Sunday, August 14, 2011

Zen Master Corto

I've been thinking about right action lately a good deal. The stuff that's usually filed under 'ethics' or 'morality.' When I was somewhat younger, I did a bit of study of systems of ethics; conceptual constructs that can be used to determine whether an action is 'right' or not. Intentionalism and consequentialism. Absolutism and relativism. Imperatives and intuition. That sort of thing. At one point, I defined my ethical stance as that of policy utilitarianism.

Lately, though, I've come to think that none of that really works all that well. One underlying assumption with all these systems of ethics is that people know what they're doing. That they're working with enough information about the situation to be able to draw meaningful ethical conclusions from them. This is very similar to the fundamental assumptions underlying free market economics—that there are no information asymmetries, that all economic actors are rational utility-maximizers, and so on.

This just isn't true. Most of the time, we have no idea what we're dealing with, or entirely the wrong idea, or at most, a very superficial, partial picture of the situation. Here's where any systematic system of ethics falls down, no matter how rational or well grounded it is—by definition, any such system is a construct of imperatives, and if you feed it bad data, bad conclusions come out. And in ethics, these conclusions can have awful implications. Genocides wouldn't happen if the people perpetrating them wouldn't be really, deeply convinced that despite all the horror what they're doing is right.

Buddhism—especially Zen, I think—takes a completely different approach to the morality of action. The notion of Right Action isn't bound to any set of imperatives to be followed. Instead, it sidesteps the whole question, stating that Right Action springs from wisdom—prajña—moment by moment. The 'rules' you find in Buddhist teachings aren't ethical imperatives at all; they're forms of practice intended to help you discover this wisdom. Vinaya monks aren't supposed to sit on high chairs not because it's 'wrong,' but because not sitting on high chairs is helpful for their practice.

Needless to say, this is deeply unsatisfying, philosophically speaking. There are no answers to be found to ethical dilemmas there. Buddhism has nothing to say about the Trolley Problem or the Survival Lottery or any of the other thought experiments fiendish ethicists have concocted to acid test various systems of ethics.

Instead, Buddhist lore has reams of stories of buddhas and bodhisattvas, Zen masters and monks resolving thorny situations in unconventional ways. Of bodhisattva action in the moment; paramitas in action. Those aren't intended to be models to be emulated either, but rather as fingers pointing the way. Somewhere.

Corto Maltese is a fictional character. He was created by one Hugo Pratt.

Corto is an adventurer, sailor, soldier of fortune, smoker of thin Brazilian cigars, ever searching for the Great Treasure that ever evades him. Towards the end of his life, Hugo Pratt got pretty deep into all kinds of esoterica, about Atlantis and the Lost Continent of Mu, and his drawing got a bit sloppy too. Corto's adventures got weirder and weirder, spinning into psychedelic dream sequences and conversations with long-lost priests of Atlantis. I much prefer his earlier works, which are, on the surface of it, straightforward adventure tales in exotic locations. Only, they have no beginning and no end. Corto is introduced to the reader floating bound to a raft, to encounter and old enemy, or friend, in the middle of a story. At the end of that story, he sails off again. There is no real story arc, no dénouement, no satisfying conclusion. Just an endless wandering from place to place, story to story.

Through it, the character of Corto himself is a constant. Or, rather, it's almost as if he doesn't exist. His actions make no sense from the point of view of conventional motives. The question of why Corto does what he does in a given situation just doesn't arise. Why does Corto take the Armenian girl under his protection? Raspoutine variously suggests he wants to rape her, or seduce her, or is just an old sentimental. Yet Corto's actions suggest none of that. He barely even speaks to the girl, barely pays any attention to her at all, gives her no reassurance, makes no promises, creates no connection. He just has her tag along through the civil war of Turkey, to the one of Russia, and drops her off when she no longer needs him. When he plays cards for the life of a villain—and cheats: "Five aces in a deck with no jokers. Never in my life of gambling have I seen such a wonder," he says of his hand, and hands over the villain to his worst enemy, a convicted killer whom he has abused—he does it with a similar equanimity.

There's a familiar note there, the same one that rings in the Sayings of the Layman P'ang, or those stories of Nansen and Joshu, Rinzai, or Bodhidharma. In the situations they find themselves in, none of these characters have any special concern for themselves. It's as if they've removed their ego from the ethical equation altogether. The actor is at exactly the same level as every other character in the situation. He does what has to be done there. Yet there is no notion of self-sacrifice, self-abasement, or self-negation either. And no calculation, reflection, ethical hand-wringing. Only action. Sometimes things go wrong, but if so, there are no regrets either.

Could this be a hallmark of Right Action: the disappearance of the notion of motive? Should Sensei Corto be admitted among the Ancestors?

