We Need a New Moral Praxis

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The Buddha

A useful definition of “praxis” is “the practical application of a theory.” We actually need a new moral theory as well as a new moral praxis to implement that theory.

The default moral theory for most people in the United States is the Christian concept of “sin.” A sin is an act — or thought, in some versions — that violates a rule of the supposedly omnipotent deity Christians believe exists. Somewhere. To violate the rules of this deity is to risk consignment to hell, the worst place possible, for eternity.

This theory clearly does not work very well. It never has. The historical evidence overwhelmingly indicates that very few Christians, especially not in large groups, have ever much refrained from violating the rules of their deity.

They sin a lot.

The problem is that the whole system and its components are too abstract. Even if you believe this deity exists, there is no concrete evidence to show its existence to humans. Some people claim to communicate directly with this deity.

Depending on the context, other people might regard such claims as amusing or a bit odd, or, in the case of Anne Hutchinson in colonial Massachusetts, as reason for banishment from the colony, which could easily result in death. Anne survived, first in the neighboring colony of Rhode Island and later on Long Island. But the prosecution and persecution she endured was typical for how Puritans governed their colony.

So the deity who supposedly sets and enforces the rules is entirely abstract. So is the punishment. You only get what’s coming to you after you die, and that for eternity, which is also an entirely abstract concept.

Then, of course, depending on whom you ask, you can alter the decisions of this omnipotent deity with the right help from the right humans. One of the many practices people objected to that led to the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was the selling of indulgences. You could pay the Church to escape the consequences of your sins. You could buy off the omnipotent deity, or so the institution that claimed to be the only authoritative interpreter of what the deity wanted on earth told people.

It’s been a little over five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, but the consequences still play out. Ending the Catholic Church’s moral and intellectual monopoly in Europe was all to the good, as it allowed people to start thinking in new ways about all manner of problems.

The Buddha’s ideas predate the life of Jesus, the guy who inspired Christianity, so they were always available, but originated thousands of miles away from Europe, and so did not much make it to the outpost of European culture that is the United States, with its hegemonic Christianity, until the 20th century.

But the Buddha’s moral theory is far more convincing and effective than the Christian theory. In terms of consequences, it is much more concrete and specific. The Buddha just said that, if you behave yourself, you will be happy. If you misbehave, you will be unhappy. He offered five basic precepts: don’t harm anyone, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t engage in irresponsible sexual activity, and avoid intoxicants. Those of us who may have violated some of these precepts with abandon earlier in our lives can recall the unpleasant effects — hangovers, STDs, and various more or less immediate punishments from our parents or other authority figures.

The core operating principle of the Buddha’ s theory, karma, is pretty abstract, but it is abstract in the way that gravity is abstract. No one can see it, but we can see its effects. The effects of karma are usually not quite as clear as people often make them out to be. They can occur in a lifetime after the offending events occurred. Adolph Hitler killed himself in his bunker as Soviet troops were entering Berlin, thus avoiding punishment by other humans during his lifetime.

Under some versions of Christian moral theory, had Hitler accepted Jesus as his savior just before he shot himself, he went directly to heaven for eternity.

Under the Buddhist theory of karma, he got, and may still be getting, his just desserts for leading a political regime that deliberately killed millions of people. Imagine him having many lifetimes as a cockroach — reviled, stomped on, sprayed with lethal chemicals, generally suffering miserably as his just reward for his murderous regime as a human.

The other great advantage of Buddhism is that it offers a very concrete practice anyone can take up that leads to greater understanding and compassion for all beings, meditation. Meditation works better if one starts by committing to the five precepts first, but one can start meditating and work on the precepts as they go.

Also, in Buddhism, you always have another chance to start over and do better. From the time of the Buddha comes the famous story of Angulimala. Angulimala was a murderer who cut fingers from his victims and wore them strung as a necklace. A teacher whom he held in high esteem assigned this task to him and set for him the goal of killing one thousand people. He needed only one more finger to reach his goal when he saw the Buddha walking in the forest and decided to make the Buddha his final victim.

The Buddha, using the powers that come with complete awakening, continued walking in a way that prevented Anglimala from catching him, despite his best efforts. Finally, Angulimala called out to the Buddha, “Monk, stop!” The Buddha replied, “I have stopped, Anglimala, you should stop.” This statement had the effect of literally stopping Angulimala, physically and mentally, and caused him to become a student of the Buddha and achieve complete enlightenment.

This is a story of complete redemption within one lifetime. It nicely illustrates how much more concrete and immediate is the moral theory of Buddhism.

The world will be a much more peaceful, calm, boring place if everyone adopts the simple rule of behaving to be happy in this lifetime.

Please help spread the word.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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