Tag Archives: parables

The Middle Way: Rewriting the Buddha’s life

Once upon a time, there was a lonely and dissatisfied prince. He lived in a castle with everything he could ever wish for. Every toy he could want, servants to fulfil his every desire, musicians and storytellers to entertain him. He was educated by tutors, who never complained of his application to his studies. He would also go out in the grounds and excel in sports – particularly in archery and fencing. His parents doted on him, for he seemed to be the ideal young prince. He was fit and handsome and well-educated. He did everything that was expected of him.

Every so often, though, he would sneak away from the servants to go and sit under a tree. At that point he loved the silence, listening only to the birds in the trees. He often felt more content then than during any of his amusements. But at the same time, he sometimes became aware of a deeper dissatisfaction – a sense that his life was missing something important.

When he grew older, his parents arranged a marriage to a noble girl who was lovely, kind and thoughtful, insisting that the marriage take place in the chapel of the castle, and that the young couple continue to live in one of the wings. For a while, the prince forgot almost everything in his bride’s arms. They had a little son, and he, too, was charming. He felt the pride of a young father.

And yet, he didn’t entirely lose his habit of sneaking away to sit under a tree. The next time he did so, he began to muse about the walls of the castle grounds and what lay beyond them. It was only then that he realised he had never been beyond those walls.

He went to see his parents. “Why have I never been outside the castle?” he asked. “Other people go away, on trips and visits and tours, do they not? Why have I not been on any of those?”

His mother frowned. “We didn’t want you to be uncomfortable on long journeys, or get any of the bad habits some people have out there” she said. “If you would like more guests to divert you, we could bring them into the castle. Why do you want to go outside?”

“I want to see what it’s like outside.”

“Ah, well, I suppose you are old enough to decide for yourself” she sighed. “But do keep the castle servants with you for your own protection. You don’t know how rough it can be out there: people wanting to trick you or rob you.”

It was agreed that the prince could go outside with his old tutor, and they got into the carriage together. “Where do you wish to go, sir?” asked the coachman.Buddha_leaving_his_family,_a_mural_at_Mulagandhakuty_Vihara,_Sarnath - Ajay Tallam

“Anywhere. Outside.”

“Would his highness prefer a ride in the countryside, perhaps, or a trip to the town?”

“Take me to the town.”

So, within quite a short time they were clopping through cobbled streets. The prince looked out of the windows and gazed at everything. He saw rows of severe houses built from grey stone. He saw stray dogs and cats. He saw workmen tramping to and fro. He saw traders hawking their wares. He saw prostitutes sitting on doorsteps with too much make-up and half-unlaced bodices. He saw beggars with hollow cheeks and missing limbs. He saw a starving child who had died in the hands of her frantic, emaciated young mother. He saw ladies and gentlemen in fine clothes picking their way superciliously through this chaos.

“Stop!”

The coach drew to a halt at his command, and the prince began to get out.

“Where are you going? Let me come with you, sir” said the old tutor, mindful of his duty to guard the young prince.

“No” said the prince. “I wish to go alone. Wait here and I will come back when I am ready.”

The prince picked his way over unfamiliar cobblestones, marvelling at everyone and everything he saw. “Good day, sir!” cooed a prostitute, “Would you like a good time with me?”

The Prince turned to her: “Why are you dressed like that? Have you no better way to earn your living?”

“None, sir. But do take kind pity on me sir, and I can make it worth your while in pleasure.”

“I do pity you” replied the Prince, “But I have pleasure enough already.” He put down his hand to find his purse, only to discover it was gone. He looked round and found some ragamuffin boys scuttling away at the end of the street. Still, he was not distressed. He had never known lack of money to be a problem.

A little further on, he again came across the emaciated young mother carrying a dead child. She sat on a doorstep, lost in depression.

“I am sorry for your loss, miss” he said, “But will you not bury your child?”

“I have no money to pay the gravedigger” she replied slowly. “Will you help me, sir? You look both rich and kind.”

“I wish I could give you some money,” said the Prince, “But my purse has been stolen. Here.” He took off his wedding ring and gave it to her. “Have this instead. Perhaps you can sell it.”

The young woman gasped. “You are very generous, sir, but I cannot accept this.”

“Why ever not?”

“Because it is your wedding ring, sir, and if I was your wife I would not be happy at that. I know what it is like to be wronged by a man, sir.”

“I am leaving her anyway. I have to look for something better – something better than a comfortable life in the castle with her. Something that addresses all this.” The Prince had not decided this until he found himself saying it. “My wife will be well looked after. She lives in a castle and is the daughter-in-law of a king.”

The young woman looked at him wide-eyed, as though she was unable to decide whether to believe him or not. The Prince forced the ring into her hand and turned away.

After that he wandered aimlessly through the filthy streets, his mind in turmoil. Did he really mean what he had just said? Why had he said it? Then he realised that finding answers was far more important to him than obeying his parents or feeling comfortable and secure. He would have to endure discomfort and insecurity and find out what that was like. He felt secure about his wife and child. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them – he did – but other things were more important for the moment. He had no duty to provide for them that would not readily be fulfilled by others. He felt sure that he could come back to his wife in future, and they would pick up their loving relationship where they had left off.

He never returned to where the coach was waiting. After several hours they returned to the castle and raised the alarm. Dozens of servants were dispatched to scour the town. But they were too late. They never found him.

Several months later, a thin-looking young man, dressed in rags, appeared at the door of the Bishop. The Bishop was a great scholar, a great theologian and a well-known churchman of his time. The young man in rags rang the front-door bell, and the butler answered. “Round the back!” snapped the butler, “How dare you ring the front door bell?”

“Sorry” replied the Prince disarmingly. “Old habits die hard. I know my place as a homeless beggar, but that’s not my background. Please could I speak to the bishop?”

The butler was taken aback. This was just not how homeless beggars spoke or behaved in his experience. After some muttering, he went to the Bishop and explained the situation. The Bishop told him to show the young man in.

They then had a long conversation. The Prince was completely frank about his background, and about why he had left home and resigned his royal status. “But I know almost nothing about religion” he said. “I need to find a deeper truth, a purpose to my life, and I am told that you are a great religious teacher. Please will you instruct me?”

The bishop, who was a discerning and sincere man, was so taken by the young man in rags and his story that he agreed immediately to take him in – and also not to unnecessarily let his presence be known to the parents, who were still hunting for him. “I do not have a great deal of time” he said, “But as my duties allow, I could supervise your studies in theology. In return, though, perhaps you could contribute to the household a little. Are there perhaps some skills you already have in which you could tutor my young children?”

The Prince searched his mind. “Erm, archery? fencing?”

The bishop looked doubtful as to whether these were suitable occupations for his children. “Well” he said at length, “We can see whether they show any interest in learning such pursuits.”

The Prince stayed with the bishop for two years after that. His life was regular and disciplined in that house, his diet sparing, and his time given largely to study, thought and prayer. By the end of this time he could read Greek, Latin and Hebrew with some fluency. He knew the Bible well and was also familiar with the commentaries, church fathers and main theological writers. His special delight, however, was the mystics. He immersed himself in Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart. He tried all their spiritual exercises, and tried to immerse himself in the love of God. But somehow he never felt that he succeeded. Love, yes, he could feel plenty of that – open, charitable love. But when he was told that the love of God was higher than that, that he must resign himself utterly, he was filled with a recognition, not just that he could not give up his human love, but that this was not the right path, not quite. He could not resign himself to God, any more than he could resign himself to the authority of his parents. Not that he could not live like that obediently for a while, but there was a more important moral urge within him.

