Buddhism and Modern Life — A Conversation with Professor Eyal Aviv
This dialogue extends to provocative discussions on ethics, gay marriage, green politics, the mind and brain, and so on, revealing the hope that the Buddha’s teachings can be practiced in a modern context and resolve the unique challenges of the modern age.
“If scientists ignore the inner realms and do not seek to take advantage of the insight gained by the ancient Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, it is unlikely that they will arrive at the truth by simply relying on instruments that examine and measure the material elements of the external world.”
The Buddhist View on Gay Marriage
Professor Aviv: Good afternoon. I am a professor in the Department of Religion here at George Washington University, and as part of the Honor’s Program, I am presently teaching a course on happiness. As this also happens to be one of the topics on which you have written extensively and that will be addressed in today’s lecture, I am very grateful to have this opportunity to discuss this subject with you in person.
My other duties here at the college, include teaching courses on various theories of justice and ethics, as well as courses on the philosophical and ethical foundations of Buddhism, so these are others areas of interest that I would welcome the opportunity to ask you a few questions about. My questions will be drawn from my interaction with students and will reflect the kinds of questions that, over time, I have found my students to be most interested in. Though they will, for the most part, focus on Buddhism itself, I will also be asking questions that refer to ways that Buddhism can be integrated into the Western academic perspective. In this regard, I along with my students, hope to gain further insight into these areas. Let me also say, that it is a great honor and privilege to have a Buddhist master of your stature here to share his knowledge and wisdom with us.
Khenpo Sodargye: First, let me say that I am also delighted for the opportunity to engage in this kind of conversation with you here at George Washington University. Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a great deal of emphasis is placed on debate and questioning. I believe that in this modern age, it has become even more important to have conversations such as this, that allow people from different backgrounds a wonderful forum to exchange ideas and create interactions that extend beyond the borders of theological ideology.
Professor Aviv: Last year I taught a course on Buddhist ethics, where we discussed the moral teachings of Buddhism from its earliest traditions, all the way up to the more modern periods. One of the most often repeated comments that I heard from students was that, it seemed to them that Buddhist teachings on morality are not applied as systematically as we are used to in the West, leading the students to feel that Buddhist morality arises in response to a particular set of circumstances rather than from an established code of conduct and behavior.
There is a famous Buddhist scholar, who claimed that, unlike in the West, that there is no absolute code of Buddhist ethics in the sense of a complete theory that one might turn to when attempting to solve ethical dilemmas. So my first question is to ask whether you agree that this is the case, and also to ask you to describe what you think is unique about Buddhist ethics and how they compare to other codified forms of ethical behavior.
Khenpo Sodargye: Well, I think it can be said that in many forms of Christianity, The Bible is the singular and original source of all teachings on Christian morality. I do not believe that there are other scriptural sources that address these issues that are adhered to by all Christians. At a much later point in the progression of Christianity, scholars wrote various commentaries on ethics and conduct, which in time, developed into the systematic study of ethics in relation to Christian theology. We have a similar situation in Buddhism. There is a sutra called The Discourse on the Ten Wholesome Ways of Action, which is recommended by many Tibetan masters as a source of guidance for beneficial thoughts and behaviors. Within Tibetan Buddhism, we have the Advice to Kings, written by the great Mipham Rinpoche and the Treasury of Good Advice, written by Sakya Pandita, both of which teach moral principles that are recommended for people to follow. I point out these texts to indicate that we do, in fact, have scholarly texts that clarify the question of the particulars of an inclusive Buddhist ethics.
Professor Aviv: I am very curious to hear your thoughts on how it is possible to apply ancient Buddhist teachings into the more socially and ethically convoluted context of modern times. It seems that every year, sometimes every day, we are presented with newly arising social dilemmas and new and perplexing circumstances to untangle. In my class, for example, a subject that comes up often is the stance of Buddhism towards women. Along these same lines, these days, the question of gay marriage is the subject of much-heated debate. We know that from a Buddhist perspective, homosexuality is generally considered to be part of what is known as inappropriate sexual misconduct. Does Buddhism need to change its perspective to conform to the times? What do you think the Buddhist position should be in relation to these kinds of questions?