Further reading


  1. "Vinaya monks aren't supposed to sit on high chairs not because it's 'wrong,' but because not sitting on high chairs is helpful for their practice.

    Doesn't this imply a replacement of the issue of right/wrong with helpful/unhelpful? And if the answer is yes, how do we decide what is helpful and what is not? and what the purpose is?

    Basically, aren't ethics, and any of its possible replacements, just stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of the past and project ourselves in the future? and more importantly, is it there any evidence that any of the above isn't just a byproduct of how we are as a biological system, in the same way that the colours of the shell of a beetle are the byproduct of the chemicals in the shell?

  2. "Doesn't this imply a replacement of the issue of right/wrong with helpful/unhelpful?"

    No, not really. Helpful/unhelpful (more usually, skillful/unskilful) is at right angles to right/wrong. Buddhist philosophy posits that there is always a right way to act and many wrong ways to act; however, it's not possible to produce abstract rules to determine what these are. Instead, the determination can only happen moment to moment. Skilful activity is activity that helps develop the wisdom to recognize—and subsequently execute—the right action in any given situation.

    IOW, Buddhist ethics has nothing whatsoever to say about ethical thought experiments, because they're abstractions divorced from any real situation. There's a lot of literature with stories of how particular people acted in particular cases, and associated commentary about whether that activity was right or not, and if not, what would have been right. But there's no attempt to reduce it to abstract rules or principles.

    "And if the answer is yes, how do we decide what is helpful and what is not? and what the purpose is?"

    Deciding what's helpful or not is very tricky, as it's also situational and personal. A big path of Buddhist practice is trying to discover precisely that. There is no one ideal up to which you're supposed to live.

    There are collections of rules defined to apply to various groups of people. The Vinaya, by which monks live, is very long and very detailed, and is intended as a handbook for how to make the most of life as a monastic. Lay Buddhists are expected to adhere to somewhat shorter and simpler precepts. The traditional list goes something like "don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, don't misuse your sexuality, don't cloud your mind with intoxicants, and don't make a living selling them, or weapons of war." Not bad advice, as far as I'm concerned.

    "Basically, aren't ethics, and any of its possible replacements, just stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of the past and project ourselves in the future?"

    That would depend on your definition of 'story.' IMO most systems of ethics aren't really stories as much as constructs of imperatives -- do this, don't do that, because of this, because of that.

    "and more importantly, is it there any evidence that any of the above isn't just a byproduct of how we are as a biological system, in the same way that the colours of the shell of a beetle are the byproduct of the chemicals in the shell?"

    From a certain point of view, everything we are is a byproduct of how we are as a biological system. On the other hand, the biological system we are is a byproduct of what we do. Perhaps the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain -- but it's equally true that the brain is an epiphenomenon of the mind. You shape your brain by the way you think and act, and vice versa. As far as I'm concerned, it's kind of nonsensical to try to separate the two. We can draw a line somewhere, but that doesn't affect the reality; it's just a line we drew. The system remains what it is.

  3. Actually, never mind. The above doesn't make much sense; I should've thought more before replying.

  4. 'Skilled means' would imply a definite goal to achieve. That's fine and dandy, but I feel that, 'skilled means' is a post hoc rationalisation: was it skilful of Siddhartha to sit under the Bodhi tree to reach enlightenment? Did it matter even a little bit?

    No sitting on high chairs might be a skilful mean to achieve something, but that would be true only if the path to achieve that set goal were defined and reproducible. I do not know about that, all I can say is:

    -- if the means to an end are set, predictable and reproducible, then 'skill' is a measure on how well one stick to the path(s) set to achieve the end.

    -- if there are no set means to an end, the post hoc decision that something was the right thing to do (i.e. skilful means), is a post hoc rationalisation.

    Similarly, my comment about morality is that is (mostly) a post hoc rationalisation of what we decided was right/wrong. Moral imperatives are nothing more than a mean to prepare us for the future in view of the past.

    Anyway, all my writing above is drivel. Corto is no more moral than a door bell. A door bell is there to let me tell you I am at your door. Corto is there to let a certain story be told in a certain way. He's much cooler than a door bell, but has the same function in many ways. We are not characters in somebody else's comic, so things are different from us.

  5. I think Buddhism is a bit like playing the piano. It's a skill. You can practice it. Some people are more talented and more dedicated than others, so the levels of skill they will reach vary as well. People are also different in their temperaments, and learn in different ways. Somebody learns best by ear; someone else benefits greatly from studying music theory. So it goes with Buddhism. The different traditions contain a big grab bag of techniques that have been found to work on different kinds of people.

    Does learning to play the piano have an ultimate, definable, and set goal? If it does, I don't know what it is. I do know, however, that Glenn Gould was a marvelous pianist, and so was Thelonious Monk. Whatever each of them did to get there was skillful means, even if it wasn't the same.

