From Thought to Destiny: To Do Good

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter Moon, September 2, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – Habit – Character – Destiny”

Bad deeds, and deeds hurtful to ourselves, are easy to do; what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do. Dhammapada 163

We are considering the three systems of Buddhist ethics as advice for what actions we choose to perform. In last week’s episode we considered To Avoid Evil, which is To Follow Ethical Precepts. Next week we will consider To Purify the Mind, which is the most uniquely Buddhist approach to developing Virtue. This week we look at the most natural form of ethics, which arises naturally in humans as a result of our innate capacity for kindness, and that is, to seek the benefit of all and avoid harm to all.

What is involved in Doing Good is not only to have a reserve of kindness and a willingness to sacrifice some personal benefit for others, but also to track as best as possible the consequences of one’s actions, whether completed, in progresses or under consideration. This entails the capacity to Do Good will vary considerably from person to person, particularly with regard to the last point. We live in a very complex world in which tracing consequences of action runs very deep, and ultimately, like the chess player who can only see a certain number of moves ahead, to Do Good we must all in the end follow our best hunch.

Performing actions in the world is a huge responsibility. The depth of the consequences of our actions is captured in the Buddha’s exposition of causality, “because this arises that arises, because this ceases that ceases” as the pervasive operating principle in the world, but is most thoroughly expounded in the Mahayana philosophical tradition with the view that just as we depend on everything in the world (Joanna Macy writes, “The Amazon Rain Forest is a part of our lungs”), and everything in the world depends on us (we move our arm and the world moves). To see that this is true, consider the following:

The actions you perform today will determine whether others live or die! This sounds implausible because we tend to think of the effects of our actions as extending only as far as we can track them, while they in fact extend forever. Suppose, for instance, you drive to the mall to buy a spiffy t-shirt, and as you enter the freeway a friendly car, cruising down the slow lane, slows down further to let you merge. However a less patient car behind that car decides it really wants to drive a bit faster and pulls into the middle lane, which then induces some further realignment for other cars further back. It is easy to see that the process of realignment will propagate, but even as the adjustments settle is likely eventually to influence the timing of entries onto and exits from the freeway further down the highway, entailing further realignments. In fact the realignments will propagate down the highway you are on, then onto roads and highways that intersect with this highway, then back onto the highway but in the opposite direction, and eventually deep into Canada, and deep into Mexico. Traffic flow will differ slightly over the map in the hours and days to come for your having made this trip to the mall. Now every day accidents happen on our highways and roads, many of them fatal. An accident generally arises due to faulty split-second decisions in the context of the particular immediate alignment of vehicles. Since your actions have propagated realignments throughout the road map, it follows that accidents, some fatal, will now happen that would not have happened if you had not driven to the mall, but also that accidents will not happen that would have happened.

In meteorology they similarly talk about the Butterfly Effect, the influence the flight of a single butterfly will have on the occurrence or non-occurrence of storms and hurricanes in the decades and centuries to come. Similarly your actions will result in wars happening or not happening, corporations rising and falling, and so on. You are not a sole cause of any of it, but an enabler for virtually all, past a certain time horizon. Being in the world is a huge responsibility, whether you are a human or a butterfly. Not that we can actually track much of this.

One way we extend our limited ability to track consequences is to deal in probabilities. This is called Being Careful. So, leaving a tool box just inside the door of a poorly lit room is probably not Doing Good because of the likelihood, not certainty, of an unfelicitous consequence for someone’s bodily well-being. Another way to extend our ability to track consequences is research or investigation. This is called Being In The Know. For instance, I might learn the many ways my purchasing and consumption choices harm the environment; cause pollution of air, rivers, ground and oceans; cause global warming; sustain harmful social and economic conditions, and I might adjust my choices accordingly so that the consequences of my actions move away from harm and toward benefit. In the modern globalized world both the need to understand consequences is enhanced since they propagate so rapidly, and our ability to track consequences is extended since scholars and journalists explain many causal relations for us. Being Careful and Being In The Know are huge obligations for humans (butterflies, I suppose, are off the hook).