Khenpo Sodargye: Regarding your question, I should point out that I have been studying Buddhism for many years, and in the course of those years of study, I have found that Shakyamuni Buddha addressed the issue of gender equality in great detail. From a Buddhist perspective, men and women are considered to be essentially equal, and for this reason, as an example, each can equally receive precepts. However, men and women do have different abilities and capacities. For instance, we can claim that in the modern age, everyone has equal rights, but in fact, in the entire history of the American presidency, there has, as of yet, not been a female president. I have not found in any Buddhist text, a reference or statement proclaiming that women should not enjoy the same rights as men do, neither in the Kangyur nor the Tengyur. This is my first point.
Secondly, as regards the controversial issue of homosexuality, actually, Shakyamuni Buddha gave us relevant teaching on this subject. Today, in some countries same-sex marriage has been legalized. I have heard that in the U.S., a government official in New York had his same-sex marriage performed in public, in order to celebrate the change in the law. At the same time, however, in other countries, it is still not legal for two people of the same sex to get married.
From the Buddhist perspective, Shakyamuni Buddha taught in the Vinaya that the karma of sentient beings manifests in myriad expressions of diversity and the breadth of its variation is beyond conception. For this reason, it is not surprising that different people have different sexual orientations. I believe even today that what the Buddha taught 2500 years ago still cannot be refuted. The only question is how to put those teachings into practice in a modern context.
What we find through extensive sutra study is that the Buddha taught us everything that we needed to know to understand the many different kinds of phenomena. Some are explained in an explicit way, while others are explained in metaphorical terms. As regards the question of homosexuality, the Buddha’s viewpoint avoids extremes, neither requiring the death penalty as is specified by the law of some countries, nor explicitly coming out in favor of it. Nothing in the sutra can be interpreted as a passing of judgment on its place in relation to the concept of ethics and morality. The Buddha clearly addressed this issue with a balanced median perspective.
Professor Aviv: Just to follow up, while karma does reference diversity, I believe that the Buddha taught that there are some karmic fruits that we should try to separate ourselves from. For example, if we have a karmic tendency to do unwholesome deeds, it’s our duty as Buddhists to try to change our karmic trajectory. So, as regards homosexuality, isn’t there a question of whether to accept the traditional view that sees it as something to be changed or, at least, not to be acted upon, or is it to be accepted as a type of diversity that we should welcome as having a place within the modern context?
Khenpo Sodargye: The way that the Buddha taught karma is very subtle, which is in keeping with the complexity and subtlety of its nature. Regarding the issue of homosexuality, the Buddha addressed it in the Vinaya, in the context of explaining the Bhikkhu precepts. He said if a Bhikkhu has an attachment to another Bhikkhu, then such an attachment is not seen as a severe disregard of the root vows, but it will be recognized as an infraction of one’s Bhikkhu precepts. So, in the sense of spiritual advancement, we can say that homosexuality (as well as other sexual behaviors), should definitely be abstained from. However, it is not categorized as a major sin that breaks the root vows and causes rebirth in the lower realms. The Buddha didn’t place it in that context. This is what we learn from the Vinaya.
Today, homosexuality is seemingly something new to many people. As a matter of fact, the Buddha addressed this issue more than 2500 years ago. It has become more of a hot topic in this day and age, in part, because ancient people were more reserved and did not speak out about these kinds of topics, although they were certainly aware of them. Homosexuality is generally considered by the mainstream public to be non-virtuous; at the same time, it is not considered to be a heinous crime that requires the death penalty. While the Buddha did not say it was a serious personal failing; neither did he praise it as a virtue. In a general sense, it is seen as an unwholesome deed but a minor one.
As regards the question of homosexuality, the Buddha’s viewpoint avoids extremes, neither requiring the death penalty as is specified by law of some countries, nor explicitly coming out in favor of it. Nothing in the sutra can be interpreted as a passing of judgment on its place in relation to the concept of ethics and morality. The Buddha clearly addressed this issue with a balanced median perspective.
