The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

How should we treat others? Barry Magid November 12th 2022

Download Talk

There’s a famous story that when one of the disciples of Guru Ramana Maharshi asked him, “How should we treat others?” the Guru replied, “There are no others.” I imagine that left the disciple in the same position as the Zen student who asked his master, How should I practice? and he was told, “Die on the cushion.” Then the student at least had the courage to ask, “Are there any preliminary steps?”

What the two stories illustrate is that while we sometimes need to be challenged or inspired or even awakened, by the perspective of the Absolute, it’s not where we’re going to live our day-to-day lives, and the task of practice and the task of ethics, is to figure out how to negotiate our daily life in a way that combines a perspective of oneness or no-self with the reality of our own impermanence, interdependence, and embodied existence, with what certainly feels to be other people.

When we talk about the precepts, we traditionally discuss them in terms of three different perspectives that one way or another we’re called upon to integrate. There’s a literal perspective that is a matter of rules and prohibitions. They can be valuable guidelines but if all we do is follow them literally, we have a very constricted picture of our life and our behavior. There’s a perspective of the Absolute in which everything is just as it is, all perfect, nothing missing, and there are no rules to follow. That can be very liberating but very dangerous. And there seems to be a middle ground of skillful means.

But even there we have to be careful, particularly teachers, because if you think all the rules really are a matter of adapting to particular circumstances, it’s very easy to begin to rationalize why a particular rule doesn’t actually apply to you in this particular circumstance because you’ve got another more subtle agenda and you’re allowed to bend things for some greater good. And sometimes, as I’ve said, that simply becomes a rationalization when a simple, Don’t do it!, would be a lot more effective.

So there’s no one perspective that we can reside in all the time, where one way or another we are either blessed or condemned to constantly move between perspectives, move between ways of negotiating our being in the world. Now when I first started teaching and as I was practicing as a therapist at the same time as I began teaching, I started seeing a lot of people who sought me out because they were having psychological difficulties with their practice. And one of the first things that I recognized was that in this practice world of oneness and no-self, people often got into a lot of trouble because there didn’t seem to be any legitimate place for their own needs.

The language was always about selflessness, about compassion, about what your obligations were to others. Very little about what your obligations were to yourself, or what kinds of needs could be considered legitimate, whether they were emotional needs or simply material needs. What am I allowed to want? What am I allowed to have? There seemed to be no good answers to those questions for people in certain kinds of practice communities. And just over and over again they emphasized compassion to others, being one with the other, the way of all good precepts, but they became one-sided in a way that I eventually came to call taking a vow to save all beings minus one. There was just no language within the practice world to legitimize one’s own needs and one’s own wants.

As we discuss Garfield’s chapter on ethics, I think we have to watch out for this tendency to privilege a certain picture of selflessness that doesn’t seem to make any room for both our own needs and our own sense of agency and responsibility. I’ve found this to be one of the weaker chapters in the book, and I’m curious to see how other people respond to it in the discussion.

At the beginning, Garfield thinks that when we hold onto a notion of the self, we put ourselves in the center of the world. There’s us and there’s the self and objects out there, and our perspective is always skewed by putting ourselves in the middle of things. And he says that one can’t have an ethics that depends on proximity, that if there’s going to be ethical rules or obligations, they ought to apply equally and universally to everyone everywhere. And I suppose that means my responsibility extends equally and universally to everyone everywhere. There are no others. I should treat everyone as myself.

I cannot imagine what this is supposed to look like in daily life. For me, one of the values in switching from a language from self to person which he usually does, is that it takes us away from universals as distractions, and reminds us that we are embodied creatures living here and now in a particular place with particular limitations.

When we recognize ourselves as embodied, we may start by thinking, Well, I can see the stars, my sight extends millions of miles, but my hearing, well, I don’t know. How far can you hear a sound? A few miles maybe in the right circumstances? And walking – how far can I walk? How far can my body carry me in a day? How many miles is that? And then my reach: How far in front of me will my hand extend? How much can I actually touch and pick up? All of a sudden the circle is coming in much closer.

When we think of our embodied senses this way, we see that there’s this big range of discrepancy between what we can see and what we can touch. We might be able to say what we can imagine and what we can actually do, but I think part of being embodied is to recognize our finiteness and our limitations. And I think this has to extend to our sense of responsibility as a kind of dimension of our agency.

