Spiritual Education in the Twenty-First Century: Ethics, Mindfulness, and Skillfulness

A public conversation between Prof. Deborah Orr and Galen Watts

By Rohit Revi

“Action based in wisdom/prajna and compassion/karuna is moral action. Enlightenment is living a moral life based on moral actions.”

On the 7th of March 2018, the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory organized its fourth public conversation. Dr. Deborah Orr (Associate Professor at York University) spoke with Galen Watts (PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University) about Spirituality, one of the four grounding themes that are central to SNCLab.

Watts, in his introductory note, acknowledged that conversations on spirituality can often devolve into ambiguity and a lack of clarity. However, he considers those conversations to be valuable, as they directly relate to questions of meaning, purpose and ultimately, what it means to be human. While our reigning global challenges definitely have political, ecological, and economic dimensions, according to Watts, they also have, crucially, spiritual dimensions. Therefore, at the face of the ecological and psychosocial concerns of the 21st century that manifest at a global scale, it becomes important to critically engage with the Eastern and Western traditions of spiritual thought. It was a synthetic engagement of that order that Prof. Orr offered, during the course of her talk, which she titled The Naturalness of Buddhist Spirituality: Natural but not Easy. Through an eclectic engagement with primatology, the historical Buddha’s teachings, the philosophy of Nagarjuna, works by Thich Nhat Hanh and works within the tradition of European Continental philosophy, while simultaneously also referring to popular figures such as George Orwell, Marvin Gaye and Bruce Springsteen, Prof. Orr demonstrated three important arguments –

  1. Human beings are fundamentally spiritual beings, with a natural capability to be empathetic and consequently compassionate.
  2. Meditation practice can lead us to drop the impediments to a life grounded in compassion and wisdom.3
  3. Human suffering is deeply interconnected with environmental and other forms of suffering which we can address through skillful means/upaya kasula.

Orr began by invoking a specific sequence within the first chapter of Orwell’s 1984, where a “curious emotion stirred in Winston’s heart” as he saw his enemy fall on her injured, bandaged arm. To him, it was “as though he felt the pain in his own body” causing him to immediately identify with her. For Prof. Orr, this instinctive, embodied and non-cognitive affect, what we call empathy, is not only fundamentally spiritual but also a natural capacity of humans. To be empathetic is a crucial capability that human beings have inherited from our ancestors through the course of evolutionary change. While empathy occupies a position of central importance in the works of primatologists like Frans De Waal, Orr argued that it had not been attended to by academic or empirical enquiry at large until recently. It is now recognized as broadly important for humanity, for instance for pro-social behavior and language acquisition. With regard to moral behavior she referenced Carol Gilligan’s research on moral development in In A Different Voice which found that girls are socialized to utilize empathy in their relationships and moral decision making while boys are socialized to repress empathy although further research showed they, too, have access to it. It is in this context that she introduced the relevance of the Buddhist spiritual traditions, focussing specifically on the teachings of the Buddha.

Once the Buddha attained Enlightenment, she submits, he dropped some aspects of Yoga, which he had practiced, that he considered irrelevant to the process of realization. For example, he no longer referred to Purusa, the transcendental dimension of Yogic dualism, while conserving the material, cognitive, affective and spiritual dimensions of human experience. It is crucial, she explained, that for the Buddha Enlightenment existed only in the here-and-now, in the world as we live in and experience it. The experience of the here-and-now is the natural human experience. Orr proceeded to contextualize her initial argument that empathy is a fundamentally natural and spiritual human capability, within this reading of the Buddhism.

One of the Buddha’s early childhood experiences, one that is often referenced, speaks of his empathetic experience of relationship with even the blades of grass and insects that were harmed during a ploughing ceremony. This experience is recounted in an early Sutta,

I thought of the time when my Sakyan father was working and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose apple tree: quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unwholesome things, I had entered upon and abode in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born out of seclusion. I thought, could that be the path to enlightenment? Then, following on that memory, came the realisation: This was the path to enlightenment.

Through this account we may begin to consider the experience of Enlightenment, the process of emancipation from suffering, as both a natural and a fundamentally empathetic process. Here, Orr first drew the attention of the audience to the Buddha’s diagnosis of psycho-spiritual suffering, before connecting it with planetary suffering at large.

In Buddhism suffering is caused primarily by kleshas/impediments that primarily result from our socialization in the world. Buddhism identifies three kleshas: avidya/ delusion, raga/attachment and dvesa/aversion. Avidya is the root klesha, the foundation of all suffering. The root delusion signified by avidya is a delusion about the self, one that manifests psycho-spiritually through our inability to come to terms with our material mortality. This manifests as a mainly non-conscious attachment to the belief that one’s self is a reified ‘thing’, that it has ‘self-existence’. To be emancipated from suffering is to drop our attachment to the kleshas, most especially the root delusion of a reified self. She recommended David Loy’s paper “Avoiding the Void” as a good introduction to this.

The Buddha articulated the Four Noble Truths which give the source of suffering and the way to our freedom from suffering/dukkha caused by the kleshas.  Orr noted that the Buddha’s Truths are the heuristic of a therapeutic model:

  1. Diagnosis: human life is suffering/dukkha.
  2. Etiology: the 3 kleshas are the origin of suffering: avidya/delusion, the acquired sense-of-self or ego is the root delusion; raga/ attachment or clinging to ‘things’ such as the reified self; dvesa/ avoidance of that which we reject, for instance death which is the loss of the reified self.
  3. Prognosis: suffering can be overcome.
  4. Treatment: a life lived in accord with the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

The treatment (#4 above) is meant to be a way of being, a complete way of life. “Right” here is determined by circumstances. There is no universal principal, such as modern era ethical principles, or any form of absolute which is applicable to all cases. One must determine the ‘right’ way based on their karuna/compassion and prajna/wisdom.

