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 navigates the world. Buddhists cultivate these principles as a matter of answering that age old question, "who ought I to be, what ought I to do?"

In simple form, the brahmavihāras are:

  1. loving-kindness (maitrī)—the sincere wish for (and thus dedication to) others having all that they need for happiness
  2. compassion (karuṇā)—the sincere wish (and thus dedication to) others being free from causes of suffering
  3. empathetic joy (muditā)—the sincere reveling in the happiness, success, and good fortune of others
  4. equanimity (upekṣā)—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 through refined sugar, alcohol, etc.)
  3. realism, nihilism, relativism (attitudes fundamental to the propagation of various social harms)

Objectification (treating people like objects) and instrumentalization (treating people like tools) 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 one type of thing in the world with a fundamentally different type. A sentient being is a type of thing in the world who can suffer and/or flourish, who can act and react to its environment, and who we can vicariously relate to and/or emulate. A non-sentient thing is a material, a resource, or an object. This type of thing is freely available for manipulation and implementation, and cannot suffer, flourish, react reflexively to its environment, nor serve as a mirror, as a basis for vicarious experience. And from a Buddhist perspective, objectification and instrumentalization are incompatible with the brahmavihāras because, at the least, should such a category error be permitted, one could then take materials, objects, and resources as objects of karuṇā or maitrī and/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 appetite, to the routines of cultural coining, or to the proclivities of an unsustainable self are costs that many others, both present and future, will incur. The brahmavihāras preclude the possibility of forcing others to subsidize one’s own harmful rituals of habit.

In this postmodern milieu, it is undeniable that knowledge and power are inextricably co-imbricated. Do not, then, the brahmavihāras preclude the possibility of functioning in blanket deference to reified identities? Does not such strong attachment entail an ineluctable form of epistemic violence? However, 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). And vicious relativism asymptotically approaches nihilism.

The question for Buddhist moderns is one of how to engage with life in ways that participate wholly in the spirit of the brahmavihāras. For example, if the standard courtship, dating, and marriage model in the USA 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? If so, how is it possible to foment a massive conscientious demand for such? Can one eat foods and get around town in ways that conscientiously avoid the horrors of factory farming and carbon monoxide poisoning? These are but a sliver of a fraction of the self-destructive habits that are likely to force hardship on future others, habits that are unambiguously diametric to the commitments one makes when shaping oneself according to the brahmavihāras.

Buddhist moderns: to what extent are each of the various widespread attitudes and habits that you participate in (and therefore bolster/proliferate) transgressions of samaya? To what extent is this aspect or that of your lifestyle an infraction, breach, or violation? And your ongoing, willful indulgence despite insights and understanding gleaned from the dharma, is that not a complete break?

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