People of faith tend to have the spirit of moral autonomy

From:Voice of Dharma     Author:Ven. Master Xuecheng     Time:2015-05-05 10:53:01
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People of faith tend to have the spirit of moral autonomy, while when faith isabsent, there are dangers of moral problems. Faith is categorized as religion in the West, but more often as ideology in the East. Ideology is the ideational consciousness of people in this life, not being able to tightly connect people’s past and future lifetimes.

Wang Luxiang: Buddhism, since its introduction into China, has integrated into the traditional Chinese culture and thinking, thus presenting a grand cultural picture where Buddhism has become interwoven and interdependent with Confucianism and Taoism, rendering influence over all aspects of Chinese society. China was a nation based on consanguineous patriarchal system; how come Buddhism, a transcendent religion, fits Chinese moral principles which focus on this life? Some people say that Buddhism is a religion with ethical attributes. Many of its ideas, such as the Five Precepts, Ten Meritorious Deeds, Four Dharmas of Attraction, Six Perfections, Eightfold Path, to name but a few, hold rich ethical connotations. Moreover, the Buddhist views including that on good and evil, on compassion, on life and on dependent origination, are thought provoking with realistic significance on how to purify the mind and develop a harmonious society. Then, how should we look at the Buddhist ethics and is there a disconnection with today’s social morality? Today we are going to discuss “Buddhist Concern over Social Morality.” Let us welcome the Venerable Xuecheng.

Wang Luxiang: I feel fortunate to have met with the Venerable Xuecheng. I visited the Longquan Monastery in the West Mountains in 2007 to interview him for the television program “The Grand Cultural Panorama.” For many years, the Ven. Xuecheng has devoted himself to spreading Buddha Dharma, and especially in the real life setting. In fact, there was a sad story behind today’s program. As we know, the whole nation has been debating these days over what happened to Yueyue, the little girl in Foshan, Guangdong province. On the one hand, our economy has been developing by leaps and bounds, and on the other hand, our nation is witnessing an undeniable declining ethics and social morality. The Venerable, what social problems do you think are reflected in incidents like this that happened to Yueyue?

Ven. Xuecheng: That indeed requires us to reflect upon ourselves. Two cars ran over a two-year-old child while 18 people passed by and ignored it. In Buddhism, we call this a lack of compassion. How sorrowful it is to fold our arms while watching others dying! It indicates to us the moral problems in our society. In the past, we often heard discussion of the moral decline, however today it is more often described as a moral crisis. A crisis is far worse than a decline, so, what is behind this moral crisis? I believe that morality should be autonomous while laws and regulations are external and heteronomous. If a man lacks the spirit of internal self-discipline, it is quite possible that his behaviors will have a negative impact on the order and the healthy development of the whole society. In Kant’s view, there are two fundaments of morality, its universality and its autonomy. And there are two postulates for moral autonomy—one is the immortality of the soul and the other is the existence of God. The existence of God represents social justice while the immortality of the soul means that we human beings still exist after our death. The universality of morality signifies that we should be responsible for our actions at all times wherever we are. The accident in Foshan underscores that we should examine whether we are morally self-disciplined.

Wang Luxiang: We know that there is a powerful view on the law of human survival which has been guiding modern China and the entire world, that is, the survival of the fittest and the law of the jungle. Such a law as it is called was introduced into China at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, which had at that time played a positive role in arousing the then dispirited and fallen Chinese nation to stand up, fight and rise. It was also strongly advocated by some of the progressive intellectuals as part of the New Culture Movement. However, now 100 years later, in light of our social practice, this law has indeed brought along enormous negative values and a negative impact. In terms of such a big issue over the law of human existence, are there any Buddhist principles that counteract the survival of the fittest and the law of the jungle? 

