Today we were once again at Oasis as there was a celebration for Misha's birthday. We had a service with Quan Shi Yin chanting and reading of the litany and then we met for a vegetarian meal and conversation. Much of the conversation revolved around the issue of whether we are in a religious, post-religious or non-religious age and what the consequences might be. Some of this stemmed from a discussion that Annette had attended yesterday on the philosophical response to human violence and some from the recent proposition of the Dalai Lama that what the world needs is an "ethic beyond religion". This latter, of course, is a popular message in some quarters, but I am conscious, especially after struggling to try to understand the perspective of Dogen recently, that there is not just one such ethic and that the ethics that most Western people tend to take for granted were actually granted by the Judeo-Christian heritage. Without Protestantism, would we now have individualism? The ethic of individualism is by no means obvious to people who come from societies outside of this particular religious tradition. Many of the attitudes that commentators read into Dogen were no part of the mentality of any medieval Japanese person.
In our present age, are we living off the fruit of our religious history? If that is so and if we have killed the tree that produced that fruit, what does the future hold? We currently have a huge mismatch between theory and practice in that the prevailing ideology is egalitarian and individualistic and the actual society is hierarchical, characterised by a massive rich-poor divide, and dominated by fashion. Nobody has any idea of how to run a mass society that would genuinely manifest 'equality'. Our institutions have their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but those roots are no longer being fed. Consequently, for instance. law increasingly has more and more to do with administrative convenience and less and less to do with morality as it used to be understood. Where is all this leading? We do not know, but it seems rash to think that common sense will be sufficient and that those with power and influence will not bnd the system to suit private ends.
What, if anything, does Buddhism have to contribute to this here in the West? Or does Buddhism suggest an entirely different way of seeing with a correspondingly different set of problems? The Western citizen feels a considerable weight of responsibility coupled with a sense of powerlessness. We had a lively discussion.
Pondering a bit more on this question... When the DL talked about an 'ethics beyond religion' I imagine that generally speaking each person in the audience heard it as meaning that what they think constitutes ethics is what he was talking about. Many people (naively in my opinion) think (a)that one can do without religion and still have ethics and (b) that there is such a thing as 'natural ethics' that the whole human race could readily subscribe to. However, when one speaks about an ethics beyond religion, it does depend which religion one is talking about. The secular ethics of Britain, for instance, is a post-Protestant one. How about a post-Confucian ethics or a post-Islamic ethics? In Islam the idea of a limited liability company, for instance, would figure as a form of dishonesty. Why should a person's liability for their debts be 'limited'? A post-Islamic ethics could demolish Western capitalism at a stroke. In Confucian ethics, one is responsibile for one's ancestors, including their debts. A post-Confucian world would not allow much room for the individualism prized by secular Westerners. Ethics does not mean the same thing to everybody. In many historical systems of ethics, the most noble course was to kill one's enemies and avenge any insult to one's clan. As you go from culture to culture you go from one ethical system to another and these systems have evolved within the ambit of religion. Generally, religion has had a tempering effect upon feuding and anarchistic violence but the result is not one uniform idea of ethics world-wide.
In terms of real-politic, the only way that we would be likely to arrive at a world-wide single ethical system would be by one country - presumably the most powerful - imposing its approach upon everybody else. Thus, the DL's message may well be popular in the USA since it might provide an appearance of legitimisation to such a hegemony. I very much doubt, however, that this is really what HH wants to support. There is, therefore, surely a substantial element of wishful thinking going on here.
The ethical systems that we have are grounded in conceptions about the nature of the universe, nature, mankind, the family, the community and the state among other things. Coherent systems of thought that embrace all or the majority of these dimensions are either called religions or ideologies. Ethics are grounded in them, they do not appear out of thin air. We may say that the religion or ideology is the tree and the ethics is the fruit. The idea of an ethics without religion/ideology is a chimera - like a fruit that appears without a plant. If we kill the tree, we may be able to go on eating the fruit for a while, even, perhaps, a generation or two, but during that time the fruit will slowly go rotten.
What does that rot look like? Some current indications of it are (a) the increasing tendency for law to have little to do with morality and much more to do with administrative convenience; (b) the growth and growth of credit, otherwise known as stealing from our children; (c) celebrity culture that encourages a general shallowness in people's aspirations; and (d) the diminution of trust and confidence evident in the vast amount of time and effort now devoted to 'security'. At present, in Europe and North America, at least, this rot has not gone so far was to cause the whole civic structure to become shaky, but what does the future hold? Are we not living off the moral capital accumulated by our forebears? What will happen when it runs out?
I don't think that he himself is anti-religion at all. How could he be? But he knows what catches the public mood. It is a popular idea. However, it is popular because people have not thought it through. An ethics beyond religion could mean anything. The DL is a remarkable man who does stimulate ordinary people to think about important issues and to do so in a compassionate way. His slogan of "My religion is kindness," is perfect in this sense.
He is speaking in favour of world peace. One cannot fault that. The suggestion is that world peace depends upon some community of values that can bridge the gap between people of different cultures (and, therefore, different religions). This all seems very laudable. An ethic beyond religions suggests that there can be common ground based on common humanity. However, the problem is not so simple and I do not think that peace will actually come by creating 'common ground' - a sameness. It will only come when we respect difference. Trying to create sameness, sounds constructive, but it actually leads to people fighting about which 'ethic' is going to prevail. It is the 'common ground' that becomes the battlefield.
I've been thinking about the idea of feng-shui and came across a couple of books that deal with the connection between religion or spirituality and the environment titled "Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, belief and the environment" and "Spirit of the environment: Religion, value and environmental concern." The author of the first books makes the point that traditional beliefs such as the Chinese feng-shui protected the environment by creating rules and boundaries that kept people from causing harm to the natural world and their fellow dwellers. Both authors see the value of traditional belief systems in protecting the environment. However, western Judeo-Christian religion is based on a much more individualistic outlook, which has allowed the environment to be sacrificed for individual greed. I realize that I'm completely ignorant and a newbie to Buddhist practice, but I think Buddha recognized the higher natural powers and understood that the path to living a life that honors all beings and with an understanding of how we fit within it. That we allow the natural world to teach us how to live.
Buddha was born under a tree, taught under a tree and died under a tree. If there were no more trees, what would Buddhas do???