Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Improved Buddhism's Behavioral Code and Deception

Two of the things which a religion can still give to individuals in the twenty-first century are a behavioral code and a set of goals. To try and understand the details of how the first one might work, consider one activity which is usually considered deplorable, except by those who do it professionally, but is widespread in its extent and variety. That is deception.


What should a behavioral code say about deception? Not lying is an important rule of conduct in many religions, for example, the Inca code had only three precepts, but one was not lying.


A behavioral code needs at the top level, a set of principles that can be elaborated into many diverse situations. In the original Eightfold Path of Buddha, one of the principles is 'Right Speech', which means not only not lying, but speaking the truth, as well as knowing when to say what needs to be said, to avoid gossip and chatter, and to speak primarily about obtaining the goals of the speaker, which are supposed to be taken from another spoke of the eightfold path.


Buddha in his teaching years, would explain what right speech meant in the context of some scenario. These are still interesting and relevant, but today we have both an elaboration or generalization of speech and a widening of its scope. In Buddha's time there was no writing, only speaking, and so there would be no way for him to add 'right writing' as another prinicple. This must be obtained, if one takes 'right speech' as a tentative commandment for improved Buddhism, by elaborating on the reasons behind the choice of 'right speech' as one of the spokes of the Eightfold Path. The general concept employed here is communication. 'Right speech' needs to be parlayed into something like 'right communication', meaning there is no exception given for communicating the right things via texting, video call, radio performance, TV presentation, Netflix movie, advertising billboard, or any of the other means that our society uses.


Things have gotten so much more complicated. Back in Buddha's day, there was certainly an advantage to be gained by deception, but it was miniscule compared to what exists today. A farmer at a market might misrepresent the condition of some goods or an animal, in order to gain something more in exchange, but this was limited by the long-term local residency of the people involved, meaning they lose something in reputation if they gain something by deception. There is less reputation loss today, owing to the chaos in most marketplaces, although some electronic forums provide a substitute for it.


The elaboration of the precepts of a behavioral code is analogous to the task of elaborating laws based on a nation's constitution. The constitution, like the behavioral code, contains some general principles, and how they are applied depends on the decisions made in legal suits and elsewhere involving them. There are two extremes to the methodology by which this happens, and neither extreme works well by itself – always there is a compromise. One of the extremes is to allow precedent to be dictatorial. Once someone in authority makes a decision, that holds unless some exceptionally unusual situation arises and precendent is overturned. The other one of the extremes is to reason directly from the constitution for each situation, and re-think how it should be applied. In the former extreme, there is often contradictory precedent, if one digs deep enough, and then this allows some latitude toward making new decisions based on the perceived principles in the constitution. In the latter extreme, going through the effort to rethink the derivation of special cases, which are often repetitive, from the constitution is hardly worth the effort, when written explanations are available with previous derivations.


Unfortunately for static beliefs, there are many interpretations of any collection of general rules, involving different definitions of the words involved, different contexts in which they can be applied, different imputations of the ideas of the original writers of the principles, which might be used to better understand the implications of them, and then there is also the idea that there is some obsolesence in the principles and they need to be updated to better serve in modern times. The writers of constitutions sometimes write explanations of the meanings behind the principles, and sometimes these are as amenable to multiple explanations as the constitution itself. Thus, writing general principles is a risky business, if one wants to try and create something that accomplishes a goal over a long period.


Military organizations have the same problem. A general or admiral can give orders, and as these orders are filtered down through the military hierarchy, many more details need to be added to them in order to make them complete enough for successive levels to obey and implement. Lower ranks are supposed to be trained to make these elaborations properly, but judgement always intrudes into it, meaning there is no exact method for carrying out a general high-level order. The implementations are sometimes very important, as the results of a battle could depend on the details of them. This is similar to the interpretation of constitutions, where serious civil and criminal results might depend on just how a particular phrase or sentence is interpreted. Corporations are little different, in that decisions made at high levels need to be implemented properly down to the lowest level.


