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Shortcomings of the Spirituality of Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddist

 

 

       [This essay looks at three books by Pema Chodron.  These books are Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, and No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva.  Unless otherwise noted, all page references to her books are to No Time to Lose, published in Boston, in 2007, by Shambhala.]

 

      

Pema Chodron teaches an extremely popular, spiritual way of dealing with problems.  In a time when many spiritual teachers claim to be representatives of a certain tradition and they really are not, Chodron has the virtue of being deeply grounded in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  She is so grounded in this tradition that she is not teaching anything new; she is teaching the traditional bodhisattva spiritual ethics which emphasizes compassion for all creatures. 

The techniques she recommends to deal with personal problems start with Buddhist mindfulness and have many excellent qualities.  Her most important point in dealing with personal problems is that we need to experience our negative emotions instead of burying them and hiding from them.  She says we all want to avoid the discomfort of facing difficult things about ourselves, and so we bury them.  But this does not solve the problem.  So she emphasizes Buddhist mindfulness as the solution: non-judgmental awareness of our emotions and thoughts.  This mindfulness will not solve all our problems, but over time, it helps deal with them from a deeper, more spiritual perspective.  

To mindfulness she adds Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques of transforming pain into joy.  An important early step in dealing with problems is to get beyond blaming others to see their point of view.  Other people are doing things for a reason, and this reason is often caused by their misery, deep pain, or fear.  Instead of blaming others, she says everyone should be treated as our teachers.  One effective way to learn from others is to treat the difficult people we encounter as mirrors for our own problems, thus realizing things about ourselves from them.  From this we develop a habit of learning from everyone instead of complaining about them. To deal with problems, she emphasizes developing many good spiritual qualities such as loving kindness, empathy, strength, and forgiveness, and not feeding the habit of getting angry.

The bodhisattva spirituality and ethics that Chodron teaches are based on the idea that no separate self exists. Chodron says it is myth to think I am separate from anyone else.   She says that “the relentless sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is an acquired habit: the strongest habit we have.  Realizing the absurdity of this, is it too comical to think of ‘I’ as someone else and not me?” (p. 313)

       Chodron bases the illusoriness of the separate self on the basic Buddhist idea that everything is constantly changing.  The I of one moment is not the I of next week or next year.  Chodron says that “the ‘I’ we’re constantly trying to protect from harm, today, tomorrow, or next week, is not the same ‘I’ of this moment.  It is constantly changing and perishing.  Every second, another ‘I’ is born.” (p. 307)

Because the sense of a separate self or me-ness is illusory, a person should not care more about relieving her own pain than the pain of any other being.  “If you weren’t stuck in a solid sense of ‘me,’ you’d understand the sameness of our pain.  There’s no difference between my pain and yours.” (p. 309)   And so the spiritual person should say:  “And therefore I’ll dispel the pain of others, /For it is simply pain, just like my own. /And others I will aid and benefit,  /For they are living beings, just like me.” (p. 306)

 

Before going on to my real concerns with Chodron’s ethics—that its total emphasis on compassion for all creatures makes it an unsuitable ethics for people who are not monks-- I will quickly examine the basis of bodhisattva spirituality: the doctrine of no self.

 

 

First Problem: Poor Arguments for no separate self

Bodhisattva spirituality and ethics is based on the idea that the sense of a separate self, a real “Me-ness” that is separate from all other creatures, is illusory. While many people in modern America think Buddhism is all about personal experience, Indian philosophy is also based on logic and argument.  In Buddhism there are three traditional arguments given against the idea of a separate self.  Chodron discusses two of them and alludes to a third.  I am going to go through these arguments only superficially because they quickly get involved with abstruse philosophy.  While I don’t find these arguments  convincing, even if one agrees with them, bodhisattva ethics still has other, more compelling problems, which will be discussed in the next section.

