Practical Wisdom, Dharma, and Ethical Guidelines

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.  

Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
The Way of Tenderness: the Form and Emptiness of Race, Sexuality, and Gender
  • Larry

    "The individual abusers, and the institutions who failed in their duty of care, are responsible, and they have to be made responsible and held responsible at all costs in the interests of potential victims."How do we hold "them" responsible?"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.How do all of "us" come together?"Only by attaining together and witnessing together can there be mutual realization."Who will be the last bodhisattva to cross to the other shore?Mouths hanging in the air.This one can not see how this can be or ever will be done. The glass is half empty. No?

  • Harry

    Hi Larry,"How do we hold "them" responsible?"Well, by whatever means seem appropriate to us (not just 'us' as some group of sappy well-wishers snug in our redundant little opinions and ideals, but we individual actors or 'won't-actors'). "Them" are specific real people who did things and/or failed to do things that directly resulted in said wrongs within named institutions long after it was known abuses of power were afoot. Sure, we can do the whole social model of "we're all responsible for this to some degree" but, let's keep it real too… otherwise there may be no change and people may remain at risk and nobody will be held accountable when it happens again, and again, and again… which it will, but I suppose it's a question of how much we are willing to tolerate that on 'our watch'.This is a timely conversation for me as just the other day I was sent an article from a Catholic Church rag written by a Jesuit who was (ab)using a social perspective on clerical abuse trying (at the very least) to fudge the very real issue of individual accountability and, at worst, suggesting that we should all collectively feel guilty for the crimes and neglect of those in positions of power who should have put a stop to it long after it was known to be happening.I'm afraid for the apologetic bigwigs everywhere that a hierarchy of insight into the secret 'workings' of an org, and inequalities in power and privilege, inevitably must bring with them a hierarchy of responsibility when the shit hits the fan in a very public way: Whoever had most power and most knowledge of the situation is most responsible… now, watch them wriggle to the contrary.Regards,Harry.

  • Larry

    This is some kind of a very hard koan. All answers have been exhausted many times for many years and yet everything continues, both good and bad. This is real suffering for everyone.Eido must be removed as he has been. Lives have been hurt and they must be pacthed up as best as can be done. The way continues. The necessity to leave this suffering is real for all to see. Nothing else makes any sense.