. As a life-long member of the LDS Church I have benefited from both the faith and example set by family, friends, ward members, and Church leaders – both past and present. There is an overwhelming abundance of compassion, selflessness, and kindness found within the membership of the LDS Church.

Recently, policy changes were made by the LDS Church regarding the children of parents in same-sex relationships. After considering these new policies, I have made the difficult decision to resign my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As I say, this has been a difficult choice and one not taken lightly. I love and respect both my Latter-day Saint family and friends and will continue to pray for the Church, its members, and its leaders. Although I may no longer be a Latter-day Saint, I will always be a Mormon.

Since the policy was made public there has been vigorous, thoughtful, and insightful debate. Unfortunately, I have also seen mean-spirited accusations and name calling coming from those on both sides of the issue. Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the issue I think there is now an opportunity to practice both humility and compassion. Humility in the sense that we can recognize the the intentions, values, and sincerity of those with whom we may vigorously disagree. Words like “hate”, “bigot”, and “apostate” have been thrown around so wildly as to deprive them of all substantial meaning. We can exercise compassion in recognizing that this policy change has wide ranging effects which present challenges to Mormons of all stripes.

My hope is that we do not allow disagreements to obscure that fact that we are all brothers and sisters, each doing the best we can. Let’s work to support one another rather than tear each other down and show the same patience and kindness to others we would like to receive ourselves.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Mt 5:21–24. NRSV

Ethics, Doubt, and the Expression of Disbelief

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In recent months I’ve read various comments and conversations about both the existence, and the discussion of religious doubt in the information age. This is a topic of special interest to me given that I, myself, have experienced — and continue to experience — the ups and downs of being tightly connected with a specific religious ideal, tradition and community and then experiencing doubt in some of the fundamental beliefs or claims of that tradition.

Reaching the conclusion that long- and/or strongly-held beliefs and perspectives are not what we had previously imagined can produce, broadly speaking, three reactions. Depending on our affinity for those beliefs or perhaps what those beliefs represent, we may find great relief or great pain. Or perhaps we may not effected one way or the other.

For some — and perhaps most — simply setting aside old beliefs and ideas and choosing to explore new ideas and possibilities without looking back is the most appropriate and satisfying response. Others may wrestle with feelings of anger and frustration at having been misled or perhaps they may feel foolish for once holding beliefs they now view negatively. Still others may formulate and adopt new ideas and perspectives by blending the old with the new.

It should be obvious that the assumption of of any of the positions described above is a morally neutral choice. There is no moral good nor bad within the positions themselves. However, how one chooses to act within the context of any given position is precisely and primarily a question of ethics. The reason for this is quite simple. Religious belief does not exist in a vacuum. It sits at the foundation of many communities, nations, and cultures. Therefore, our response to changes in belief impact not just ourselves, but those around us. Often close family and friends. An awareness of our impact on others is requisite to fully consider the ethics of doubt and the expression of disbelief. Of course, we must also be mindful of how our chosen behavior impacts our own well-being.

For purposes here I will focus on those who wrestle with anger and frustration and, out of concern for current believers or those who may become believers, may choose to speak out against their former allegiances. I will also consider those who retain allegiances; albeit with modified views. What follows are broad generalizations

It is not uncommon for those raised within relatively conservative religious traditions to feel a sense of anger and even betrayal after a change in faith. I think that many people who encounter this feeling may, after a while, simply walk away from the old and embrace the new. Others may feel it is important to oppose their former beliefs and openly advocate against them as a form of public service. In recent years, some former Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists have participated in efforts to “expose” the problems with belief systems and the institutions that support those systems.

Certainly those believers who remain committed to both their beliefs and show allegiance to religious institutions will view such efforts as an affront. An immoral insult to be expected from those who have rejected the true faith. In reality, these former members may serve a very valuable and I would argue, positive moral, purpose. Outside critics are abhorred by institutions but in reality, these institutions benefit from their critical efforts.

