The Practice of Pragmatism
by Ven. Wayne Hughes (Ren Cheng)
“The Monks at the River”
A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.
The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.
They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”
The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”
The senior monk was silent.
They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”
The senior monk was silent.
“It was against the rules.”
The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”
There are multiple lessons in this parable. Today it’s all about pragmatism. An aspect of pragmatism is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in situations. To put it simply it doing what is useful and productive.
In Buddhist philosophy and in pragmatism importance is placed on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and focus is on “what we can do right now to make things better”. The Buddhist worldview underwent changes, and affected changes in the worldviews it encountered as it spread across the world. In the West it is important that prevelant worldviews, such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that that parallel can be recognized. In doing so Buddhism can be made more relevant and be accepted by the Western culture. This is pragmatism in action and thought.
This is what prompted the Buddha to make clear that the Dharma was meant to be organic. . . able and willing to undergo change in the unique situations it would find itself in. Stephen Batchelor, former monk and contemporary scholar says, “With this consideration in mind it would be clear that no particular interpretation or expression of Buddhism can ever be final Buddhism, just like any other phenomenon, is a dependent-arising and therefore lacks an inherent self-nature.”
In the parable of the “Monks at the River” the lesson of pragmatism is also one of detachment. The senior monk knew the rules, but he also realized that those rules were situational. The woman, the rules, the junior monk and the river presented a set of circumstances where the senior monk might have looked to the Three Pure Precepts:
Cease to do harm – If he left the woman stranded she would undergo the suffering of anxiety and fear.
Do only good – Ignoring the woman’s plight, causing suffering is not a good action.
Do good for others – Note here that this precept doesn’t add “if it isn’t against the rules”.
The senior monk did not create the situation of the woman at the river. It was phenomenon that he had to choose how to react to. As human beings we don’t create the nature of the event; we have the choice of reacting negatively or positively. The senior monk recognized a need and chose to act altruistically
The senior monk not only does good for a fellow citizen; he also does good for the junior monk. His actions allow the junior monk to learn the lessons of detachment and pragmatism.
Pragmatism in the Buddha’s teachings:
Reading the story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening it is clear that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.
Again, like with pluralism, we can use the Eightfold Path as an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must use our own knowledge and realization. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.
Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most encompassing response. We want to take the most useful and productive course.
Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.
Engaging Pragmatic Philosophy From A Buddhist Perspective
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
In Ven. Wayne’s Dharma Talk on Buddhism and the Practice of Pragmatism he states, “Reading the story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening it is clear that the Buddha was a pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path. – Again, like with pluralism, we can use the Eightfold Path as an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must use our own knowledge and realization. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.” This is a very excellent and useful way of viewing Siddhartha’s worldview and method of teaching the dharma. It is not unusual then for American Buddhism to reflect pragmatic thought as the structured philosophy of pragmatism was given birth in this country. Ven. Wayne and I were both influenced by this perspective under the training we received in the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists, a uniquely American Buddhist socially engaged monastic order. You will encounter this theme often in our writings and while we engage the dharma.
I did a post a few days ago on viewing the ethical considerations of pragmatism. I thought I would now give a very brief description of the foundations of this philosophy to round out the series, and give our readers an opportunity to discover how pragmatism and Buddhism make great partners. It is up to you to find the cross roads and the lessons that can be derived from a studied perspective, and the usefulness that can be gained for your own practice and understanding of Buddhist thought in practical ways.
Pragmatism is a philosophical movement developed around the turn of the 20th century in the work of several American philosophers, most notably – Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey – and later shaped by Richard Rorty among others.
Morality in the Western tradition is derived from a model based on the notion that a commanding entity, a ruler or a divine creator, who tells us what to do. Overtime this model was secularized and in some philosophical positions substituted by reason. But the assumption is that morality is imposed on us from an external source – God, nature, reason, society, tradition, and family – for example. The primary question from a traditional perspective is “why be moral?” Why should we do something that is not in our interest? Plato articulated this question and it is with us today. It presupposes the notion that morality is not embraced willingly, but we must be persuaded that it is in our own interest to be moral.
The pragmatists reject this tradition and understand good conduct as “interest satisfaction.” Morality and interest are not in conflict because morality is interest fulfillment. In pragmatic terms, practice is primary and theories serve practice as they are instrumental. Practice is a complex and ongoing activity that is composed of many subsets of activities that serve our interests. A habit is a response to a need that enables us to achieve our end purposes. Habits are also constituted by conditions and consequences that have become means and the ends to our wants. Pragmatic perspective also view habits as modifiable to some extent, as such we exercise control of our behavior. So we can say that we can implement our will by modifying our habits. This is the foundation, in my opinion, of the Four Nobel Truths, and how we can move from an unsatisfactory state of being to one of social usefulness and living a harmonious and flourishing life.
In a general sense anything that affects our well being is a matter of morality. Specifically a moral issue arises when there is a conflict of interests, as when we have two or more goods we would like to achieve. We then must determine which one is the stronger, greater, and more important to our well being interest. This point of view suggest the importance of intelligence and education. We must be able to deliberate in a way as to take into account relevant information and select criteria that will enable us to determine what is the better course of action. (Situational Ethics)
When considering our obligation to act in a certain way, a pragmatists will reject the idea that there is a purely external command to obey. While there are obligations in how we live our lives and interact in social ways, it is the awareness of the social-self that is the obligation, recognizing we are not isolated individuals and free of the influence of obligations. A core Buddhist teaching.
So, pragmatism employs a criteria but one that is situational, not universal or dogmatic. It realizes that there may be a variety of habits reflecting diverse interest and remains tolerant, encompassing a diverse worldview. While it has no moral theory in the sense of a comprehensive morality, it does make use of theories in the service of practice and it has a general sort of account of morality or theory in the sense that it offers and understanding of morality and recommendations about what we should do. The moral dimension comes from integration with Buddhism. The important thing to remember, however, is that it is revisable and open to modification. This is the reason to see the Eightfold Path as encompassing and corrective.
The pragmatic approach when we find a problematic situation is to inquire. Specifically in a morally problematic situation an individual will most likely find competing interests where a choice is required. One makes this choice in a way similar to utilitarian’s, over a longer period of time and in the wider content what is in a person’s or the social best interest. It is also important for a pragmatic ethicist to consider the social conditions that have contributed to the formation of the situation requiring a moral response.
As we continue to write, discuss, and engage the dharma and current issues of interest, you will see how both of us weave the threads of pragmatism and Buddhist thought in ways that reflect the importance of viewing the world from a pragmatic perspective. It has enriched our individual practice, and provided a solid foundation from which to reflect the dharma.
Reference Source: “Classical American Pragmatism, Its Contemporary Vitality” Rosenthal, Hausman, Anderson 1999