Engaging Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Three ethical ideals are the foundation of an Engaged Buddhist practice. They are pragmatism that arises from the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition of my teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, and his teacher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long; pluralism as it arises from its value in connecting with others in a respectful and productive way; and in a commitment to practice as practice is the only way to experience the teachings of the Buddha as they can be positively applied to contemporary life. From these three ideals arises the moral actions that are most likely to have positive karmic consequences for the individual and for society.

Pragmatism is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. In Engaged Dharma those ideals can be trimmed down to the importance of language, because it is how ideas and concepts are recognized; as well as the importance of going beyond language to experience the realization of the value of a teaching when it is put into practice.

In the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River” the language teaches a lesson on attachment, while the experience teaches one of the value of pragmatism.

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.”

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.
In Buddhist philosophy and in American Pragmatic philosophy importance is placed on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it’s focus is on “what we can do right now to make things better” strengthens an engaged practice. The Buddhist worldview underwent changes, and affected changes in the worldviews it encountered as it spread from India across the continents. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews, such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

In the parable of the “Monks at the River” a pragmatic lesson is one of detachment. It is a valuable skill to know when to detach from the letter of a rule, and instead act with the intent of an entire body of teaching. The senior monk knew the rules, but he used them as a guide to taking the most appropriate action dependent on each unique situation. Pragmatically this is known as thinking and acting situationally. The junior monk was dogmatically focused on the rule, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” His lack of experience wasn’t allowing him to realize that the senior monk’s decision was based on the Three Pure Precepts and the ideal of skillful action as taught by the Awakened One.

The senior monk, seeing a human being in need set aside dogmatism and achieved an appropriate view of the situation. That led him to take appropriate action to alleviate suffering.
Cease to do harm – If he left the woman stranded she would undergo the suffering of anxiety and fear and possibly drown or be injured.

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 a causally conditioned 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 responding 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.

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 engage the teachings as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and productive. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. 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 that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.
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.

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