Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Best thanks to Carly for his provocative challenge in yesterday’s comment section. Writing about the movie “Michael Clayton,” I had occasion to use the words “unskillful behavior,” to which Carly responded:

The angle on behavior called "skillful" is interesting, manipulative, but interesting. I mean, an innocent person has no need for skill. The iChing, being a mathematical system, for instance, has 64,247 situations of wise advice. Would you do a piece listing five skillful behaviors for us please, in the typical style, perhaps just a sampling from your source? I am very curious how the advice is presented in English. Thanks.

Well, here's my best understanding in the matter: unskillful behavior, at its simplest level, describes actions—or patterns of action—whose results bring harm to myself or others. This passage from “The Wings to Awakening” might be more than the “sampling” Carly asked for and takes a good bit of reading, but I offer it as a serious answer to a serious question. It’s worth the effort. Here’s a small piece at the heart of what Thanissaro Bhikkhu has to say:

Anyone who has mastered a skill will realize that the process of attaining mastery requires attention to three things: (1) to pre-existing conditions, (2) to what one is doing in relation to those conditions, and (3) to the results that come from one's actions. This threefold focus enables one to monitor one's actions and adjust them accordingly. In this way, one's attention to conditions, actions, and effects allows the results of an action to feed back into future action, thus allowing for refinement in one's skill. By working out the implications of these requirements, the Buddha arrived at the principle of this/that conditionality, in which multiple feedback loops — sensitive to pre-existing conditions, to present input, and to their combined outcome — account for the incredible complexity of the world of experience in a way similar to that of modern theories of "deterministic chaos." In this sense, even though this/that conditionality may seem somewhat alien when viewed in the abstract, it is actually a very familiar but overlooked assumption that underlies all conscious, purposeful action.

I’m not sure that innocence enters into the picture here. All of us find ourselves in situations where actions are called for every day and the point, insofar as I correctly understand the Buddhist view, is that we are able to observe the results of those actions and determine whether they are desirable or undesirable by judging their effect. The unskillful action, as I say, is the one that results in harm.

Carly asked for examples of skillful behaviors. Let me take simple, personal ones, with the hope that they are not too trivial to meet his request.

1. A classic: I’m driving on the freeway in heavy traffic and someone cuts me off. The unskillful action is to allow my anger to get the better of me and return the favor in a rage. Or speed up beside him and offer him the finger. Undesirable result: everyone’s temperature goes up, and no one gets ahead any faster. The skillful action is to observe the anger as it arises, recognize it for what it is—just another passing feeling—and allow it to dissipate. Desirable result: a calmer ulcer, a more pleasant day, more harmony in the universe. And less harm to self and others.

2. Dinner time. I’m just a little overweight (true!) and I know that the second helping of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (sorry, I’m English! Let's say, spaghetti alfredo) will do nothing to improve the situation. The unskillful action of course is to take the second helping. Undesirable result: more weight gain, less sound sleep, more discomfort in the morning. The skillful action, then, is to observe the desire arising, see it for what it is (greed!)—perhaps even find its source in old habits—and decline the second helping. Result: less harm to self and the environment (you’ve heard about beef, right?) along with better health for me, and the satisfaction of being in control of my appetites (I wish!)

3. I have an appointment for this afternoon, and need to prepare and leave in time to arrive at the appropriate moment. Unskillful action: I postpone my preparation and fiddle around instead with the damn blog. I get involved, fail to notice the passage of time, and leave later than I had intended. Undesirable result: I arrive late for the meeting, piss off the person I’ve arranged to meet, and don’t have the information I need to produce a successful outcome. The skillful action, of course, is to spend the time I need in the morning to put my facts together, to be aware of the time, and to leave enough of it for a prompt arrival. The desirable results are too obvious to mention.

I can count well enough to know that this is three, not the five requested, but you get the idea… I’m not convinced that any more would help. The Buddha’s most useful wisdom arises, I believe, from the observation of such everyday behaviors, and is most helpful guiding us in this way in our lives. The big abstractions don’t count for much, to me. It’s all about consciousness, about not sleep-walking through the day, about being aware of my actions and their results. It’s about the way I choose to live my life, the freedom from compulsions and addictions, and the progress toward as much enlightenment and happiness as I’m capable of.