After two years, the Prince came up to the Bishop and told him he had decided to move on. “I am very grateful indeed for your taking me in, and for your instruction” he told the Bishop, “But I have realised that the religious life is not quite what I am looking for – not quite. I need to move on. A shame, when your children’s archery is coming on so well, but I’m sure you can find them another archery instructor.”

“We will miss you” said the Bishop, “You have become a valued member of the household. Where will you go? What will you do?”

“I have no idea” replied the Prince. “Last time I left my old life without the faintest idea where I was going, and this time I expect it will be the same. Somehow I will find a way.”

So the Prince went forth once again. After leaving the house of the Bishop, he wandered up into the hills. He sat on a rock amongst the heather looking down at the town below, considering. In his first life, he reflected, he had had every desire fulfilled, yet he had been under the power of his parents at every minute. Their suffocatingly conventional beliefs about good princely behaviour had been the only value he knew, but those beliefs were built on – what? Convention, tradition, social status, family honour. In his second life, on the other hand, his desires had been well-controlled, his life disciplined by religious beliefs. But what were these beliefs based on? On God’s authority, on the Bible, on the Church. In some ways this life seemed to be opposite to the first, but in many ways it was also the same. There were many social expectations, there was authority, and there was his will, apparently opposed to that authority. Did goodness only consist in obedience? He could not understand how that could be so.

Did either of these ways of life help the young woman with the dead child in her arms, or her kind? Not really. The young woman suffered from not being free, from being exploited by the rich and by men, from not being educated or able to judge for herself, from not being able to realise her potential. Those who based their teachings on power, whether it was the power of God or of human traditions, would not address her needs. Perhaps they sincerely meant to – to fulfil Christ’s message to give to the poor, for example – but the very way they justified their messages, through authority, would undermine this sincere intention.

It was not that the Prince did not believe in God, he decided, it was that he did not feel that God was an authority that he should follow. After all, all the ideas about God’s will came from the speeches and writings of men. The right way to judge, the right way to live his life – that did not come from authorities, but from the sense of balance within his experience.

At last the Prince was clear. He did not need to look any further for a profound truth. All he needed was a direction, a method of thinking. If he knew how to judge the right direction in any situation, he would know how to act. He realised that he should learn from whoever he met, that they would all help him understand the world around him, but that he should live life on his own terms. When someone told him what to do, he should listen and weigh their views, but not accept their power over him. He would make his own decisions, not in reaction but in discourse, open but firm.

As the sun set, the Prince loped down the hill. Half an hour later, he had found a stagecoach to take him to the town by the palace. The next day, he walked into the castle, past the astonished servants, but did not first go to see his parents. He went to see his wife and son and embraced them. “I’ve been missing you so much” she said, distraught with joy. “It’s been a long time. They told me you were dead, but I didn’t believe them.”

“I’m sorry” he said, and his eyes filled with tears. “I was away of my own will. I needed to work out how to live my life, but now I am clearer. The first thing I suggest is that you must move out of this castle. I cannot come back to live here. We need a place of our own.”

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Rewriting the life of the Buddha

Anyone familiar with the life of the Buddha should recognise here a somewhat transmogrified version of the earlier part of it. I take the early life of the Buddha, not as a piece of history (though it may also, at least in some respects, be that) but as an inspiring parable. I feel entirely free to alter the telling of any parable so as to bring out one aspect or another of its message, for its significance lies in the universal patterns it reveals, not in particular historical claims. In this case, the message of the parable is the nature of the Middle Way, so I felt that this message could be brought out more directly for a Western audience by transposing the story to a more Western setting (I imagine England a few centuries ago, but please do not let us get caught up on details of historical accuracy that are no more relevant to the significance of the story here than they would have been in ancient India).

The traditional Buddhist narratives of the life of the Buddha also tend to focus on the Buddha’s achievement of nirvana. I, however, am not so much interested in this supposed achievement as in the approach or method he was said to have used to achieve it – the Middle Way. Placing the discovery of the Middle Way in England also enables it to be shorn of many cultural accretions that are merely Indian, and to explore what such a discovery might have meant if it had happened in England. Whilst it is very easy (at least, for me, with a thoroughly universalised account of its meaning) to place the discovery of the Middle Way in England, it would be much more difficult to imagine the enlightenment, loaded as it is with specific cultural and religious expectations from its Indian context, taking place in England. Added to this, I do not think it is at all significant whether or not the enlightenment took place. It may have done for all I know, but this supposed achievement is very often made the basis of authority claims in the Buddhist tradition that in my view are not compatible with the Middle Way. At the very least, then, it needs to be omitted from the story here, so as to provide a clear and uncluttered account of the recognition of the Middle Way.

The most significant lines of the story, however one chooses to flesh them out, are of a confined young person in a place of highly conventional (and thus relative) values, followed by a traumatic confrontation with the full difficulties of wider conditions. In an attempt to be adequate to these wider conditions, and with an intuition of a deeper meaning, the young man leaves the scene of his confined youth and wanders the wider world. He then learns from religious teachers who offer a supernaturally-authorised, highly disciplined way of life. Although he learns much from this training, it does not fulfil what he is intuitively looking for and he moves on. After engagement with both these extremes, then, learning from each but in the end firmly moving on, the young man hits on the Middle Way: the need to avoid dogmas on either side, together with subjection to the power that uses them. Such avoidance of dogmas, positive or negative, will enable him to avoid delusions that cause limitations on both sides and engage more effectively with conditions of all kinds. Such a narrative could conceivably be told in all sorts of different ways, set in different times, places and cultures.

“Engaging effectively with conditions”, is a necessarily broad phrase if we are to understand the Middle Way in a sufficiently flexible and relevant way – not even just, it should be noted, a question of overcoming suffering, important and ambitious enough though that is. However unexciting the phrase may sound, though, “engaging effectively with conditions” is one hell of a big deal. It may mean, for example, providing adequate education for the poor and improving the status of women. It may mean personal or political action on global warming. It may mean improving your relationship with your mother. It may mean following through an artistic impulse repressed in earlier life. The fact that one cannot specify anything as concrete as any of these examples in defining the Middle Way does not mean that any of these things are not what it might mean in practice for you. It does mean, as long as we describe the Middle Way in such a broad way, that we are even-handedly engaging with whichever of them turn out to be relevant to our lives.

In the case of the Prince, then, when thinking about how to end the story, I fell to considering how he could apply the Middle Way most relevantly to his life. It seems obvious that he has, at least, unfinished business to engage with in relation to the young family he left behind, and thus that his first application of the Middle Way should be, not to go back to his previous confined life in the castle, but at least to engage with the important conditions represented by his family in a more balanced way. To move his family out, particularly in a culture where that would presumably have been at least a possibility, thus seems the best solution. Coming from where he comes from, and being at the point he was, that seems more important than going on to have profound meditation experiences or founding a monastic order – not that we should rule out either of those possibilities for his subsequent life.

The Buddha’s abandonment of his wife and child is always a difficult point in the interpretation of the original story – one where I have often found Buddhists getting rather defensive in support of their hero’s honour. This aspect of the story conveys the ideal of complete renunciation of wealth and family life found in Indian religious culture, in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but I would not accept the culturally relativist gloss of “It was OK for him in his time and place”, for much more universal issues are at stake. There may be times when renunciation of some kind is a necessary part of distancing oneself from old habits and assumptions, so as to oblige oneself to move on new and better ones, and that is the positive part of what the story conveys for me. However, there is no denying the likely long-term psychological effects of a father’s early desertion (let alone a mother’s): how negative these may be depend very much on the context, but it is very hard to see them as positive either from the child’s or the other parent’s point of view, even if (as in the Buddha’s and the Prince’s case) there are no issues of financial or practical support.

