Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Buddhist Ethics: one week on

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.....)


Gary said...

Hi Justin.

Wow, you've got quite a busy time ahead of you! All that reading and writing - just remember to look and see where all these ideas,concepts, and theories occur now and then!

With regards to social values in Buddhism, the Buddha always related his words to the person or people that he was addressing. He didn't seem to present doctrine just for the sake of general pronouncements or proselytizing. He did, however, present many teachings on ethics.

The three primary modes of making merit in Buddhism are given as Dana, Sila, and Bhavana (generosity, morality, and meditation). In his teachings on both Dana and Sila, the Buddha did present ethical advice to his listeners that dealt with society.

Looking at Sila, we can see that social ethics in Buddhism stem from personal ethics; social guidelines of behavior and relationships are inherent in the personal ethics of Buddhism. The 10 Duties of a King - or any ruler - (dasavidha-rajadhamma) are a good example of this. You can read a brief introduction to them on Forest Wisdom: http://forestwisdom.thaipulse.com/2007/08/buddhism-by-numbers-10-duties-of-king.html

Of course, the most basic level of Buddhist ethics are the five precepts, which every Buddhist (in theory) should be keeping. These are social and individual ethics, designed not only to help personal development, but also to build a harmonious (Buddhist) community. In such a community, no one should take the life of another being, steal, commit sexual misdeeds, lie, or take intoxicants. Although these are always taught as part of the individual Buddhist's progress on the Way, they have deep social implications.

The Vinaya and Patimokkha rules for bhikkhus also contain many, many regulations on how monks should relate to one another as well as how to behave in society as large.

Anyway, good luck with your studies, and pass on my appreciation to Damien Keown for his 'Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism' which I've found to be the best book of its kind on the various Buddhist schools and their related cultures.

Be well,
Gary at Forest Wisdom.

P.S. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'asocial' as "avoiding or inconsiderate of others" - Buddhism isn't really either of these, is it? Just semantics I know, but...

Gewel said...

This is a really good post. Thanks! If you have any time, would you be willing to chat about grad school/PhD work? I'm working at choosing a subject area (probably Buddhist Psychology, I think?) and I have some nitpicky questions.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Gary, you are very right about the Buddha's discourses being directed at particular people/places. The problem we are left with today (and the same went for the early Sangha not long after his death) was that we have all of these particular statements and that none of them are directed to us. So we must seek underlying 'themes' or general patterns in the suttas, things that we can agree both work for us today and are in line with the particular teachings of the suttas.

I do have big questions (to be posted soon no doubt) about the relationship between merit-making and nirvana. There seems to be a clear gulf between the two, either you are merit-making, described by the Pali. puñña, or you are committing deeds that are bringing you ever closer to awakening, denoted by the term kusala.

I appreciate the existence of the rajadhamma and the example of Ashoaka, but wonder to what extent Buddhists have held their leaders to these examples. These ideals exist, but how much do monks/laity complain when their leaders fail to live up to them?

While I really do think that Buddhism is highly ethical and social, I do share what I take to be Damien's concern that this ethics/social philosophy has yet to be clearly articulated, at least to the West/by Western standards. Damien notes by example that books on, say, Nagarjuna's Ontology can fill a small library while those on Buddhist Ethics (from any/all traditions) can be counted with one's fingers. Within the traditions too, it seems that issues of ontology, meditation, abhidhamma, etc all get wide attention while ethics specifically: how we are to treat one another and why, seems to be mostly a side note (a few notable suttas aside).

This has become far too much for a 'comment' but again let me thank you for your thoughtful comments and I do hope we continue our discussion.

Gewel - It's always nice to hear of another person venturing into the rabbit hole of grad school in Buddhist Studies. Shoot me an email at buddhistethics at gmail.com with your q's and I'll happily address them post-haste.