The Buddha was clear that he never taught anything beyond his experience and this is summarized in the Four Noble Truths.

The Anapanasati Sutta, deals not with the ‘mind’ in the Western sense nor simply with the breath but with what we might analytically call the four aspects of the person. In the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ section the Buddha guides his followers through four cycles of mindfulness in each of which one of the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the focal point. These four are the body, the mental formations (i.e. sensations or feelings), the mind and impermanence. This process is not one of dealing cognitively with each of the Foundations but rather simply developing a focused, sustained awareness. With an ongoing practice one can learn to understand the kleshas they cling to and, in this process they begin to lose their hold on one’s life. There is a wide range of forms of these klesas in addition to the root delusion, for example the importance of success, defined as the acquisition of wealth, power and status as human fulfillment; that commodities will give you happiness; that your body does not measure up to standards of beauty, so you must buy product X; and many others. As one divests themselves of these attachments one’s ability for empathy is freed and, importantly, one’s insight into their own condition can contribute to the development of the wisdom/prajna which is necessary for moral action. The most difficult delusion to let go of is the identification with the reified self but in doing so all self/other dichotomies are overcome and one experiences interconnectedness/ pratitya samutpada.

At this juncture, Orr proceeded to develop this conceptual model of psycho-spiritual suffering and the conditions of emancipation to a scale of planetary interconnectedness. To do this she drew primarily from the Madhyamaka or Middle Way philosophical work of Nagarjuna which is widely accepted across the schools of Buddhism. Nagarjuna, she noted, belongs to a philosophical tradition shared by Socrates and Wittgenstein: they all hold that misunderstandings of language can be highly detrimental to human life and consequently the necessity for a critical examination of the relationships between language and life. In addition to this Nagarjuna, like the Buddha, held that practice is necessary for liberation. Philosophy on its own is inadequate although it can be useful in providing intellectual understanding which may help to loosen the hold of harmful ideation. Thus, he held that, “The cessation of ignorance occurs through, meditation and wisdom.” in consequence of which, “The entire mass of suffering, indeed thereby completely ceases.” (MMK XXVI: 11, 12)

Western articulations of Buddhist thought frequently misrepresent the meaning of key terms. For example, Sunyata is often translated as a mere emptiness, while Orr reminded us that it signifies a specific kind of emptiness – emptiness of essence. It does not mean that things do not exist in the ordinary sense of that word, nor does it result in nihilism. With this caution, she drew our attention to the principle of pratitya samutpada which is usually accurately translated as dependent co-arising or by Thich Nhat Hanh’s widely used “interbeing”.

Pratitya samutpada signifies interconnectedness, that human being is deeply inter-connected, ultimately with all else. Once the root delusion of self-existence is dropped the experience of pratitya samutpada is realized. The notion of pratitya samutpada is antithetical to the Hobbesean model of the atomized, individualized human subject that dominates much of current Western, social, political and economic theory as well as individual self-understanding. It also rejects the Cartesian position that humans and only humans have cogito, that is awareness, the ability to think and understand. Consequently, only humans have moral worth. All else, including culturally inferiorized humans, nature and animals, is designated Other and subject to human use. In his discussion of pratitya samutpada in his in Money, Sex, War, Karma David Loy says, “Understood properly, our taking care of the earth’s rainforest is like me taking care of my own leg.” In other words, what we do to the earth or other beings, we do to ourselves.

With this focus on connectedness, Orr resonates with Prof. Miller’s argument at the conversation on Pedagogy, that human flourishing is fundamentally tied to planetary flourishing. For Orr, this state of dependent co-arising also has important significance for moral behaviour and speaks directly to our natural capability for empathy. She quoted the Japanese Zen Master Dogen,

To study the Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.

This state of being “actualized by myriad things” is the realization of our fundamental interconnectedness. We do not exist as reified autonomous entities but arise out of the inter-relationships of all things and so are not ‘bodies and minds’ separate from all else. Orr signalled that this realization is fundamental to compassion or karuna, a deep sense of empathy which is non-cognitive connection, with the universe of interbeing. Thus, all suffering affects us and also relates to our natural capability for empathy. This realization manifests itself in the actions we take to address that suffering.

Here she refered to Masao Abe, who argues that, “intellectual understanding without practice is powerless, but practice without learning is apt to be blind.”

What would an empathetic practice look like in the face of environmental or psychosocial suffering? To answer this Orr references John Schroder’s book Skillful Means: The Heart of Buddhist Compassion where he argues that, “[T]he Buddha knew it would be useless to preach universally or speak as if everyone were the same. He knew that if he wanted to help others he would need to be sensitive to the karmic differences of human beings and mold his teachings to their level” (p. 2). So, for instance, in dealing with someone who is angry or defensive, he could see the pain and insecurity that lay beneath their overt behavior and proceed accordingly. In this way the practice can help us to develop upaya kasula/skillful means, the wisdom and compassion to find the most efficacious course of action in our dealings with others. With other issues, for instance global warming or poverty, one’s compassionate response must be informed by intellectual knowledge and skills in order to be efficacious.

In the era of consumerism, environmental degradation and the attention economy, grounding our moral action in our natural empathy, while sustaining a mindfulness of our interconnectedness, is a potentially powerful way forward for actualizing our hopes for liberation from psychosocial, spiritual and planetary suffering. In the words of Jay Garfield in his translation of and commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, “Nirvana is not found in an escape from the world but in an enlightened and awakened engagement with it.”

Thus, developing our spirituality involves developing our empathetic being in the here-and-now which will articulate itself through our actions in the here-and-now. Action based in wisdom/prajna and coming from compassion/karuna is moral action. Enlightenment is living a moral life based in moral actions.




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