Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Buddhist Ethics? - and how

(some notes toward future conference papers/my thesis)

To begin it should be stated why one needs to study and understand Buddhist Ethics. One could argue that since it is not an obvious category within the tradition itself that Western scholars really have little place trying to create a 'Buddhist Ethics.' It has also been suggested that doing so only distorts Buddhist thinking with the concerns of Western thought.

To the first objection it must be stated that while Buddhism seems to have little in terms of explicit thought dedicated to a category answering the question, 'how ought I act' in a way that the West has, it does have a wellspring of injunctions on proper living combined with teachings on the methods (meditation) and understandings that give rise to awakening (in fact these three are encapsulated and expounded upon as the three-fold path of sila, samadhi, and pañña, often translated as ethics, meditation, and wisdom). In my own work I see all three of these as necessary elements of what in the West we study as Ethics.

The second objection is far more important and far more difficult to overcome. Over time the Buddha's teachings have been (mis) used to support Schopenhauer's pessimism toward the world, Victorian British humanism and rationalism (explicitly contra Christian dogma and superstition), and the American anti-authoritarian hippy/drug culture of the 1960s. It has also been abused by Nietzsche as life-denying nihilism, by Italian missionaries as Satan's version of Catholicism, and so on. It seems that few from the West have been able to come to Buddhism with clear eyes. Instead, as Damien Keown notes at the start of his Very Short Introduction to Buddhism, we are like blind men sent to examine an elephant and report back what we have found: one grabs the leg and reports it is a post, another gets the side and reports it is a granary (or a barn), and so on.

Yet this does not mean that the work should not be done. One important reason is that 'Buddhist' and 'Western' are no longer exclusive categories (as if they ever really were). Today more and more Europeans and Americans are becoming Buddhists or adopting elements of it into their lives. At the same time, the influence of Western thought now pervades traditional Buddhist countries. Even many the most 'traditional' Buddhists there are interacting with Westerners and their thoughts and this cannot help but influence their teachings on Buddhism.

The criticism does stand though, and ways to handle it are being sought. One method, employed in the recent volume, Indian Ethics: Classical Traditions and Contemporary Challenges is to encourage a two-directional exchange in which traditionally Western concepts and categories are used to interpret Indian thought and vise versa. This is done to avoid the all too common practice of 'cherry-picking' bits of thought and running them through your categories to prove your point (Victorian Englishmen, German Philosophers, Italian Missionaries, and most recently American Hippies have all been shown to have done just this). I will attempt to follow the authors and editors in Indian Ethics by utilizing the categories of Buddhism to critique Kant (and Western thought) as much as the latter are used to critique the former. [fn. 'critique' here is used to mean examine, not criticize] Just as language of rights and duties cannot be left out in a fair discussion of Kant, notions of kamma (Skt. karma) and rebirth cannot be conveniently
set aside in illustrating Buddhist ethics.
cf. Cooper and James, p.39: "Two conceptions in the general framework that the Buddha certainly did not repudiate are the related ones of rebirth and karma. These are not conceptions that will loom large in our exposition and interpretation of Buddhist moral thought. And that, perhaps, is just as well, for if these notions play an indispensable role in Buddhist ethics then it is not an ethics that could have much appeal outside Buddhist and Hindu circles -- for people, that is, who are unable to subscribe to the doctrines of rebirth and karmic law."
This, it seems, is like saying we will set aside conceptions of God and Heaven in our discussion of Christian ethics because those are not things to which everyone can subscribe; or that we will set aside conceptions of the equality of humanity and evolution in our discussion of Humanistic ethics. Certainly, it must be admitted, the resulting description will be distorted. Ethics and other issues dealing with what may be called metaphysics, cosmology, and ontology, cannot so easily be set asunder - certainly not in Buddhism.

On the other hand, describing Ethics by simply observing the activity of people and perhaps asking them why they act thus (what I will term the anthropological method) does provide its insight. [fn. see pp. 1-2 of Indian Ethics for discussion of three methods of Ethics] Furthermore, it might be argued that many Buddhists don't think much about karma or rebirth as shaping their actions (or that Christians don't think much about God or Heaven). But, just because a Christian's first answer for 'why do you do this' may not include these notions, they are none the less central to her reasoning. For, if asked 'why' her answer was given, before long these concepts will be invoked as something like 'final reasons.'

This questioning in the service of seeking higher (or 'deeper' - choose your imagery) reasoning is the providence of a second method in Ethics, which I will refer to as the culturally philosophical method). Here the reasons which unite a whole tradition are fleshed out; these are the reasons which ultimately unite Christians to other Christians and Buddhists to Buddhists and so on.

A third method, the universally philosophical method, also known as meta-ethics, seeks to unite traditions, to show how they say the same things at times and why they differ at others. Meta-ethics also seeks to show the inconsistencies within traditions and at times to show the supremacy of one over another.

All three of these methods must be used to get a full understanding of Buddhist Ethics, which ranges from such anthropological issues of who becomes a monk/nun and why to very philosophical questions of why the Buddha taught the idea of anatta (Skt. anatman = no-self, or not-self, or non-self). And though he did not employ the current Anglo-American analytic idiom, he did discuss such things as the definition of brahmin (or priestly-caste person, stating that the definition depends upon deeds, not birth) and kamma (or action, by equating it with cetana = intention).

This work of the Buddha (or his early followers, as it may be argued that we cannot say for certain that any of the Pali Canon really is the Buddha's words [cf. Gombrich on this]) is done within a given cosmology, with a given metaphysics, and so on. And, while it is often cited in Western 'dharma books' that the Buddha eschewed metaphysical inquiry, he did teach of and within a stated metaphysical world-view.

Thus, while we may not accept certain aspects of the world-view presented in the early texts, or we may find it internally contradictory at times, we still must not set any part of it aside if we are attempting to understand Buddhist Ethics. Once we understand that framework in its wholeness we can properly ask both why certain aspects changed (for instance, as Buddhism flourished in Tibet and China) and if (and under what circumstances) certain aspects may be subject to change today, as Buddhism and the West collide.

1 comment:

Patia said...

Justin, would you please tell Kelly that I think her spam filter ate a comment I made last night on her most recent post? I can't find her email address .... Thanks.