The Difference Between Mind and Brain
Professor Aviv: Using this distinction, let us move on to talk a little bit about a topic that I think both you and I care about quite a bit, the topic of vegetarianism. In the Buddha’s day, as a begging monk, it’s commonly known that he gave other monks permission to eat meat only if it was given to them as part of their alms activities, and as long as they were certain that the animal had not been slaughtered specifically for them.
Today, however, a lot of monks do not beg for food, and so, they have the privilege to be able to choose what they accept. Extending the question to the general Buddhist population, lay people, of course, also have even more choices and do not need to beg for their food, so the question is whether it is important to take into account the Buddhist precepts of compassion, especially the importance of compassion in the Mahayana context, and whether that compassion should be extended to all sentient beings, including animals and whether in the modern era it is reasonable to continue to expect all Buddhists to be vegetarians.
Khenpo Sodargye: Yes, you have made some excellent distinctions, and raised some good points. In Buddhism, we have the Mahayana tradition and Theravada tradition. The Mahayana teaching is considered to be the definitive teaching, and represents the Buddha’s ultimate meaning. In the Theravada scriptures, we can find citations that the Buddha granted permission for the monks to eat meat, as long as they did not hear, see or know about the background of the meat and if they received the meat as part of their alms.
However, in the Mahayana sutras, such as the Lankavatara Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra and so forth, which represent the ultimate teaching of the Buddha, the Buddha explicitly said that permission to eat meat is considered a provisional precept. So to answer your question, according to the Mahayana teachings, the definitive viewpoint is that Buddhists should be vegetarians and extend compassion to all sentient beings, including animals.
Professor Aviv: There’s one question, which is really intriguing to me and I believe that it has become quite relevant in recent days. Just recently President Obama announced here at GWU that he is going to ask for major funding to be allocated for research on the brain. We have learned more about the human brain in the last few decades than in the thousands of the years before that put together. So it is now a time of really exciting developments and Tibetan Buddhist monks have contributed to our understanding of these topics through their willingness to participate in this research, particularly in the realm and understanding of resolute meditation.
Philosophically, however, I think this opens up a really interesting question. As time goes by, it seems that what we in the West used to call the mind or the soul, is more and more being considered to be located within the brain. We still call this intentional aspect of our being, our ability to feel, think, and believe in things, the mind, but the modern view is that a lot of these aspects are rooted in the physical nature of the brain. In the past, we viewed the body and the mind as entirely separate entities; today we know that they are closely interrelated. Many philosophers and scientists today, view the mind as a function of matter, a sort of byproduct of the brain, or else they equate mind and brain as being essentially indistinguishable from one another
So I want to ask about this philosophical tension between what we call physicalism or a physically oriented understanding of the mind as matter versus the more traditional concept of distinguishing between the two. The Buddhist position seems to support the dualistic view, but yet grants that the two share a subtle interrelatedness. My question is whether we can justify accepting this subtle form of dualism, or whether Buddhism should reevaluate its traditional doctrine in light of what we have learned from science and neuroscience in particular.
Khenpo Sodargye: It’s difficult to answer this question fully in the short amount of time that we have allotted to us here today. But I will respond to your question by saying that at our institute, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro once wrote a book titled, On Previous and Present Life, in which he collected numerous case studies of people who remembered their previous lives. Also at our institute, H. E. Tulku Tenzin Gyatso, wrote a book in which he discussed brain neuroscience within the context of Buddhist Tantra. As we know, the Buddha addressed this topic extensively within the framework of the Tantra teachings.
So briefly speaking, I think the viewpoint of scientists who believe that mind is nothing more than a byproduct or a function of the brain, fail to recognize the fact that the mind exists independently of the body and these two are demonstrably distinct and separate from each other. The brain is a part of the human body, and it is certainly able to affect human emotions and thoughts, but granting this does not mean that the mind is nothing more than a product of the brain. The scientists, who propose this view, fail to recognize the independent existence of mind and body, in some part, because of their lack of knowledge about reincarnation, a subject that is explained in Buddhist scriptures in great detail.
