The question of freedom in religious and political philosophy Barry Magid June 30th 2018

Religious philosophers and political philosophers differ in where they locate the obstacles to living a life that's free. Religious folk locate obstructions internally and political philosophers tend to think there are primarily external barriers to freedom. And whether you locate the problem inside or outside, there's also this human nature question about what kind of person is it that we're dealing with. Is our nature intrinsically fallen as in this kind of internal model? Is who we are defined by desire or by reason? Where you posit the so called problem, and how you reckon human nature, will shape the types of solutions you think are necessary to live a life that's free.

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Human nature and Buddha nature are two, seemingly parallel, entwined concepts that we struggle to come to terms with in the course of our practice. When we're told at the outset that life is suffering, we seem to be given a defining characteristic of human nature. When we're told that there is a cause and an end of suffering, and that end entails following an eight-fold path, our inclination is to assume that at the end of that eight-fold path will be something called Buddha nature, that we will then have managed to achieve, to somehow sit on top of, replace, or complement our human nature. Buddha nature is, I think, often misunderstood as an innate capacity for enlightenment, whereas I think a more appropriate understanding is that Buddha nature is the qualities of interconnection and impermanence that are already possessed by all beings and all things, that Buddha nature is the way things already are. It's a side of things, or a perspective on things, that we typically do not see or do not wish to see, attributing to things in ourselves a permanence, an autonomy, or separateness that at some level is unreal.

One of the things that I suppose we think happens as a result of following the eight-fold path is that we're living a life in accordance with the reality of impermanence and interconnection, and that this in some way is connected to the relief of the suffering that has been declared to be our nature. The question, though, arises: What does a life that recognizes impermanence and interconnection look like? Is it the highly-regulated life of a monastic who recognizes these truths by having no possessions and no home and no personal attachments? Does he stay in accord with the underlying Buddha nature of all those things by living in a very particular way? Does our understanding of impermanence and interconnection manifest in some direct way as compassion? Do we want to see that the realization of that leads to someone like Mother Teresa’s, that's not self-centered, that's completely other-directed? We don't have particular images of living that kind of life as the expression of enlightenment in classical Buddhism, although Avalokiteshvara is said as a result of her wisdom to be the embodiment of compassion, that insight and compassion are intimately connected, but what does that look like?

Or a whole other kind of possibility that basically emerges in Chinese Zen in that the enlightened person is a person of freedom and non-attachment like Nan-ch’uan, and there you have much more the picture of enlightenment as natural man. Chop wood. Carry water. Live a simple life in nature. Be free, unfettered, and spontaneously write nature poems, rather than spontaneously take care of the sick and dying. There's a different sense of what naturally flows out of a person as a result of their insight. It's not necessarily that one or the other is true, but what we have are multiple pictures of what our natural or freed, enlightened, liberated state is supposed to entail or look like. Does it require continual practice and actually regimented organization in order to keep us free? Is the Vinaya a set of very strict rules that define, protect and enable our freedom? This is a conundrum or a dialectic here that we're going to see reflected over and over again in the study group, with the thinkers Berlin discusses and this relation of freedom to structure and freedom to the rules of society. And I hope we can see how relevant they are to the kinds of questions that occur in defining what is a life of practice, because the Vinaya is very specifically a very strict set of rules that are designed to enable us to be free. That's their inherent idea and inherent-seeming contradiction.

When the different thinkers examine the notion of freedom they keep coming up with different definitions of human nature. And nowadays, the very idea of a single universal ahistorical cross-cultural human nature is in great disrepute. It is a kind of essentialism that most people repudiate, but we do have to examine what we think are the basic characteristics of a good life, what we call flourishing, what we call happiness and fulfillment, and what are the obstacles to those things. Are those obstacles primarily internal or primarily external?

You can say that one of the things that divides religious philosophers and political philosophers is that religious thinkers tend to locate the obstacles internally, as a built-in contraction in human nature. Whether they call that original sin, or craving, attachment or desire, there's something inherent in who we are that's the source of our problem. Political philosophers tend to think of freedom in terms of outside restrictions. And the issue has to do then whether you are submitting to the rule of a monarch or are you able democratically to decide on a form of society you live in, or are all these political questions in some way subsumed into economic questions. That it is your class and form of life in labor, owning property, that is going to define who you are, and what the freedoms or constrictions in your life are going to be. All these questions are arguments about the cause and end of suffering, where it's located and what will relieve it.

But whether you locate the problem inside or outside, there's also this human nature question about what kind of person is it that we're dealing with. Is our nature intrinsically fallen as in this kind of internal model? Is who we are defined by desire or by reason? There's very little in Buddhism that suggests that the cultivation of reason is going to be the source of our liberation, yet this was the philosophically core idea going back to Socrates and the Stoics, and is the mainstay of the enlightenment thinkers that Berlin is going to talk about.

One of the ways we are unfree is that we are entangled in a social system of privilege and hierarchy that is held together by religious superstition, and there's a conspiracy essentially between church and state to keep people thinking that they need a kind of regulation, that their nature is intrinsically violent or sinful, and God has ordained a kind of order to society that goes along with the order in the universe, that puts rulers and priests in charge of sinful people who cannot be trusted to run their own lives. And so a big part of where the enlightenment notion of freedom begins is the notion that we can replace religious faith and religious forms with reason and humanism, that we're going to find the truth about human nature empirically and looking at how people actually live their lives, rather than get revelation in some religious doctrine about original sin. So all these notions about what is human nature, what is freedom or liberation, these are all running through the discourse, whether we're talking about Buddhism or the philosophers of the enlightenment or the counter-enlightenment.

As all of this unfolds in the discussion group, I hope we will be able to keep bringing it back to how our own sense of practice is organized, and how it relates to issues we are used to encountering in Buddhism and not see this as separate split-off philosophical entertainment.

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