Ven. Xuecheng: Buddhism holds that all sentient beings, not only human beings, but also other species including animals, are equal. Here, the words “sentient beings” refer to not only human beings, but also other species and animals. Buddhism also advocates that the Dependent Reward and the Proper Reward are not dual, namely, human beings and the environment cannot be separated. Survival of the fittest in natural selection has evolved over time into what is now the weak being the prey of the strong. For a long time, after the Western ideas of anthropocentrism and self-centeredness were introduced into China, we have unknowingly accepted them, which have gradually weakened the traditional idea of “unity of man and the universe,” and human beings are only a part of the universe. Our actions and their results are closely related to the world and to other people in various ways. Buddhism promotes the concerns over suffering and happiness of all living beings and the concerns over the environment where they live. Separated from the environment, people cannot live and grow. Similarly, enjoying happiness alone is not as good as sharing it for a person to live happily.

Wang Luxiang: We know that the Western countries, especially those developed countries with a market economy, are legal states as well. The market economy, as a system, naturally encourages individualism, making everyone strive to look out for his own interests; yet when all individuals expand their self-interests or magnify them to the point beyond any limits, none of them can virtually survive. Based on this, in order to curb the excessive individual expansion, numerous laws were stipulated to regulate human behaviors. Therefore, their market economy is built in the context of the rule of law. However, it seems not yet the same case in China today. On the one hand, we encourage people to strive for, and maximize, their interests in a market economy while on the other hand, many of our laws and the development of the legal system have failed to immediately keep pace with the development of the market economy. In other words, the development of our legal system has fallen far behind. 

Ven. Xuecheng: Law controls only man’s external behaviors. A person will go ahead with something he intends to do if he thinks he can find proof to justify it; whereas a person of moral autonomy will not do it even if he can justify himself. In the West, especially in the United States, there are many lawyers, many times more than their counterparts in China but not many ordinary people can afford filing lawsuits. Therefore, a civilized nation not just needs a sound rule of law, but moreover, a spirit of intrinsic moral autonomy and self-purification of the cultural system. 

Wang Luxiang: Yes. Moral autonomy is a restraint at minimum cost for maintaining the harmony and stability of a society. The Venerable, China is now witnessing frequent accidents caused by the absence of morality, thus putting social morality in question. What moral crisis is China, a nation influenced by Confucianism, facing?

Ven. Xuecheng: Why should we be particular about morality? Morality is the standards and norms governing people’s behaviors and life in the whole society. If such standards and norms hold no place in our minds, we will definitely not know what to do. If there are many people whose lifestyles and behaviors affect and harm that of a greater number of people, there is a moral crisis in society. The underlying factor is people’s faith. People of faith tend to have the spirit of moral autonomy, while when faith is absent, there are dangers of moral problems. Faith is categorized as religion in the West, but more often as ideology in the East. Ideology is the ideational consciousness of people in this life, not being able to tightly connect people’s past and future lifetimes.

Philosophy is mainly to resolve problems of a person’s outlook on the world, on life and values. The outlook on life is a serious and significant subject, involving people’s existence, life, lifespan as well as birth and death. Human existence refers to the process of being alive from birth to aging, then to death. Different people live in different circumstances with different quality of life. Some people lead a perfect life, spiritually, materially and morally while the lives of some others are imperfect, having insufficient material resources, spiritual impoverishment or a moral crisis.

The third level is about lifespan. Confucius was standing by a stream and said, “It passes on just like this, not ceasing day or night!” (Confucian Analects, Chapter 9 Zi Han, trans. James Legge) We know that human life is on a continuum. It is not just one process running from birth to death, which is just a single phase. How do we prove and verify there is existence after death? According to scientific views, if we cannot prove there is no existence after death, its opposite would be true, that is, life still exists after death. In other words, if we cannot prove it false, it is probably true. Since we cannot prove and verify it, we depend on faith to believe in it. Some people believe there is existence after death while some others regard death as a light going out leading to nothing, which is the difference between the faithful and the non-faithful. When there is faith, it will become a steady force that functions in our character for us to internally regulate and restrain ourselves.

