Ancient Dharma, Modern Context

By Rebecca Bradley

The teachings that we study and practice at Sravasti Abbey originate from Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived in India about 2,600 years ago. While the world has changed in many ways, the essence of the Buddha’s teachings remains timeless − developing loving-kindness and compassion, and understanding the nature of reality.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of our modern experience that were not explicitly addressed by the Buddha. Technological advances and changes in cultural norms mean that new, ethically complex situations arise for us now, which did not centuries before.

For instance, the right of individuals to end their own life in the face of terminal illness or intense suffering is an evolving worldwide discussion. It has also become socially acceptable for children (of all ages) to engage in video games where violence is both normalized and glorified. Freedom of sexual expression, orientation and identity challenge previously held concepts and “sexual norms.”

How do we as Buddhists relate to euthanasia and physician assisted suicide? Do we create negative karma when we play violent video games? How are we to understand ‘unwise and unkind sexual behavior’ and what role does culture play in this?

To live an ethical life and create the causes for a series of precious human rebirths up to full awakening, getting clarity on such questions is important. Sravasti Abbey monastics are actively engaged in unpacking the Buddha’s timeless wisdom to address the needs of an increasingly complex and chaotic world.

Various Abbey monastics contribute to the “Ask a Buddhist” column on SpokaneFāVS, an online news organization dedicated to creating conversation and collaboration around religion, spirituality and ethics in the Inland Northwest. Recently, Venerable Thubten Semkye addressed the question of how Buddhists relate to euthanasia:

…Our Buddhist practice encourages us to check what is in our minds and hearts. When a loved one is in pain and is dying, is it actually their suffering we can’t bear? Or is it our own suffering that feels unbearable?  This is a subtle but important distinction.

It is very hard to watch others suffer—that’s true. But we can also fall into personal distress, turning our attention to our suffering instead of theirs. When this happens, we may be unable to be present for them when they need a steady, calm and caring voice.

So, it’s important to ask ourselves where our focus is when our loved one is dying.

Practicing the Buddha’s teachings may direct us to re-examine issues in new and uncomfortable ways. If we are to act ethically, we must be prepared to see how afflictions can skew our perspective of emotionally charged situations.

Similar conversations have recently taken place in the ongoing Friday night teachings on The Gomchen Lamrim. Venerable Thubten Chodron and Venerable Thubten Chonyi have led engaging discussions on the ten paths of non-virtue and how they apply to our ever-changing modern context. As Venerable Chodron explained, examining modern-day issues and how they fit into the traditional presentation of the ten pathways “really forces us to think.”

Does the traditional lamrim presentation of what constitutes a “complete karmic action” allow for the complexities of our modern context? Is what is commonly called “identity theft” actually stealing? If no physical object has been taken, technically it is not. Thus, does it more appropriately fall under lying?

Such questions may seem technical or academic, but they nudge us to examine what is taking place in our world, the possible motivations behind controversial actions, and how we wish to relate to them. It also provides us much fuel for purification practice.

Continue linking in to the Ask A Buddhist Column and Friday Night Teachings (available online and via Livestream) for an ongoing conversation of how to live ethically in our modern world.