Her first argument against the notion of a separate self is to say that it is just a habit. She says that “the relentless sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is an acquired habit: the strongest habit we have.  Realizing the absurdity of this, is it too comical to think of ‘I’ as someone else and not me?” (p. 313)  Is it credible to say that the sense of self is just a habit and not part of human nature?  Karl Marx thought so; he said our nature was shaped by the society we grew up in and his communist society would develop humans who were not selfish.  Some people argue that tribal cultures like American Indians don’t have as strong a sense of self as modern Americans.  Maybe that is true, but oftentimes outsiders and researchers project onto other cultures. So it is hard to know if this is really true, versus being a romanticized version of these people that suits our own purposes.  The American Indians owned land communally, but their warriors were also known for an extremely strong sense of personal honor in warfare.

The self as habit argument is part of  a larger thesis which says things people consider natural are habits brought about by social conditioning.  Most significantly, the Buddhists often say that when you are burnt alive or cut into little pieces by a sharp knife, it is not part of human nature to feel pain.  This sense of pain is conditioned by society. They also say you can recondition yourself so that you no longer feel being burnt alive or cut into pieces is painful.  One scripture says of the bodhisattvas who are cutting off parts of their body to give to others that “intellectually they skillfully analyze and understand phenomena, and do not grasp pain, knowing that the sense of pain has no signs and no origin, that all sensations occur relatively and none are permanent.”[i]  Shantideva writes that even if he is being badly tortured, the bodhisattva can be happy “as the perception of happiness and unhappiness comes from the power of habit; so in all cases of unhappiness arising, the habit of associating the feeling of happiness causes that feeling to be present.  This resulting fruit receives a spirit of contemplation that feels happiness in all things.”[ii]  I do not find this first argument convincing as the sense of self, like the pain felt when being tortured, seems deeper than just a habit brought on by social conditioning.

Her second argument for denying a separate self is that everything changes.  From this constant change, she draws the conclusion that “the ‘I’ we’re constantly trying to protect from harm, today, tomorrow, or next week, is not the same ‘I’ of this moment.  It is constantly changing and perishing.  Every second, another ‘I’ is born.” (p. 307) 

Maybe the I of next week is not the exact same I as last week, but there is enough of a similiarity to disagree with her conclusion that every second another I is born.  Particularly for our troubles and problems there is a clear continuity.  Whether you are talking financially, legally or karmically, there is some kind of I that problems attach to that is the same as last week’s, last year’s or last lifetime’s ago I.  The I might change but continuity is also there.

A third argument that Buddhists traditionally give in saying the self does not exist involves names.  In one well-known discussion a Buddhist monk had with the king Milinda, the monk compares the self to a chariot.  The monk then asks the king if the chariot is the wheels, or the axle, or the reigns, or the chariot box.  The king responds no to each of these.  The monk says the word chariot is just a word and refers to nothing.  Once the king agrees with this, then the monk applies the same process to the self and says it is just a word and refers to nothing. 

In Chodron’s book Shantideva quickly alludes to  this argument in saying:  “Labeled continuities and aggregates, /Like strings of beads and armies, are like mirages.  Likewise there is no one hurt by suffering,  /For who is there to be oppreseed by it?’”(p. 309)  Armies are like mirages because there is nothing to them beyond the individual soldiers.  It is the same thing with strings of beads.  Both of these are like the chariot in that there is a name but no underlying unity that is named.  The Buddhists draw the same conclusion about the self: there is nothing to the self beyond the individual constituents that make up a person.   So people don’t really have a self, they only have parts—the same way a chariot or an army or a string of beads only has parts.

Even if one accepts this argument for material entities, there is a big difference between purely material things like chariots and the self.  Moreover, the Buddhists seem to be assuming that if you cannot find some deeper unity, that means it is not there.  Maybe it is there but you just don’t know where to look for it, or how to look for it, or it is not findable by your methods.

I do not find any of these arguments for the non-existence of self to be convincing.  Even if you think no separate self exists, however, there is a bigger problem with Chodron’s ethics: it leads to a way of acting in the world that most people would find unacceptable.

 

 

Second problem: the ramifications of her ethical viewpoint

While Chodron’s bodhisattva ethic is new to Westerners, it has been part of Mahayana Buddhist tradition for around two thousand years.  Buddhists thus have had time to consider the implications of the no self doctrine and its related doctrines of compassion for all creatures. They conclude that the true bodhisattva will give away everything he has, including his eyes, nose, and hands. They also think the married bodhisattva will give away his wife and children to anyone who asks for them.  Finally, the bodhisattva will do things society considers immoral, such as murdering people, in the name of compassion.  All of these actions follow directly from the basic ideas of the bodhisattva ethic that Chodron advocates.