The fourth level is about birth and death. Birth and death, as we often speak of, is of vital importance. It is a very big topic to discuss how we come into the world and how we leave it in the end. Confucius said, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (Confucian Analects, Chapter 11 Xian Jin, trans. James Legge) That is to say, if we fail to understand what life is about, it is impossible to know what it is like after death. The principle mission of Buddhism is to answer the question of birth and death. In other words, in most cases, Buddhism is concerned with the existence after this lifetime and studies how to live better in the afterlife. Thus, such spirit and thought will easily arouse our inner moral autonomy. 

Externally, there are three ideas that have to some extent influenced us a lot, that is, anthropocentrism, self-centeredness and materialism which were introduced to China from the West after the reform and opening-up. In terms of materialism, there is the financial crisis, that is, the crisis of capital. Materialism believes that money talks and capital works. However, we now know that there is a capital bubble, people cheating and making lots of fake and inferior financial products that have harmed many buyers. This shows that serious moral crisis also exists in the West. Therefore, I think moral crisis is global rather than national, ethnical or regional. It is quite a severe and universal problem in today’s society.

Science is to resolve problems that are merely relative, momentary and dialectical. There is no such a thing as final conclusion in science which draws only relative instead of absolute conclusions. However, religions are different as, comparatively speaking, their propositions are absolute. Take Buddhism for example, it aims to achieve ultimate enlightenment, so whatever we do is towards the goal of attaining Buddhahood. Then, there are three different stages of the path to Buddhahood: the first is the stage of the path of happiness, the second is the stage of the path of liberation and the third is the stage of the path to Enlightenment, the Bodhi path. The path of happiness is an elementary one. What does this mean? Everyone pursues peace and happiness, yet such peace and happiness is not limited to that in this lifetime, but also that in the future lifetime. To obtain peace and happiness, one has to avoid evil and do good. Only by doing good and no evil can one find inner peace and happiness, therefore to be able to have a contended life. If one does no good, there will not be happiness; if one does not avoid evil, there will not be happiness, either. This is the first stage.

The second stage is the path of liberation. This path allows people to be free from their internal afflictions. Even if we keep doing good and nothing bad, as time goes by, we may get tired and can hardly insist on doing nothing bad. This happens because there are afflictions in our mind. Then, what are the afflictions? The six major ones are: greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance, doubt and wrong views. 

Here, greed means an insatiable state of mind and attachment. All men are greedy but are manifested differently, among which the cravings for the following five things, the Five Desires in Buddhism, are most severe, that is, wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep. “The desires for wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep are root causes for falling to the hell.” They are what people generally are after and crave for, but Buddhism regards them as demonstrations of people’s insatiability,rapacity and covetous desires. When people fail to get what they crave for, they become hostile which is exhibited by being unhappy, losing one’s temper, getting mad, fighting with others even launching wars. Ignorance means a state of being afflicted and is shown as lacking wisdom. Arrogance, another serious problem, means looking down upon others. The strong preying on the weak is a sign of arrogance. Doubt refers to distrust. We are now calling for cultural confidence, while in the past, we kept saying that we should reflect on our own culture and a great number of people even doubted whether the traditional Chinese culture could facilitate the social progress and development. Such a doubt affected many people, so it is really nice that we are now encouraging cultural awareness and cultural confidence.

Wrong views are also called improper views, which mean incorrect views, understandings or theories. They are fatal because they are negative and unhealthy ideas and concepts in our subjective consciousness.
All these six root afflictions, as required in Buddhism, need to be counteracted and removed. Only when they are eradicated from our mind can ways be found to eliminate the secondary ones. If we have no clear understanding of the root afflictions and their source, many problems will not be resolved. Only when we truly know the origin of the problems and find at the origin the causes of moral crisis and what the moral problems are, can we have the right path, the proper method and correct actions to resolve these crises. As long as Buddhism is involved, we must address these problems.This is our attitude towards life.

Wang Luxiang: The Venerable, we are taught to try, dismissing distractions and cultivating body and mind, then what is the Buddhist way to improve oneself and achieve these goals? What role will religions play in the future and how will Buddhism contribute to it? 

