Posted On 07 Oct 2011
Since the world is in incessant flux, we make a lot of responses to changing circumstances. What’s the best way to do that?
I recently distinguished ordinary reactions from instinctive behaviors and unavoidable judgments. [Click here for that post.] I argued that the problem with ordinary reactions is that all the do is perpetuate the forms that keep us bound by Becoming. [Click here for the Being / Becoming distinction.]
When we train ourselves to stop reacting, what should our responses be like?
They should be like the responses of sages. What are they like?
They are unconditioned (unlimited), whereas all ordinary reactions are conditioned (limited). It’s the difference between freedom and slavery.
Freedom comes from Being; slavery comes from Becoming.
Important responses are the subject matter of ethics. Practical guidance for living is the raison d’etre of ethics. How may we emulate the righteousness of sages?
It’s important to distinguish the “content” of an act from “how” it is done.
An act’s “content” is its full description, which includes all its consequences. An act’s “how” is its intrinsic character, which is the act considered timelessly, in abstraction.
The critical difference with respect to the responses of sages and the reactions or responses of ordinary humans is not to be found in the content but in the how.
The reason for this is simple, important, and yet insufficiently emphasized, namely, that it is futile to attempt to judge all the consequences of an act. As Panayot Butchvarov once put it (in reviewing an article of mine), “it would be the height of epistemic hubris” to think that we could even know what all the consequences of an act are.
Since the moral rightness or wrongness of the contents of acts includes a consideration of their consequences, it immediately follows that it is impossible to know the rightness or wrongness of the content of acts.
This is part of our human condition. Nobody, not even a sage, is immune.
So, there is no way to know the rightness or wrongness of different responses to any situation.
It is only the ignorant or immature who attach themselves to the idea that certain types of act are always right and certain types of act are always wrong.
It is nevertheless true that some humans, especially sages, seem to act consistently better than other humans. How can this be?
I suggest that it is because such people consistently get the how right. What does this mean?
It can be described in different ways.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is that getting the how right means acting without ego. Why?
Egocentric acts are selfish acts.
Are moral acts selfish or selfless? It seems obvious that they are selfless.
Even if acting selflessly is a theoretical possibility, is it a practical one?
Yes, and the lives of sages (saints, successful philosophers) demonstrate it. There are the moral heroes. They can be found in all the major wisdom traditions.
The plausibility of this position increases immensely once you realize that there is no ego in the present moment. As I have stated before [click here for an example], no time, no ego.
The only moment to do something is the present moment. It is impossible to act either in the past or in the future.
So it is hardly surprising that the morally critical feature (namely, selflessness) can only be found in the present moment.
This leads to another description, namely, that getting the how right means acting from Being rather than from Becoming.
An ego is a form. It may be thought of as a person or self.
Whether they exist or not, all forms are to be found only in Becoming. There are no forms in Being; Being is formless.
So acting from Becoming means acting from the standpoint of some form or other, and acting from Being means acting from the standpoint of formlessness.
One way to approach the Buddha’s distinctive doctrine of no-self is to think of it as his denying that there is a separate ego (self, person). Yes, there is an ego, but that’s just a cluster (aggregate, field) of qualities. His point is that there is nothing behind those qualities holding them together.
This is what sages have realized (and not just thought). As that realization permeates more and more experiences, attachment to ego automatically diminishes.
As attachment to ego automatically diminishes, getting the how right occurs more frequently.
As getting the how right occurs more frequently, responses become freer and more appropriate. In other words, they become less conditioned or more infused with the unconditioned, with Being.
Sages renounce reacting and thinking; instead, they respond, if at all, with spontaneous appropriateness.
So the Buddha’s important analysis of ego connects with his ethics, with his descriptions of how to reduce dissatisfaction and live better.
Imagine what kind of a world this would be if everyone’s acts became less and less egocentric and selfish!