The most ancient discussions in Buddhism in this area of Doing Good is the ethics of eating meat, an issue which is debated to this day. A number of precepts from early Buddhism touch on this issue. One is the precept not to kill living (breathing) things. Another is the broad rule of Right Livelihood, one of the eight folds of the Noble Eightfold Path, which lists among wrong livelihoods that of slaughtering animals. And a third is the monastic guideline laid down by the Buddha concerning eating meat (Jivaka Sutta, MN 55). This permits monks and nuns to eat meat, but with a caveat:

“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected [that the living being has been slaughtered for the bhikkhu]. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances”

In the later East Asian Mahayana tradition one of the Bodhisattva Precepts, common to all monastics and many laypeople, simply prohibits adherents from eating meat altogether.

Now, killing an animal is in itself considered harmful. However, at the Buddha’s time many lay people would kill animals to feed themselves and also offer to any recluses who came by in search of alms, Buddhist or otherwise. Doing Good entails that one’s own choices should not have killing an animal as a consequence. But notice how the Buddha’s caveat works to ensure exactly this. If the lay donors have already killed an animal for family conception and general recluse consumption, acceptance of meat by the bhikkhu seems not to have killing as a consequence. The bhikkhu has a clean bill of mental purity. Accepting the carnivorous meal furthermore also avoids offending, confusing or disappointing the donors. If, however, a family offers to provide a meal to some Buddhist nuns, say, and to kill a pig, say, to to do so, according to the Buddha they would have to refuse.

However, the modern food industry works differently than this pastoral scenario. First, the person who slaughters the animal is generally far removed from the situation in which the meat is consumed. The donor more likely simply buys the already slaughtered meat at a grocery store, but creates a market demand such that new meat is killed to replace what is purchased. Second, harm to animals is greatly magnified in corporate farms. The Buddha refers in the Jivaka Sutta to “the pain and grief on being led along with a neck-halter” and “the pain and grief on being slaughtered.” Now we have to consider that these are often done in a much less humane way as heretofore, by poorly trained and poorly paid employees, and add to that the pain and grief of being raised indoors in crowded, smelly, poorly lit conditions, and of chickens having their beaks clipped off to prevent them from pecking each other out of stress. Tracing further we have to consider the impact of producing feed for the animals, which we know to be environmentally enormous, contributing significantly, for instance, we now know, to Global Warming. (We also have to compare the alternative to meat, that is the consequences of vegetarian food production, including the modern use of pesticides, etc., which can also cost many animals their lives.) In sum, whereas the Buddha traced out the consequences of accepting meat for his time, modern conditions entail that in the hopes of Doing Good, we do this work ourselves.

Modern Buddhist controversy around eating meat I think has two sources, one having to do with how much weight is given to Avoiding Evil relative to Doing Good, and the other having to do with how much weight is given to Doing Good relative to Purifying the Mind. These are not always in accord. In the first case, the Buddha provided us with a clear guideline for Avoiding Evil in meat eating, and for some that is enough. For instance, in Theravada countries it is normal for monks to accept meat knowing it has been specifically purchased to feed the monks, since it has not litereally been slaughtered to feed monks. In the second case, the actual consequences of the development of Virtue seem to actually diminish the further one is removed from the act of slaughter. The karmic consequences for the monk who accepts meat will be much less than for the monk who kills the animal himself, as we will see beginning next week.

Doing Good tends to be emphasized, at least doctrinally, more in Mahayana than in Theravada. It is neglected, for instance, in the Theravada Abhidhamma, but is highlighted in the Mahayana as part of the Bodhisattva ideal. This might partially explain the difference in the respective attitudes toward meat eating (allowing however that in Tibet not eating meat is hardly an option in the harsh agricultural environment). However, in general practice Theravada monastics are well known for their good works, for Doing Good, and there are, in fact, many Theravada monastics and sometimes monasteries are strictly vegetarian, citing ethical reasons. I have, or instance, met some very senior Burmese monks who have encouraged me never to accept meat from donors.

