Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Emotions, Ethics, and Choice: Lessons from Tsongkhapa

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Emotions, Ethics, and Choice: Lessons from Tsongkhapa

Article excerpt

The intentional intervention in--and cultivation of--our emotional experiences is a foundational part of Tibetan Buddhist ethics. Many of the Tibetan Buddhist mind training (blo sbyong) exercises are aimed at reducing the negative emotional experiences of anger, envy and hatred and cultivating positive emotions, including love, compassion and equanimity. For instance, the seven-point mind training formulated by Atisha (11th century) is designed to reduce feelings of greed and partiality and generate feelings of love by directing us to see all sentient beings as our mothers and encouraging the wish to repay them for all of their kindness (Gyalsten 247-257). Another common mind training exercise called Tonglen (gtong len), or "exchanging self and other," is specifically designed to increase our feelings of compassion by imagining ourselves taking on the suffering of another being (Patrul Rinpoche 223-237; Tsongkhapa 50-60).

In Western philosophical ethics, however, there is relatively little discussion of the processes by which our emotional dispositions form and the possibilities for changing these dispositions, despite an extensive literature on the emotions. (2) As Robert Solomon and others have pointed out, the general trend in Western philosophy has been to see the emotions as passive events that happen to us, sometimes despite our deepest wishes and intentions (True 190-200). Recently, some philosophers of emotion have begun to challenge the characterization of emo tional experience as unbidden and arising without our consent or con trol. (3)

In this paper I explore the degree to which we can chose or exercise control over our emotional experiences. I turn to the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist yogin and philosopher Tsongkhapa whose account of certain emotional experiences, such as anger and compassion, offers a compelling explanation of the causes and conditions of our emotional experiences and the extent to which they are under our control. Drawing on the insights of Tsongkhapa, I argue that our ability to choose our emotions is best understood as a capacity for intentional intervention, which depends not only on the strength of the emotion in question, but also on our background knowledge of the nature of emotional experiences and our capacity to observe our emotional states as they occur.

I begin with a discussion of the difference between the object of an emotion and its cause. In the next section, I present Tsongkhapa's account of negative emotional experiences, such as anger, and argue that its inclusion of the "basis" of the emotion, or the basic predispositions that help shape our emotional habits, allows it to explain a variety of emotional experiences. I then present a puzzle for Tsongkhapa's account with regard to exercising control over our emotions and argue that it can be solved by considering the conditions by which we can successfully intervene in an emotional experience.

First, two qualifications regarding terminology are in order. As has been demonstrated by others (Dreyfus; Heim), there is no concept of emotion in Buddhism and hence none of the accompanying concepts, such as the reason/emotion dichotomy, which are so prevalent in Western philosophy. In Tibetan, as in all traditional languages of Buddhism, there is no word for "emotion," although there are words for particular emotions, such as love, anger, compassion, and envy, which are analyzed at length. (4) Although there are no theories of emotion in Buddhist philosophy, philosophical reflection about the nature of certain emotions tends to emphasize the cognitive and affective elements of emotional experience, as well as long-term causes and conditions of emotional experience, such as underlying predispositions and habits, one's environment, and the company one keeps. In what follows, I draw on these reflections on the nature of particular emotional experiences in order to investigate the degree of control we have in these experiences and the dispositions, which form from them. …

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