EA and the Paramitas

by G Gordon Worley III5 min read15th Jan 2020No comments

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In July of 2019 I made a series of posts in the Buddhists in EA Facebook group connecting Buddhist teachings on the paramitas (perfections) to EA. I decided to collect them together and post them here for a wider audience to give you a taste of the kind of alignment I think can exist between EA and Buddhism.

These were relatively low-effort posts I made to help get the group started, so please excuse their lack of polish and the awkward turns-of-phrase I didn't edit away. A certain amount of interpretation is involved here, so understand that this reflects my understanding of Buddhists teachings as they have been conveyed to me and there may be other reasonable interpretations by Buddhists practicing in other lineages. Further, in the interest of getting this shared ever rather than never, I've only lightly edited the posts together and left them mostly as-is, so non-Buddhists may find it necessary to do some searching to make sense of some of this, although I've tried to add a few links to add helpful context.

Introduction

This is a series of brief posts on how the paramitas intersect with EA.

I'm thinking about this because I'm reading my former teacher's new book, Deep Hope, about the (Mahayana) paramitas. So as I finish each chapter I'll reflect a little here on how each paramita relates to EA.

Dana

The first paramita the book explores is dana. This seems like maybe the easiest to relate to EA, since dana is often translated as "charity". Dana asks us to be open to give and receive, to consider all living beings, to have the courage to give all that we can, and to hold nothing back out of selfishness or ill-will. This paramita asks us to act on our compassion, and to accept the compassion of others in turn.

And this brings up an interesting point. EA focuses a lot on giving, but not as much on receiving. There has been some thinking about this in terms of sustaining our ability to give, but it's often apologetic that we must care for ourselves to give more and focused on the ends of giving rather than the practice of it. I think dana has a lot to teach us in EA about what giving and receiving is deeply about, and how we can engage with it as part of a complete practice of caring for all.

Shila

The second paramita explored in Deep Hope is shila. There's no direct translation of shila into English, just like there's not an exact translation of dana, but I think both "skillful action" and "virtue" capture it best, or if we want to go out on a limb, maybe we could translate it as "effectiveness".

The "effective" in "effective altruism", initially conceived within a consequentialist framework, is originally about driving towards actions that actually do what you intend. But as Buddhists I think we can understand "effective" in a broader context where we often don't know exactly what the consequences of our actions will be, and so we can instead turn to the virtues we may take as vows in the precepts and our development of skillfulness at navigating karma (cause and effect) as we accumulate experience with the world.

We often speak of "skillful means", the careful actions we take to effect change in the world without unintended consequences, recognizing that even at our most skillful we can still cause harm because even at our most awake we are finite beings. And this seems to me a healthy way to approach effectiveness with our altruism. The powerful optimizing tendency within the EA community can sometimes leave out what is important, and an important way we can extend our practice into EA spaces is to bring careful consideration of whether or not our attempts to make things better might accidentally make things worse.

So the next time you think about how to do the most good, consider how you might accidentally do so much good you make other things worse. In this we can honor the wisdom of shila.

Kshanti

Today we look at the paramita of kshanti.

Once again we get a paramita with a hard to translate name, "kshanti". We could render this as patience, forbearance, tolerance, or even endurance or fortitude. None of those words quite get at it, though, because they are all either too passive or too active. Kshanti lies somewhere in the middle, resting just enough in quiet forbearance that we don't react unskillfully, but not so quiet that we let suffering come into the world through our inaction.

I think we encounter kshanti mostly strongly in EA in its dedication to research and willingness to remain skeptical. It's tempting to jump to action when there is suffering or waste or risk that we can do something about right now, but that something might not skillfully move us in the right direction. We need to have the patience to put in the work to think, reason, and discuss before taking action, but to also not think, reason, and discuss so long that we unnecessarily delay ourselves. It's a careful balance between too much haste and not enough, and kshanti invites us to find it.

Virya

The next paramita we'll consider is virya, or effort.

We should understand virya not to be about trying or working hard, but instead about giving things your all. Whole-hearted effort is a good way to describe virya. It's a simple getting on with things because they are what is to be done.

The obvious relationship to EA is the simply getting on with the work of EA and not getting distracted by other things. Doing the most good often means working hard, especially for those people on-the-ground doing direct work.

The less obvious relationship is in how we approach our EA work. Within EA there can be folks who get obsessed with personal efficiency, scrupulosity, or otherwise become hyper-concerned with always doing the most good and never leaving room for themselves. Virya invites us to consider whether or not that is helpful effort, or if that is a self-centered attachment to doing more than we really can. Effort applied that is not mindful of the conditions in which it is being applied and that tries to ignore reality as it is leads to more suffering even as it may yield good things.

Right effort demands we harmonize what we think needs to be done with what is really "needed". When we give up our preconceptions of what we or others "need", we may find ways forward that allow us to simply get on with doing good in a way that honors others and ourselves.

Dhyana

We now come to what seems one of the hardest paramitas to connect to EA, dhyana, or meditation.

As a Westerner who grew up in a secular Protestant household, meditation seemed to be the essence of Buddhist practice, and I think it continues to look that way in the West. Before I learned to meditate, it seemed like some weird, mystical, special thing that people did, and I wasn't "spiritual" enough to be part of that. But eventually I first trusted and then discovered for myself that it was nothing other than getting back to the fundamental way of being we are all born into and forget how to notice we are always already in. Through many different skillful means, we can come to have knowledge of our Buddha nature via dhyana.

So what could that possibly have to do with EA? I admit, it seems a stretch, but I think there is something about meditation that really pulls all of paramitas together and we can extend that aspect of it to EA. As EAs we may or may not practice meditation, but as EAs we are all somehow involved in altruistic works, and through performing those works we manifest our altruism, skill, patience, effort, and wisdom (we'll talk about prajna next time) into the world, just as meditation allows us to manifest the other paramitas all at once together for the benefit of ourselves and others. Whether that work is direct action, research, community building, learning, or simply caring, it's a chance for us to express all that we are for the betterment of others.

So treat your work altruistic work as meditation, and see how it affects your effectiveness. I think you'll be satisfied with the results.

Prajna

At last we come to the sixth and final paramita, prajna, translated as "wisdom" or "seeing clearly".

A lot can and has been said about prajna because, while it's simple, it's very hard to grasp because our minds have, through the conditioning of our lives, become distanced from it. Simply put, prajna asks us to see the world as it is, to see that it is just this. Talk of form, emptiness, non-duality, and the rest are ways to point at and talk around, though, something that can only be directly experienced. Prajna is ultimately something you feel down to the depth of your being.

I think there is a clear link here to the "effective" aspect of effective altruism. In seeking to be effective, we need to see clearly enough to both know that we are being effective and to know what would work. This cannot be done if we are deluded by our opinions, judgements, and conceptions. Even, ultimately, thinking we know something can be a threat to effectiveness. Remaining epistemically humble, being open to new ideas, and always questioning if we're really doing the most good given our resources are expressions of the deep wisdom of seeing the world as it is and knowing that any attempt to interact with it using our finite being will always leave something out. We must ever try to see more clearly, a horizon to approach that we can never reach, if we wish to be as effective as we can.

That concludes this series of posts, as I both finished the book (Deep Hope) and we're out of paramitas.

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