- Response: Visions and Revisions in Buddhist Ethics
- Christopher Ives
- University of Puget Sound
Complementing his creation of the new electronic journal, Journal of Buddhist Ethics,
Charles Prebish has assembled on this panel prominent scholars in the newly-emergent field
of Buddhist ethics. In their papers they investigate several strands of Theravaada and
Mahaayaana ethical reflection. By bringing philological tools to bear on key texts and
analyzing modes of ethical argumentation, they extend their inquiry beyond descriptive
ethics to the level of meta-ethics, and thereby provide fertile ground for the work of
other Buddhologists and ethicists in general.
Dan Cozort's paper, "Cutting the Roots of Virtue": Tsongkhapa on the
Results of Anger," examines Tsongkhapa's writings on anger in relation to earlier
Mahaayaana Buddhist texts. Cozort broaches the possibility that Buddhist views of anger as
a "root affliction" (kle"sa) that "cuts the roots of
virtue" force the conclusion that angry people may be unable to achieve liberation.
To Tsongkhapa, one of the main problems with the emotion of anger is the ascription of
autonomy to the object of anger. This reification or hypostatisation of the object of
anger entangles the angry one in his or her own mental constructs and resultant suffering.
However, when the notion that a mere moment of anger can cause the loss of aeons of virtue
is juxtaposed with the doctrine of "suunyataa, certain questions arise. For
example, might Tsongkhapa's tradition itself be succumbing to reification-- of an emotion,
rather than the object thereof-- in its attempt to critique anger?
One might also wonder whether the negative valuation of anger is only in response to
the unenlightened substantialization of the object of one's anger. Cozort outlines how the
consequences of anger are disastrous if the object of the anger is a bodhisattva.
Presumably, a bodhisattva is an individual who has stayed in the realm of sa.msaara
in order to take on the suffering of sentient beings and kindly lead them to liberation.
Though generally Tsongkhapa does not concern himself with the effects of anger on its
object, if there is any individual who would not be expected to react to anger with
further anger or any other kind of emotional entanglement, one would expect this to be the
bodhisattva (all past kindnesses aside). In other words, if concerned compassionately
about the relative exacerbation of suffering in the world, a Mahaayaana Buddhist could
argue that along the spectrum of individuals with whom one might be angry, the best person
to be angry with would be a bodhisattva, for the net effect in terms of increased
entanglement and suffering presumably would be less in that case.
Granted, given the status of bodhisattvas in Mahaayaana Buddhism, anger toward them
might be seen as contrary, for example, to precepts against defaming the Three Jewels.
However, even allowing for textual and philosophical bases for this construal of anger
toward a bodhisattva, data about the institutional and historical contexts of the
formulation of Mahaayaana prohibitions against anger might prove illuminating. Perhaps the
issue of anger toward high-ranking Buddhist figures such as bodhisattvas says more about
the political organization of and conflict in the Sangha than about the religious status
of these figures.
Cozort also cites a contemporary Gelugpa scholar who maintains that anger will
indeed have a disastrous effect on the roots of virtue, as argued 600 years earlier by
Tsongkhapa. Although this claim may make sense in terms of a leading scholar remaining
faithful to traditional, orthodox sources, one might wonder whether Tibetan leaders of a
less scholarly bent-- with a more pastoral orientation, as it were-- might be expressing
different stances in response to possible anger harbored by their Tibetan lay followers.
Specifically, how have Tibetan lamas responded to the kind of anger one might expect to
have emerged from the Tibetan community? To what extent might there be room in Tibetan
Buddhist doctrine for an "upaayic" accommodation of anger in a specific
historical state of oppression? Though this line of questioning may be based on a
culturally biased ascription of emotions to this Asian community (perhaps most Tibetans
have not responded to events in 1949 and 1959 with anger), it is interesting to wonder how
Tibetans are handling the anger, if any, they might be experiencing in response to the
Chinese government. Here, too, a linkage between classical texts or scholastic exegesis
and concrete ethnographic data would shed important light on the formulation and
application of Tibetan ethical systems in actual communities, monastic or lay.
