One piece of advice I was given back in Bristol (by a PHD candidate) and again by my current advisor is that to successfully finish a doctorate one must write, write, write... Lucky for me, I already do a lot of that (e.g. here). Unlucky for me, I should be writing about my studies.
So here are some reflections from my first week. Most of my reading has come from these two sources:
Theravaada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. By Richard F. Gombrich. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988. Pp. x + 237.
Buddhism, Virtue and the Environment. By Cooper, David E., and Simon P. James. . Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005.
Though I also skimmed the intro to Damien Keown's Contemporary Buddhist Ethics.
SUMMARY *(note: S.=Sanskrit, P.=Pali)
Consistent with Damien's remarks in person last week, and with things that I have picked up over the years, I would say now that Buddhism is, in the Western sense, a-social. That is, it has no philosophy or set of ideals relating specifically to society. This may well, in part at least, be due to the timing of the life of the Buddha and the social conditions then. Previous thought (Brahmanic/Vedic) had been a-individual, i.e. the individual had no value per se, but only gained worth by acting according to his/her social roles (castes, or S. varna). The religion of the time was one in which priests (S. Brahmins) were concerned with maintaining a cosmic order and cosmic order equaled social, ecological, spiritual order. The priests were relied upon to perform rituals (S. karman, actions) to maintain all of this and in turn held power (though tentatively, sharing with the warrior caste (S. kshatriya varna) from which Kings generally came) over the populous.
The Buddha's major change to this (or one amongst many) was to ethicize karma; to in effect make all intentional acts equivalent to ritual. Put shortly, he made our every willed act sacred. He did this by denying religious reality of the caste system and the notion of the soul (P. atta S. atman) born with its particular duty (P. sva-dhamma). It seems clear that the power of the priests came insofar as they could convince people that they had been born with a destiny that they (the priests) had sole authority over, as they had sole access to the holy texts, the Vedas.
The Buddha's famous phrase is: "It is intention, oh monks, that I call kamma." No longer was supreme religious activity restricted to the rituals of the priestly class (the laity could still gain merit/good karma by supporting the priests - and hope for a rebirth as a priest next time 'round). Within his community (Sangha) all varna distinctions were abolished and followers, "became simply sons and daughters of the Sakya." (Gombrich, p.69)
Gombrich goes on to discuss why this ethicization of karma was great for the rising merchant classes: you could pretty well trust a fellow Buddhist trader because he/she trusted that cheating you would end them up in hell or some such thing, and you could trust that by your own good deeds you could gain higher rebirth or even nirvana regardless of what particular religious fuddy-duddies of the day had to say. He also notes earlier in the book that most early followers of the Buddha are kshatriyas and brahmins, suggesting that this is because the world that they had once ruled together was in a state of somewhat chaotic change. A warrior, for instance, could no longer count on his being a warrior to get him by (in life or beyond). It was a time of widespread existential angst and the Buddha's message, which began and ended with the issue of suffering, made quite an impression.
Right. All this is fine and good, indeed very good. But while what emerges is a rich tapestry (throughout Buddhist traditions and history) of methods of personal spiritual cultivation, nowhere it seems is there or has there been an attempt at formulating a broader, social set of ethics.
Commenting on my last Buddhist Ethics post, Gary noted, "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." My sense is not that there is a problem here with consistency, but that there just isn't anything here to begin with for traditions to share notes on.
Perhaps it goes back to the point about karma being all-pervasive: Buddhists have simply accepted that those in political power must be there for a reason (karmically, that is) and it isn't their job to intervene. Perhaps it also rests in the Buddhist unwillingness to go to war, or to advocate war even, it would seem for an apparently just cause. There are exceptions to this in history that probably need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. A question I will have to answer at some point in these next three years is (again): are there moral absolutes in Buddhism? For instance, killing. If intention is what matters, could there be appropriate intentions to kill? Of course the pervasion of avidya or ignorance must play a key role.
Alright. That is enough for now. I still have a LOT more to read tonight. On top of all this I have taken up specific interest in Burma (many thanks to my dear Kelly for suggesting I do so) as a case study and Damien has suggested a bit of further reading:
1. Harris, I.C. and Becket Institute., Buddhism, power, and political order. 2007, Abingdon ; New York: Routledge.9780415410182 (hardback alk. paper)
2. Ling, T., Buddhism, imperialism, and war : Burma and Thailand in modern history. 1979, London: Allen & Unwin. xvii, 163.0042941059
3. Than, T. and P. Strachan, Essays on the history and Buddhism of Burma. 1988, Whiting Bay: Kiscadale. 185.1870838009
4. King, W.L., A thousand lives away : Buddhism in contemporary Burma. 1964, Oxford Eng.: Bruno Cassirer. 238
He also pointed out that PBS will be doing some further coverage that I may look into. (here is a recent feature from them: Ethnic and Religious Persecution in Burma April 21, 2006 Episode no. 934)
And for future perusing: Buddhism and Ecology Bibliography (if only there were something like this for Buddhist Ethics! - sounds like a job for.... me.....)