There is a great tradition in Buddhism of telling stories of Buddha’s previous lifetimes.  These Jataka tales are extremely popular and relate Buddhist moral lessons.  These tales center around the future Buddha acting compassionately towards other creatures.  A signficant number of them involve something many modern people might find gruesome: the future Buddha giving away his whole body or some parts of his body such as his eyes or his flesh to help other beings.  For example, when the future Buddha was King Sivi, he gave his two eyes to a blind beggar. The same king also gave strips of his flesh to a hawk.  When he was King Candraprabha, the future Buddha gave his head to a priest. When he was King Manicuda, he gave his flesh and blood to a demon.

In many later sutras or holy books, the writers say the bodhisattva will do the same thing.  For example, in one sutra   it says, “I will give my hands to whoever asks for my hands, my feet to whoever asks for my feet, my eyes to whoever asks for my eyes.  I will abandon flesh, blood, bone , marrow, major and minor limbs.”[iii]  In another sutra it says the bodhisattvas should give their teeth, eyes, hands, hearts, and other body parts “impartially to whomever they meet.”[iv]  Besides being based on compassion and the no-self doctrine, another reason behind this giving is significant: the body is illusory and empty.  The sutra says the “great enlightened beings are able to give ears and noses to those who ask as did King of Superlative Action, Invincible, and countless other enlightening beings…[because] they know the body is illusory, empty, void of existence with nothing to cling to.”[v] A bodhisattva should not just give his body to people, he also should give it to starving animals.  If he resists giving his body to animals as that seems like too much of a sacrifice for a mere animal, then he significantly slows his progress towards enlightenment.[vi]

 

The bodhisattva is not sacrificing his body in some heroic act like saving a child from a speeding bus.  He is giving his body or its parts to any person, animal or demon who asks for it, whether or not the asker needs it or is worthy of it.  Most writers emphasize that the bodhisattva should make no distinction in his giving between friends and enemies, the deserving and undeserving, or the wicked and righteous.  Instead he should give to everyone  at all times.[vii]  One reason the bodhisattvas do this is because their goal is nirvana for all creatures and “nirvana is the abandonment of everything.”[viii]

 

It is not just body parts the bodhisattva will give away to anyone who asks.  The bodhisattvas with families will also give away their wives and children. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the writer says that “great enlightening beings can give away their beloved spouses and children, as did the Loving Prince, Adornment Manifesting King, and countless other great enlightening beings…they give up what they prize in quest of omniscience, to cause sentient beings to have profound pure aspirations, accomplish the practice of enlightenment.”[ix]

 The best example of a holy man giving away his wife and children is the story of King Vessantara.  This king practiced charity so perfectly, including giving away his two sons and wife, that in his next life he was reborn as the Buddha.  In Milinda’s Questions, the Greek king Milinda discussed this story with a Buddhist monk.  First Milinda asked if all monks gave away their family members or did just King Vessantara do this.  The monk responded, “All Bodhisattvas, sire, give away their wife and children; it was not only King Vessantara who gave away his wife and children.”[x]  The monk then praised the way King Vessantara acted after he gave away his family to a priest.  When the priest bound his children and then beat them, King Vessantara did not lament.  After the sons escaped from the priest and ran back to their father, the king gave them back to priest.  The king did this even though one son said, “’Father this ogre is leading us off to eat us.’”  The king did not even comfort them by saying, “‘Don’t be afraid.’”[xi]

Milinda then said that it was asking too much of people to be so selfless as to give away their family members.  He said it was an excessive gift and would break people like “the axle of a cart is broken by too heavy a load.”[xii]  The monk disagreed, saying for this gift King Vessantara got great reknown throughout all the realms of the cosmos.  The monk emphasized how good King Vessantara was for doing this, saying, “It is precisely because of that exceeding gift that King Vessantara was born the Buddha in the present times.”[xiii]