Although Precepts can point out consequences that might otherwise be missed, occasionally they may contradict our commitment to Doing Good, for instance, in the case where the Gestapo shows up at your front door and asks you, gleefully aware that a Buddhist will not lie, if you are hiding Jews in the attic, or where you just happen to be returning from a softball game with a baseball bat in your hand and walk in right behind a man who has “gone postal” and is about start shooting at fellow employees. The inclination is greater in the Theravada tradition to obey the letter of the Precept, and in Mahayana to abandon Precepts more readily where this seems the more compassionate thing to do. The early Suttas give little advice on handling these contradictions, but one exception is MN 58, where the Buddha draws an analogy to the necessity of painfully digging a swallowed stone out of a baby’s throat with one’s finger, thereby causing harm but preventing greater harm. However the Buddha is not known ever to have justified anything remotely like a Just War or for that matter any taking of human life.

A final point concerning Doing Good concerns who is the beneficiary of our kindness. It is a commonsense idea that certain people do not merit Goodwill, for instance, that criminals, torturers, murderers and people whose opinions or certain other attributed differ from ours, do not deserve to benefit from our deeds, in fact deserve to suffer from any misdeeds we might cook up. This idea is anathema to Buddhism (although there is a common misunderstanding in Buddhism that all personal suffering is caused by individual kamma and that helping them to alleviate the suffering means they will just have to burn it off later, a wrong view that I will discuss in future weeks). In fact, just as we try to develop Metta (loving-kindness) for everyone without discrimination, even for our worst enemies, all beings properly fall withing the scope of Doing Good. The thoughts of retribution that tell us differently are simply unskillful, and rooted in hatred. Thought they may be pervasive it is our aspiration to let them go and to Do Good without discrimination.

Not the perversities of others, not their sins of commission or omission, but his own misdeeds and negligences should a sage take notice of. Dhammapada 50

Here are questions to consider on this Uposatha Day: When is punishment Doing Good? You can consider punishment of children or punishment of criminals. What consequences of punishment can you trace that are harmful for others in addition to the person being punished?

2 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: To Do Good”

  1. Randy Says:

    Given the way the natural world seems to work it may be a bit presumptuous to judge the natural scheme of things from a human perspective and set out to alter the course according to our own views of what is good or evil. That may be the message being conveyed by the myth of the apple in the garden?

    Then again we will continue to try. That is the nature of the game? Perhaps one strategy is indeed to move out of the game as far as one can… well perhaps just this side of as far as one can?

    It occurs to me that one could become totally immobilized if one attempts to think out the consequences of actions based on good or evil consequences, which is probably why the “middle way” is the way? Taking any strategy for getting through this little dream to the extreme will likely not work out well. There is no doubt in my mind though that the game gets more complicated and the easy answers disappear in a puff of metaphysical smoke when one steps beyond the concept of what is good for this particular point in space and time being the ultimate criterion for determining what is good. Then again at some point the complexity seems to disappear in yet another metaphysical puff of smoke at the point where everything is seen as a function of everything else and the issue becomes moot?

    When Dante and Beatrice reach the Empyrean, St. Bernard comes forth to prepare Dante to look upon the resplendent beings within. Dante realizes here that knowledge of heaven comes only through the grace of God and deep meditation, not through theology textbooks. After St. Bernard prays to Mary on Dante’s behalf, she begs the light of God to welcome the prayer. When Dante glimpses that light, it overpowers him with a love so radiant that he cannot fathom its depth or even remember what he saw.

    I can relate.

  2. bhikkhucintita Says:


    I’m glad you contribute so often to this blog because you bring up good points and are willing to challenge. I find I learn a lot from answering your comments.

    It is indeed presumptuous of people to think they know what is good and what is bad, but that is what they have always done and will always do. People are agents, action is what they do, and actions are based on choices based on some notion of what is good or right or beneficial (for Me if not for others) and what is not. People have a natural, often self-centered, sense of good and bad, and are also taught social norms. Buddhism has a precise psychologically based sense based on suffering and skillfulness, which I don’t refer to here because in practical terms it usually does not make it easier to track consequences. (It is more directly important in next week’s model of ethics.)

    The Middle Way must indeed be the basis of our choices. We are stuck between the imperative to know all of the consequences and our own human limitations, but we must act. Ultimately it is on the basis of our best educated guess along with faith and hope. It is the human condition. We can indeed step out of the game and say nothing matters anyway, there is no argument against that, but the Buddhist path is about selfless action in the world for the benefit of all.

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Dante. I should try to remedy that deficit. At least read the Cliff Notes or Wikipedia entry for Inferno so I know what you are talking about.

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