However, any effort to “expose the truth” to either outsiders or current insiders by means of dishonesty and deception are inherently immoral and misguided. If we stand in opposition to former beliefs or institutions, then we should make our position clear. To do otherwise is to enrich our own sense of ego at the expense of believers. I imagine that someone may critique this view by arguing that the only way to reach believers is to deceive them into reading/viewing critical material. Putting aside the paternalistic arrogance of such a position, there are two significant problems here. First, if the critic was able to discover new information and form new conclusions independently or through existing material, then why can’t a current believer do the same without the deceptive “aid” of a biased outsider? And why would we deny the believer the opportunity to explore these matters without the undue influence of deception? Second, dishonesty and deception intended to expose the dishonesty or deception of other’s beliefs or allegiances is both morally inconsistent and self-contradictory. We can’t oppose immoral deception by employing it ourselves.

For those who adjust belief but remain loyal to their religious community, both a sense of honesty and propriety should govern moral behavior. If we assume heterodox or heteroprax positions, we should be upfront about our views, when appropriate. There may be a desire to “evangelize” others to our particular way of thinking. If so, it is important to be upfront about our intentions. Also, we should be judicious about how, when, and where these ideas are discussed and/or promoted. For example, if a group of believers gathers for the purpose of worship and fellowship, it would be inappropriate to raise controversial issues within this context. We must respect the beliefs and desires of believers if we want to remain a part of the community. Part of that respect is knowing when it is appropriate to share heterodox views and when it is not. Again, we must avoid serving our own egos when others have simply come to worship and pray.

It may be tempting to view such context-aware engagement as an infringement on free speech. I simply call it being polite. Of course, it should be clear that “free speech” simply doesn’t exist within private organizations. If, for example, I started a blog outlining all of the complaints I have about my employer, I would be fired — and quite quickly. Has my speech been silenced? No. I can still blog all I want. But It would be unrealistic to expect that I could openly criticize my private employer or other private organizations with which I have association and retain employment or membership.

But shouldn’t religion be different? Shouldn’t doubters be given more latitude when it comes to expressing doubt and disbelief within the context of their chosen religious institution? In my view, religions do make accommodations for doubt. But with the expectation that such questions, doubts, disbelief, and concerns be expressed in a way that will not disrupt the worship of others within the tradition. Perhaps one could counter that this is a purely Western idea and that more compassionate and open religions — like Buddhism — provide such latitude.

For point of reference, let’s take a look at the Bodhisattva Precepts of Mahayana Buddhism. These vows — in one form or another – are always taken by monks. But in some schools, similar vows are taken by lay people as well. Among these is a vow:

Not to speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) or the Sangha (Buddhist religious community members) or encourage others to do so

The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are considered the “Three Jewels” and in Soto Zen Buddhism, practitioners vow to:

… not defile the Three Treasures

So we can see that even in the most open and “liberal” traditions, speaking ill of the founder, the teachings, or members of the community is considered a serious violation of previous vows. Of course, if one rejects those vows, then there is no obligation. However, to act the part of devoted religionist committed to community and cause while, in reality, seeking to undermine the tradition and the faith of believers, is not only dishonest, but indecent for anyone who pursues the moral life.

In most Buddhist Sanghas — as with other religious communities — there are appropriate and explicitly outlined ways to raise concerns and questions without disrespecting the community. But this may not always be the case in situations where the religious institution or its doctrine is overly-authoritarian and actively suppresses the expression of doubt by not providing appropriate venues in which to openly explore questions and ideas. In such cases, those who choose to remain members have a moral obligation to improve conditions and to work towards an environment that maintains its doctrines and norms, but also allows for the respectful expression of doubt without fear of negative repercussions. It would naive to suggest, however, that such a dialogue is always possible. Indeed, in some cases such improvements cannot be made and authoritarian dogmatism is left the norm. In my view, this type of harmful dogmatism should be examined critically and discussed openly. And yet, the bad behavior — or perhaps more simply, behavior that we strongly disagree with — cannot be overcome through deception or egoism.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  • Romans 12:17-21