Given all this possible variance between the initial ideas of the founders of a religion and the authors of the behavior code, it would seem to be an excellent idea to define just what is to be accomplished by the behavioral code, perhaps, principle by principle. For the 'right speech' one, what is the benefit that is to be received by someone committing to following it, and as a question lying behind that one, what are the benefits that fall to society when the large majority follows the rule, and exactly who does 'society' represent.


In fact, if following a rule directly and immediately benefits the individual doing it, there is no reason that any behavioral code is needed, simply allow the individuals to pursue their own benefit. So the question about a behavioral code is are the benefits to the individual in some delayed, and possibly amplified fashion, or are the benefits to the individual of a different type, perhaps difficult to quantify? Or is the behavioral code for the purpose of dragooning individuals into following rules against their own benefits, either immediately or postponed, so that some group referred to as 'society' might benefit?


Consider advertising, so as to narrow the diverse possibilities of fraud and deception. Should a new Buddhist who has influence on advertising follow some specific rules that differ from the ones followed now? Advertising has at least three functions, one is to provide information to a potential buyer, another is to indicate the availability of a product or service from a particular seller, and a third is to induce an individual to purchase the product or service, possibly in the absence of justification, or despite objections, better choices, alternatives, different sellers, and many other reasons why it might not happen. The first one is where the usual and obvious forms of deception occur. In providing information, if there are misrepresentations, this can lead to the reversal of any arrangements so that the misrepresentations, if discovered, will not lead to gains. Factual errors, if stated explicitly, are the easiest types of fraud to discover.


A somewhat worse problem lies in the non-explicitly presented information. If something is hidden, a particular fault, then this might be grounds for a contract or agreement to be abrogated. However, if something is simply not stated, or words are used to indicate that some particular fact is true without explicitly stating it, then these grounds often do not exist. Thus, this is the area in which elaboration about 'right speech' is needed.


Buddha's and later teachers' instructions in this regard were more clear: not only do not lie, but tell the truth and do not misrepresent. These instructions also cover the area of the third type of false advertising: one where the goal is to induce purchase on the basis of emotional projections, rather than a sound basis. There is an advertising industry component that is built on inducing sales, for example by showing a happy group of people consuming something for sale, either implying they are happy because they consume this particular item, or that people who are happy consume it and they serve as examples of how to be happy.


An improved Buddhism version of 'right speech' would include strictures against false presentation of this nature. There might even be a substantial dialogue or document on what type of advertising conforms with Buddhist teaching and what does not. The advertising industry would have to change its methods if it chose to act along with improved Buddhist principles.


Advertising is simply one example, perhaps the most blatant and obvious one, about the intersection of 'right speech' and modern life. There can be many more. Some require deep thought and consideration, for example, fiction. Fiction plays a role in modern society and affects it, and what guidance might be given to a prospective author of a fiction masterpiece-to-be? Law provides a dilemma. Can a lawyer for a indicted individual lie to gain an innocent verdict, if the person indicted is actually guilty? There is a division here, in that, at least in some legal traditions, everyone deserves to be fairly heard, with the assistance of a legal expert, a solicitor or lawyer, if necessary. But can that expert state falsehoods, ones he knows to be false? It is not part of the legal tradition that guilty parties be falsely exonerated, but somehow the tradition of having representation has been reduced to that.


To develop a behavioral code for improved Buddhism that is appropriate for the twenty-first century involves first deciding on the fundamental basis for the code, meaning who does it benefit and how. Then it involves going through a list of behavioral categories, such as 'right speech', and determining how they operate in this modern world. Each of these categories will probably have multiple subcategories, and parables or scenarios or other easily-understood discussions need to be created for each of them. Then the body of the behavioral code will be complete.


One item about a behavioral code should be mentioned. If there is no supernatural rewards for following it, what methods need to be used to ensure that it is followed to a large extent? Buddha's example of making false promises, involving some unknown future existences, is actually a violation of 'right speech', in today's view, but of course it was not during his era. Obviously, much care needs to be taken to avoid something similar.


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