Buddhism and Philosophy of Liberation

[This entry is the summary of the first meeting of the seminar “Appearance and reality. On living, dreaming and dying”, held last Thursday, 10 February 2022].

1. Introduction

We begin by briefly explaining the programme “Dimensions of Experience”, of which this module is a part. “Dimensions” aims to introduce students to Buddhist meditative practice. However, unlike other courses, the perspective adopted is a critical one. That is, meditation techniques are not simply offered for implementation in our daily lives, but are reflected upon. From our perspective, meditation can be counterproductive and even harmful. Moreover, we believe that a certain interpretation of Buddhist philosophy, in collusion with postmodernism, has been an unwitting ally of neoliberalism and all the evil that this system of social and ecological relations has caused and is causing in the world.

The second step was to present the specific programme of the module. We took a bird’s-eye view of the programme, explaining the titles.

2. Why Study, “Pray” or Meditate?

We then began a brief reflection on motivation. Traditionally, teachings are organised according to the motivations of the practitioners. In the genre called “the stages of the path to enlightenment”, for example, we speak of people with different capacities.

Capacities are judged according to the vision, interests and commitments that practitioners are capable of adopting. It is said that a person who only reflects and meditates to achieve happiness in this life is not a religious practitioner.

The first level of motivation is that of one who wants to improve his or her condition in the samsara or cyclic cycle of existence and commits to an ethic of restraint, that is, a behaviour and cultivation of habits to curb evil, harm.

The second level is that of the person who understands that the condition in samsara cannot be improved indefinitely, and decides that the only option for overcoming the threat of suffering is liberation, and therefore engages in meditation practices aimed at ending the ignorance and negative emotions that cause us to wallow in cyclic existence, imprisoned by our clinging to pleasure, our aversion to pain, and our basic ignorance or indifference.

Finally, the practitioner realises that personal liberation is insufficient. Other beings, linked to us through the cycles of birth and death from time immemorial, are also trapped in suffering.

3. Dimensions of Ethics

Obviously, such an explanation demands that we believe in rebirth. If this is not the case, the question is how to elaborate a proper distinction of various types of motivation. There are different ways of doing this. We have explored some of these arguments in the past. Here I will focus on some suggestions from the Philosophy of Liberation, especially from its ethics.

Philosophy of Liberation speaks of two dimensions of ethics. Conventional ethics, which corresponds to a given social totality, and critical ethics.

Conventional ethics, being a contingent product, is always limited, producing, voluntarily or involuntarily, conditions for evil. For example, a conventional community ethic, while promoting a vision inspired by love and justice among its members, produces intra-community and extra-community victims. Certain groups, such as women or people of colour in the past, or users of minority languages, customs or beliefs, are treated unequally or even despised by those who conform to the majority.

This is where critical ethics emerges, which is not articulated from within the existing moral order, but from outside the totality of that moral order, from its victims.

Buddhist ethics, despite its abstract universalism, has historically, in the societies in which it has been incarnated, produced its own victims. This proves that Buddhism has to develop its own critical ethics. For example, the place of women, or that of ethnic minorities, has traditionally been subordinate.

However, Buddhism has instruments within its own tradition to generate its own critical ethics. For example, when one speaks of different levels of motivation, one can say, analogically, that the first level corresponds to the ethics of the totality of the moral order in force at a given time, a conventional ethic.

When this conventional ethics proves to be limited and contradictory, when the principle of non-harming cannot be sustained because the community order requires the sacrifice of victims for its own sustainability and expansion, the space opens up for critical ethics, the ethics of liberation. The conventional moral order is imperfect and involuntarily produces victims, so the critique of the current moral order begins from the outside, which is vacuity, emptiness, from the perspective of the social totality that sustains that morality.

Critical ethics has two dimensions. A negative dimension, which is a deconstructive critique of the existing order, which manifests itself in a variety of ways in samsara. And a positive dimension, in which an attempt is made to rebuild the community in a way in which the victims can be included and the damage repaired, with the ultimate goal of the fulfilment of all.

Obviously, this critical process will extend indefinitely until we hypothetically reach universal enlightenment, an instance of omniscience that would allow us to identify all the victims, all those affected by our individual and collective actions, today hidden due to our ignorance.

Indeed, today we recognise, for example, that it is unacceptable to discriminate against other human beings because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, national or religious status, to give a few examples. This does not mean, of course, that we have solved the problems of discrimination on the basis of identity. But, in addition, we live in societies where inequality is lacerating, where obscenity consists in the violent and immoral accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, at the expense of the misery of the vast majority. But, in addition, there are other non-human living beings who suffer the injustices produced by a community based on the almost exclusive recognition of the rights of human beings, to the exclusion of the rights of other sentient beings. But, in addition, there are the rights of those who exist in the present, which violate the rights of those yet unborn or the future of generations to come.

All these miseries perpetrated for our own happiness, within the framework of the moral order we have collectively constructed, show that our moral order is unintentionally unjust. So we decide to adopt the outside perspective of the system, the perspective that shows us the victim, the excluded, the one who does not count among those who count. The practice of personal liberation articulated through the yoga of emptiness is a dialectical-practical instrument that calls into question the fetish of the conventional communal moral order.

