The Ethics of Impermanence

At the end of his very useful and somewhat demanding book,  The Bodhisattva’s Brain, philosopher Owen Flanagan poses a dilemma:

. . . I still do not see, despite trying to see for many years, why understanding the impermanence of everything including myself makes a life of maximal compassion more rational than a life of hedonism. . . If I were a Buddhist, I would be troubled by not understanding how Buddhist ethics follows from Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology.

It’s not that Flanagan doesn’t accept compassion as a crucial part of what he calls the eudaimonics of Buddhism; but he casts about for a good part of the book trying to connect the way Buddhism sees the human predicament with Buddhism’s admonition to treat others compassionately, and comes up empty-handed. It’s a particular problem, since Flanagan’s ultimate goal is to explore whether a naturalized Buddhism, free of the moral and ethical rewards/sanctions of karma and rebirth, is a viable approach to human flourishing.   Take these away, and what is the basis of a naturalized Buddhist ethics?

I think perhaps one of his problems may lay in the basic assumptions of Western ethics. After all, situating Buddhist principles in an Aristotelian conception of ethics is one of the major projects of the book.  In this view, I am an individual moral actor pursuing my interests in a world filled with other people.  That being so, how should I treat others?  Is there any reason not to simply focus on maximizing my own pleasure?  What obligations, if any, do I have to treat other people well, and what does treating them well mean?  From this perspective, it is not obvious that the Buddhist notion of impermanence would lead necessarily to an ethics of kindness toward others.  Even if I and my pleasure are fleeting, that’s no reason not to go for all I can get, regardless of the consequences for others (who are, after all, fleeting themselves).

The answer, I think, comes from realizing that the principle of impermanence itself rests on Gotama’s central insight: conditioned arising.  Everything, “me” included, is impermanent because everything arises based on temporary and interrelated conditions; as those interrelationships change, things come into being, last for a while, and then disappear, giving way to a new set of conditions.  The rest of Gotama’s doctrine, including the Three Marks of Existence (impermanence, not-self, and dukkha), has conditioned arising as its foundation.   Conditioned arising is also the basis of dharma practice.  When we strive to be mindful, what we are mindful of is how all the aggregates — sensation, perception, concepts, consciousness, emotions and thoughts — arise and pass away.  We observe how contact leads to sensation, to emotion, to mental proliferation.  The point of mindfulness is to teach us, at “gut level,” that conditioned arising is the reality of our phenomenal existence.

The insight one draws from mindfulness practice is more than the perception that “I” am impermanent.  It is also that I am not a self-contained entity radically separated from the world.  I hear a truck pass in the street.  Where does the sound of the truck end and my hearing it begin?  Where are the borders of my tactile sensations?  Or, for that matter, the borders of my awareness generally?  How does the buzzing electronic gizmo in the other room connect to the sensation in my chest I experience as irritation? I perceive that my consciousness, far from being a homunculus riding around in my head,  seems instead to be constituted in some important way of the things it comes into contact with, and doesn’t exist separately from them.

This is especially evident, it seems to me, when we are mindful of our relationships with other people.  To go mindfully into the world is to be struck by the realization that my consciousness is socially constructed.  A smile from someone feels good; being in conflict feels bad. Neuroscientists tell us our central nervous systems  mirror in ourselves the emotions we observe other people displaying.  Observe how one person in the office having a difficult time tempers the emotions of everyone else in the room.  A harsh word from my spouse engenders hurt and anger; I react with a harsh word of my own, and she reacts in kind.  Beyond this very basic, embodied level,  I can see that the meaning of every situation I find myself in is embedded in a vast complex of interpersonal relationships, and that who “I” am in any situation is a manifestation of that complex, which extends, if I reflect on it a little, very widely indeed.

What we come to recognize, again on a gut level, is that we are not independent ethical players.  Every action we take arises within a complex matrix of interpersonal connections, and has effects that ripple through that matrix, some readily apparent, others not.   This realization isn’t as simple or idealistic as as “We’re all one, man.”  But it does lead one increasingly from a self-centered view to one that takes into account the welfare of others — not simply as a response to an abstract moral imperative, but as the unfolding of an awareness that the welfare of others is not separate from one’s own.

Gotama gives us an example of this principle in verses from the Arahant Samyuta:

One who repays an angry man with anger/Thereby makes things worse for himself.

Not repaying an angry man with anger/One wins a battle hard to win.

He practices for the welfare of both –/His own and the other’s –/When, knowing that his foe is angry/He mindfully maintains his peace. (SN VII.I 2, 616-617)

The Noble Eightfold Path is built on this principle.  Before the ethical steps of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, one starts with Right View.  The end of the Path isn’t an end at all; rather, Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness lead on to a refined and expanded Right View.  Ethics in this system is not adherence to an abstract code, but the natural response to one’s immediate perception of one’s social reality.

This is not a slippery way of saying, I should do whatever feels good, since doing good will feel good.  Maybe it will — compassion and loving kindness are deeply joyful, IMHO.  But maybe today I have to give my teenage son some guidance, even though he will resist.  Or maybe I have to go to the funeral of my friend’s child.  The feel good thing in such instances may appear, at least initially, to be finding some way to back out.  But mindfulness, and the equanimity that it fosters, may help me see beyond the threat of difficult emotions to the compassion which, if I allow myself to respond to it, will ultimately benefit both my loved ones and me.

Of all people, Bhikkhu Bodhi sums up my point for me in his commentary on the Kalama Sutta, and in a conveniently secular manner:

 [T]he Buddha’s purpose is to lead the Kalamas to see that, even when we suspend all concern with future lives, unwholesome mental states such as greed, hatred and delusion, and unwholesome actions such as killing and stealing, eventually redound to one’s own harm and suffering right here and now.  Conversely, wholesome mental states and wholesome actions promote one’s long-term welfare and happiness here and now.  Once this is seen, the immediately visible harmful consequences to which unwholesome mental states lead become a sufficient reason for abandoning them, while the visible benefits to which wholesome states lead become a sufficient motivation for cultivating them.

When we see, through mindful observation, that our feelings and actions toward others are intimately bound up with our own happiness, the motivation for our ethical decision-making becomes kindness and compassion — the same kindness and compassion we want to receive, because we learn  the truth that the kindness we show others is the fruit we harvest in our own experience.