- Abandon All Hope of Fruition:Critical Notes on Engaged Buddhism
recent articulations of buddhist ethical confidence: gombrich, macy, king, loy
In the pages below, I wish to examine some recent Buddhist expressions of strong ethical and epistemological confidence. To do this work, I turn first to several Buddhist reflections on the theme of hope—hardly a prominent Buddhist theme, but one that may help to illustrate what is new, and what is not, in recent Buddhist ethical thinking.
Buddhist ethical investigations of our social and economic futures are in some conflict with the soteriological orientation toward the present moment in the Pali canon. In the Samiddhi Sutta, a deva exhorts the youthful bhikkhu Samiddhi not to waste his life: "You are young, bhikkhu, to have left the world, black-haired, with the bloom of youth. In your youthful prime you do not enjoy the pleasures of the senses. Get your fill, bhikkhu, of human pleasures. Don't reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring." Samiddhi answers: "I … do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment."1
Likewise, the Arañña Sutta, elaborating the Pali Canon's emphasis on the present moment over against habitual orientations of the human mind toward the past and future, recounts this exchange between a visiting guest, Devata, and the Buddha:
[Devata:]Those who abide in the forest,Peaceful, living the holy life;Those who eat but a single meal;—why is it their face is so calm?
[The Buddha:]They do not grieve over the past;Nor do they yearn for the future;They live only in the present—That is why their face is so calm.
It's from yearning for the future,And from grieving over the past;This is how fools become withered—Like a fresh reed that's been hacked down.2 [End Page 247]
The Pali suttas consistently view the past and future as distractions from the present moment—the only moment in which we are able to closely examine, and unwind, the knotted processes of self-grasping in mind and body.
One consequence of recent Buddhist ethical expansiveness has been a new interest in processes of cause and effect that extend well beyond the present. In economics, the natural sciences, and social sciences, analyses and proposals transcend the immediate: past and future patterns are directly implicated in thinking about economic, scientific, and social problems and possibilities. As so, as some Buddhist ethicists prioritize social and economic critique above soteriology, they commit themselves to imagined futures. This brings them into direct contact with the theme of hope.
Hope is regularly framed by contemporary Buddhist thinkers as a mode of immature theistic wishing, rather than a foundation for any genuinely effective ethical activity. Richard Gombrich, professor emeritus of Sanskrit at Oxford, notes that "hope is wanting something … that you do not have and thinking you may get it, even if the odds seem to be against you. But to my mind there is a further component to hope: hope comes in when one cannot control the outcome."3 For Gombrich, control is an essential foundation for any truly Buddhist ethics: "the Buddha taught that all major events in one's life depend on one's moral decisions,"4 placing "all responsibility in the hands of the individual."5 Gombrich emphasizes finally that "only theists can regard [hope] as a virtue."6 It is important to note from the outset that Gombrich presumes that his psychologized definition of hope encompasses the Christian virtue of hope—a presumption challenged in the pages below.
Buddhist dismissiveness toward Jewish and Christian understandings—or some version of those understandings—is common. For Gombrich, the "moral philosophy of individual responsibility disappears" in theistic traditions.7 But Gombrich is not the only recent thinker to explicitly or implicitly contrast Buddhist ethical confidence with the reputed passivity of monotheist positions. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone suggest that "Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope … [on the other hand] is a practice."8 Sallie B. King writes:
Effort is essential...