Milinda then objected that King Vessantara should not have given his kids away, but given himself instead.  Milinda said, “when he bartered away his wife and children because he was begged to do so he should have given himself.”  The monk thoroughly disagreed.  He said, “This is an unseemly act, sire, that when (a man is) begged for his wife and children he gives himself.  For whatever is begged for, precisely that should be given—that is the deed of good men.”[xiv]

People might be interested to know that in the Buddhist tradition there are some restrictions on when the male bodhisattva should give away his family members.  Tsongkhapa, who reformed many monasteries in Tibet and whose head disciple was the first Dalai Lama, discussed some of these restrictions. He said a bodhisattva did not have to give away his son to a possessed person or a demon.  He said, don’t be “enchanted by well-turned phrases about charity, to give away a son, servants, and so forth, at the request of an unfriendly person, a harmful spirit, demons, [or] one in the grip of a terrible spell.”[xv]  This is not the only restriction Tsongkhapa gave, he also said that it is okay not to give your father and mother away if you do not inform them about it.[xvi] Another prominent Buddhist monk went further, saying bodhisattvas should not give away their parents as parents should be honoured and protected.[xvii]

 

This giving of family members does not arise just from compassion and the no self doctrine.  Another aspect of Buddhist ethics is the contempt for family life because it hinders people from reaching enlightenment.  In one of his past lifetimes, the future Buddha is a rabbit who is about to sacrifice his life so that a holy man will not have to go to town and beg for food.  This rabbit gave a sermon saying that living a normal life is the “breeding grounds for the trouble caused by the demon known as ‘delusions of the household life.’…the household…is rattled by the chain called ‘wife’;  It is made intolerable by the fetter called ‘son’; It firmly strangles one with the snare called ‘relatives.’”[xviii]  Chodron’s main inspiration for her interest in bodhisattva ethics, Shantideva, says that the bodhisattva has to have an attitude of total impartiality to people.  He must not love his family more than other people.  He “must attach to his son the notion of no-friend ‘for that is no friend to me’… [to] feel excessive afection for this my son and not for others.  Thus he must educate his mind that he may feel in each case the same affection for all creatures that naturally centers in his son, or in himself.  He must thoroughly consider the matter in this way: ‘he comes from one place and I from another.  All creatures are also my sons, and I their child. In this life no one is really a son or a stranger to anyone….’  Thus the bodhisatva when a householder must not feel for any given object that it is his and he means to keep it, neither attachment to it.”[xix]

Reiko Ohnuma wrote a scholarly book on the bodhisattva’s total giving and she brings up some worries about it.  One thing she says is that it might be a male based ethic.  She says the bodhisattva, while he cares so much for people and demons, is “devoid of any sympathy” for his family.[xx] She says that “while the male hero is valiantly pursuing some abstract and universalistic ideal, it is the women in his life who then remind us who gets hurt in the process.”[xxi]  If the women complain that the bodhisattva should not give away parts of his body or his children, “his most common response to the women in his life is one of utter silence.”[xxii]

Looking at the historical roots of the bodhisattva ethic, Ohnuma relates it to the Indian male warrior who is filled with the pride of being self-sufficient.  In ancient India, the male warrior king showed his virility and power by giving out to others while not needing anything in return.  The bodhisattva is just like this.  She points out that Shantideva emphasized how the bodhisattvas are self-sufficient while other humans are weak and need help.  Shantideva also dwelled heavily on images of warfare and how the bodhisattva waged a violent battle against his mental afflictions.  Ohnuma says that “Like the warrior, the bodhisattva should even cultivate an exaggerated sense of pride (mana) constantly thinking to himself, ‘It is I alone who must do it!;” …within such passages, the bodhisattva begins to look very much like the swaggering and self-sufficient ksatriya warrior.  In Jan Nattier’s felicitious phrasing, the bodhisattva path is here depicted as an especially ambitious and ‘macho’ vocation, appropriate only for ‘a few god men’ or ‘such people as Olympic athletes (‘going for the gold’) or Marine Crops recruits (the few, the proud, the brave’)’—in other words, those who are simliar in nature to the ksatriya warrior.”[xxiii]