Having been myself, during the time when I was a practising Buddhist, irresponsibly encouraged to desert my young family by some senior Buddhist practitioners, who had little detailed understanding of my context, I do think the interpretation of this part of the story needs challenging. Renunciation is not a good thing to be absolutised in itself. Nor is it always bad, but a great deal of caution needs to be exercised before encouraging it, when others are affected. Renunciation is also probably best seen not as an all-or-nothing matter, as it often is. Those who need to renounce may limit the social damage by making it a temporary or partial measure, and it seemed to me that for the Prince’s absence for two years followed by a re-unification with his family was the best way of showing an application of the Middle Way in the story: it tried to do justice both to the importance of his quest, and to the importance of his family relationships.

This story portrays a Middle Way that is a principle of judgement, avoiding the extremes of either positive or negative dogma. The ways those dogmas are revealed in the Prince’s early life are primarily as absolute and relative values – moral absolutism and moral relativism. I think these are also the most relevant and important extremes that are avoided in the traditional life of the Buddha, the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ of the Buddhist tradition being largely ways of representing this moral opposition in terms of the argument going on in ancient India about the eternal self or its absence.

For moral absolutists, such as the Bishop, there needs to be some absolute source of authoritative values, and some mechanism by which these absolute demands can be fulfilled regardless of human weakness and sinfulness. For ancient Indians, this was the device of multiple lives occurring through rebirth, allowing one enough time to do the incredible amount of work on oneself that was necessary to become enlightened. Eternalism (belief in the eternal, transmigrating self) thus went hand-in-hand with moral absolutism. For European Protestants, with only a single life, though, the device is salvation by faith, whereby those who believe sufficiently in Christ’s sacrifice can gain admission to heaven, and avoid having to fulfil the exacting demands of God’s law. The ‘nihilists’ in ancient India denied the eternal self, and thus more importantly denied the absolute ethics that went with it, leading them to fall back on conventional values or individual preferences. In England, on the other hand, I imagine that all that is required to be ‘nihilist’ (in the earlier centuries when outright atheism was extremely rare) is to be rather conventional and not worry too much about salvation by faith, worrying about what the neighbours think more than what God may think. In either context, the important contrast lies between moral absolutism and moral conventionalism, and it is this opposition that the Prince encounters and eventually goes beyond.

There is thus a deep connection between the Middle Way as depicted in this story and that in the life of the Buddha, in terms of the extremes avoided. Similar stories could potentially be created, though, where the extremes were rather different – for example, freewill and determinism, or realism and idealism. All that is really required is that the opposed beliefs involved contradict each other and give rise to opposing values. The parable story of the hero (who could of course be female, or a different age) merely needs to show the same dialectical structure, in which the benefits of each extreme are recognised and incorporated into a better, more integrated view.

I could thus potentially write a whole book of variations on the life of the Buddha. Apart from a Christian version, we could have a Muslim and a Jewish one. We could have variety of cultures and locations, ages, social statuses, gender, sexual orientation, political viewpoints… The Middle Way, as I keep saying, is universal. If I have maintained a certain conservatism in some respects here (for example, keeping the hero as a young male with high social status) it is from a wish to keep some incidental thematic connections with the original. It is also not surprising, that being myself a white English middle-class male, I want to write about a Buddha that is not too far away, so that I can still feel culturally at home with him myself. But I invite others to experiment with multiple variations on this theme that convey their own experience.

Picture: Buddha leaving his family: mural from temple in Sarnath, photo by Ajay Tallam (CCSA 2.0)

Other Middle Way parables:  Achilles and the Tortoise, An Acre of Forest, The Lute StringsThe Ship, The Boredom of Heaven, Ten Variations on the Good Samaritan, The Firefighter and the Stockbroker

The Firefighter and the Stockbroker

A firefighter and a stockbroker were old friends from school. They met at a school reunion, and started talking about the pros and cons of each of their jobs.

“Of course it’s dangerous,” the firefighter was saying, “But after a while in the job you get really good intuitions, so you tend to know what’s really dangerous and what isn’t.”

“Intuitions?”

“Yeah, you just know without having to think about it, because you’ve seen it all before so many times. You just know when a building’s about to collapse, for example, and you have to get out fast. And you can tell when it’s reasonably safe to try to get someone out of a fire, and when it isn’t so you’ve probably lost them. It doesn’t help anyone for you to die as well.”

“So do they always work, the intuitions? Do people get caught out?”

“Sometimes, but probably less than you’d think. It’s often the younger ones, the one’s with less experience, that get it wrong. For me, now I’ve been doing it for fifteen years now, it’s like a sixth sense. I couldn’t ignore when my sixth sense is telling me a roof’s about to fall in than I could ignore something I saw or heard.”

“But do you see and hear things that set it off? Like creaks?”

“Oh yes. But there’re different kinds of creaks. Some of them are dangerous creaks and others not so dangerous.”

The stockbroker reflected, “There are intuitions in my job, too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You have to know which stocks are going up and which are going down.  You’re using market information and trends of course, and information about the performance and financial position of each company, but those don’t tell you for sure what’s going to happen. You can’t just work it out by reasoning. You need an intuition of which stocks are going to be successful.”

“And does it work for you?” asked the firefighter, obviously expecting that it would.

“Well, quite often. I’ve had some very good results. But of course there are some times everyone gets caught out, like in the crash of 2008.”

At that moment another old friend sat down beside them. They both remembered him, and they briefly reminisced about school-days, before mentioning what they were doing now.Firefighter Dale_M__McDonald

“So what are you doing these days?” the firefighter asked the newcomer.

“Oh, I’m a psychologist. Not the shrink type who’ll fix your head, but a research psychologist. I work in a university finding out more about what makes people tick in general.”

“Sounds fascinating” said the stockbroker. “Before you joined us we were just talking about intuition in our different occupations. Turns out both of us rely on it quite a lot – me for stocks rising and falling, and him for burning buildings and when they’re going to collapse. Is that the sort of thing you research?”

“As it happens, yes,” replied the psychologist. “The nature of intuition is certainly one of my interests. The best evidence seems to suggest that it’s more reliable in a smaller set of predictable conditions.”

“What do you mean?”

“So, I guess intuition works quite well for experienced firefighters because burning buildings work in similar ways. If there’s a reasonably small range of conditions you might meet, and you learn how to spot them, that then quickly becomes unconscious and automatic. Burning buildings don’t vary that much. Is that how you’ve experienced it?”

“Spot on” said the firefighter. “That’s more or less what I was just saying.”

“And what about stockbroking?” asked the stockbroker, “Do psychologists have anything to say about that?”

“Er, well, I don’t want to cause offence, but let me just report what my colleagues have found about it. They checked statistics of stockbrokers’ predictions against market outcomes and found them worse than random. That means stockbrokers’ intuitions, on average, and of course I don’t know anything about present company, are worse than guesswork.”

“Worse than guesswork?” the stockbroker was incredulous, “But my colleagues are all highly trained and experienced, and we research the markets very carefully.”

“I don’t doubt it, but the evidence seems to be that it’s not that kind of work that makes the difference. There’s just a lot of luck involved. The market conditions are just not very predictable – not like burning buildings. You can only develop reliable intuitions if there’s something reliable to learn from that’s reasonably stable.”