If one does not accept reincarnation, there are then many facts that are difficult to understand. For instance, why are there dozens of cases where people have been kept alive physically without active brain tissue? In China, a chicken went on living for over three months after its head was cut off! Such a thing would be impossible if the mind and brain were a single inseparable conduit. Furthermore, there are cases of people in whom, no neural activity is detected and yet they are still alive. In fact, Buddhism holds, not only that the mind continues from this life to following lives, but that in many cases, the mind can actually recall its previous incarnations.
Nevertheless, scientists do need further investigation and study on the nature of mind, and it is encouraging that President Obama supports more funding for brain science research. It is likely however, that if scientists ignore the inner realms and do not seek to take advantage of the insight gained by the ancient Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, it is unlikely that they will arrive at the truth by simply relying on instruments that examine and measure the material elements of the external world. I personally believe that Shakyamuni Buddha taught us a science of mind that does a good job of explaining the relation between the mind and body, one that, if approached with a spirit of true inquiry, could easily clear up all the current lingering speculation on this issue. To offer a brief summary, I would say that the brain to some extent is undoubtedly connected to the mind, the soul and to life itself, yet the fact of this connection does not mean that the brain is the source of any one of them.
Professor Aviv: Thank you. As you have mentioned, this can only serve as a beginning to a far longer conversation. As we do have only a limited amount of time remaining, and as you have quite a busy day today, I think it’s time to move on to Khenpo’s questions.
The brain is a part of the human body, and it is certainly able to affect human emotions and thoughts, but granting this does not mean that the mind is nothing more than a product of the brain. The scientists, who propose this view, fail to recognize the independent existence of mind and body, in some part, because of their lack of knowledge about reincarnation, a subject that is explained in Buddhist scriptures in great detail.
The Tibetan Code of Happiness
Khenpo Sodargye: One thing that I am interested in is why there are so many Westerners these days, who seem to have such a tremendous appreciation and respect for Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture? Even within our own Tibetan population, there are many well-educated Tibetan people, including teachers and scholars, who do not share this degree of passionate interest in their own culture. So my question is, as you are a learned professor at a respected Western university, what is your opinion on why there is such interest in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the West? And would you mind describing your own approach to the study and practice of Buddhism?
Professor Aviv: First I definitely agree with you. Even in my own lifetime, during the period of time that I have spent studying Buddhism, I’ve seen a tremendous growth of interest in the study of Tibetan Buddhism. As for my own efforts, I first began to study Buddhism in Thailand, then went on to China, where I became immersed in the study of Chinese Buddhism. Eventually, I discovered a deep passion and interest in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.
I think, generally speaking, that there is a growing interest among westerners in Tibetan Buddhism, because, it seems to me and to a lot other westerners, that Tibetan Buddhism has an ethical alignment with the structure and framework of Western philosophy, Western religion and Western science.
For example, the inquiry into the nature of the mind, similar to the discussion that we just had, seems to be a subject of greater exploration in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism than it is in the traditions of those lands farther east. Many of the considerations of modernism seem to correspond to themes and topics that have been extensively explored by Tibetan Buddhists for many centuries.
I also believe that, among the general population in the West, there is a kind of popular image that Tibetan Buddhism can teach the ability to deal with the stresses of modern life, and that within its ancient theological traditions, one can find the meaning of true happiness in life.
When many Westerners encounter Tibetan Buddhist teachers, either superficially or at a more profound level, they find that these master practitioners really do possess inherent qualities of simplicity, kindness, compassion and happiness. The influx of Tibetan teachers, like yourself, and others who have come to the West, have made a deep impression on a great number of people and this has led to many of these people becoming students and practitioners in the hope that they may also gain these qualities
It also seems to me that part of what is happening now, as regards the study of Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism in the West, is that we are moving into a more mature phase. During the earlier decades of interaction, the West had a childlike fascination and an idealized vision of what Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture was all about, which I think resulted in an unrealistic picture that was based entirely on how we wanted to see Tibetan Buddhism, rather than a true understanding of what Buddhism is really about.