Ohnuma finally questions whether the bodhisattva’s total giving really arises just out of compassion and selflessness.  She says such giving may seem selfless, but it may also reveal a self asserting its independence from social ties.  The bodhisattva is giving gifts to others but paying no attention to the effects his giving will have on other people close to him.  She says such a gift “really expresses one’s independence from other people and rejection of social bonds. [Italics in the original.] Thus the more ‘selfless’ the gift is, the more it involves an assertion of one’s ‘self’ and a separation from the ‘other.’”[xxiv]  She says this is especially true in giving gifts of the body.  In that case other people close to the bodhisattva tell him not to do it as it will hurt the people close to him.  Nevertheless, he does it anyway, showing that he can act as an autonomous and free individual.  So the gift of his body “for the sake of another would seem on the surface to be the ultimate denial of self, it is, at the same time, an ultimate act of self-will- an aggressive assertion of the self’s right to dispose of himself as he pleases (others be damned.)”[xxv] [Italics in the original.]  She says that the bodhisattva giving his own body “declares his independence from others in a way that is perhaps inherently self-aggrandizing.”[xxvi]

 

Besides giving away his body parts to anyone who asks for them and giving away his family, the boddhisatva also commits compassionate murder.  The best known tale illustrating this is when Buddha, in a previous life, murdered an evil thief.  The future Buddha was on a ship with five hundred merchants when an evil thief came aboard the ship.  The future Buddha was warned in a dream that the thief was going to kill all five hundred of the merchants.  The dream also said that the thief would get eons of bad karma for this action as all five hundred merchants were future bodhisattvas progressing on their spiritual path.  The dream told him to find some skillful way to stop the thief from getting this bad karma.  After he awoke from his dream, the future Buddha thought for days about what he could do.  He decided he could not tell the merchants as they would get angry and kill the thief and thus delay their path to enlightenment.  Finally he decided his only solution was to kill the thief.  He knew this would mean he would have to spend a hundred thousand eons in hell, but this was better than the thief getting more bad karma from killing the merchants.  So out of compassion for the thief, the future Buddha killed him.[xxvii]  Chodron repeats this story and praises the compassion of the future Buddha.  She does not point out the possible problems of this action or the underlying attitude, saying, “there is no act that is inherently virtuous or nonvirtuous. … When we practice discipline with flexibility, we become less moralistic and more tolerant.” (Places, p. 96)

It is important to recognize that all the problems highlighted in this section come directly from the basic premises of the bodhisattva ethic.  If one is compassionate to all creatures and one does not favor one’s self over others, it makes sense to cut up one’s body to help others, not be concerned about your own family over other people, and even to kill people for their own good.

 

 

Third Problem: No self is not only one kind of spirituality

The previous section showed that there are real problems if one tries to seriously implement Chodron’s bodhisattva ethic.  Buddhism has recently thrived in the West because many people need a more spiritual way of living.  However, there is a better spiritual way of living than following the no self doctrine.  This way allows for treasuring relationships while still being connected to God/the Oneness.  Interestingly Chodron herself brings up this kind of connected spirituality in her book.

Besides the no self arguments, Chodron quotes another argument Shantideva gives for the oneness of all creatures.  He says that all creatures are part of a whole and the parts are related as hands and feet are united in the same body.  Shantideva says that “Hands and other limbs /Are thought of as the members of a body.  /Shall we not consider others likewise—  /Limbs and members of a living whole?” (p. 314) Chodron adds that Shantideva “uses the analogy of the body: obviously the hand will protect the foot from harm.  If we accept this as reasonable, why would we dismiss the idea that separate beings could also relate as parts of the whole?” (p. 308)  Chondron states that this analogy means that all creatures are one and if a person is not concerned with someone else’s suffering, she is hurting herself.  She says “that by not helping them, we are harming ourselves….Whatever happens to any one of us affects the whole.  If you think about it seriously, this type of interdependent thinking makes perfect sense.  When we don’t take care of one another, I suffer, you suffer, the whole world suffers.” (p. 308)

 

Chodron assumes this argument that we are all connected into one organism makes the same point as the no self doctrine: we should care for everyone equally.  But that does not seem to be the case.  If there is no me, there is absolutely no reason to be concerned with “my” pain over “someone” else’s as there is no such thing as “me” or “someone” else in the first place.  However, if there is a large body, and the cosmos certainly qualifies as a large body, the hair follicle can be pretty unconcerned if the toe is stubbed.  The rest of foot might care if the toe is deeply cut, but as you get farther and farther away from the toe, depending on the nature of the injury, there could easily be little or no concern for the toe’s suffering.  While the no self doctrine leads to total oneness and equal concern for everyone, this second argument does not.  It leads to recognizing some kind of interconnectedness, but not necessarily equal concern for everyone.