    Also, we may not be characters in someone else's comic, but everyone else is a character in our comic. By now, Layman P'ang and Corto Maltese are approximately equally real. All we have are stories about them.

  6. I agree that different people learn 'the same thing' in different ways, but this simile seems to break once a give set of competence is achieved.

    Playing the piano seems to be the kind of activity where, once a sufficient skill is achieved -- play all the notes, the correct notes, etc -- any further learning would be a private introspective work for me, rather than a set of 'public' rules I'd have to follow.

    Whatever goal I set myself playing the piano would be in many ways intimately personal. I would be able to recognise the dead ends in my private learning path 'after the fact', and so I would be able to recognise the skilful means I used on myself only after, not before. So the issue of presenting a third party a set of skilful means to gett to whatever point in piano playing seems difficult, if not impossible: apart from the first 'objective' rules, all else boils down to subjective personal work and interpretation. That's why I find the idea of skilful means, or morality, a post hoc kind of affaire, rather than real effective tool we can use to manipulate the future.

    I am willing to say that you are a character in my comic only if you could prove I want to write a story. Corto' stories exist out of an explicit volition, our existence seems to be much more accidental, without direct explicit volition behind it. To me it is a big difference.

  7. Do you think you could progress as a pianist without having someone to sound off on? Someone who's also a proficient musician and/or appreciator of music? 'Cuz that's pretty much the role of the teacher in Buddhist practice -- someone to sound off on, who's able to suggest things for you to try, and give you feedback on your music.

    In the beginning, of course, s/he will assign you scales to play, and some traditions have a prescribed program you have to go through to get to that point. In a few of them -- the Tibetan one, for example -- that prescribed program can be rather arduous; probably more or less what you'd go through in a really tough conservatory.

    IOW, I think the analogy holds pretty well.

    Also, I do think I'm a character in your comic. I'd even say that that character has very little to do with me as I exist in other people's comics, or my own. You've only encountered one, very specific, very narrow facet of me, and you've made up a story to flesh that in. That's the way the mind works, whether you intend to or not.

  8. Disclaimer: my piano playing ability is asymptotic to 0, and my buddhism is 0. Having said that, I shall mince no words and say: sound off on my ass!

    Nobody can teach anything, the best a teach can do is to facilitate the act of learning, which is private to the pupil (in fact great teachers inspire desire for learning. Teachers who are well learned themselves, but are uninspiring are not great teachers). At some point all student - teacher relationship arrive to this: the teacher cannot facilitate learning any more, but the students uses the teacher as a prop. A good teacher should, in these circumstances, give the student a good boot up the ass, and send him swimming alone at the deep end.

    I damn well know many people find much confort clinging to a beloved teacher, and not taking the plunge in to the unknown. And I know damn well many teachers do not want to kick the students out: after all the teacher gets kudos, power and possibly money from the students.

    Nonetheless, past a certain point all learning does not depend on a teacher to sound off on, but on one's own judgement of what is right (skilled means) and what did not work. Past a certain point external validation is no more and no less than an opinion.

    That's why I say that 'skilled mean' is likely to be apost hoc rationalisation of 'what worked', and not a hard fact that we can use to manipulate the future. I'd actually add that to recognise 'what worked' one has to do 'what did not work', and a mature through mistakes. Hence a pre-cooked skilled means highway might be useful as a clear intro, but long term is not likely to take one very far.

    And as a character in my comic you are damn well misbehaved, and you seem to wilfully ignore the end of the book where my opinion triumphs to great rejoicing! ;)

  9. In that case, all I can say is... I disagree. Without someone (with sound judgment) to sound off on, you'll just devolve into a moronic maze of your own construction. That applies just as well to advanced students as to beginners. In fact, it's one very common way teachers go bad -- surrounded by googly-eyed students with no peers to sound off on, they go bonkers and start a religion, a philosophy, or a political party. Or a war, in some cases.

    Hm. Could that explain your entirely wrong-headed opinions, I wonder?

    (I agree with you about the role of the teacher, though.)

  10. I often think of starting a religion -- I'm quite happy to tell people how to live their lives.

    The problem is, to make it work I'd have to bind people to me hands and feet, making them quit their jobs, families etc, so that all but the strongest would be devoted to me to the death, rather than face the fact they destroyed their lives to follow me.

    I cannot be arsed to do any of that. If I could start a religion where people send me now and then at most a tenner, and they take my advice with a healthy helping of salt I'd do it. Most importantly I want people to come to me for guidance rarely, and go back to their families quickly.

    My natural misanthropy is proving a big obstacle to fulfil my potential as the new messiah. Meh.

    Mind you, if you have the urge to send me a tenner feel free.

  11. I'm inclined to think being a cult leader would be more trouble than it's worth anyway. D'you take PayPal?