“I can’t believe it. Our results have been consistently good, apart from 2008 of course.”

“Then I’m afraid the research I’ve looked at suggests you’ve been consistently lucky. It’s not just stockbrokers, but people in general tend to consistently overrate how much difference their skill makes to their outcomes, and underrate how much of it is just luck. Think of novelists – we all think the ones who are lucky enough to become well-known are great writers, but there are lots of equally good novelists who aren’t so lucky, and may not even have got published at all. Publishers think they have good intuitions for who will make a good writer, but usually the ones they pick become known as good writers because they’ve been lucky enough to be picked.”

The stockbroker was obviously having some difficulty absorbing this information. Suddenly he spotted another old friend across the room. “Hey, there’s John! Excuse me, I must just go and have a word with him.”

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 Intuition

Intuition is a faculty that is frequently appealed to, and often seems mysterious. People may have intuitions about the future, about the right thing to do, about an artwork or project, about a great truth they believe in, or about other people’s feelings. Quite frequently, though not always, these intuitions are wrong. Certainly where intuitions about the future is concerned, where it can be precisely measured whether they turn out to be true – they are not. The work of Philip Tetlock gives lots of information about how unreliable, for example, political and social forecasting generally is.

However, as the example of the firefighter suggests, we cannot just dismiss intuition as a source of information. What is often not sufficiently recognised is that intuition is not an alternative to experience as a way of justifying your beliefs, but just an efficient shortcut for accessing a lot of experience quickly. If you have lots of informative experience from the past that is liable to be applicable to the present situation, then intuition is a great way to get in touch with it. By accessing it unconsciously you’re liable to be able to see the benefit of your experience all together, rather than having to clumsily think about one event and then another event. You are experiencing your past synoptically through the right hemisphere rather than piling up individual past instances in the left. Thus not only is the experienced firefighter’s intuition liable to be accurate, so is a sense of the likely feelings of someone you know well. However, if on the other hand you try to use your intuition to detect the feelings of someone you’ve just encountered on the internet, who is not even a physical presence but rather just a few words on a screen, you are very likely to be way off.

What intuition isn’t, and cannot be, is a mysterious hotline to the truth. Moral or aesthetic intuitions are likely to give you quick access to what your previous experience has informed you. An experienced art dealer might be able to tell that a painting is a fake, or a person brought up in an environment where right and wrong were fairly clear may intuit that a certain action ‘just feels wrong’ based on that previous experience. So again, if that previous experience is reliable with regard to the present, then intuition is useful. However, it’s not likely to be useful in a new and unfamiliar situation, and it certainly won’t give you universal moral or aesthetic certainties.

In situations where we may be used to using intuitions, but where the conditions are new or unpredictable, we really need to slow down and think things through. If we don’t know what’s going on then we need to admit it, or if we can understand things better by research and reflection, then we need to engage in those things rather than relying solely on intuition. The intuitions may still be there, but we’ll have a more helpful sense of their fallibility. For stockbrokers to practise their trade honestly, they may need to state that the value of their service consists mainly in offering convenient share-trading, rather than that the judgements they make on behalf of their clients are likely to make them any richer than they would have been from random investment.

Intuition, then, is not an exception to the need to make only provisional judgements based on experience. We cannot arrive at absolute metaphysical views using intuition, any more than we can by any other means. The Middle Way in relation to intuition obviously thus involves us avoiding such absolute claims based on it. Nevertheless, we can appreciate the value of intuition and make use of it within the sphere in which it operates well.

Ten Variations on the Good Samaritan

Original

A man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, who stripped and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down by the same road, and when he saw him, he went past on the other side. So too a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him went past on the other side. But a Samaritan who was going that way came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved to pity. He went up and bandaged his wounds, bathing them with oil and wine. Then he lifted him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and looked after him. Next day he produced two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper and said “Look after him; and if you spend more I will repay you on my way back.” (Luke 10: 30-35, Revised English Bible)Good Samaritan

Variation 1

A drug addict was sheltering for the night in a car park under a block of flats, when he was set upon by muggers, beaten up and stripped of what few possessions he had. A business man living in the block, on his way to his car, passed close by the unconscious drug addict. However, the business man was preoccupied with thinking about a hostile bid that had been launched against his company by an asset-stripping corporation, and was intent on finding ways to foil the bid and save the jobs of his staff. He completely failed to notice the unconscious drug addict.

Variation 2

In the late evening on a side street in London, a homeless man was set upon by muggers, beaten up and stripped of what few possessions he had. A philosophical writer passed by, his mind full of the book he was writing, that he was sincerely convinced could change the world for the better by challenging fundamentally wrong thinking. The writer dimly glimpsed the homeless man across the street, but thought it likely that others would look after him, and did not want to be distracted from his train of thought.

Variation 3

Late at night in a dangerous area of downtown Karachi, gang warfare resulted in a shootout in which one gang pursued the other down a street, shooting. Three people from the losing gang were injured and lay at different points along quite a long street. The victorious gang just left them there and went off. There was no sign of the police or any medical attention for the injured people. A little later a local shopkeeper crept down the street. He was shaking with fear but had to get home. When he passed the first injured person, he thought it best to leave him alone, because he didn’t want to take the risk of getting involved with the gangs in any way. When he got to the second some way further down the street, he again made the same decision. However, his conscience then began troubling him, and he began to feel that it was his social and religious duty to help injured people, whoever they were. When he reached the third man lying injured, he changed his mind. His shop was now not far away, so the shopkeeper dragged the injured man to his shop, and, with the help of members of his family, began to give him first aid. Some hours later, he managed to get an ambulance to take the man to hospital.

Variation 4

In a back street in a rough neighbourhood of Chicago, a black man was seen lying on the ground, apparently with blood smeared all over him. A white Christian man, who had always believed in the example of the Good Samaritan and that it was right to help strangers in distress, came across him and was determined to help him. However, as soon as he came close, the black man sprang into action and his accomplices appeared from nearby hiding places. The white man was beaten up and robbed.

Variation 5

A promiscuous homosexual in a precarious state of mental heath, desperate for sex with someone, had been cruising from one gay bar to another but failed to find a partner for that night. Finally, on his way home, he found a man lying injured in a side street. The injured man was quite young and attractive, so the gay man took him home and bandaged up his wounds. The injured man was grateful, but was neither gay, nor in any state to be interested in consensual sex. The gay man then raped him, but afterwards took him to hospital for further attention as though nothing had happened.

Variation 6

A destitute young woman is attacked, raped and robbed in the back lane of a Mumbai slum. She lies there seriously injured and unconscious, and an older woman from a nearby shack goes out to help her. She mutters and curses as she brings the young woman into her house. This is just one more thing in a life of constant stress. Her husband is a drunkard, her teenage sons are drug addicts, she finds it hard enough to keep her family together when she receives no gratitude and much abuse from them. Nevertheless, she feels it is her duty to look after the young woman when she has been attacked, and she takes her in, bandaging her with strips of her own clothes, whilst complaining about the sacrifice she is making as she does so. When one of the older woman’s sons comes back to the shack early the following morning, he finds the injured young woman still lying there, and his mother hanging from a beam, having committed suicide.

Variation 7

A young Spanish woman is in a hurry to get to her office, in a street in Barcelona. She is afraid of losing her job if she is late, and has already been warned by the boss about her punctuality. Unemployment is very high amongst young people, and it will be very difficult for her to get a new job if she loses this one. She notices an injured man lying unconscious on the pavement, and nobody seems to be helping him. She gets out her mobile phone and rings the emergency services to inform them, but then hurries on.