In ancient Greece and Rome, one extremely important group of spiritually oriented people—the Stoics-- thought all creatures were connected into one organism.  Throughout western history, the Stoics have had almost equal influence to Plato and Aristotle.  Stoics such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca deeply influenced the  Christian Bible writers, the early Christians, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation and the major thinkers of the Enlightenment period.  Stoics believed, like the Buddhists, that we were all connected into one larger cosmic organism, which they called God.[xxviii]  God was not outside nature like the Christians thought, but was Nature or the sum and totality of all things.  Humans were cells in the cosmic organism.  Like Chodron, the Stoics said some people were part of the foot cells, others part of the eye cells. 

The Stoics did not, however, think Chodron’s two arguments for connectedness were the same; they did not think the argument that we are connected into one body was the same as the no self doctrine.  They said that we are connected into one body while also having a seperate self.  They also said God put us into certain relationships and situations like being a brother or son and we were following God’s will for us if we were a good, loving son or brother.  Our duty was not to relieve the suffering of any random being, as in Chodron’s system, but to relieve the suffering of those whom God has put us in relationship with.  So their doctrine is a more suitable one for spiritual people who are not monks or nuns and have the problems of normal people.  It does not suffer from the problems discussed in the last section that result from the emphasis on total giving.  The Stoics’ one body many selves ethics could even be seen as a feminist ethics of relationship.  While the bodhisattva ethics of universal ideals (with the universal ideal being “we should have compassion for everyone equally and try to relieve pain wherever we find it”) could be seen as a masculine ethic.

The ability to focus on people close to you and fulfill your normal social duties is the most important advantage one body many selves ethics has over bodhisattva ethics.  There are also other problems Chodron’s ethics faces that a spiritual ethic such as Stoicism does not face.

       Chodron’s no self doctrine with its asceticism leads her to have no or little concern for material or worldly problems like the lack of money.  For example in one book she talks about “feeling angry, poverty-stricken or depressed,” and suggests a way of dealing with these problematical feelings by transforming your feelings. (Start, p. 3)  But what if your problem is not feeling poverty-stricken but actually being poor, like being homeless in the rain while your child is crying from hunger?  Her method of dealing with problems focuses on feelings and transforming them.  It does not seem to deal with problems that are based more in the material world and not in feelings.

My deeper concern is that material level problems like hunger or homelessness are never classified as problems from her perspective because of the underlying Buddhist ascetic attitude informing her spirituality.  So Shantideva talks of how we should despise the body when he says “Where then is the prudent man  /Who wants to pamper and protect his body?  /Who will not ignore and treat with scorn  /What is for him a dangerous enemy?” (p. 318)  In a tradition which denigrates the body and worldly concerns, with the goal being enlightenment, there is no space for material level problems to be considered real problems.  A one body many selves ethic treasures the world and so does not suffer from the world denying asceticism of the bodhisattva ethics.

      

Another result of Chodron’s Buddhist asceticism is that she does not seem to concern herself with problems caused by ignoring our intuitions or divine guidance.  Many spiritual people have intuitions or get divine messages about what they should do.  These spiritual people often have personal issues that block them from following their guidance.  Quite often they then fall out of the providential care of the universe and experience many problems because they are not following their intuition or divine guidance.  Chodron’s worldview is based on ascetic Buddhism that denies the  essential importance of the world and says our primary goal is enlightenment.  So in her tradition, there is little sense of being guided to do things in the world.  Thus she seems to have no concern for dealing with the problems one encounters from not following one’s guidance.  A one body many selves spirituality can recognize the importance of following one’s own spiritual intuition and being led to one’s proper place in the world.   