Ven. Xuecheng: In Buddhism, it will take a longtime effort, which is not something overnight but as long as three great Asamkhyeya kalpas, for a person to cultivate and attain Buddhahood. Therefore, in the stage of the path of liberation, it is crucial to purify our mind by knowing and subduing our afflictions. Only by doing this can we step onto the third stage, the path to Enlightenment or Bodhi path.

The Bodhi path requires us to bring forth the Bodhi Resolve and follow the footsteps of Bodhisattvas. Great compassion is the prerequisite for the Bodhi path. Kindness can bring happiness and compassion can alleviate suffering. A heart of kindness and compassion is open towards all sentient beings. Bodhisattva is an Indian term and can be translated as “to enlighten all sentient beings.” It is a Bodhisattva’s job and mission to enlighten all sentient beings, and such is the Bodhi path. All the way on the path, a Bodhisattva needs to learn the five areas of knowledge—hetuvidyā, śabdavidyā, śilakarmasthānavidyā, cikitsāvidyā and adhyātmavidyā. 

hetuvidyā, in modern expression, refers to logic, which means what one says should be reasonable, comply with reasonable thinking and make sense in reasoning;śabdavidyā includes phonology and all kinds of foreign languages;śilakarmasthānavidyā, in modern terms, means science and technology, and a Bodhisattva should be proficient in science;cikitsāvidyā means medical science and adhyātmavidyā in this context refers to Buddhism. Therefore, one has to first master the five areas of knowledge to become a Bodhisattva and then a Buddha. These are the specific examples of Buddhist compassion, examples of a Bodhisattva who does so entirely from the depth of his heart and selflessly. It is not a commercial transaction. How tragic it will be if morality is reduced to a means!   

Then, specifically how should we practice the Bodhi path? Buddhism emphasizes the practice of hearing, contemplating and cultivating, through the stages of “hearing, contemplating and cultivating to enter samadhi, (Shurangama Sutra, Avalokitesvara's Dharma-Gate -- Enlightened through the Gateway of Ear) the meditative concentration.” What does hearing mean? It refers to listening to and receiving information. What do we receive? We receive information. For example, you listen to me and take in what I have said, which is hearing. Here, contemplating means reflection. After taking in what I have said, you should classify the received information and consider whether it is right or wrong, well-elaborated or not. Is it helpful? Can you benefit from it? This is contemplation. Contemplation is to classify information, while hearing is to receive information and cultivation is to process information. The information, after taken in, needs to be processed. Otherwise, if not properly classified or treated, such a great deal of mixed good and bad information we receive everyday through hearing and contacting, our mind, just like a fully loaded memory stick or a computer. So, we must deal with the information. Cultivation is similar to screening off information and throwing away the unwanted messages, i.e. processing bad information. Realization is to store up and consolidate good information. Therefore, the Buddhist hearing, contemplating and cultivating is information-processing, which is very important. Because there is a great deal of complicated information, it requires us to simplify and classify them with our heart. If the information has not been processed or classified, it will remain disorganized in our heart and mind. 

Two perspectives must be taken to process the information: one is from the horizontal dimension and the other is from the vertical dimension. The perspective of horizontal dimension means approach from the perspective of space, taking the whole world today into account; the perspective of vertical dimension refers to analyzing and acting from the perspective of time, under the context of a considerable length of time as in the infinite life. What happens today may be caused by what happened in the past and a message we store today will also exert influence on us in the future. Therefore, it is very important for us to understand things in a much broader and long-turn perspective so we get the whole picture. 

What, then, does Buddha mean? It means enlightenment. Bodhisattva is to enlighten all sentient beings while Buddha is an enlightened person. There are three levels of enlightenment: the first refers to one who is self-enlightened. He has awakened to the truth of life and universe on his own; the second is who enlightens others, helping others to be awakened; and the third means whois perfect in enlightened conduct. When a person does all to perfection, he is called a Buddha. Therefore, I think Buddhism is not only a belief but also a culture. Many scholars today are promoting as well the cultural religion and cultural Buddhism. Meanwhile, it is an education, an education on religion and on life; and it is a kind of morality, with many specific practices. 

