Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is Buddhism opposed to individualism?

“Searching all directions with one’s awareness, one finds no one dearer than oneself. In the same way, others are fiercely dear to themselves. So one should not hurt others if one loves oneself.”

Who said that? Was it John Galt? No, it was the Buddha. The quote is from the Pali canon. Thanissaro Bhikkhu tells the delightful story behind the quote as follows in an article entitled ‘Hang on to your ego’, reproduced on the blog ‘Integral Options Cafe’:

‘King Pasenadi, in a tender moment with his favorite consort Queen Mallika, asks her, “Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” He’s anticipating, of course, that she’ll answer, “Yes, your majesty. You.” And it’s easy to see where a B-movie script would go from there. But this is the Pali canon, and Queen Mallika is no ordinary queen. She answers, “No, your majesty, there isn’t. And how about you? Is there anyone you love more than yourself?” The king, forced into an honest answer, has to admit, “No, there’s not.” Later he reports this conversation to the Buddha ... . the Buddha’s response is quoted above.

I was interested in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s discussion of examples in the Buddha’s teachings of tips on healthy ego functioning because it seems relevant to a question I have been thinking about, namely the extent that Buddhist views of ethics differ from western views. In a review article I wrote about gross national happiness (GNH) I related a statement by Karma Ura, president of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, that governments should ‘create conditions for happiness in which individual strivings can succeed’ to Robert Nozick’s view of the ethics of social cooperation. I suggested that conditions that enable individual strivings to succeed would correspond to Nozick’s most fundamental level of ethics – the ethics of respect – mandating among other things respect for the rights of others. Nozick views the ethics of respect as the foundation upon which higher levels of ethics, including caring for the needs of others, may grow. (References to my article are given in my last post).

Before reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s article I was wondering how I would respond if someone suggested that I have placed an inappropriate western interpretation on what Karma Ura was writing about when he referred to individual strivings. What if he was talking about individual strivings to overcome self-love? I am now more confident that when a Buddhist refers to individual strivings there is a good chance that whatever they are talking about is consistent with what a westerner might refer to as healthy individual functioning.

If the Buddhist view of individual strivings was fundamentally different to the western view I would expect this to be evident in the psychological well-being section of the GNH questionnaire. However, the questions seem to cover similar ground to comparable western questionnaires, including recognition of the importance of self-worth, self confidence, overcoming difficulties, facing up to problems and enjoying life.

Delving further into Buddhist views about individualism I was reminded that the Dalai Lama is skeptical about the importance of cultural differences between easterners and westerners on issues relating to emotional management and ethics. He suggests that there is a very strong element of individualism in Buddhism:

‘One of the four laws of karma is, if you do not create the cause you will not experience the result. If you have created the cause, you will definitely experience the result. All this is individual, so the experiences you have are tied into your individuality’ (as reported by Daniel Goleman in ‘Destructive Emotions’, 2003, p. 254).

None of this implies that Buddhists, or anyone else for that matter, should be in favour of an atomistic individualism. I discussed why here last year.

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