Practical Wisdom, Dharma, and Ethical Guidelines

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The above presentation by Barry Schwartz is a complementary reflection regarding the Eido Shimano situation, dharma, and ethical guidelines.  Schwartz suggests that neither rules nor incentives move us to what we really want – for ourselves and others to serve the greater good. They’re necessary but the exercise of “practical wisdom,” he says, is better:

“There is a collective dissatisfaction with the way things run…. Even as we do our own work, all too often, we find ourselves having to choose between doing what we think is the right thing and doing the expected thing, or the required thing or the profitable thing…. We worry that the people we depend on don’t really have our interests at heart or if they do, they don’t know us well enough to figure out to allow us to secure those interests…. There are two kinds of responses to this general dissatisfaction.  The first response is let’s make more rules…. And [the second is,] let’s come up with particularly clever incentives….”

Neither carrots nor sticks, however, work all that well. There’s always a seam in the rule and incentives often reward the surface behavior but not the deeper purpose. 

Schwartz is into Aristotle and talks about how Aristotle was into watching craftsman do their work. When stone masons needed to measure round columns but had only wooden rulers, they came up with the measuring tape – and bent the rule. 

Although the expression now has the nuance of being self-serving – bending the rule to suit one’s selfish interests – originally it expressed flexibility and practicality in serving our purpose for others.  Aristotle and Schwartz call this “practical wisdom.” 

In Buddhism, this is “dharma” in the sense of how to do things – like the dharma of eating breakfast – seamlessly with the other meanings of dharma (truth, teaching, and phenomena). 

Practical wisdom as a practice is “clear comprehension” (or sampajañña) which the Buddha almost always pairs with mindfulness. There are four aspects to the clear comprehension reflection:

  • purpose (Pāli: sātthaka): refraining from activities irrelevant to the path.
  • suitability (sappāya): pursuing activities in a dignified and careful manner.
  • domain (gocara):[11] maintaining sensory restraint consistent with mindfulness.
  • non-delusion (asammoha): seeing the true nature of reality 

 In Zen communities, it seems to me, we have a great possibility of not only having ethical guidelines (click here for the Boundless Way draft that are well done, imv) but also creating a culture together where ethical reflection is the warp and woof of community life. 

Real ethical reflection and living a creative life cannot occur when traditional power is predominant (the tyranny of the autocrat). Nor can it occur when group think is pervasive. This is “modern power” where the group acts as the authority, prescribing and enforcing norms (which can become the tyranny of the collective). I’m concerned the Zen Studies Society and Eido Shimano incident will push American Zen even further into this mode of relationship. It’s an improvement, of course, to traditional power and the attendant abuses (see the comments to the last post), however, it isn’t the ideal.

The ideal, imv, would be to come together as responsible beings, tolerant of others’ narratives, and reflect open-heartedly about how to apply practical wisdom in whatever situation we are presented with. This is what I regard as post-modern power and is an on-going way of being, not a call for more committees or discussion groups.  

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