Cardozo came up with the interesting idea, on reading the above, to open up a forum for those who might care to do so to write in personal examples of their unskillful behaviors and the results. A kind of Buddhist confessional, I suppose, which might stimulate deeper self-awareness---and perhaps an opportunity to share, mend and move on. We're debating how that might be done. I'd welcome your thoughts and suggestions.


carly said...

Thank you Peter. Actually, I should not have used the word innocence, because innocent behavior can also have bad consequences, in the sense of naive behavior. The right word is sincere. Sincere behavior is not only from the heart, pure, but it is also natural, instinctive, and never crafted, manipulated, nor clever in any way. Sincere behavior is not arrived at by analysis, nor dissection into parts and acted upon. It is spontaneous and true. It comes from a man's true nature, not an ideal.

Notwithstanding, there are many equivalent teachings in the iChing for what Bikkhu says. Off the top of my head here are three corresponding:

If one wishes to apprehend something, he must first ascertain the forces at work.

If one wishes to know if his actions are in accord with universal laws, he must judge the results.

To remain free of blame is the work of the sage. (I know there is no "blame" in Buddhism.)

The reason I asked you for some clarification is because I momentarily forgot your end desired result, freedom from the responsibility of harm. And I still harbor a twinge of irony over the fact that to desire no harm done, is a desire in itself and a whole other discussion about what desires can realistically achieve. Obviously, there are some good desires in American Buddhism. But as you say, if your sole purpose is to promote peaceful coexistence, care against harm in that context is most highly worthy. And you are doing good work, using the Buddhist label and vocabulary.

The concurrence of these morals along with those laid down by the Greeks and others about that time in history all points to the "universal truths" which form the practice of nearly all religions. I distinguish universal laws from truths, because the iChing is not a religion and the only philosophy based solely on perception and practice of nature and not man's logic.

Which brings me to the abstractions. There lies a difference to me because man's logical analysis is fallible. Nature's laws are not. In this the abstractions are important. I mean, a man can cobble together a religion for himself, but if there is no foundation, he will build a house starting with the door nob. What is the basis of harm? Is it the same as that of Christianity, Grecian thought, or that nothing is real, undermined by passing illusions? These are man-made concepts and widely open to interpretation. Buddhism in this case, seems to be an attractive re-packaging of worthy "truths" for today's man. Unless I missed some other connection.

I guess my problem is, harm without metaphysical basis is left to the individual's interpretation, because there is no foundation for an anchor, other than the time worn philosophy common to other religions. And these have not led man well. When a Buddhist flies in a plane, he causes harm. When a Jew gets on the freeway, harm. When a Christian buys products, great harm is caused. When you take in man's chemicals, you do harm to your self. The list is long. In fact, nearly all things men are into are harmful. You see? There is no foundation directing man's action. Yes, emotions are fleeting, including emotions about harm, because contemporary American man of any notion has no anchor.

In the end, an attempt to evade harm is an illusion itself. Not because reality is illusion, but because man-made ideas are out of sync with nature's cosmos.

Lastly, I'm against confessionals. That is sooo Catholic. So Catholic, I'm surprised (or not) a Buddhist would think of salving the conscience. No anchor. Instead, show people how to align with universal law not the illusions of "truth".

carly said...

footnote: I believe in order for a real Buddhist to give up the illusions of the practice, he would have to renounce the basic tenet of Buddhism and accept nature as real.

Can anyone correct that?

Paul said...

Peter, I agree. It is practice. Skillful actions bring good results, unskillful actions bring bad results. Actions also are mitigated by intention. Problems arise when one expects the effects of any cause to be immediate. The results of our actions are not often apparent and can take generations to play out.

Carly, you say nature's laws are infallible. Agreed. But what of the Four Noble Truths? They are nothing if they are not, well, true. Upon examination who can find them false (unless one insists on doing so regardless of evidence or argument to the contrary)?

To what do you refer as the basic tenet of Buddhism that must be renounced in order to be "a real Buddhist"? And why don't you think Buddhists don't accept nature as real?


PeterAtLarge said...

Paul--thanks for joining in on this.

Carly--"confessional" was not a good choice of words. The Catholic aim is to get forgiveness for sins. My intention was more to have a place where one could simply replay past actions and take a clear-eyed look at their results, with a consequent increase in awareness and, perhaps, an understanding of how to act in a less harmful manner in the future.

carly said...

