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Rational Foundations of the Buddha's Teachings
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

It is a well-known fact that in Buddhism the Buddha is believed as the trainer in moral habit or morality [M. I. 111; MLS, I. 22, n. 1] and the adviser or instructor in the way to nibbaana: [M. III. 4, 6; M. I. 16] to follow or not to follow the path laid down by him is up to oneself [Tumhehi kiccam aatappam, akkhataaro tathaagataa duppa~n~nassa. (Dhp. 276)]. The Buddha, therefore, considers Buddhist followers as those who become heirs of His dhamma, not His heirs of material things (aamisa) [MLS, I. 16; It. p. 101]. That is to say an agent has to bring about his liberation on his own moral reason. Once the path is pointed out, the task of the teacher is over. In order to achieve this path (magga), the agent is required to be very rational and intelligent to take responsibility. The Buddhist literature shows that the Buddha’s doctrine (dhamma/dharma) is for the rational or intelligent and not for the irrational or unintelligent [Pa~n~naavantassaa yam dhammo naayam dhammo duppa~n~naassa (M. I. 22)] or to be realized individually by intelligent agent [Dhammo …paccattam veditabbo vi~n~nuuhi. (A. II. 56)]. The Buddha teaches his ethics (dhamma) on a system of his own devising beaten out by reasoning and based on investigation [M. I. 69]. For attainment of moral perfection, the Buddha encourages his followers to examine and investigate morally before accepting what is said or taught, even his own teaching [M. I. 317ff]. The Discourse to the Kaalaamas (Kaalaama Sutta) [A. I. 189ff] is the excellent example of this rational spirit of Buddhist ethics or moral training. In this discourse, the community of learned people known as Kesaputtiyaa Kaalaamaa is confused as to the mutual contradiction of moral advice given by different sages, who visit them before the coming of the Buddha: "How can we determine what is really good (kusala) and really bad (akusala) when divergent teachers assert diverse points of view on these matters?" The Buddha encourages this community of rational and learned people to question moral teachings or views presented to them and, therefore, not to accept any moral codes on the following ten grounds: (1) Vedic authority (anussava), (2) tradition (paramparaa), (3) hearsay or report (itikiraa), (4) textual authority (pi.takasampadaa), (5) apparent agreebility of the view (sama o no garu), (6) authority of the holder of the view (takkahetu), (7) logicality of the view (nayahetu), (8) the fact that the view is an accepted standpoint (aakaaraparivitakka), (9) inadequate reflection on reasons (bhabbaruupataa), and (10) the fact that the view agrees with one’s own (di.t.thinijjhaanakkhanti).

The rejection of these ten grounds is to set moral reasoning on the basis of moral epistemology. These rational criteria of morality, as rational foundations of Buddhist ethics, are laid down to help the ethical agent to determine what is really right or wrong in accordance with his own reason. The Buddha further teaches them that the justification of morality is only possible when the consideration of the result of its application conduces to moral benefit, and vice versa:

Kaalaamaa, if you know of yourselves that these non-greed, non-hatred and wisdom are profitable, blameless and praised by the wise or when performed and undertaken conduce to advantage and happiness, then, Kaalaamaa, having undertaken them and abide them . . .

Kaalaamaa, if you know of yourselves that these greed, malice and delusion are unprofitable and blame-worthy and condemned by the wise or when performed and undertaken conduce to disadvantage, unhappiness, then, Kaalaamaa, not having undertaken them and not to abide them [A. I. 189f.].

This statement is not only a proclamation of freedom of thinking with regard to philosophical point of view by the rational agent but also an autonomous criterion as to moral questions or reasoning by the moral agent. The rationally moral agent should not be subject to moral authorities in the sense as mentioned above but to make his own system of judgement on moral reasoning: what is right and wrong in accordance with its consequences on himself as well as on others. Here the two grounds, which should be considered by the rational agent, are his intention or motive (cetanaa) and the consequences (vipaaka) resulted from his intentional action (kamma). Of the former is good will or bad will while of the latter is the happiness (sukka) or unhappiness (dukkha) produced by the course of conduct that he performs. The latter is believed as the result (vipaaka) of the former. Without intention, no action would be possible. The good consequence is the result of cultivation of kusala whereas the bad result of akusala. That is to say, in judging what is good or bad, right or wrong, one has to consider the actual or possible consequences affected to the agent himself and to others as well, in relation to the agent’s intention (cetanaa). In this connection, Jayatilleke has convincingly argued in the following words:

If we interpret the Kaalaama Sutta as saying that one should not accept the statements of anyone on authorities nor seriously consider the views of others in order to test their veracity but rely entirely on one’s own expericence in the quest and discovery of truth, then this would be contradictory to the concept of saddhaa in the Paali Nikaaya. But if, on the other hand, we interpret the Kaalaama Sutta as saying that while we should not accept the statements of anyone as true on the grounds of authority, we should test the consequences of statements in the light of our own knowledge and experience in order to verify whether they are true or false, it would be an attitude, which is compatible with saddhaa as understood in at least one stratum of Paali canonical thought.

Another instance, which clarifies Buddhist criterion of morally philosophical inquiry, is found in the V ma"msaka Sutta of the Majjhimanikaaya [M. I. 317-20]. According to this discourse, the Buddha allows his followers to make inquiry seriously about his nature of enlightenment. He appears to encourage them: "An investigating monk, who can read the thoughts of another, should examine the Tathaagata to determine whether he is perfectly enlightened or not." [M. I. 317: Viima"msakena bhikkhunaa parassa cetopariyam tathaagate samanesanaa kaatabhaa, sammaasambuddhio vaa no vaa iti vi~n~naa.naayaati]. In the same spirit, the investigation should be carried out as to the teaching of the Buddha itself. At the end of this process, it is said, the inquirer acquires what Buddhism calls ‘rational belief’ (aakaaravatii saddhaa) in the Buddha and his teachings. 


References to Pali Texts and their translations are to the standard Pali Text Society editions.

A. A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V, ed. R. Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900) 

Dhp. Dhammapada, ed. K. R. Norman and O. von Hinuber. (London: PTS, 1931) 

M.  Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed. V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902) 

MLS. Middle Length Sayings (PTS translation of the Majjhima Nikaaya) 

It. Itivuttaka, ed. E. Windisch. (London: PTS, 1890)

PTS. Pali Text Society.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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