In his examination of the issue of suicide in early Buddhism, Damien Keown probes the
multivalency of Pali terms in a canonical account of an (apparent) arhat's suicide and
formulates a provocative interpretation of the traditional Buddhist approach to suicide.
Keown concludes that the tradition "neatly avoids" the dilemma of an arhat
breaking precepts by arguing that the individual in question achieved enlightenment only
after cutting his throat, and hence was not technically an arhat at the beginning of the
suicidal act. One might wonder how, exactly, the act of slitting one's throat causes an
enlightenment experience. Though the text mentions a recognition of unenlightenment that
somehow led to an arousal of insight concurrent with the act of cutting the throat, and
though it may be difficult to argue that, in principle, the act of slitting the throat
could never be accompanied by enlightenment, without further explanation one is tempted to
conclude that the tradition has advanced an ad hoc resolution to a difficult
religious (and institutional?) problem.
The idea that suicide can somehow enlighten the person echoes certain articulations of
the connection between Zen and samurai, where Japanese thinkers have argued that the sword
is not for taking life but for "giving life," apparently in the sense of
triggering some sort of realization in people who cut with or are cut by the blade.
Further, the apparently ad hoc solution to the issue of an arhat's suicide seems to
parallel an issue that many in the Zen tradition are currently facing: behavior by
ostensibly enlightened rooshi ("Zen masters") that is ethically
problematical and hence unexpected from someone of purportedly advanced realization.
Similar to the response to an apparent arhat's suicide, some have argued that the rooshi
involved in unethical behavior are actually not enlightened, but this resolution of the
issue of the apparent lack of connection between the rooshi and ethical behavior
strikes at the heart of the tradition's claim of a supposedly unbroken lineage of
enlightened Zen teachers stretching back to the Buddha himself. Others have argued that
one should not expect an enlightened person to demonstrate moral rectitude or perfection,
but this response to the issue of unethical rooshi undermines the Zen and broader
Mahaayaana Buddhist claim that enlightened individuals are equipped with wisdom (praj~naa)
and compassion (karu.naa).
Perhaps there are other Theravaadan texts that could provide a persuasive response to
question of whether the Theravaadan tradition is splitting hairs with the arhat's razor.
And perhaps some members of the audience listening to this panel might wish that the
Theravaadan tradition had been blessed with Occam, for in this case his razor might prove
In bringing "ethical particularism" to our attention, Charles Hallisey
provides an intriguing angle on Theravaada Buddhist ethics. A first question that one
might pose to his paper is that of the degree to which "ethical particularism"
characterizes not only the Ma"ngalasutta but Buddhism in general. A second
query is that of whether a community's lack of agreement on a criterion or a single
meta-ethical principle through which one can determine whether specific things are
instances of a duty or virtue such as "auspiciousness" (ma"ngala)
leads us only to the conclusion that there is simply a particular consensus about which
actions are instances of that specific duty or virtue.
One possibility that must be entertained here is that there is something common to the
particular cases that individuals agree constitute "auspiciousness," but people
at that time in South Asia could not agree on what it was or give the commonality an
adequate articulation (through an inductive process of reasoning). In his paper, Hallisey
seems to allow for the possibility of commonality (and perhaps principles or criteria),
when he states that in the context of ethical particularism "we develop a sense of
judgment" and "some general truths are evident." In short, what we may be
encountering here is not ethical particularism but a historical situation in which other
issues-- whether social, political, linguistic, or semantic-- precluded explicit consensus
or definitional statements about what constitutes"auspiciousness." Perhaps
further textual analysis would indicate that in fact there are certain principles
operative in such moral categories as "auspiciousness."
But if in fact "auspiciousness" does simply refer to an agreed-upon cluster
of actions without any demonstrable commonality or principles linking them, one must ask
whether we are dealing with "ethics" per se or simply with convention. In other
words, at what point does ethical particularism become something other than ethics? Or is
a definition of "ethics" that excludes convention overly narrow?