Variation 8

A young man has a painful memory of a time when he was a teenager, and he tried to help his cousin who was choking. However, he did not know what to do to clear the obstruction, and actually made the situation worse. By the time help from others arrived, his cousin was dead. As a result the young man has resolved never to get involved with people who need help, and has an instinctive lack of confidence, believing implicitly that he will make things worse for them. Thus when he is driving along a remote highway and sees an injured man lying by the side of the road, he only half-consciously decides not to get involved and to simply pass by.

Variation 9

In the past a lorry driver used to pick up hitch hikers and talk to them. He quite enjoyed having some company on his long drives. However, recently he has been sternly told by his boss that he must not pick up any passengers, and that to do so will invalidate the firm’s insurance policy in the event of an accident.  One day the lorry driver is passing along a remote moorland road, when he sees an injured man lying helpless and unconscious by the side of the road. He stops and looks down at the man and feels helpless as to how to start dealing with his extensive injuries. He takes out his mobile phone to call an ambulance, but there is no signal. He thinks of taking the man with him in his cab to the nearest hospital, but remembers his boss’s stern warning. So, with some regret he then leaves the injured man by the side of the road and goes on.

Variation 10

A man is attacked and robbed by outlaws in a remote place on a road in nineteenth century Australia.  A poor man, an ex-convict, finds the injured man, takes him on his horse and takes him back to his own house, which is not too far off but is the only house for some distance. There he tries to help him, but the injured man soon dies of his injuries. A few days later, a sheriff comes to the house. Having heard about the robbery, he is trying to find out what happened to the victim. The ex-convict shows the sheriff the grave where he buried the victim, and explains truthfully what happened. However, because of his criminal past the sheriff does not believe him, and assumes him to be the robber. He is immediately arrested and imprisoned.

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 Moral plurality

A university researcher, in what became known as ‘The Good Samaritan experiments’, once set up a situation in which a man (actually an actor) was lying in a hallway apparently in need of help. A group of theology students were told to come to a certain venue in the university for a seminar where they would give a presentation about the parable of the Good Samaritan, but things were so set up that all these students would have to pass the ‘injured’ man in the hall. Only a minority of the students stopped to offer help, and the rates of help were lower in those who were late for the seminar.

Is this an example of the hypocrisy of ‘religious’ ethics? Actually I think we should think about this is a wider perspective, letting go of the framework of reactions to ‘religion’ that distorts people’s responses to it. It seems that the story of the Good Samaritan encapsulates for many people something about moral good – that we should feel and act upon our compassion for those who are suffering, and that we should follow the same kinds of expectations of care we might have in intimate relationships and extend them to wider society. However, this is overwhelmingly only a theoretical view, and not even the majority of those who have thought carefully about the story (if we are to believe the results of the experiment) value this more than the other values that they have developed over their lives as embodied beings. These would include the value of existing social duties and relationships (including the duty to turn up and give a presentation in a seminar on time), as well as perhaps the value of individual goals and aspirations.

People’s responses to the Good Samaritan story, then, often seem riddled with hypocrisy. A little while ago I saw a video posted on Facebook where a similarly needy-looking person was lying on a pavement in a crowded city street and calling for help. But the vast majority of people did not stop to offer any. What struck me most about this Facebook post was not so much the video itself but the comments, all of which attacked and blamed the people who had failed to stop. Yet all the indications seem to be that most of the people who commented in this way would not themselves have paused to stop. Most of us are like the priest or the Levite, not the Samaritan (and in that I’d realistically include myself, in many situations). What’s more we have lots of good reasons for not stopping: fear that the person apparently in need may be deceiving or take undue advantage of you, reluctance to drop other pressing actions that we value, and the fair likelihood that there will be other better-qualified people around to offer help instead (and indeed that we might just be in the way) are perhaps foremost amongst those reasons. To dismiss the people who do not stop as ‘uncaring’ and ‘selfish’ is both inaccurate and shows a very crude understanding of ethics.

So, there seems to be a big mismatch between people’s perceptions of the Good Samaritan as a moral ideal and the psychological context in which moral judgements are often made. I’d suggest that’s a good exemplification of the huge and unnecessary gap that is often found between ethics and psychology. People assume that ethics must involve conforming to some sort of absolute (and completely abstract) ideal, and then either fail to take it seriously in practice or feel unnecessarily guilty about not doing so. Then on the other hand, psychological observations, conventionally limiting themselves to a scientific mode that is assumed to exclude ‘values’, quite unnecessarily avoid drawing out the moral implications of their findings. I would argue, instead, that justifiable ethics need to combine a realistic understanding of our own processes, of the kind offered by psychology, with a degree of ‘stretch’ – that is, a challenge for us to face up to conditions just a little more than we might have done otherwise.

I wrote the ten variations on the Good Samaritan as a way of exploring some of the implications of that perspective. I don’t want for a moment to suggest that the original Good Samaritan is not good – he is. Presumably there was a chance that he could have followed the priest and the Levite in passing by on the other side of the road, but he didn’t. He must have had some of the necessary conditions there – for example a ready sympathy and a degree of courage – but he also chose to apply those qualities and to stretch himself in doing so. All that is very admirable. But there are a host of other people who could have similar, or quite different, responses, in similar circumstances, who are equally good, and who are also slightly stretching themselves. The variations are an attempt to explore what different forms goodness can take, and are thus an exercise in moral plurality.

Moral plurality must not be mistaken for relativism. It does not imply that any response is as good as any other response. What I mean by moral plurality is that there are many different ways of morally stretching oneself in different circumstances. There may, indeed, be a ‘best possible’ response in any given circumstance, but we are seldom in a position to know what that ‘best possible’ response is. Moral practice, instead, needs to face up to our degree of ignorance as well as our situatedness. There is moral plurality – that is, a variety of different good options – both from the wider viewpoint we are taking here when we compare different ‘Samaritan’ type stories, and perhaps even from the particular standpoint (given their degree of ignorance) of one of the characters in the stories. Nevertheless, wider judgements are better and more adequate than narrower ones.

In the different variations, I wanted to explore how different base conditions might make actions that we consider ‘bad’ in some respects nevertheless good – perhaps even the best in the circumstances.

In variation 1, the business man fails to notice the man in need of aid because he is preoccupied with saving his company. He has motives that we would probably regard as good in saving his company, but as an embodied being his capacity for attention is limited. Yes, he could have been more aware, but it may also be the case that saving his company was far more important than helping the drug addict.

In variation 2, the philosophical writer did not want to be distracted from his train of thought. He could have been seriously deluded there, and his train of thought probably wasn’t nearly as important as helping the homeless man. However, it is also possible that he was not deluded and that his train of thought really was extremely important. It is also possible that he was just offering a weak excuse to himself in thinking that others would look after him – but in a London street, there was probably also a good chance of that. The question is perhaps more how much of a delay there would be. So, the writer may have been acting badly, but he may also have been acting well. We need to recognise our degree of ignorance here before we heap blame on him based only on an unrealistic application of social conventions.

In variation 3, the shopkeeper helped the third man, even though he didn’t help the first two. Perhaps we could apply this to the priest and the Levite in the original story. Maybe they didn’t help the injured man in the story, but they helped someone else later. Obviously it is better to help one person, even if you leave the other two, than to help nobody. Are we really going to blame the shopkeeper too much for his limitations?