Albert Einstein said, “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.” Einstein went on to say that if he would like to have a religious faith, it would be Buddhism. Even though 86.7% of the current world population has a faith, it is not rare to find problems and even conflicts resulted from religions. However, Buddhism is a cosmic religion. Here the “cosmic” as referred to by Albert Einstein, means the whole universe as our space. It is not something rigid, because the Buddhist teachings, as he said, require us to have insights, to understand and to practice, not to mechanically follow dogmas. In addition, Buddhism includes both the natural and the spiritual aspects. Einstein used the term the natural and the spiritual while people today use the term the material and the spiritual. As for me, I prefer the former expression of the natural and the spiritual because it includes both aspects of practice and experience, namely, the religious practice and experience. I believe Buddhism in the long run will play an increasingly greater role.

China’s reform and opening-up, especially its admittance to the WTO, has led to China’s integration with the international community. We organized the first two sessions of the World Buddhist Forum in 2006 and 2009. The first session in 2006 was convened in Hangzhou and closed at Mount Putuo with the theme of “A Harmonious World Begins in the Mind” and the second session was convened in Wuxi and closed in Taipei with the theme of “A Harmonious World, a Synergy of Conditions.” In order to build a harmonious society and world in the future, we must begin with our mind and create a synergy of all circumstances. Thus moral situations in society and in the world will change for the better; there will be a more harmonious society and world; and the life of the whole of humanity will be more happy, peaceful and beautiful!

Wang Luxiang: Thank you for your wonderful illustrations, the Venerable! At the beginning of our program, you quoted Kant’s two prerequisites for morality, according to my understanding, that is, the infinites of time and space. The two realms are the basis for some of our faiths. Therefore, when Buddhism speaks of development of morality, of the mind and human nature, it is to eradicate root afflictions and ignorance. Are they also fundamental to developing a new civil morality today? In other words, there must have been continuity between the modern and traditional morality, which is decided by the attributes of morality itself and is based on something absolute rather than relative. My questions are: what changes will take place in terms of the humanistic spirit in the new era? How should Buddhism guide today’s construction of morality? And how should we perfect the moral sanction?

Ven. Xuecheng: There is continuity in morality and only this continuity demonstrates its universality. If morality varies with time and places, it will be difficult to tell right from wrong. Morality itself originates in the mind, human nature and instinct. For example, when someone is sick, in trouble or in a traffic accident, we should offer help unconditionally.I think everyone should have such a heart of compassion. Morality is not a following act, required by the government or out of a fear of legal punishment. Many people are not willing to offer a hand, fail to or hesitate to do so, because they think that it has nothing to do with themselves and there is no difference in helping or not helping. If they clearly understand what consequences they will suffer when not offering help, they will become self-disciplined and positively respond to such situations. Therefore, I think we should learn more of related cultures, especially the Buddhist culture. If we absorb such ideas, they will definitely translate into our conscientiousactions.

Wang Luxiang: Traditional Chinese society was built upon consanguineous patriarchal system, therefore placing great attention on the ethical code in the family and family groups. But a problem arises when a family member leaves his original living environment, like the countryside, to a new place, the moral sanction will start to weaken. When he leaves the constraining environment, he becomes less strict with himself. In other words, he feels that he can act at his own will in a strange society. Will such a moral relativism or even opportunism bring negative influence upon our national development of morality, including the moral, psychological and religious solidity of Chinese people? How should such influence be dealt with?  