In his analysis of key Mahaayaana Buddhist texts, David Chappell highlights for
us the fact that the ways Buddhologists classify and group texts do not necessarily
correspond with how actual Buddhists and their religious communities draw from those texts
to meet various ethical and philosophical needs. Chappell also highlights different
notions of skillful means (upaaya) and compassion (karu.naa). His discussion
causes me to wonder about the basis, if any, on which one might be compelled to see
skillful means or compassion as ethical. One might wonder whether upaaya and karu.naa
are primarily religious (in the more existential sense), not ethical, and may function in
ways that seem contrary to ordinary ethics. In Mahaayaana Buddhism, might there not be an
element of what Kierkegaard referred to as a "teleological suspension of the
ethical," especially when upaaya takes the form of actions that violate
certain precepts or Buddhist values. (One extreme example of this is the Ch'an teacher
Chu-ji (J. Gutei) supposedly inducing enlightenment by cutting off the finger of an
acolyte who had imitated him.)
Of course, enlightenment may be held up as the ultimate telos, and in this sense
could be regarded as a kind of "good" or summum bonum, which would grant
a certain ethical status to compassion and skillful means. But though those who expound
enlightenment in this way may still face questions about the usage of the term
"good" (both nominally and adjectivally) in relation to the notion of
enlightenment, i.e., about the degree to which we can justifiably stretch ethical
At one point in his paper Chappell writes that the Confucian system in Japan prohibited
social involvement on the part of Buddhists. Strictly speaking, this was not the case,
though Chappell may be thinking of social involvement in terms of certain modern types of
social action entered into voluntarily by Buddhist institutions. During the Tokugawa
period (1600-1868), Buddhists were highly involved in the largely Confucian political
system. At that time Buddhist institutions served as an arm of the Tokugawa government,
with priests serving as de facto officials, disseminating Confucian learning in temple
schools (tera-koya), and performing rituals for the protection of the realm and its
rulers. Following an anti-Buddhist campaign in the early years of the Meiji Period
(1868-1912), Buddhists participated actively in the socio-political arena in order to
justify themselves as socially useful in a rapidly industrializing and militarizing Japan,
and this attempt to be of social utility led to active involvement in the unfolding of
Japanese imperialism prior to and during the Pacific War. In short, Buddhist social
involvement is not necessarily a post-war phenomenon. Perhaps the issue to consider here
is the exact circumstances and motivations behind social involvement by Buddhists, and the
forms that involvement took, rather than the issue of whether they were or were not
involved. Simply put, Buddhists have always been involved in Japanese society and
politics, though this involvement has taken different forms at different points in time,
some of which may run contrary to the modern and in large part western values operating in
social activist circles in postwar Japan.
These brief remarks are intended simply to highlight certain questions that
emerged out of my reading of these four excellent papers and do not do justice to the
scholarooship done by these scholars of Buddhism and ethics. It is clear that
Charles Prebish and Damien Keown, the two main editors of the Journal of Buddhist
Ethics, as well as the other three panelists, have made a major contribution to the
study of Buddhism and ethics. These Buddhologists offer rich material for those whose
interests gravitate toward descriptive ethics or meta-ethics, and they highlight ways in
which prominent Buddhists have engaged in normative ethical reflection as part of their
Importantly for all scholars of Buddhism and ethics, the papers have also
highlighted a key set of questions: What are the central ethical values, if any, in and
across various strands of Buddhism? What are the main ethical theories and modes of
argumentation that characterize Buddhism? To what extent are Buddhist thinkers and
communities bound to earlier canonical sources? On what bases can Buddhists provide
ethical insight into contemporary issues? To what extent might a Buddhological focus on
texts obscure the actual ethical reflection of Buddhist communities? By implicitly raising
these questions and offering some initial responses to them, these four papers constitute
an important milestone in the new field of Buddhist ethics and point to numerous avenues
of further inquiry.