In variation 4, the white Christian has all the intentions of being a good Samaritan, but it turns out badly for him. To judge him harshly because the results were bad is obviously unfair – this is a matter of moral luck. He deserves praise for trying to help, even though the outcome is bad. Similarly, if he failed to be a ‘Good Samaritan’ in future due to this bad experience, we could hardly blame him. The racial element in this story is realistic in the context, but obviously should make no difference to our judgement.

I imagine that variation 5 may be the most controversial for many. Here the ‘Good Samaritan’ actually commits a violent crime against another in the course of being a Good Samaritan. His motives for helping another were very mixed, and obviously he deserves blame for rape (the gender of his victim making no difference). Nevertheless, I’d want to suggest, he deserves praise for the help he did give, and the mixed context should not stop us appreciating that. Instead of helping the injured man, he could have just raped him and left him in the street – but he did more than that.

In variation 6, the ‘Good Samaritan’ is so desperate and alienated that she is on the verge (it turns out) of taking her own life. Yet, even in this situation, she has a little space in her heart to help another. Given her degree of alienation, it is hardly surprising if she complains about it at the same time as helping the young woman, but nevertheless, her actions show a degree of openness in her judgements. She is perhaps the most praiseworthy of all the characters in these variations.

In variation 7, the young Spanish woman’s anxiety about her job stops her doing any more than merely phoning the emergency services. But that was a helpful thing to do, for which she deserves praise in the circumstances.

In variation 8, the young man is motivated by not wanting to make the situation worse. His worries about this are probably exaggerated and deluded, but nevertheless, we need to think realistically about what he could do given this condition. If he had stopped and overcome this anxiety, we might praise him even more, but we could hardly expect this given his psychological state.

In variation 9, the lorry driver really wants to help the injured man, and carefully considers how to act. Perhaps he is mistaken in his interpretation of the consequences of taking the injured man in his cab, and he is interpreting the rules of his company too legalistically. Nevertheless, he is reflecting, and sincerely trying to do the best thing. He deserves a fair amount of praise in my view, for trying to do the best thing in the circumstances.

Finally, in variation 10, as in variation 4, the Good Samaritan’s actions turn out worse for him – in this case both because of the mortal severity of the man’s injuries and because of the Samaritan’s criminal record and resulting social reputation. This can act as a reminder of how much of our socially-driven moral judgements are actually dependent on luck and subject to ignorance.

All of these ‘Good Samaritans’ are good to some degree – obviously some better than others – though some did not help the injured man at all, and others helped in ways that were loaded or compromised in other ways. If we want to help and encourage ‘Good Samaritans’ in the world, I would argue, we need a far more adequate understanding of the complexity of the moral context than is usually applied to such cases.

 

Other Middle Way parables:  Achilles and the Tortoise, An Acre of Forest, The Lute StringsThe Ship, The Boredom of Heaven

Picture by John Salmon (CC BY SA 2.0 – Wikimedia Commons) from All Saints Church, Bracknell

Achilles and the tortoise

“Let me show you a paradox“ said Dad. It was getting towards two thirds of the way of a long, boring train journey. They were sitting at a table in a carriage that was almost empty.

“What’s a paradox?” asked eleven-year old Laura. She was not too old to cease being almost constantly curious, but not too young for a slight note of potential detachment to be there as well.

“It’s a kind of puzzle where there’s a contradiction. If you take it one way, it makes sense, but if you take it another way, it doesn’t.”

“I like puzzles.”

“OK. This one is about a race. The race was between a Greek hero called Achilles, who being a hero of course could run fast as well as fight. And he was racing a tortoise. Who would you expect to win?”

“The hero!”

“Well, that’s what everyone else thought too. So to give the tortoise a chance they said they’d give him a head start. In fact they gave him a big head start. They worked out that the tortoise moved at about a tenth the speed of Achilles, so he needed a tenth of the distance to cover. Let’s say the race was 110 metres long, they put the tortoise at the 100 metre mark.” Dad drew a little diagram to show the set-up of the race.Achilles_and_turtle

“I still think the hero would win. Tortoises are so slow. He’d catch up with the tortoise in no time.”

“Well, Achilles did catch up pretty quick with where the tortoise was when he started. But by that time the tortoise had moved a little way forward. Not very far, but a little way.”

“Surely the tortoise didn’t win?”

“You’ll have to wait and see. Because after Achilles had caught up with where the tortoise was at first, he went a bit further and caught up with where the tortoise had been next.”

“So did he catch up with the tortoise then?”

“No, because the tortoise had moved a bit further ahead. Only a tiny bit further ahead, but still ahead. In fact, that happened every time Achilles caught up to where the tortoise had been previously. In the time it took Achilles to get to where the tortoise had been previously, the tortoise had moved ahead a little bit more.”

“But surely it got to be such a little bit that it didn’t matter any more?”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Every little bit of distance, no matter how small, could be divided up a bit further. So every time Achilles caught up to where the tortoise had been, he was still a little bit ahead.”

“But that’s silly! The little bit ahead would start to be too small to notice. It would get so small you’d need a microscope to see it!”

“It would get even smaller than that eventually, but the tortoise would still be ahead of Achilles just an incy-wincy bit. So Achilles would never catch up with the tortoise.”

Laura made a face. “Is it true then? Is that what actually happened?”

“No, it’s what is called a thought experiment. You think something through and see what will happen when you think out the consequences. But it’s only when you think about it that Achilles would never catch up with the tortoise. If you got a real man and a real tortoise and got them to run a race like that, of course the man would actually catch up with the tortoise. So that’s why it’s a paradox. If you think about it one way, it’s true, but if you think about it the other way, it isn’t.”

“But how can it be true and not true at the same time? I don’t understand.”

“Well, here’s one way of understanding it. One half of your brain thinks it’s true and the other half thinks it isn’t. Our brains all have two halves: they’re called the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere thinks in terms of ideas of how things are, and works out what must be true just using those ideas. That’s like you do in maths when you work out a sum without having to count anything or relate it to real things. The right hemisphere, though, depends on the senses, and takes its ideas about what’s true from what we actually experience. For the left hemisphere, space and time are just ideas. You can chop them up as long as you want, and you just get a smaller and smaller number, regardless of whether you could actually see it or not. So for the left hemisphere, it makes sense to think that Achilles would never catch up with the tortoise. But for the right hemisphere that takes information from what actually happens, of course he would.”

“Silly left hemisphere!”

“Well, it’s not that silly. Remember you’ve got one too. In fact, half of you is the left hemisphere. It’s only silly when it works things out for itself and just assumes it’s got to be right, without consulting the right hemisphere. People get all sorts of silly beliefs that way. Like they think the world is going to end next week based on adding up the numbers of chapters in the Bible, or they can’t let go of a big plan they’ve put lots of time and money into even when it’s clearly going to fail, or they think sharks are going to come up out of the toilet and attack them because they’ve read about a shark attack in the sea.”

“That’s like serious silly!”

“Just keep consulting your right hemisphere as well as your left and you’ll be fine. Every time someone suggests a silly idea, give it a reality check.”

“So the tortoise didn’t really win the race?”

Dad shrugged. “Who knows? Apparently the race is still going on.”

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 The left and right brain hemispheres

The relationship between our brain hemispheres, like everything about the brain, is complex, and for many years scientists have been right to be suspicious of over-simplifications. Nevertheless, generalisations can be made which are supported by a good weight of evidence. My understanding of this evidence is indebted to Iain McGilchrist and his important book ‘The Master and his Emissary’. The generalisations that can be made about the role of left and right hemispheres are especially useful, because they provide both confirmation of, and further insight into, the Middle Way and the reasons for it.

