Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Piety

One of the great things about going out into the world is that you meet people you wouldn't otherwise meet. This past week, Andrea and I went on a ski vacation with her family. Toward the beginning of the week, I was walking to the shuttle to go back to the Beaver Lodge.

The way these shuttles work is that on the outside of the bus there are racks for skis. And there's a line you stand in, with a small opening that leads through a thigh-height fence to the bus. So you stand in line waiting for the bus to come, then the bus comes, then you go through the small opening, put your skis in the rack, and then board the bus and head out. That's the way it's supposed to work.

Standing in line is voluntary - there's nobody there enforcing the queue. So there I was, standing at the end of the line, waiting to cross through the little opening and put in my skis, and this absolute bastard crosses over the fence and puts his skis up on the rack out of turn. And then he looks at me with this completely smug smile, like he's gotten away with something, and he gets on the bus with that smile, and keeps smiling it all the way to the Beaver Lodge.

So in our culture, there's this idea of piety, and it's a little bit different than what Socrates discussed with Euthyphro. The way the average person experiences piety in our culture is that we know a person who is following a certain set of moral strictures, and we don't follow those same strictures, and that person gives us a disapproving look when we do something that contradicts those strictures. And this is what I think most people in our culture mean when they use the word "piety." The attitude of superiority of a person who is following a "better" moral code.

The problem with this is that whatever moral code we follow is a personal decision. If I choose to stand in line and not jump the fence, that's a decision I'm making on my own. I have no right to impose that decision on someone else. The guy who jumped the fence and put his skis on the rack before me didn't do anything wrong. For me to get indignant about it is nonsense. I chose to stand in line. My choice is mine, not his. So for me to get upset when this other person does something that contradicts my own moral code is an example of me being pious.

Another non-religious example of piety where I'm generally on the other end is the pre-merge merge. The way it works is that you're driving down, let's say, a two-lane-each-way road. Up ahead in the distance, you see an arrow that indicates a lane closure. What do you do?

It turns out that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the sign, and then merge. This creates a single merge zone, right at the sign. Merging this way is quite efficient, so traffic moves at the maximum possible pace through the zone of congestion.

But in our culture, it is generally considered rude to merge at the sign. You're supposed to merge *before* the sign. Generally there will be a stretch of as long as a mile prior to the actual lane closure where there are no cars in the lane that has the closure, because it's just not done to drive through that section. But I happen to know that it's more efficient to merge at the sign, so I have to choose: be more efficient, and possibly piss a lot of people off, or be less efficient, don't offend anyone, and put up with the longer wait.

Anyway, what's the point of all this maundering? I've noticed a trend among certain evangelicals to think that the behavior of others affects them. For example, consider the idea that the reason that New Orleans got hit so hard was because of some kind of moral turpitude on the part of some percentage of the populace. In order for this to be true, it has to be true that if you live in close proximity to a large number of people who are not following God's law, whatever you happen to think that is, then you will suffer along with them, even though you are following God's law.

So there's this urgency to getting everybody to be moral. You have to force people who aren't being moral, according to you, to be moral, because your very life may depend on it.

I hope the flaw in the logic here is obvious. These same people talk about the rapture, and about armageddon, and the war between good and evil. If such a thing were possible, it would be obvious that our fates are not dependent on the actions of others. If a pious person is subject to the rapture, then he or she will experience this rapture whether his or her neighbors are pious or not. If there is a God, if there is a judgement, there's no reason to worry that you will accidentally be judged according to your neighbor's actions. An omniscient God does't make mistakes. You don't have to worry that your city is going to be flattened because of some moral lack that you see in your neighbor.

Anyway, I frowned at the guy on the bus. It was a lame thing to do. Fortunately, it didn't seem to kill his joy, so I guess it turned out okay. The ski trip was very nice. I think I managed to avoid being pious at anyone else.

8 Comments:

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Dude, got to practice your Buddha smile, 'cause there's no better way to respond to a rude jerk than to stand back and smile. Mind you, my Buddha smile doesn't come as quickly as I could wish either.

Oh, as for the driving thing, if you're sure it's what's efficient for everyone and not just for you, do it, and trust your example will spread. Buddha-nature may say you should cause others to be upset as little as possible, but you can't live without upsetting someone sometimes; Siddhartha would've died a prince if he'd chosen the path of least resistance.

Thursday, March 02, 2006 8:49:00 PM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

On the other hand, I could be completely wrong. Most of what I know about Buddha-nature comes from hanging out at a Therevada monestary in D.C. decades ago.

