Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ethics of Emptiness: Part Three

Emptiness and Ethics

In the prior posts, I have discussed emptiness from an ultimate level, and ethics from a conventional level. Even in a universe where there is no ultimate right or wrong, the flow of the Tao favors the ethical person for spiritual advancement.

It was asked earlier: if there is no ultimate relation between cause and effect, what drives karma? Behind this, I detected the question, if the universe is empty, why be good?

The answer is that the Tao favors the virtuous. In fact, the word Te, εΎ·, means on one level virtue. Other Taoists have interpreted Te to also mean the Tao of the microcosm. It is sometimes said that everything has its own te. It makes sense to take virtue as the fruit of one's inner te. Just as all phenomenon are rooted in the Tao, so all our actions are rooted in our te.

The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38 talks about Te:

Therefore, the Tao is lost, and then virtue
Virtue is lost, and then benevolence
Benevolence is lost, and then righteousness
Righteousness is lost, and then etiquette

This is a map of the loss of true Te. The chain goes Tao --> Te --> Benevolence (Kindness) --> Righteousness (Justice) --> Etiquette (Ritual). (The words in parenthesis are Red Pine's translations.)

If we were to reverse the process, we might start with empty formality, then go to fairness, then kindness, then finally return to true Te. In a sense, one can see precepts or ethics as a sort of training. Having lost the natural accord with the Tao, and the wisdom to act, we have to follow these rules. This is like attaching training wheels to the bike. After a while, following moral rules should give rise in us a sense of fairness. This is more of a "feel" for how things should be.

Righteousness or Justice still has a gap between ourselves and others. It is a sense of objectivity, treating people impartially, like objects. This is something our courts often aim to do. But the next step is where it becomes more organic: Benevolence or Kindness. In my experience, true compassion comes from seeing others as ourselves--- it is a result of empathy. Once we know what it is like to be hurt, to suffer, to lose, to be stupid and wrong, we know exactly what others are going through when we them suffer, or lose.

Beyond this, one returns to true Te, then to the Tao.

One who has regained the true Te no longer needs rules. In fact, if we look at Zen classics, we often see Masters acting in strange ways. They may break the precepts, beat their students, or do things that seem odd to us. This include Gutei cutting off a boy's finger or Nansen killing a car in the Mumonkan.

In my mind, they are acting according to Te--- the right response in the right situation. This goes beyond simple moral codes or rules. What is right in one place may be wrong in another. In order to know the difference, we must develop wisdom.

When we hear of Taoists say that morality is unnatural, they are right. Moral codes are rigid rules imposed on us. They are not naturally arising morality. But we need to follow them until we recover our natural sense of morality. In our current state, we are lost, deluded, and confused. What we might think it natural is acting on impulse. As the saying goes, we must first learn to walk, often using external props and supports, before we can run. But once we learn to run, it would be ridiculous to use the props and supports we used before. Training wheels help us to learn to ride a bike, but once we have it, they just slow us down.

This is dangerous because it makes it impossible to judge the actions of enlightened beings. This reasoning has been used to cover up many horrible things in spiritual circles: gurus and masters sexually abusing their students, stealing money, or covering up drug and alcohol addictions. One should always keep one's common sense and knowledge of the ways of the world, especially with a teacher.

Lao Tzu's map shows us the way from rigid moral codes to a free, natural virtue. This can be seen not only in individual cases, but in societies and cultures. A society may start with a rigid and inflexible moral code, proceed to one motivated by justice and fairness, then one of love and compassion. Finally, we would have a society of enlightened beings, acting according to their natures.

This verse is the bridge between ethics and emptiness.

Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin

No comments:

Post a Comment