In other words: the fact that we are decent people within a privileged community does not free us from the evil, the injustice that unintentionally results from our privilege. Noam Chomsky gave a very illustrative example of this. A white girl from a good family and with a good heart in the slave-owning South during the 19th century, despite her good will and her efforts to teach the offspring of her planter father’s black slaves to read and write, although she creates a positive karma with her decency, cannot avoid, unless she becomes a factor of real change in the situation of radical opprobrium experienced by her denigrated fellow human beings, being co-responsible for an unjust system such as the one that imposed slavery. The yoga of emptiness helps us to free ourselves from identification with a certain conventional world.

But that is not enough. We cannot live in nothingness, in the mystical experience that emptiness offers us forever and ever. Sooner or later we are summoned to create an alternative, more inclusive, more universal, less unjust, kinder, more compassionate community. This is the expression of bodhichitta in the world. Bodhisattvas are those willing to challenge the existing conventional order in order to create a better order, knowing, always, that every order will eventually find its limits, create its victims and must deny itself in order to overcome the unintended injustices it produces.

4. A New Starting Point

Today, institutional Buddhism is in a deep crisis. However, this should not frighten us. Crises produce changes, transformations, revolutions. These revolutions, however, should not necessarily be understood as radical breaks. They can, on the contrary, be understood as deep, painful breaks, but in continuity with the spirit of the tradition.

Buddhism, as we know it, inspires us, but it is also a source of patent injustices that can no longer be denied. Racist, sometimes xenophobic and chauvinist, misogyny, and today more than ever, in its Anglo-American and European version, a Buddhism prostrated before techno-science and capital to the detriment of peripheral peoples.

Thus, the first level of meditative practice aims to mould decent people capable of acting ethically within the moral order of their own communities. At the second level of practice, we reach a kind of intellectual and emotional maturity, which involves freeing ourselves from the commitments of belonging, enabling us to identify the limitations of our conventional ethics. Only by assuming the perspective outside the existing order can we be free. But that exteriority is not nothingness, but the perspective of the victims, of those who do not count among those who count, who question our order of meaning, ultimately showing its emptiness, its relativity, its limitations, and the injustices it voluntarily or involuntarily produces in order to sustain and expand itself. Therefore, the first theme is freedom, and with it, what it means to be an individual.

The second practice is related to community: what kind of community do we need to build to redress the injustices that our current community perpetrates? What kind of community do we need to build to include those we systematically exclude, thereby robbing them of the precious opportunity of life, the possibility to reproduce and develop it?

5. The Four Noble Truths and the Cultivation of the Spirit of Enlightenment

In this context, we introduced the Four Noble Truths. We introduced them by presenting them as a revolutionary heuristic instrument and not as a conservative device. The Four Noble Truths are an invitation to social change, to global transformation, and not simply an instrument to facilitate conformity, combined with a postmodern aestheticism or a puritanical moralism that encourages sacrifice for the sake of “purity of body and soul” (another slogan of our post-historical era).

We then presented the practice of tonglen as the quintessence of bodhichitta or the spirit of enlightenment. In the previous course, after introducing the four immeasurables: kindness, care, celebration, equanimity and justice, we explored the seven-step method of generating bodhichitta. On that occasion we said that the basis of the practice was to recognise the inherent bond with all sentient beings.

In the Christian case, for example, that bonding, focused on other human beings, is within the framework of a vision in which we are all sons and daughters of God. So what binds us together is fraternity.

In the Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, the vision is maternal. We have all been mothers to all the others, and we have been in the womb of all the others. In other words, what unites us is universal motherhood. The great matrix. On that basis we explain what we owe to others, and we commit ourselves to repay that debt.

This requires on our part a radical transformation that makes the repayment of the debt possible, because in our present condition the debt is unpayable. In order to repay we have to become Buddhas, that is to say, we have to become a treasure so valuable and inextinguishable that it can benefit all beings in order to bring them to liberation and enlightenment themselves.

In this first session, what we did was to explore the second method of developing bodhichitta. In this case, it is about exchanging ourselves with others. To do this we have to recognise that our own moral order is self-centred and selfish. The world is for us usually only a source of material and human resources to be exploited for our exclusive benefit. This selfishness and self-centredness is the cause of all evil. Whereas altruism and other-centredness is the cause of all good.

Once again, the entire moral order of individual and collective privilege that we embody must be overthrown. To do this, what better than to open the gates of the city for others to enter and enjoy the party. Those who have been excluded from the supper are invited to participate. It is the famous story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, or making the jars of wine inexhaustible. Bodhichitta is the yearning to create a community without exclusion, based on goodness and justice.

Of course, some will say that such thinking is utopian, unrealistic. The truth is that we can always work to build a fairer and more inclusive, kinder and more caring community. Those who are unable to dream of such a community are far from bodhichitta, and no matter how sophisticated their visualisations and expert they are at moving their energies, they are the laughing stock of a true tantric practitioner.