P: I think I understood your confessional idea. And, true, they are of no value unless applied to future behavior. But that is what is supposed to happen in the Catholic sphere too. Identifying the problem is supposed to neutralize or lead to some correction of it. But, why is it going to change much under the Buddhist banner when it hasn't been effective under the Catholic? I am afraid people are repeating over and over old formulas under new guises. This is what I meant by the superficiality of American culture, and European, and East European, let's be honest. And the problems you mention in today's entry will never change smoothly under those techniques. I am saying these band aid solutions are not going to work. They are illusions. Reality is going to be there when the dreamers awaken. And one can't be in meditation all the time. When one comes out of nirvana, he will need more than an awareness of truth and tools of skill, in the face of the reality that awaits him at street level. He will need to believe to the deepest part of his stratum in his commonality with everything else. He will need a metaphysical idea to make him pick up the tools of skillful practice. AND WHAT WILL THAT IDEA BE? Buddhist metaphysics? I think not. There are no East Europeans who know this more than many enlightened Americans. The problem is the rest of the people. My contention is that tools, like not doing harm, are good, but a metaphysical idea of real substance is necessary to deal with the beast. And that the foundations of all religions have failed and greed and fear is now the foundation of a culture which is dominating the world, not just the US. Only the disadvantaged are innocent in this scheme.

In other words nothing has adequately replaced nor grown out of the the Bible, the Talmud, the Sutras, the Koran, and the Four Noble Truths, etc., to meet the onslaught of decay brought on by the moneychangers and new media and the warrior class - tangent to over-population. Our Ship of Fools has no anchor in the deepest waters imaginable. To preach not doing harm from the bloody pulpit is smaller than a drop in a lake. It's not even an infectious idea. It doesn't affect those 300,000 disenfranchised "souls" I saw at the West Hollywood Carnival last night. They were lavishing in their evening of illusions on a filthy street, while the bourgeoisie was lavishing comfortably in theirs.

There are two kinds of truth, what is actually true and what is only perceived to be true, moral truth. I view it as a polarity between real man and artificial man. Real man is connected to the cosmos. Artificial man is creative outside that universe of reality. Real man's creativity is integrated with natural reality. Artificial man is creating spheres with no foundations.

Paul: As I understand it, meditation, illusion of reality, enlightenment, and Buddhist truths are linked. Correct me if wrong, but the basis of the idea is that all is illusion and the disciple must see this, from which truth emerges, and he can then practice life skillfully without delusions or being attached to anything. IF....that is the basic idea, within a margin of error, am I wrong that for the truly enlightened, the natural world is part of that illusion? I was not speaking of the American version which cobbles together parts of Buddhism with parts of nature. But at the very least, one can say that "inner nature" is, but nature is certainly not at the core of the religion and is certainly not it's foundation, as it is a point of contention in the refutation of reality? I do not assume the Buddhist inner nature is the same as the "true nature" of primitive man, even though a patch to cover man's true nature can be found in the dogma.

Whether the above is altogether accurate or not, the trendy idea that reality is illusion and that perceptions cannot be trusted has grown from the surrealists, Asian ideas, and cinematic fantasy into a dangerously popular Beast. It no less than has undermined moral codes of right, wrong, harm, blame, justice, even love itself, so that many former codes are no longer effectual and are now part of the "illusion". This is a time of colossal transition. The blind specter of nature, which all should quickly understand as non-man-made-intellectually conceived-manufactured-artificial reality, will force it's superior hand. Buddhists don't honor superiorities, but nature will force subservience to natural laws over inferior ideas of man' all levels. In the future, our era will resemble earlier chaotic periods of man's world, when all sorts of silly premises and concoctions floated about. The cosmos, however, will remain steadfast.

As for the sage, he takes what precautions he can in the face of the storm upon our ship of fools.

Paul said...

Carly, this is an interesting topic. But it feels as though it's late, all of the guests have gone home, and we're straggling behind while our host just wants to get the place cleaned up and go to bed.

I've posted a reply on my site, and I invite you there to carry on if you'd like.


carly said...

P: For your idea of "harm" I have found the words for this worthy support. You are doing good work, because your focus on such sentiments are sincere avenues to the spirit of the people along the lines of least resistance. This leads to success.

Paul: To the complete contrary, nature in all things, has an unchanging essence, fixed characteristic (s). If only men can understand it through an enlightenment which does not see the world as turmoil. And they won't if they are fixed on "impermanence". The supreme irony is, they cause the suffering themselves.