“Buddhist ethics” is neither Buddhist nor ethics.
“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud: a fabrication created to deceive, passed off as something valuable that it is not, for the benefit of its creators and promoters.
“Buddhist ethics” is actually a collection of self-aggrandizing strategies for gaining social status within the left side of the Western cultural divide.
“Buddhist ethics” actively obstructs Buddhists’ moral and personal development. It has also deliberately obscured—and sometimes forcefully suppressed—most of Buddhism.
“Buddhist ethics” is gravely ill and will probably die shortly. In fact, I hope to drive a stake through its heart now. Its demise will open the door to new possibilities for Western Buddhism.
Some might find these statements surprising; possibly even “controversial.” Perhaps not all readers will immediately agree. Over the next several posts, I’ll explain why they are accurate, and why they matter.
What is valuable in “Buddhist ethics”?
If what I said above seemed obviously wrong, taking the question “what is valuable” seriously might help understand where I’m coming from.
I use “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) to refer to the ethics taught by Consensus Buddhism. (Consensus Buddhism is the American synthesis of the ideals of the 1960s youth movement with Asian Buddhist modernism.) Traditional Buddhist morality is quite different, as I’ll explain in upcoming posts.
If this contemporary “Buddhist ethics” is valuable, it must tell us something that is true, significant, and distinctive. It must include teachings not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian. If she learned about—and accepted—“Buddhist ethics,” which of her ethical principles or actions would she have to change?
I can’t think of any. Can you?
It’s common to say “the essence of Buddhist ethics is compassion for all sentient beings” as if this were some sort of revelation. But compassion is central to most systems of ethics. More specifically, ethicists describe contemporary secular leftish morality as a “universalist ethics of care”; compassion for all sentient beings is its essence also. Ahiṃsā (non-harming) is impressive Buddhist jargon, but non-harming is the fundamental principle of current secular liberal morality, according to current mainstream academic thought.
One might point to Buddhist ethical teachings that contradict mainstream secular morality, like the precept against drinking alcohol, or vegetarianism. But most Western Buddhists ignore the alcohol precept—not because they are immoral people, but because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Also, many other religions prohibit drinking alcohol (including Islam and some Christian sects). Vegetarianism is not a distinctively Buddhist practice either, and is not even a general Buddhist teaching. The Buddha himself supposedly continued to eat meat throughout his life.
Some might bring up karma. But that theory—by itself—doesn’t say anything about what you should do, it only says how you will be rewarded or punished. It isn’t even ethical; if the theory were accurate, doing “good” in order to have a better next life would just be personal self-interest, not motivated by ethical considerations at all. Anyway, it’s crude and silly, and I doubt many Western Buddhists genuinely believe it.
What use is “Buddhist ethics” if it doesn’t make you do something you wouldn’t have done anyway?
A summary of the series
I will discuss “Buddhist ethics” in several upcoming posts. The first few are deconstructive; they show why “Buddhist ethics” is not what it pretends, and why it can’t work. I hope they are not only deconstructive, but actually destructive: I want to discredit “Buddhist ethics” permanently.
Overall, however, my intention is reconstructive. The last few posts of the series offer positive suggestions for the future.
The posts are:
“Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics: It is indistinguishable from contemporary American leftish public morality. It is not based on the moral teachings of traditional Buddhist authorities. It is also not a valuable, unique innovation; it simply re-labels mainstream secular ethics “Buddhist.”
Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system: It does have lists of good and bad things, but they have no structure or explanations. Karma and compassion are not, and cannot be, foundational principles (despite claims). The various codes of conduct (lay precepts, vinaya, bodhisattva paramitas, samaya) are training disciplines, not ethical systems. None of them contains anything that would come as useful news to Westerners. Traditional Buddhist moral teachings that are correct are all found in other religions, including Christianity.
Buddhist morality is Medieval: Much of the specific moral content of traditional Buddhism is abhorrent to liberal Western values. I discuss traditional Buddhist sexual morality, the absence of any concept of human rights, and Buddhism’s support for slavery, patriarchy, and wars of conquest.
How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics: Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional Buddhist morality with Western ethics in three stages, beginning in the 1850s.
Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra: Current “Buddhist ethics” dates back only to the late 1980s, when Consensus leaders declared then-current secular morality to be “Buddhist” by fiat. This page discusses their motivations, the history, and one consequence: the banning of modern Buddhist Tantra.
FTFY Buddhist ethics: The rhetorical strategies that explain away traditional Buddhist moral teachings, and disguise Western secular ones as Buddhist.
“Ethics” is advertising: “Buddhist ethics” is a pledge of allegiance to left side of the American culture-war split; it is a claim of piety; it is a strategy for gaining higher class status; and it signifies particular personality traits such as openness and agreeableness. This “Buddhist ethics” no longer fools anyone, so it is dying and taking Consensus Buddhism with it. We can do better: better at Buddhism, better at ethics, and better even at claiming personal superiority.
The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism: Consensus Buddhism recently fought the secular mindfulness movement over “ethics in teaching meditation.” It lost. This suggests that the Consensus’ political domination has ended. The Consensus has done great harm to Western Buddhism by obscuring most of Asian Buddhism. Its loss of power allows alternatives, both traditional and contemporary.
“Buddhist ethics”: a Tantric critique: This describes contradictions between contemporary leftish secular morality (a/k/a “Buddhist ethics”) and Buddhist Tantra. It sketches reasons to accept the Tantric view. It points, vaguely and tentatively, at the possibility of a future distinctively Buddhist ethics.
Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence: I summarize Robert Kegan’s constructive-developmental model, which I consider the best available ethical theory.
Better Buddhisms: a developmental approach: Here I analyze Buddhism in terms of Kegan’s framework, summarized in the previous post. I suggest that “Buddhist ethics” and Consensus Buddhism operate at a merely adolescent level. They are psychologically regressive, hindering personal development. I contrast them with some genuinely adult modern Buddhisms. I sketch possible futures for better Buddhisms that might draw from Kegan’s model.
Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics: The Vajrayana Buddhist idea that form and emptiness are inseparable may help resolve the Western crisis of postmodernity, the impasse between ethical eternalism and ethical nihilism, and the uselessness of contemporary moral philosophy.
Learning how to be kind: Most Buddhists do not lack compassion. What some of us lack are practical skills of kindness: how to actually benefit people. I suggest this is what we most want from “Buddhist ethics.” It cannot deliver—but that doesn’t mean nothing can. I think it’s possible to learn to be kinder; so it may also be possible to teach kindness. I make tentative suggestions for what might be included in such a curriculum.