Wednesday, October 03, 2007

B-Ethics: meeting the great man

I met with my advisor, Damien Keown, for the first time today to go over my thesis (n.b. I think in the States you do a Masters thesis and a Doctoral dissertation; in the UK you do a Masters dissertation and a Doctoral thesis). The meeting went splendidly. Damien is very enthusiastic about his work and it shows. I left the room looking forward to jumping into some reading. Here are some general notes:
  1. We will meet every Wednesday to go over progress, questions, thoughts, etc.
  2. Endnote - GET IT. This is an essential bibliographic tool for researchers. I think the college has something called EndnoteWeb that I can use free, just gotta track it down.
  3. Begin work immediately, don't send three emails to your fiancé and a long blog entry - oops, well...
  4. Create an outline with chapters that looks something like this:
    1. Literature review (what's been written in the field already, see esp. JBE)
    2. Methodology (the how, what, and why of my project)
    3. What Is Buddhist Ethics:
      1. Is it Utilitarian
      2. Aristotelian
      3. Other
    4. What Is Kantian Ethics:
      1. The Caricature (rigid/vapid)
      2. Neo-Kantians (Onora O'Neill, Allen W. Wood)
      3. Other uses and interpretations
    5. Is Buddhist Ethics compatible with Kantian Ethics
    6. Conclusion
  5. Keep a research journal/diary: ideas may come up any time - keep track of them
  6. After one year be prepared to submit a chapter to upgrade from MPHIL to PHD.
    1. Easy, just 10-15000 words (n.b. half of this may come from revising my MA dissertation from Bristol)
    2. Or it could be the Lit. Review
    3. Viva would likely just be DK and Howard Caygill (likely to be my other advisor)
  7. Alright, some more specific questions/issues:
    1. Are there Moral Absolutes in Buddhism? - DK thinks yes, so do I.
      1. How do we show this?
      2. Where might apparent exceptions lie?
    2. Are there "Buddhist Ethics" in traditional sources? DK: not really - Buds. have been concerned with other issues: psychology, ontology, never the systematic justification of why certain actions ought to be undertaken (i.e. ethics).
    3. How about "Buddhist Politics?" DK: no, snippits here and there, but nothing systematic and thought out vis-à-vis other systems like what we find in Greece when people defended democracy against oligarchy, monarchy, etc.
    4. So we (modern academics) are left to conjure up Buddhist Ethics, to actually (hopefully persuasively) create it anew from suggestions and underlying tendencies within traditional sources.
    5. There has been resistance by academics to doing this. Why? In this global age people are seeking answers to the "what is the Buddhist position on x,y,z?" - why are Buddhists reluctant to try to formulate answers?
      1. It can be attributed in part to the non-authoritarian nature of Buddhism, which has no pope or patriarch or supreme council to lay down laws.
      2. But look at Protestant Christianity in the US. Even without central authority there is still active discussion about Christian Ethics, and think-tanks busily putting out position papers and statements. Why not in Buddhism?
  8. Lastly, keep in mind the range of library resources available: SOAS, the Royal Asiatic Society, the British Library, King's College-London, and Senate House (esp. for philosophy).
So that was that, a very intriguing and positive start to what is sure to be a challenging and exciting course of study!


Andy said...


I've been reading your blogs for a few months now, and am amused to see that you've now arrived in my neck of the woods. I live right next to Goldsmith's College! (My housemate is studying there, I'm at KCL)

Like you, I am a newcomer to London (I used to live in Cambridge), so I'd be interested in hearing what Buddhist-based activities you discover, particularly talks and sanghas.


Gary said...

Hello, Justin.

I'm an English Buddhist living in Thailand, near two famous forest temples, where the emphasis is on meditation and mindfulness. In these monasteries, while there are well defined rules of conduct, these rules exist to facilitate an atmosphere conducive to the reflective life. They are not ethical commandments as such.

In response to your questions regarding Buddhist ethics, one reason why there's no coherent set of views on societal issues is that Buddhism is a very diverse religion. Theravada, Pure Land, Vajrayana, Zen, Nichiren, Tendai, Shingon; Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan - the list goes on and on, doesn't it? With all these different types of Buddhism, with their various interprtations of the Buddha Dhamma, it's not surprising that there's no consistent system of ethics.

Secondly, and more imortantly to a Theravadan like myself, generally the Buddha advised his followers to focus their attention on spritual liberation, not social liberation. He did give council to kings on how best to run their countries, and even discouraged one king from waging war on a neighboring nation, but overall his emphasis was on personal ethics and practice.

The five precepts, which are the basic level of 'good' conduct for any Buddhist, Theravada or Mahayana, are ethical in nature. They encourage harmlessness, honesty, fidelity (or chastity), and sobriety. Certainly, if a society focused on these five precepts, and rigorously encouraged its citizens to keep them, that society would be a pretty nice place to live.

Buddhism, by nature, is not a demanding religion, however. Unlike theistic religions which have their commandments from a god to his creations, Buddhism has a set of guidelines or advice on how to live. The Buddha didn't demand that anyone do anything in particular. He pointed out that life is dukkha, and then showed the Way out of that suffering. It's up to each of us to apply his teachings in the best way appropriate to our situation. Hence the many different forms of Buddhism, which have evolved to suit the national and cultural characteristics of various peoples.

In a sense, Buddhist ethics are clearly set out in the five precepts (and the eight and ten precepts, along with the vinaya for monks and nuns). Within the boundaries of those ethical guidelines, it's up to each and every Buddhist to decide for themselves what constitutes wholesome or unwholesome behavior. The guiding principle here would be that whatever ethical decisions are made, that they come from a compassionate and wise heart, not a deluded mind motivated by selfish desires.

Be well,
Gary at Forest Wisdom

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Andy - wow, a small world it is. I'll surely blog about the activities I do find here. A friend of mine made it to a fair at the University of London Union last week were there was a very large Buddhist group, but there doesn't seem to be much here in New Cross. We'll see though, there is sure to be something tucked away not far away...

Gary - great to hear from you, and many thanks for your wisdom on this. I would love to hear more as I further my studies here in London.

Perhaps the difficulty here is that ethics, as a Western study, seeks to step outside of time, to give eternal rules or guidelines, both personally and socially while Buddhism does this only in the simplest terms (a few precepts) because it recognizes that the nature of the world is change. Hence any rules/guides can become tools of oppression and control - or perhaps they simply represent too much emphasis on abstract thinking and the Buddha was more concerned with the concrete, day to day life of his followers... Hmm...

Anyhow - thanks again. I hope to hear more from you, and you Andy as well. Best wishes.