Monday, December 2, 2019

Recently I was asked, “Do you believe in Fate[1] and/or Destiny[2]?”  My answer is “no.”  “Fate” and “Destiny” seem to me to be metaphysical concepts.  More on metaphysics in a moment.  

While I don’t “believe” in the metaphysical; in Fate or Destiny, here’s what I know.  We are where we are in life because of decisions we, and others have made.  Every moment we are making decisions, and often acting (or not acting) accordingly.  I take a job in South Dakota, instead of Alabama, and twenty years later, I’m a bhikkhu in Des Moines, Iowa.  I decide to hit Wal-Mart before Walgreens, and when I get to Walgreens, I find I could have saved a few bucks if I’d gone there first.  I decide to walk on the shady side of the street, and subsequently avoid getting shot by someone robbing a store on the sunny side.  I decide to take University Avenue instead of I-235, and I stop to help someone with a flat tire.  Later that person shows their gratitude by making a large donation to the Buddhist Missionary Society.  I decide to major in Psychology rather than Music Performance, and that points my life in a whole different direction.  The Draft Board decides my number is up, and that points my life in a whole different direction.  Some fellow sees me struggling to cross a parking lot with a basketful of groceries, and asks if he can help, and that points both our lives in a totally different direction.

We are where we are because of the matrix of decisions and actions we have taken, and others have taken.  No Fate.  No Destiny.  We are (to a greater or lesser degree) responsible for who, what, where, when and why we are the way we are. 

Kamma[3] seems to be a much more realistic explanation than Fate or Destiny for why we are where we are.  I act, and that act has consequences, both for myself, and often for others:  both in the here and now, and in the future.  Kamma doesn’t explain everything.  Things happen that are beyond our influence and control.  We need serenity to accept that fact.  Sometimes we are challenged to take control and make the future our own.  That takes courage.  And sometimes we need to take a step back and evaluate the situation; to figure out what we can and can’t control. What we can and cannot be effective in making, or preventing something from happening.  That takes wisdom.  

Practicing the Eightfold Path helps us along towards serenity, courage and wisdom.

A bit more on metaphysics.  It’s always good to define what you mean when you use a word, so let’s look at a dictionary definition of “metaphysics.:  

met·a·phys·ics | ˌmedəˈfiziks |
plural noun [usually treated as singular]
the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.
·      abstract theory with no basis in reality: his concept of society as an organic entity is, for market liberals, simply metaphysics.

Metaphysics has two main strands: that which holds that what exists lies beyond experience (as argued by Plato), and that which holds that objects of experience constitute the only reality (as argued by Kant, the logical positivists, and Hume). Metaphysics has also concerned itself with a discussion of whether what exists is made of one substance or many, and whether what exists is inevitable or driven by chance.  So a discussion of metaphysics will need to include a discussion of epistemology and fate.  

We, along with what seems to be the view of the historical Buddha, tend to agree with Kant, the logical positivists and Hume.  We can’t know what we can’t experience.  

For those of you who find scriptures authoritative, I offer this from ‘What the Buddha Taught’ by Walpola Rahula.

            The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as a 'wilderness of opinions'. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on meta-physical problems and demanded answers.[4]

            One day Malunkyaputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side and said:

            'Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: There are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely, (1) is the universe eternal or (2) is it not eternal, (3) is the universe finite or (4) is it infinite, (5) is soul the same as body or (6) is soul one thing and body another thing, (7) does the Tathagata exist after death, or (8) does he not exist after death, or (9) does he both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death, or (10) does he both (at the same time) not exist and not not-exist. These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This (attitude) does not please me, I do not appreciate it. I will go to the Blessed One and ask him about this matter. If the Blessed One explains them to me, then I will continue to follow the holy life under him. If he does not explain them, I will leave the Order and go away. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is eternal, let him explain it to me so. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is not eternal, let him say so. If the Blessed One does not know whether the universe is eternal or not, etc., then for a person who does not know, it is straight-forward to say "I do not know, I do not see".'

            The Buddha's reply to Malunkyaputta should do good to many millions in the world today who are wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind:

            'Did I ever tell you, Malunkyaputta, "Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you?" '

            'No,  Sir.'

            'Then, Malunkyaputta, even you, did you tell me: "Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and the Blessed One will explain these questions to me”?'

            'No, Sir.'

            'Even now, Malunkyaputta, I do not tell you: "Come and lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you".  And you do not tell me either: "Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and he will explain these questions to me."  Under these circumstances, you foolish one, who refuses whom?[5]  'Malunkyaputta, if anyone says:  "I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions," he may die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata.  Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon.  Suppose the  man should then say: "I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is a Ksatriya (of the warrior caste) or a Brahmana (of the priestly caste)  or a Vaisya (of the trading and agricultural caste)  or a  Sudra (of the low caste); what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown, or golden; from which village, town or city he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot;  the kind of bowstring used; the type of arrow; what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made." Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: "I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc.," he would die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata.'

Then the Buddha explains to Malunkyaputta that the holy life does not depend on these views. Whatever opinion one may have about these problems, there is birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, "the Cessation of which (i.e. Nirvana) I declare in this very life."

            'Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, and what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained?  Whether the universe is eternal or not, etc., (those 10 opinions) I have not explained. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquillity, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.’

            'Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained?  I have explained dukkhā, the arising of dukkhā, the cessation of dukkhā, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkhā.  Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them?  Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquillity, deep penetration, full realization, Nirvana.  Therefore, I have explained them.'[6]

Something to think about. 

[1] fate | fāt | nounthe development of events beyond a person's control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power: fate decided his course for him | his injury is a cruel twist of fate• the course of someone's life, or the outcome of a particular situation for someone or something, seen as beyond their control: he suffered the same fate as his companion• [in singular] the inescapable death of a person: the guards led her to her fate.
[2] des·ti·ny | ˈdestinē | noun (plural destiniesthe events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future: she was unable to control her own destiny• the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future; fate: he believes in destinyORIGIN Middle English: from Old French destinee, from Latin destinata, feminine past participle of destinare ‘make firm, establish’.
[3] Karma (Skt. Pāḷi; kamma): the principle of cause and effect; the sum of a person's actions resulting in their present life situation and circumstances.
[4] 1Cula-Mdlurikja-sutta, no. 63 of the Majjhima-nikāya (Pāḷi Text Society edition)..
[5] i.e., both are free and neither is under obligation to the other.
[6] It seems that this advice of the Buddha had the desired effect on Malunkyaputta, because elsewhere he is reported to have approached the Buddha again for instruction, following which he became an Arahant. A (Colombo, 1929), pp. 345-346; S IV (PTS), p. 72 ff.