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Thougths on personal ethical responsibility

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.” – Gandhi

This encapsulates for me the issues I’ve struggled with in Buddhism. Gandhi, a Hindu, points out that the teachings of one religious leader or another never, ever, trump morality. If you behave in a way that is immoral (or unethical) you are acting against the will of your spiritual practice – REGARDLESS of what your pastor, priest, rabbi, or guru says.

I had a personal falling out with Shambala after I read some of the details of the founder’s behavior. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche did some seriously unethical things in his life. He was promiscuous with his followers, he was known for being verbally abusive, was a raging drunk, and he even encouraged and condoned the promiscuity of his HIV-positive successor, resulting in several people becoming infected. Rinpoche did some amazing things in his life, too, and a lot of his teachings are really wonderful. Now, if you follow Buddhist teaching, everyone is allowed to be a fuck-up. Fucking up is part of what it means to be human. But in my estimation, he took this a step further, and found a way to conveniently sanctify his screw ups. He claimed that a guru could behave in an irrational, abusive, and destructive manner towards his student, if he felt that the student needed that experience to progress in his or her personal growth. He called this “crazy wisdom.” Uh-huh.

Let’s review Gandhi’s quote again, shall we?

“As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side.”

So do non-theistic Buddhists have a loophole because they have no God to answer to? As a non-theist, I’m going to answer with a resounding “no.” If anything, we non-theists should understand with perfect clarity how important it is to strive to be ethical and compassionate in our lives, since we don’t have a strong belief in a post-mortality cosmic spanking or reward. What you do on earth matters, because as far as we know, it’s all we have. If you’re unkind, cruel, or abusive towards another person, no matter how “enlightened” you are, I don’t believe that it’s justifiable. I’m not saying that you can be a teacher and never hurt someone’s feelings. We’re not talking about being truthful, we’re talking about being deliberately hurtful.

Since the Buddah said that the first noble truth of life is suffering, I believe that life presents us enough opportunities to suffer and then grow, without some crazy-ass guru screwing with us. Call me crazy. Just don’t call me crazy-wise.

There are countless examples throughout human history of a movement, religion, or organization deciding at some point that it supersedes the boundaries of morality. We all know, in retrospect anyway, that the Spanish Inquisition, the concentration camps, and 80’s hairstyles were all fundamentally wrong (okay maybe not the last one, but you know what I mean).

I had a point here. What was it? Oh, right. No matter what you believe, you don’t get a golden ticket that says you can turn your ethical decision making process over to someone else. And even if you think you do, you don’t. Whether you have to answer to a God at the end of your life, or just your own conscience, your actions are your own.