Wednesday August 9, 2006


In a recent post over on Gareth’s Green Clouds blog there was some interesting discussion about ethics in relation to the two ideas of similarity and difference.

The discussion arose out a passage from Shunryu Suzuki. I have not read the whole essay, but I’ll quote the passage that Gareth drew from:

Maybe you will kill some animal, or insect. But when you think, “there are many earwigs here, and they are harmful insects, so I have to kill this one,” you understand things only in a dualistic way. Actually earwigs and human beings are one. They are not different. It is impossible to kill an earwig. Even though we think we may have killed it, we have not. Even though you squash the earwig, it is still alive. That momentary form may vanish, but as long as the whole world, including us, exists, we cannot kill an earwig. When we come to this understanding we can keep our precepts completely…
  …The way to observe the precepts is to have a complete understanding of reality. That is how you don’t kill.

In my response to this post, I suggested that there was something a bit chilling about this passage. In particular, I was uneasy with the section, “Actually earwigs and human beings are one. They are not different. It is impossible to kill an earwig… Even thought you squash the earwig, it is still alive”. Without imputing ill intentions to Suzuki himself, nevertheless this kind of reasoning seems potentially dangerous. To me it brought to mind the equally morally troubling passage from the Bhagavad Gita, in which Kirshna counsels Arjuna, “If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth. The Eternal in man cannot kill: the Eternal in man cannot die. .. When a man knows him as never-born, everlasting, never-changing, beyond all destruction, how can that man kill a man, or cause another to kill?” ( Bhagavad Gita Trans. Juan Mascaro. Penguin. 1962, 50)

In response to this, I suggested that perhaps – rather than an idea of unity or oneness – the recognition of difference might be an important part of ethical awareness. My suffering is not the same as another’s. Their suffering is not the same as mine. Can ethics be born out of this difference? I want to follow this thought here a little further.

In my previous post, I started to write about my work towards my PhD, and mentioned in passing the ethical thinking of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas’s phenomenological approach to ethics is rooted in an awareness of radical difference. The thing about other people, Levinas insists, is that they are other to us. We can poke them and prod them all we like, we can talk to them, we can befriend them, but whatever we do there is something we can’t get at, an irreducible difference. They cannot be fully made into objects for us, because their “interiority”, as Levinas calls it, is forever inaccessible. But this fact that there is something about others that is entirely and forever inaccessible to us, that others can never be made wholly a part of our scheme or our plan means that in the relationship with another there is a kind of ethical challenge or resistance. When I encounter another, what I encounter is an ethical obligation. Of course, I can refuse this obligation. I can turn away from them. I can do something unpleasant to them. But the obligation comes first. They are, and will remain, in one sense outside of my world, and there is nothing I can do about it. And if I do respond to this ethical demand or obligation – here is the crux – then I find that my obligation or my responsibility increases.

Take, for example, a fictitious old lady called Edna who lives across the road from me. Whenever I see her struggling in and out of the house I experience a demand: I should do something to help her out. She is old and lonely and frail. But perhaps I get annoyed by this thought and so start snarling at Edna, just to prevent myself from getting involved – and yet even this is a testimony to the original ethical demand I encounter in meeting her. Perhaps, however, I decide to respond to this demand, and I offer to go and get some shopping for her. Does this get me off the hook in the future? No! I’ve responded, and so the responsibility increases. It is harder to turn away next time, to go back to my snarling. A responsibility that increases in the measure to which I assume it, Levinas says. An infinite responsibility.

This would be all very well. But there are many others in the world with me. And I have infinite responsibilities towards all of them, responsibilities that increase as I assume them. Then the problem arises: how to I decide what to do, if everything I do must in a sense be a defaulting upon my responsibilities. But – looking on the bright side – if my responsibilities are never exhausted, there is always something I can do that can lead me out of the self-enclosure of my own little world, towards new possibilities. A liberation of sorts.

This is a very brief overview of the drama that Levinas sets out in his many books. Of course, his philosophy is far more subtle (and complicated) than this suggests, and there are some good Introductory Guides out there. But since I first came across Levinas, I have found this idea of the otherness of others as a spur to ethical reflection very persuasive. Not only does it seem to bear considerable reflection, but it also seems to me to be a useful way of thinking through the idea of the Bodhisattva, as I wrote in my previous post.

But to get to grips with the fact of difference is hard. Gary Snyder somewhere quotes what he claims is a Ch’an saying – although I cannot find the source: “Easy to enter Nirvana, difficult to enter difference.” We don’t like to think in terms of difference. It makes us uncomfortable. In popular Western Buddhism there is, it seems, a horror of something called “duality”, although it is not often clear precisely what is meant by this idea of duality, nor is it at all clear why it should be a bad thing. Against this unease with difference, Levinas acts as a reminder that it is important to recognise difference if we are to be able to respond to others.

Having said this, there seems to me to be little doubt that the stories that Levinas weaves about ethics are not the only ones that could be told, and that he goes too far in his insistence upon the importance of difference for ethics. In the traditional Vajrayana Buddhist schema of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, each Buddha has a separate wisdom. And in this schema the wisdom of Ratnasambhava, that of equality is balanced by the wisdom of Amitabha, the wisdom of discrimination. Perhaps both are needed – both a wisdom that sees difference, a wisdom that sees things as the same – for our ethics to be truly rooted in wisdom.

Image: Rebecca Snell

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#1 · ahimsaka

10 August 2006

There is the Bibical idea that man can kill man, but a man need not fear that, but to fear God for He is the One with the power to caste a soul into hellfire or to obilterate its existence.

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