Meditation as a Humanistic Discipline

[This entry is the summary of the second meeting of the seminar «Appearance and reality. On Living, Dreaming and Dying», held last Thursday, 17 February 2022].

1. The Current Moral Order and Critical Ethics

In the second session we began with a brief summary of what had been covered in the previous session. In particular, we returned to the notion that there are two perspectives on ethics proposed by the Philosophy of Liberation, and insisted on the idea that this distinction can be fruitfully applied to a better understanding of Buddhist ethics.

In short, the critical proposal of the Philosophy of Liberation can help us to «free ourselves» from conservative perspectives, which tend to create or defend systemic injustices, producing victims voluntarily or involuntarily due to the attachment to the dogmatic formulations of tradition, and to established institutional forms.

Let us remember that Buddhism is, before anything else, an ethic. That is, a system that teaches us how to act, that helps us to distinguish what we should or would do well to cultivate, and what, on the contrary, we should avoid, because it is harmful.

Conventional ethics is the ethics of the current moral order. This moral order consists of many elements: cosmological and social imaginaries, institutions and practices. Within this framework, societies establish their rules of membership and exclusion. There are individuals and groups who deserve our recognition, and others who, on the contrary, are not part of our circle of belonging, have inferior status, or simply do not count.

For example, people of other ethnicities, women, homosexuals, etc., people of other races, native or colonised peoples, etc., have historically been considered inferior. Today, contemporary societies seem to be in the process of recognising these people as equals, although we are far from having achieved this kind of recognition, and to do so requires much more than identity politics. To begin with, it requires a radical change in our system of social and ecological relations, which imposes an order of exploitation and dispossession that necessarily affects the equal treatment of all beings, and calls into question our commitment to freedom.

A universalist ethic such as that of Buddhism, which aspires to the equal consideration of all beings, regardless of their concrete appearances in the present, contradicts itself when, in its historically established institutional order, it does not live up to the ideals it professes and keeps a certain group in a subordinate condition, or privileges another for whatever reasons.

It is within this framework that critical ethics takes place. However, critical ethics is not necessarily an ethics external to the tradition it criticises. At best, it is the traditions themselves that find in themselves the tools to overcome their limitations. In this sense, the very idea of “tradition” contains the resources for “profound transformations” or “revolutionary changes”. Tradition is always in the process of transformation, precisely, as we shall see, because voluntarily or involuntarily, due to its inescapable condition of finitude, it produces victims, it produces exclusions, and these victims sooner or later become aware of their status and conditions and demand and fight for the transformations required for their inclusion in the circle of recognition.

Critical ethics, therefore, accepts conventional ethics as the architecture of ethics, but pays attention to the victims that the institutional order, the churches, produce. Critical ethics does not renounce the ideal of fully fostering the development of genuinely free individualities, within the framework of an alternative, utopian community, always in the process of construction.

2. The Pedagogical Perspective

We now turn to Buddhism from the pedagogical perspective. Buddhism, like all religious traditions, offers us a gradual programme of training with specific objectives: to model certain types of personalities, certain types of human beings.

In Lama Tsong Khapa’s model, for example, he speaks of three types of people according to the interests that animate them and the capacities they possess.

The first is to educate people to act in a decent manner, in line with the prevailing morals of one’s own culture. In this case, a Buddhist culture based on two principles: non-violence (understood as an ethic of restraint, an ethic focused on not harming or minimising harm), and interdependence (the recognition that we are not separate, autonomous beings, but beings deeply linked to one another in a web of dense causal relationships).

However, as we have already indicated in the previous session, the current morality of any culture has inherent limitations. If we want to be faithful to the principles of non-violence and interdependence, we will sooner or later encounter circumstances in which we will experience contradictions between our principles and the logic of our cultural system. These contradictions manifest themselves as a betrayal of moral principles or ideals.

For example, it is clear that, despite our commitment to human rights, European societies do not live up to them when the principles of respect for human dignity conflict with the prerogatives of the market or the geopolitical needs of the region.

The same is true for democracy. As deeply rooted as democratic principles are in our social imaginaries, when these principles become an obstacle to economic growth, politics enters a kind of state of exception and is subordinated to the prerogatives of the market. On the other hand, it is clear that inequality turns democratic principles into a kind of simulacrum.

Similarly, despite our explicit commitments to a genuinely ecologically sustainable economy and way of life, when these principles challenge economic growth, they are openly abandoned.

Faced with these circumstances, it is clear that we need to cultivate a critical perspective, capable of elucidating these contradictions and working towards overcoming them. To do so, we need to cultivate a genuine intellectual and moral freedom that allows us to come to terms with our contradictions in order to resolve the paradoxes of our finite existence, and to avoid the conservative conformism that turns into cynicism when the evidence of injustice is palpable and unquestionable, but we prefer to make it invisible in order to avoid the cost of genuine life change.

In the Buddhist presentation, this critical perspective on the existing order itself corresponds to the one cultivated by those who wish to free themselves entirely from cyclical existence. That is to say, one who understands that, within the existing system, the practice of decency alone is not enough if we want to avoid suffering. The mere conservative decency of the current moral order is not enough. It is necessary to go further and question this order, identifying the devices that inevitably lead to harm, to injustice.

What are these devices? Those that are based on a distorted understanding of our own individual and collective existence, and those that are behind a logic of appropriation and confrontation. Buddhists speak, in this case, of primordial ignorance and the negative emotions of clinging and aversion, which are the basis of our social experience, in that they are the drivers of identity construction, the exclusive appropriation of resources for the private benefit of those identities, and the identification of our enemies, both individually and collectively.