This misunderstanding led to many debates regarding Buddhist trends and traditions. I believe, though, as time has gone by, that we are now moving towards a more nuanced appreciation of Tibetan Buddhism and of the way that Buddhism, in general, is developing and evolving today. Part of this shift is the very intensive effort that is now underway to translate as many original texts as possible. Along with these efforts, a number of recent anthropologic studies in Tibetan communities are being conducted to study how cultural, and/or Buddhist practices are integrated into everyday life.
Khenpo Sodargye: Yes, I believe that your opinion on the appeal of Tibetan Buddhism is correct. Though I am not that familiar with Western psychology, I know that in Mainland China, many people were initially attracted to Tibetan Buddhism purely out of curiosity. Later, when they had tasted some of the benefits of its practice, they began to develop a genuine faith in it. They have become practitioners because they now know Tibetan Buddhism can bring them true happiness. This supports my belief that your perspective is accurate.
This brings me to my next question. You’ve asked me to talk about the Tibetan Code of Happiness this afternoon and I wonder how you decided to choose this topic?
Professor Aviv: The reason that I chose this subject is that I believe that this is a universal question for all people. I think that, in one way or another, we are all looking for the code to happiness. I am originally from Israel, and I know that this topic would be very relevant there, as I think would also be true if we were in China, or in any other place in the world. I think that as humans we all want to be happy. And going back to our previous discussion on vegetarianism, I think the same can be said to be true about the pursuit of happiness for other sentient beings as well. So, for this reason, I think that there is a growing concern, and a growing interest in the question of what really makes us happy.
For a long time, people maintained the ethos that the more we progress, the technology that we develop will help us to deal with what we think causes suffering, and thus we will become happier. But, I think that people are now beginning to ask themselves whether progress will really bring them happiness or whether it will only add more to their suffering. This has become an iconic philosophical question in the West that has been around since the Age of Enlightenment. It is so much a part of Western consciousness that it was written into the founding documents of the United States in the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence as the inalienable right to pursue happiness. So it really is a part of the DNA of this culture and of this country. I feel, and I think, that it has become even more important recently, as I see more people writing about it, more people asking about happiness, and the demand for a more specific answer that will help people deal with the specific challenges of this time and culture.
Khenpo Sodargye: Professor Aviv, it seems that both you and I would like to continue having this kind of discussion, and today has been a good start for us. We Tibetans attach great importance to dependent origination and so I hope that we will be able to continue these kinds of conversations in the near future. I want to add that I really appreciate many of the things that you have said today and of the deep consideration that you have obviously given to your thoughts and ideas.
I have had a personal and keen interest in discourse and study since a very young age and have truly enjoyed and valued this opportunity and hope that we will have more opportunities to continue this discussion in the days to come.
Of course, given just a couple of hours, it is really quite challenging to adequately address these interesting and compelling issues. While I am happy to be able to share my knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism with you, and sincerely hope that it will be helpful to you as you pursue your studies, I must also add that this has been a very productive and informative discussion for me, as well, and so I want to thank you for having invited me here to be your guest.
Professor Aviv: Thank you so much for your kind words. I also share your hope that this will be the first of many such opportunities to meet, and that today will be the prologue to many discussions to come. Looking over the very long and distinguished list of books that you have published in China, I know that you have much more to say about all of those issues and I certainly plan to make an effort to read some of the many books that you have written so as to be better prepared for our next meeting. Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me. It has truly been a privilege and an honor.
I personally believe that Shakyamuni Buddha taught us a science of mind that does a good job of explaining the relation between the mind and body, one that, if approached with a spirit of true inquiry, could easily clear up all the current lingering speculation on this issue. To offer a brief summary, I would say that the brain to some extent is undoubtedly connected to the mind, the soul and to life itself, yet the fact of this connection does not mean that the brain is the source of any one of them.