The division between right and left hemispheres is not entirely one of function, but rather of specialisation. To some extent the hemispheres can duplicate each others’ functions, like colleagues in distinct but related jobs in the same office. The two hemispheres are also not entirely separated: they communicate, but the question is how much. There is also an issue of power in the relationship, with the left hemisphere tending to over-dominate the right. That does not mean that the two hemispheres are not totally dependent on each other – they are more like an unbalanced marriage in which the husband over-dominates the wife (or vice-versa). Another common misunderstanding is that there are ‘left hemisphere’ and ‘right hemisphere’ types of people, but there are not. We are all left-hemisphere dominant, just some more than others, and all varying at different times.

The specialisations of the two hemispheres should also not be over-simplified to ‘reason’ in the left hemisphere versus ‘emotion’ in the right. Rather the left hemisphere specialises in representation – that is, in holding beliefs about the world expressed in language. Those beliefs are closely related to our goals, so the left-hemisphere is also the goal-driven hemisphere. In contrast, the right hemisphere is characterised by openness to experience: whether that is experience of what is happening beyond our bodies (through the senses) or within them. It is also the right hemisphere that provides a wider, more open perspective that can connect together the representative beliefs held by the left: thus it deals in metaphor, seeing relationships between ideas that would otherwise be kept apart.

The story of Achilles and the tortoise also draws our attention to another crucial feature of the different specialisations between the hemispheres – one that Iain McGilchrist drew my attention to, but does not seem to be widely appreciated. This is the differing ways in which the two hemispheres relate to time. The right hemisphere can actually experience time passing, but the left only has representations of time as a set of sequences. It is the left hemisphere that is thus responsible for impatience, as under its charge we want to jump ahead to the next goal-related event, and are incapable of experiencing mere process. The same disposition goes for space: the left hemisphere is concerned with points in space or ways of dividing it up using ideas, but not with the experience of space itself. Hence the ‘paradox’ of Achilles and the tortoise reflects a disjunction between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere ways of understanding things, and provides us with immediate access to our own experience of being able to experience things in these two different ways.

Laura’s robust common sense in calling the left hemisphere ‘silly’ tells us something about the moral value of this information and its relationship to the Middle Way and integration. The left hemisphere, as Dad points out, is not ‘silly’ per se, but only through being over-dominant or isolated from the right. It is the over-dominant left hemisphere that gets stuck in dogmatic or metaphysical beliefs, in isolation from the right hemisphere that could provide a wider perspective on those beliefs. The process of integration thus involves bringing that wider right hemisphere perspective to bear on the isolated representations of the left hemisphere, each of which tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it has the complete picture, and each of which may be associated with goals that we are pursuing. The Middle Way is recognising that each of our left hemisphere representations is not the complete picture – in other words avoiding the delusions of certainty, whether positive or negative.

The belief about the infinite divisibility of space and time expressed by the story of Achilles and the Tortoise has many of the typical features of absolutised or metaphysical beliefs of the over-dominant left hemisphere. Infinity of any kind can be conceived but not experienced or imagined, so it is the stock-in-trade of metaphysics. It ‘makes sense’ in its own terms and can be reasoned about, but only on the basis of assumptions that are merely conceptual. In that way, the infinite divisibility of space and time is a similar absolutisation not only to the outward infinity of space and time, but also to the infinity and perfection of God, or other claims of infinite scope such as determinism. Not all metaphysical beliefs involve infinity, but one can be fairly clear that beliefs about infinity are metaphysical. Oddly enough, they are also absolute because they are not incremental: you cannot have more or less of an infinite anything, as it is either infinite or it isn’t infinite.

Such metaphysical claims may or may not be true. The universe may or may not be infinite, and space and time may or may not be infinitely divisible. There is no way we could ever find out, as we would have to investigate infinitely to do so. Like other dogmatic beliefs, the problem is thus not that it is definitely untrue, but that it is beyond experience. The paradox was first put forward by Zeno the founder of Stoicism, which is why it is known as one of Zeno’s paradoxes, and strangely enough, Zeno seems to have taken it for granted that we would take the ‘rational’ conclusion based on infinite divisibility to be the true one. For him, the purpose of the story was to prove that it was reason that tells us the truth, whilst experience is deceptive. But quite different conclusions can today be derived from the same example.

The boredom of heaven

As soon as Dilbert arrived in heaven, he was greeted by St. Peter, who warmly but somewhat formally shook his hand. This was odd, as he no longer had a hand. It was also odd that he could see St. Peter, as he no longer had any eyes. But let us leave such details aside.

“Welcome to heaven” said St. Peter briskly. “We have a brief half hour orientation session before full heaven conditions become operative. That allows me to explain to you how the place works, and you to ask any questions you may have. After that we’re straight into eternity. I hope you had a good trip here?”

“Er, yes, thanks – apart from dying, that is. A bit painful.”

St. Peter waved a dismissive hand. “Dreadful what they make you put up with when you’re dying these days. I do sympathise. But it’s all over now. Let me explain the ropes in heaven.”

St. Peter led them through the pearly gates into an area where a number of seated figures could be seen. They were all completely immobile and expressionless, spaced at some distance from each other and not communicating or interacting. Suddenly one of the immobile figures abruptly disappeared, as though a trapdoor had been opened up right underneath him, and he had immediately fallen through it.

“Oh, there he goes!” said St. Peter in a slightly jolly fashion.

“Where’s he gone?” asked Dilbert.

“Hell” said St Peter. “Now, the first thing about heaven I really must impress upon you is that it’s perfect. No imperfection allowed. As long as you remember that, and take it to heart, you’ll be fine.”

“But I thought heaven was a place of love!” protested Dilbert. “Surely the love of God allows a little imperfection here and there?”

“Oh, well, love is fine, but it’s got to be perfect love, you know. The Church is quite clear about that, and we always take their instructions seriously. It’s very easy to think you’re being good and loving, but because of all that imperfect conditioning you’ve had down there, to slip into imperfection. Any love you express has to be totally without reservation, even unconsciously. And then you have to think of your neighbour. If you start talking to them about heavenly love, and they start responding to you but haven’t got it perfect, then they’ll soon start breaking the conditions of heaven.”

“So what happens when you break the conditions of heaven?”

“Well, you go to Hell, of course. You saw what happened to that fellow just now. He must have had a stray impure thought. So off he went, down to the Other Place. It happens to most people sooner or later. We have to be very strict, I’m afraid, because there really is no wriggle room where perfection is concerned.”

“Straight to Hell with eternal torment? Is there nowhere in between? No Middle Way?”

St. Peter chuckled. “Middle Way? What are you, some kind of Buddhist or something? That’s a completely unintelligible concept. No, either you’re in heaven or you’re in hell. If you can’t stick it out here, it’s eternal torment for you. There’s purgatory of course, for Catholics, but that’s only to prepare you for heaven, and Limbo for unbaptised babies, but I take it you haven’t come via purgatory?”

“No, I’m a Protestant – and not a Buddhist” said Dilbert with some indignation. “Look, I was always told that I would be saved by my faith, and that heaven was eternal. God has mercy on sinners if they have faith in Christ, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes, that’s doubtless why you’re here. And heaven is eternal – for as long as you can stick it. The trouble is that since the Reformation we’ve had all sorts of people up here who really aren’t prepared properly. They may have faith, but it’s a bit of a big leap from being faithful and imperfect to being perfect all of a sudden. If you ask me, just between you and me, I preferred the old system: at least when people have made their way up through all the levels of purgatory they’re a bit more ready for what heaven is like, and last a little bit longer. The descent rates for Catholics are a bit lower than for Protestants.”