The Mahayana, finally, proposes not only an individual revolt against the existing order of harm and injustice that constitutes the present society, but the collective effort to create an alternative community, where these contradictions can be overcome, and individuals, as we said, can genuinely live their freedom in community. The emphasis here is not on becoming some sort of superhero, as seems to follow from the claim to become a Buddha, as opposed to the Arhat’s mere pursuit of individual freedom. What is important here is that Buddhahood is a collective body, a community of love and justice.

In short: (1) the starting point is fidelity to existing morality, open (2) to criticism of the contradictions, exclusions and voluntary and involuntary injustices within the same moral system, with a commitment to (3) participate in building a community where goodness and justice are genuinely possible.

3. Science and Spirituality? A Humanist Critique

The next step was to distinguish between two ways of understanding education (in general) and Buddhist education (in particular), in order to identify our educational option. That is, to justify the way in which we present the teachings.

The first approach is instrumental. The gradual disappearance of the humanities in the current education system is proof of this instrumentalist drift. So are the quantitative evaluation systems at all levels of the educational complex, affecting learners, educators and researchers alike.

This instrumentalist drift is also reflected in the teaching of «spiritualities» and in the training of «contemplative disciplines». In these cases, teaching adopts two types of formats, (1) that of self-help (especially in mindfulness training and other analogous forms of attentional or psycho-affective training); or (2) a scientific-technocratic drift, based on a kind of efficiency, associated with the new cognitive sciences and neurosciences and their application in the corporate and bureaucratic world.

It speaks, for example, in terms of cognitive, attentional, cognitive and affective training, as if the trained subjects were little more than biological machines that must be disciplined to align themselves to circumstances in a quasi-deterministic way. The idea of freedom is even denied, curiously enough, in favour of a systemic perspective that calls human dignity into question.

From our perspective, this scientific-technocratic approach to contemplative practices is ultimately pernicious, because it deepens the instrumentalist self-understanding that individuals cultivate with respect to themselves, society and the nature they inhabit, reaffirming forms of ignorance and praxis that are at the root of the problems we wish to overcome.

For this reason, in contrast to this model, we are inclined towards a hermeneutic approach, based, precisely, on the consideration of the inherent dignity of all individuals. Thus, our emphasis is on the biographical and historical dimension that is inherent in the particular experience of each of us. Meditation must be a humanistic practice, and not a technical-scientific device to mould individuals who function skilfully within the existing moral order, but who are able to question it when its contradictions result in unappealable injustices and avoidable suffering.

4. Meditation as Fidelity to the Given Word

Finally, we presented the practice of shamatha, peaceful calm or meditative discipline designed to cultivate a serene state of intelligent attention to experience, able to focus unidirectionally on the objects it chooses to attend to free from distractions and obstacles, avoiding the usual instrumentalist language in which bodies and minds are conceived as mere resources, and attention becomes a practice of merely instrumental disciplining.

For this we turned to the metaphor of baptism in Christianity, in order to draw analogies with the figure of the teacher and the practice of fidelity to his or her teachings that is the starting point and foundation of meditative practice. On the basis of the metaphor and the Buddhist teachings of fidelity to the teachings to which the master introduces us, we re-signify the meditative practice of shamatha.

The sacrament of baptism refers to the Christian experience of being born twice. In this case, in baptism the believer experiences a new birth, which implies a new filiality, the entry into a new educational paradigm, a new moral order.

In the case of Buddhism, we leave the order established by the biological father (the moral order that excludes family, ethnic, religious or national belonging and identity), in favour of the order that our spiritual father introduces us to (a universalistic order based on love and justice without exclusions).

This basically means renouncing an individualistic or particularistic moral order, based on a narrow belonging to a particular social group, a nation, an ethnic group, or even a particular religious order, in order to imagine oneself part of a universal order in which all beings are invited, regardless of their particular identity characteristics.

On the other hand, it implies renouncing a merely instrumental, meritocratic, competitive perspective in our relationship with others, in order to adopt a perspective based on a commitment to the principles of non-harming and interdependence, an ethic of liberation, and an ethic of universal responsibility.

Ultimately, the practice of shamatha is nothing other than the faithfulness and renewed commitment to keep that new birth ever present, confirmed moment by moment in the vocation to realise the promises that new birth brings. To do so, we must abandon distractions and obstacles in order to focus our energies and resources on that extraordinary project that leads to the realisation of a genuinely free identity and a genuinely loving and just community.

In brief, we reread the teachings dedicated to the cultivation of mindfulness or serenity in an attempt to avoid the instrumentalist and scientistic tendency. The human mind should be treated neither as a microscope nor as a telescope. Rather, it should always be seen as constitutively ethical. Meditation, therefore, should at no time be separated for the sake of greater efficiency from the moral consideration that is inherent in it. After all, meditation is an action, and the meditator is always a moral agent, even in instances where he or she experiences an apparently neutral state.

The meditator’s first task is to choose and be faithful throughout the meditative process to the object of his or her attention. The choice of that object has enormous moral significance for the practitioner. After all, it is we who decide what to attend to and what not to attend to, both in formal practice and in our daily lives. Whether that choice is tacit or involuntary, as with the attention to which our emotional habits lead us, or explicitly and voluntarily chosen by us, in all cases, these are objects whose choice is ethically ponderable.

In shamatha practice, once we have chosen the object, for example, the breath, a symbolic image, such as the image of a buddha, or any other virtuous object that the teachings present to us, our task is to remove obstacles that obscure our intelligence and sensitivity, or distractions that separate us from the object to which we have committed ourselves.