Friday, August 23, 2013

The Brahmavihāras as Applied to Life

The brahmavihāras (the "divine abodes") are core ethical principles in Buddhism that are meant to shape the way a Buddhist would be in the world. Buddhist cultivate these principles as a matter of answering that age old question, "who ought I to be, what ought I to do?"

The brahmavihāras, in their simplest form, are:


  1. loving-kindness—the sincere wish for, and thus dedication to, others having all that they need for happiness
  2. compassion—the sincere wish, and thus dedication to, others being free from causes of suffering
  3. empathetic joy—the sincere reveling in the happiness, success, and good fortune of others
  4. equanimity—embracing life, the world, and being for just what it is


If one is committed to the brahmavihāras, is it not necessary to renounce at least the following things?


  1. objectifying practices (monogamy, pornography, neo-liberalism)
  2. harmful rituals of habit (environmental destruction, animal torture, corporeal self-destructiveness)
  3. realism, nihilism, relativism


objectification and instrumentalization are incompatible with the brahmavihāras  because the brahmavihāras take as the object of their activity sentient beings (and certainly, at the least, other human beings). objectification and instrumentalization proceed on the basis of a category error whereby one mistakes a type of thing in the world, (A), with a fundamentally different type, (B), where (A) is a being who can suffer and/or flourish, who can act and react to the environment, and who we can vicariously relate to and/or emulate and (B) is a material, a resource, or an object, all of which are amenable to manipulation and implementation, and which cannot suffer, flourish, react reflexively to its environment, nor serve as bases for vicariosity or emulation. objectification and instrumentalization are incompatible with the brahmavihāras because, at the least, should such a category error be permitted, one can take materials, objects, and resources as objects of karuna or maitri or otherwise exclude certain beings as appropriate objects of brahmavihāra activity.

harmful rituals of habit are, by definition, harmful and thus incompatible with the brahmavihāras  the costs incurred in capitulating to the impulses of an insatiable appetite, to the routines of cultural coining, or to the proclivities of an unsustainable self are costs that many others, present and future, will incur. the brahmavihāras preclude the possibility of forcing others to subsidize one's own harmful rituals of habit.

in a postmodern (esp. post-Nietzschean/Foucauldian) milieu, it is an inescapable fact of the matter that knowledge and power are ineluctably co-imbricated. the brahmavihāras preclude the possibility of functioning according to reified identities owing to the epistemic violence these identities entail. mistaking the absence of an essential identity for the non-existence of a self is nihilism, a perspective that comes with its own forms of epistemic violence (e.g. fascism).  vicious relativism asymptotically approaches nihilism.

as to these categories, the question becomes one of how to engage with life in ways that participate wholly in the spirit of the brahmavihāras  for example, if the standard approach to relationships is one that objectifies and instrumentalizes others, how can one engage in intimate, caring, and erotic relations with others in a manner that leaves aside objectification and instrumentalization? can erotic cinema, even films that depict explicit sex, be created and consumed in ways that do not feed objectification? of course they can! there merely needs to be a conscientious effort to do so. can one eat foods and get around town in ways that conscientiously avoid the horrors of factory farming and carbon monoxide poisoning? certainly! and such self-destructive habits that are likely to force hardship on future others are clearly diametric to the commitments one makes when shaping oneself according to the brahmavihāras.