We are part of a community of social relationships and interconnectedness, and maybe small things that we do add up when done by lots of people to make a big impact. But what we ourselves can do in any given time is circumscribed and finite. I think that we have to come to terms with that, and I think it has to be reflected in our sense of moral responsibility. I think proximity is a very real dimension of our moral sense. If anybody tells me that I should feel equally responsible for the life or death of a child starving in Africa as I do for my own son, I think there’s something crazy and impossible about that.

When I become aware of a particular child and particular circumstances, there’s a way in which I can become empathic with that situation, compassionate to do what I can, but the idea that somehow my moral obligation must extend to millions of people I will never know or name or see in the same way that’s going to extend to my family, well, it doesn’t sound like a life that anyone can actually lead.

I can’t save all those people in the same way that my arm can’t reach across the ocean. I’m embodied and I’m limited. I think there’s some way in which we have to come to terms and accept the limits of our responsibility in the same way we have to come to terms and accept the reality and legitimacy of our own particular needs. We can’t dissolve them into some universalized abstraction that has no boundaries.

The other thing that I want to bring up about Garfield’s discussion of ethics, is the notion of causality and free will. How he talks about the notion of will and responsibility is brought in by St. Augustine as a way to let God off the hook for the evil of the world. There has to be some way we weren’t just created as automatons, that he could have made us always choose the good rather than choose the evil. We have to feel that if we’re going to have more responsibility, there has to be something like moral agency and free will and he thinks this is a bogus idea smuggled into religion.

But where he goes with that is how efficacious it would be to see other people’s actions as the result of causes outside of their control. Instead of getting angry or blaming or vengeful about what’s been done to us, we can interrupt that cycle of anger by realizing they’re only acting the way they did because of circumstances that happened to them. That’s all true, but he tells us how much better and efficacious it would be if we chose to see things that way. But how could he talk that way if he just said, We have no free will? All you could say is, Wouldn’t it be better if I were conditioned by my circumstances to react that way, because whatever I decide and whatever I do, just like all those other people, it isn’t a matter of my free will, but it’s a matter of all the antecedent things that have happened to me?

How can you even begin to talk about ethics or moral choices or better ways of behavior, if you don’t legitimize a sense of agency? In the past when we talked about ethics as learning to respond well when you’re treated badly, this has to be a matter of discernment and choice. You can’t simultaneously talk about ethics and talk about there not being free will. These things can’t go together, even if you think there’s some way in which everything is determined. As soon as you think it’s better to rescue the child from the burning building rather than to leave him there to die, you’re making a choice and assuming you have agency to decide whether you can do one thing or another.

Now it’s always going to be the case that we can look for antecedent causes for our actions in ourselves as well as others, but we also always have to integrate that with a sense of our own choice and responsibility. We can’t ignore either side of that. That’s one of the things that got called bad faith by the existentialists, to lurch from one extreme to the other in thinking that things are either internally determined and out or our control and you have no responsibility for anything, or you are completely unconstrained and unconditioned and oblivious to all the factors that make you see the world the way you do. Those are ditches on one side or the other of the middle way that is always hard to find.

I think that spiritual practices, because they so often deal in what seem like absolutes, language of oneness, language of no-self, make it very hard to find a middle way. The middle way seems like ending up with diluted compromises all the time, and the real thing is to exist somehow in this realm in which there are no others, in which I have no self-centered needs whatsoever. But we always have to live in the middle. No matter how much we want to care for others, sacrifice for others, there’s some point at which we have to decide, that’s all I can do. That’s enough. I also have to have a roof over my head, some kind of sustenance to keep myself going.

If you feel like you have to just give and give until there’s nothing left, well, you can end up living the life of a mendicant monk, have no shelter, live on alms. I think this would certainly relieve you of your guilt, that you’re selfishly claiming too many resources in a world of hunger and deprivation, but it’s not clear that as a monk, you’re doing much to relieve the suffering of others, and having given it all away, you’re just a bore yourself, and one more person who has to be taken care of. Wherever we decide to draw a line and decide this is what I need, this is what I want, somewhere or another, someone can come along and say, that’s arbitrary: You haven't given enough. You haven’t sacrificed enough. How do you ever answer that? What are you allowed to want? What are you allowed to need? How do you decide?

Next Talk

Barry Magid November 19th 2022 The self as an embodied, social person

Previous Talk

Barry Magid November 5th 2022 3 versions of immersion

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.