“What about Jews, and Muslims?”

“Oh, they’re stuck in the grave for now. They have to wait until the Last Judgement. But then it will suddenly get crazy, I’m sure: millions of Jews and Muslims all arriving here at once.”

Dilbert looked back at the people seated in complete passivity. “So, don’t these people do anything?”

“I don’t think you’ve fully understood the rules” said St. Peter, “If you do anything you’ll very quickly find yourself in a state of imperfection. So, no activity. Remember, you don’t need to do any of the things up here that you had to do down below – no need for eating, or defecating, or even breathing. Souls don’t need any of that any more. So you can just be still. Some people get used to it after a while.”

“Do they think, then – compose books or play games of chess in their heads? Or do they meditate?”

“Oh no, none of that. Thinking is an especially quick way to perdition. You’ll get to impure thoughts pretty quickly if you start thinking. No meditating either – you’ll do it wrong at some stage and get distracted.”

“It sounds pretty, well, boring.”

“Boredom is the condition of the imperfect, my friend. I can assure you that Hell isn’t boring – oh, no, not a bit of it. Just in case you get bored with one torment they keep varying it so that you try them all. Here, you’ll either have to get over your boredom or go to Hell – shape up or ship out.”

There was a pause.

“So, do you have any more questions, or shall we start eternity conditions now?”

As he was increasingly unable to distinguish the prospect of the torments of heaven from those of hell, Dilbert desperately sought some more questions to put off the hour.

“Does anyone make it? I mean, is there actually anyone who stays in heaven for eternity and puts up with the boredom?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. From a human point of view, you’d have to wait an eternity to know the answer to that question.”

“Well, is there anyone – a saint or somebody – who has lasted, say, a hundred years?”

“We no longer measure time in earthly units, once the half hour orientation period is over. All I know is that heaven has never been empty, for there are always fresh recruits coming up with a hunger for perfection.”

“Are there any great saints still here who died centuries ago? St. Francis? St. Theresa? And what about Jesus Christ? Surely if he took human birth for the sake of our sins, he wouldn’t be perfect, would he? So he wouldn’t last long in heaven?”

“That’s all classified information I’m afraid. Releasing it might undermine the credibility of the Church, and stop the flow of recruits that keeps us going. Our very existence as an institution would be at stake.”

For the minute or so that remained to him, Dilbert stood dumbfounded.

“Now, I’m afraid your half-hour of orientation is up. Let me lead you to your place. Once you have settled into it, heaven-conditions will start to become fully operative.”

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 The irrelevance of perfect goodAscent_of_the_Blessed Bosch

It is not too difficult to grasp evil in terms of human understanding. We may often over-simplify by projecting an archetype of evil onto those who are mixed, but nevertheless there are some aspects of evil we can readily access as part of our experience. When it comes to good, however, we have no such facility. Since good involves avoiding dogmatism and addressing conditions, and there are many ways of doing that, there are many apparently conflicting goods. The good of compassion conflicts with that of wisdom, justice conflicts with freedom, courage conflicts with prudence, honesty conflicts with tact. Good is multiple (though not relative), in my view, because it is human and imperfect. However, for most of human history we have been confronted with views of good that are strikingly at odds with the very possibility of imperfect goodness. Instead, good has been constantly idealised and put into absolute forms. Good is seen as deriving from some sort of state of perfection, whether that perfection is the rational perfection of Plato or Kant, or the religious imagination applied to belief in God and heaven. The result of this has been a great deal of confusion, as we have tried to reconcile metaphysical beliefs about perfection from beyond experience with our actual experience of plural and imperfect goodness.

This story highlights the implications of that confusion as it applies to our understanding of heaven. Heaven is necessarily seen as perfect in the way that God is perfect, yet the implication of this is that humans could not exist there in any form. Religious teachings through the ages have tried to deal with this through the claim that only non-physical souls go to heaven. Imperfection has been identified with the body, leading to confused arguments about sex and other bodily functions, and whether these were intrinsically evil or good because designed by God. This approach failed to appreciate how much our entire experience, including our mental experience, is dependent on and shaped by our bodies. In effect it has adopted a narrow left-brain view of the self as sufficient and ultimate, completely ignoring the right-brain recognition of the wider conditions of our bodily experience. Not only could a person ascending into a perfect state not have a body – they couldn’t have thoughts, either. In fact, in removing all evil from them you would also be removing all good, and in removing variety of experience you would be condemning people to a new form of torment. Heaven and hell would be indistinguishable.

Heaven is more frequently imagined as a place of delight, but delight is not compatible with an eternity of perfection. Earthly delights are then explained to be mere analogies for the more subtly heavenly delights that we cannot yet imagine. Thus the Islamic tradition seems unembarrassed about offering the delights of sex with lots of virgins (houris) to the (presumably male) martyrs after their deaths, with the theological explanation that this is just an analogical way of imagining delights that will actually far surpass those fleshly pleasures. But pleasure of any kind needs a contrast with other states to continue being appreciated as such. The conquering martyrs will soon be bored with their virgins and want to be off killing infidels again. Even the ‘purest’ pleasures, coming from religious ecstasy, meditative states, or drug-induced release of dopamine, require contrasts if they are not soon to become ends in themselves that lose their meaning in human life. What is good about these sorts of states arises, not from their indefinite continuation, but from the ways in which they can contribute to balancing of judgement and sustainable equanimity in our lives. Pleasure, on all the indications, cannot be eternal without ceasing to be pleasure.

There will probably be some Christians who think I have misinterpreted heaven. Believing profoundly in the loving and forgiving nature of God, perhaps they will admit that heaven has to be imperfect and accommodating to our sins. If so, will it seek to help us to improve further, by reducing and ultimately eliminating our sins? If so, it is not heaven but purgatory. Or will it simply allow us to continue with our sins as they are without any moral goals? If so, this seems more like a continuation of earth than it is heaven. No, if we come to terms with our imperfection, perfection merely drops out of the picture and becomes not merely irrelevant, but unhelpful. If, on the other hand, we do actually achieve perfection of any kind, it seems that the torments of eternal boredom follow.

The fact that heaven turns out to be just as much of a torment as hell has profound implications. It throws us back on the Middle Way, in which we recognise and come to terms with our imperfection, and no longer seek to appeal to ideas of perfection. It also makes it clear that the perfections we may have idealised as good are actually evil, since it is beliefs about perfection that are evil, whether those beliefs pose as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. That means that there is no moral difference between belief in God and belief in Satan or evil, as it is the absolutised beliefs that create the evil, even if they are beliefs about good.

Such a recognition is consistent with the very poor track record of absolutised religious belief. Many of those who sincerely believed in peace have instead brought endless conflict, whether that conflict occurred on the battlefield, in the debating chamber, or in the individual psyche. It is not your belief in peace that potentially creates peace, but your ability to engage with conditions, and the more strongly you identify with an absolute formulation of the right way of acting, the more that is likely to bring you into conflict with those with a different formulation. The whole concept of heaven is ludicrously contradictory because the moral basis on which it has been built is contradictory. It is time for a new understanding of morality to be based on the Middle Way.

For other recently posted parables by Robert M Ellis, see the following links:

An Acre of Forest

The Lute strings

The Ship