Thursday, March 09, 2006 9:39:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Well, if you want to get technical about it (and who wouldn't?), Buddha nature is the absence in you of any quality that prevents you from becoming enlightened, combined with the presence of a you acts as a material cause for a future enlightened you. There was a big teaching on this at the Muse a couple of years ago.

Of course, frequently the term "buddha nature" is used interchangeably with "emptiness" or "suchness," and in that sense it means something a bit different.

As for causing others to be upset, there's a concept in Buddhism called the eight worldly thoughts, two of which are being attached to being admired by others, and being attached to not being disliked by others. Both of these are impediments to forward progress, because you tend to do negative things in order to get what you want, or avoid what you don't want.

So in that sense, when I restrain myself from doing something I know is the best thing for the group, knowing that the group will despise me for doing it, I am allowing the eight worldly thoughts to stop me from doing the right thing.

However, at the same time, given that the status quo is that people tend to merge early, it's not at all clear that I can actually make the world a better place by merging late. So in that sense, if I merge late, I'm the main, if not sole, beneficiary. And in that case, it is good to be worried about upsetting the other people who are merging, because deliberately upsetting people for no good purpose is a negative action, and can only bring me a negative result.

In practice, of course, we really don't know what the outcome of our actions will be - will I start a new movement by merging late? Could be. So all we can really do is check our motivation.

By the way, I thought I'd replied to your earlier comment, but I don't see my reply here. Dunno what happened. Probably the universe edited out my reply because it was bogus in some way... :')

Thursday, March 09, 2006 10:53:00 PM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Google seems to be having hiccups lately. I don't think I've lost anything, but I've noticed oddnesses.

As for what's in the aether now, I made my latest blog post about success and validation before reading your comments on motivation.

Someday I should look a little closer into the different schools of Buddhism. I knew the answers in a textbook way long ago, but I always dismissed the Mahayana guys after I heard that they referred to the Theravada folks as "Hinayana." Puffing yourself and dissing others just didn't seem very Buddha-like to me. But I was younger then, and it was easier to dismiss everyone in a group that seemed flawed in some way.

Friday, March 10, 2006 8:59:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

The distinction between mahayana and hinayana is simply about what you're trying to do. It's not a status thing. Whether it's puffery is a topic for debate, as long as it's good-natured.

There are actually three scopes in Buddhism - working for happy rebirths, working to end the cycle of suffering for yourself, and working to end the cycle of suffering for all beings.

To achieve even the "least" of these goals is a big deal - very few people alive in the world today accept that the first of the three is even theoretically possible, and the other two are progressively more ambitious.

So if I know someone who doesn't believe even the first goal is possible, is that cause to belittle them? Is it puffery for me to set my sights on trying to achieve that goal, before others accept that the goal exists? You see the problem?

I think in general it's better to just try to believe six impossible things before breakfast, and not worry about how well the next guy is doing at the same task.

Friday, March 10, 2006 9:59:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Definitely good-natured discussion!

I do need to look more closely at the goals of Mahayana, Theravada, Zen, etc. I did a little googling which suggested that "Hinayana" isn't always meant derogatorily, but it seems to me that if you call someone Kid and they want to be called Marvin, the polite thing to do is call them Marvin, even if you think that's a stupid name. Are there any schools of Buddhism that embrace Hinayana as a name?

I don't think it's puffery to try to do what you think is right, though that's certainly an accusation you should be prepared to get.

I think the achievability of goals is irrelevant. The pursuit is what matters. And in the pursuit of those three particular goals, the third can bring about the first two, but the first two appear to have nothing to do with the third. Well, except (and this is a huge except) in making you more resolved to work for the third.

Friday, March 10, 2006 8:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Well, perhaps the big mistake being made is to lable a practitioner other than yourself as a particular thing. For example, "hinayana" or "mahayana." Generally I refer to people who practice Theravada as Theravadins.

There are schools of Buddhism that consider the goal of mahayana enlightenment to be either "not something the Buddha taught" or "not distinct from nirvana." It's a difficult thing to talk about without resorting to logic, because otherwise it really is just a game of contradiction, which is pointless and potentially hurtful.

Saturday, March 11, 2006 2:10:00 AM  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

And it's tricky to figure out how to say, "I hope you'll try my path, because it's the best I've found," without sounding like you're dissing other paths. At least, it's awfully tricky for me. We want to help people. It's hard not to imply anything about other ways when we're presenting the one we love.

Saturday, March 11, 2006 8:54:00 AM  

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