 Related to this problem is Chodron’s denial of the importance of special connections.  If a person is following her divine guidance or intuition to accomplish something in the world, certain people become more important to fulfilling her spiritual mission.  The spiritually oriented person needs to know how to succeed with these especially important relationships and can pay much less attention to other people.  But Chodron has no place in her spiritual system for the special importance of some people as all people are equal in her system.  One body many selves spirituality allows for special connections.

People want to be spiritual and Buddhist bodhisattva ethics are a very spiritual way of being.  It suffers, however, from very serious problems.  Rather than believing in no self ethics, people who want to be spiritual and also do something in the modern world should practice one body many selves ethics.

 

[i] The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, vol. 1, trans. Thomas Cleary Boulder: Shambala, 1984), p. 589.*

[ii] Shantideva, Siksha-samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine, trans. Cecil Bendall and W. H. D. Rouse (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1971), p.177.*

[iii] The quote is from the Narayanaparipccha Sutra.  It is quoted by Reiko Uhnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 6.*

[iv] Flower Ornament Scripture, p. 596.*

[v] Flower Ornament Scripture, p. 591.*

[vi] Reiko Uhnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 126.*

[vii] Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1932), p. 176.*

[viii] Tsongkhapa, Ethics of Tibet: Bodhisattava Section of Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo, trans. Alex Wayman (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), p.114.*

[ix] Flower Ornament Scripture, p. 614.*

[x] Milinda’s Questions, Vol. II, trans. by I. B. Horner  (London: Luzac & Company, Ltd., 1964), p. 95.*  This is the eight dilemma, the eigth part.

[xi] Milinda’s Questions, p. 96.*

[xii] Milinda’s Questions, p. 99.*

[xiii] Milinda’s Questions, p. 101.*

[xiv] Milinda’s Questions, p. 103.*

[xv] Tsongkhapa, p. 129.*

[xvi] Tsongkhapa, p. 131.*

[xvii] Dayal, p. 175.*

[xviii] Reiko Uhnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 16.*

[xix] Shantideva, Siksha-samuccaya, p. 21-22.

[xx] Uhnuma, p. 124.*

[xxi] Uhnuma, p. 117.*

[xxii] Uhnuma, p. 117.*

[xxiii] Uhnuma, p. 162.*

[xxiv] Uhnuma, p.188.*

[xxv] Uhnuma, p.188.*

[xxvi] Uhnuma, p.188.*

[xxvii] The Skill in Means: Upayakausalya Sutra, trans. Mark Tatz, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994) p. 73-4. It is verses 132-137.*

 

[xxviii] All the information in the section on Stoicism comes from Joseph Waligore’s 1995 dissertation, The Joy of Torture: Hellenistic Philosophy’s Doctrine that the Sage is Always Happy, even if Tortured.  It is available through UMC microfilm and it is posted on the web at www.josephwaligore.com/joy_of_torture.htm.

 

 

 

 

Pema Chodron’s boddhisattva ethics suffers from debilitating problems if one takes its ideas seriously.  Her ideas are based on no self doctrine, self not exist that cut out all the normal relationships

Chodron’s no self doctrine with its asceticism leads her to have no or little concern for material or worldly problems like the lack of money.  For example in one book she talks about “feeling angry, poverty-stricken or depressed,” and suggests a way of dealing with these problematical feelings by transforming your feelings. (Start, p. 3)  Her method might work in transforming feelings.  But what if your problem is not feeling poverty-stricken but actually being poor, like being homeless in the rain while your child is crying from hunger?  Her method of dealing with problems focuses on feelings and transforming them.  It does not seem to deal with problems that are based more in the material world and not in feelings.

My deeper concern is that material level problems like hunger or homelessness are never classified as problems from her perspective because of the underlying Buddhist ascetic attitude informing her spirituality.  So Shantideva talks of how we should despise the body when he says “Where then is the prudent man  /Who wants to pamper and protect his body?  /Who will not ignore and treat with scorn  /What is for him a dangerous enemy?” (p. 318)  In a tradition which denigrates the body and worldly concerns, with the goal being enlightenment, there is no space for material level problems to be considered real problems.

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