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A Clarification of Buddhist Altruism in Dôgen’s Writing

            A common utilitarian rationalization of human altruism is that it does not really exist outside the idea that it is a tool for benefiting the self in some way.  Another justification for cynicism in regard to altruistic ideals is that they are mainly religious in nature, and that all religions have been used as tools for the justification of aggressive wars.  This rationalization is used by the biologist E.O.Wilson in the context of “both Buddhist and Christian countries,” while he also argues that the primary goal in Buddhism is preservation of the individual, for example by a process in which “the devotee earns points toward a better personal life by performing generous acts and offsets bad acts with meritorious ones” (Wilson 154).  It is apparent that although Wilson is a thoughtful writer in many respects, his assumptions about the nature, and hence the hypocrisy, of Buddhist altruism, raise many issues to be considered.

          First of all, Wilson was raised in the religious context of Southern Baptism, and there is a very good chance because of this fact that he was only marginally exposed to Buddhism, at best.  It is understandable that one can draw many conclusions about the role of selfishness or aggression of religions if one only has a Western history to go by.  It can be seen that various nation-states have attached or identified themselves with certain branches of Judeo-Christianity and used this very identity to justify colonization, genocide, murder, slavery, and the theft of native lands.  This imperialist aggression continues even as I type.  But what about Buddhist countries? 

          In fact, there has never been a Buddhist country to begin with, much less an imperial one. Buddhism only existed alongside other faiths, never to dominate the policies of the host country. Buddhism was only present in China and Japan along with other faiths and practices, such as Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan.  During the Dynasties in which Buddhism was actually present in China as one of the dominant religions, the Chinese government had its hands full just holding the country together, much less launching an aggressive, imperialistic war.  In the case of Japan, it is undoubtedly the State Shinto of the post –Meiji era that served as justification for the imperialist aggression of WW II, while the Buddhist schools were first threatened with being outlawed, then forced to comply with Japanese militarism.  This was justified by being Japanese, not by being Buddhist (Victoria 170).  In his dedicated search to expose the hypocrisy of religion, Wilson is perhaps unfamiliar with those world faiths that are not committed to worldwide domination, of which there are many.

            The second assumption made about altruism is that, in a Buddhist context, it involves a central goal of preserving the individual (Wilson 154).  In Wilson’s eyes, the “devotee earns points toward a better personal life by performing generous acts and offsets bad acts with meritorious ones” (Ibid.)  Actually, neither of these points is true in any branch of Buddhism whatsoever.  Even in the oldest written records of the Buddha’s teachings, the idea that anything can be preserved, or even that the individual exists, is flatly and totally denied (Kalupahana 77-97).  In fact, the very preservation of genes, according to Buddhism, entails a continuation of suffering, stress, and unsatisfactoriness (Kalupahana 76), which is the unequivocal opposite of the central goal of Buddhism.  Any thought of self-betterment or benefit from an altruistic act is not considered virtuous, desirable, or even acceptable, because it goes against the fundamental teaching of dana paramita, or “the virtue of giving” (Kalupahana 77).  For an act of dana to be truly virtuous, it must take place in the example given by Dôgen as “mushotoku,” meaning “nothing to gain, no desire to gain anything, being free from the discrimination between subject (one who gains) and object (things to be gained)” (Ejō 115).

            It is often the case that even a gifted and accomplished writer like Wilson can infer meaning into concepts that he may not have sufficient background in.  It is regrettable, though, that his cynicism about morality being simply a matter of genetic preservation enables a feeling of justification to declare all religions as a hypocritical, selfish enterprise: it seems that in doing so he joins the ranks of the “post-modernists” whom he equally dismisses.  The writings of Dôgen, for instance, deal with the issues that Wilson claims religion is bound by, but in admonishing his fellow 13th Century monks to avoid such motivations:

“Do not think that you learn the Buddha-dharma for the sake of some reward for practicing the Buddha-Way.  Just practice the buddha-dharma for the sake of the buddha-dharma.  Even if you study a thousand sutras and ten thousand commentaries on them, or even if you have sat zazen until your cushion is worn out, it is impossible to attain the Way of the buddhas and patriarchs if this attitude is lacking.  Just casting off body and mind into the buddha-dharma and practicing along with others without holding onto previous views, you will be in accordance with the Way immediately.”  (Ejô 196)

“Having compassion for living beings without distinguishing between the intimate and the unrelated, while maintaining between the intimate and the unrelated, while maintaining an attitude of saving all equally, never think of your own profit in terms of benefit, worldly or otherwise.” (Ejô 114)

            As long as the words of Dôgen’s faith, and the words of other faiths, inspire practitioners into actualization, Wilson’s limited assessment of both altruism and morality will remain what it is today: limited.  There is more to morality than sheer advancement of the gene pool, more to altruism than preservation of immediate members of family, tribe, or nation.  There is more to human potential than DNA structure, Darwinian survival techniques, and imperialistic civilizations.  It is understandable to view science as a source of valuable information that can be used for humanity’s benefit, but to apply it in a reductionistic sense to all other expressions of human nature is arbitrary and sometimes even seems vindictive, like Wilson is pitting modern science against all other human wisdom traditions, and cheering incessantly for it to win.

          Science is a tool that Wilson worships.  While relying on it as a tool, he claims it is the most effective tool yet, and accepts it wholesale without looking closely enough, much like he was made to do with Christianity in the South while he was growing up.  Facts are really theory-laden, and the reality of human existence is that the eye affects what is seen.  From tobacco corporations to Creation theory, from racism to nuclear annihilation, what science offers or can justify is not neutral, is not inherently omniscient or beneficial, and should not be looked to for answers when both question and answer are useless exercises in absolute generalizations and even as a rationale for nihilism.

          Whether or not Dôgen’s exhortations to his monks are truly achievable by humans, whether or not they can be proven feasible by a survey or in a laboratory, they existed. Perhaps striving for logical impossibilities is an important aspect of ancient traditions such as Buddhism.  But if humanity only takes refuge in what is demonstrably possible, what can be proven and agreed upon by scientists, then the realm of human potential becomes carefully refined and sealed over, diminished to a Darwinian reduction that leaves no room for spiritual practices like Dôgen’s.  Insight can occur beyond the confines of science and still be valid.  There are more paths available to us than genetic survival and tribal protectivism.  It is a pity that Wilson cannot see or appreciate the beauty and value in the impossible.

Works Cited

Ejô, Koun.  Shôbôgenzo-zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dôgen Zenji. Trans. Shohaku           Okumura.  Kyoto: Toko Insatsu KK,1987.

Kalupahana, David J.  A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities.           Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1992.

Victoria, Brian A.  Zen at War.  New York: Weatherhill, 1997.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature.  Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1978.



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