Ven. Xuecheng: In the past, there were five cardinal relationships: (1) between monarch and subject, (2) between father and son, (3) between husband and wife, (4)among brothers, and (5) among friends. The five relationships were unchangeable, so they were called invariable relationships. Confucianism was formed against the background of an agricultural society. However today, with many people in rural areas migrating to the cities, the population structure in the city has changed a great deal. In the past, one family group usually lived in one village, under the same family names, such as Wang, Zhang and Li, which is different than in the modern cities. With this in mind, I think, in addition to the five cardinal relationships, greater importance should be given to community ethics, campus ethics, and environment ethics and so on.

Community ethics means that irrespective of the places of origin, we should follow the common codes of conduct and norms, thus developing them into a good social convention and morality. So will it be the case in the campus. If a teacher gives many lectures but fails to teach well not being able to perform his duty because he has no enough time to prepare for them, I tend to believe that an issue of morality arises in his case.If a student seldom attends classes, does not study hard nor shows respect for his teachers, it is also a moral and ethical problem. If the school fails to provide good living conditions for students, such as giving insufficient food or providing poor quality vegetables, it is also an ethical problem.

The same is true of environmental ethics. If you litter, spit and put personal articles randomly in public places, it will affect the overall environment. Therefore, I think, in addition to the traditional ethics, the Chinese Confucian and the Buddhist cultures must also respond to the new problems of this era. 

Wang Luxiang: Now we come to the Q&A session. If you have questions for the Venerable on the spiritual development and social morality, please raise your hand.

Audience: Dear chair and the Venerable, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) required us to inherit and promote traditional Chinese culture and build China into a country of cultural influence. In the past, similar calls had also been made, such as promoting the political development, economic development, cultural development and social development. My question is: what role will Buddhism play in the development of a nation of cultural influence and a civil society? 

Ven. Xuecheng: A very good question. It is a good sign and a significant decision made by the central authorities to call for building a nation of cultural influence at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of CPC. In the report, it also mentioned that the core socialist value is to serve the people. Serving the people, as mentioned many times before, is in conformity with the Buddhist thoughts of repaying all sentient beings for their kindness and liberating them from suffering. Many Buddhist sutras, such as The Sutra of Upas Precepts, the Prajna Sutra of the Humane King Who Protects His Countrycan also provide insight and play an auxiliary and referential role in social development. We Buddhists take part in various religious activities in monasteries, such as the cultivation of body and mind and working hard for enlightenment. While outside the monasteries, we can also participate in all kinds of social activities. In fact, the lay Buddhists are working themselves in different sectors of society. Therefore, the spirit of the synergy of all conditions in Buddhism can be demonstrated and spread by good performance in all walks of life, by studying well, by properly dealing the family relationship to create happiness and harmony, by creating a peaceful environment in the workplace, and by building a harmonious society. Only harmony can bring happiness to us. Harmony and happiness are inseparable! Lack of inner harmony and the entanglements of the mind are the cause of our unhappiness.  

Wang Luxiang: Thank you very much for the excellent speech, the Venerable. The Chinese world for morality is dao de (pin yin for 道德). Dao is the way and the path while de means by understanding truth and practicing proper path, one gets awakened with merit and virtue. It is impossible for a moral vacuum in a real sense to exist in social life. Morality and ethics are required to guide people in living a benign and worthy human life. Contemporary China is facing new challenges in terms of moral development brought about by the development of economy, technology and culture as well as the new corresponding lifestyle. No matter how society changes, the intrinsic human nature and moral rules have to be followed. The Buddhist ethics has profound and broad inclusiveness, capable of resolving dilemmas in human and social conflicts. Meanwhile its ethic is universal and clear, providing elaborate moral standards which are pragmatic. Drawing from the Buddhist experience of nurturing human nature, seeking enlightenment and collecting virtues is very likely to be an effective way to citizen’s moral development. Let us make the orthodox faith, proper path and right view the moral foundation of our nation, and further transform them into the strong and stable spiritual power. 

①A memoir of Ven. Xuecheng on “Buddhist Concern over Social Morality” at the Century Forum of the Phoenix TVon November 19, 2011, published on The Voice of Dharma, Journal of the BAC,No. 328, Dec., 2011.

Tags:moral autonomy, faith, Panorama

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