“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud

“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.

So…

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.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

20 thoughts on ““Buddhist ethics” is a fraud”

  1. This is what you said on June 16, 2011, from your post on McMahan’s Buddhist Modernism:

    “There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas.

    Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

    I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?”

    Do you still hold this viewpoint? or are you changing your view only with regard to “Buddhist ethics”?

  2. John Willemsens — Thank you!

    jayarava — Thanks! Unlike most of my writing projects, this one is nearly completed, so it won’t suffer the usual fate of being back-burnered half way through. “FTFY” is internet slang for “fixed that for you”—the idea being that contemporary Buddhists “fix” the tradition just by saying “compassion!” a lot.

    roughgarden — This is an important point, thanks! My next post should start to clarify. In short, no change in viewpoint!

    My objection is not that “Buddhist ethics” is not traditional. Two things, rather: (1) it pretends to have some continuity with the tradition, when in fact it has none at all; (2) it pretends to be something distinctive, whereas it is simply contemporary secular ethics.

    I would very much welcome a distinctive modern Buddhist ethics. But there isn’t any, that I know of.

  3. Oh yay, new posts! I’m really looking forward to this series, because I love reading deconstructions.

    That said, I am also very tempted to play devil’s advocate for a minute. This might be totally off-base, because I’m not actually familiar with “Buddhist ethics”. But it seems like you reduce “what is valuable in Buddhist ethics?” to “what new ethical principles does it teach us?”, and I would argue that there are other ways that Buddhist ethics could be valuable.

    For instance, even if someone already believed in the standard leftist morality, “Buddhist ethics” might strengthen their commitment to that moral code by grounding it in a spiritual tradition. Like, it might be easier to follow the principle of “have compassion for all living beings” if you believe that at some spiritual level, all life is connected, and that by hurting another living being, you are actually hurting yourself. (I’m not sure if that claim has anything to do with Buddhism or Buddhist ethics; it was just the first thing that came to mind. But I like it as an example, because it’s not really a factual proposition so much as an emotional attitude. The claim “your life is connected to the life of that squirrel over there” can’t really be true or false, because… connected in what way? Everything is connected at some level (e.g. we’re all made out of atoms). It’s more that… as human beings, we are constantly doing analogical reasoning and comparing things to one another… and a statement like “everything is connected” is more like a directive that alters how we do analogical reasoning, leading us to focus on the similarity between all living beings, rather than their differences. This increases *feelings* of empathy and connectedness, which inspire people to actually act on their leftist moral principles. So I don’t think the statement “we are all connected” is wrong. In keeping with your essay on “Boundaries, objects, and connections”, I don’t actually think it’s something that *can* be right or wrong. But it still might be useful to hear because it alters our emotional attitudes towards things.)

  4. even if someone already believed in the standard leftist morality, “Buddhist ethics” might strengthen their commitment to that moral code by grounding it in a spiritual tradition.

    That’s a good point! The series touches on this later, but from a somewhat different angle, and the way you have put it will force me to think about it a bit more.

    My view has been that the version of secular morality taught as “Buddhist ethics” is particularly basic; there’s more sophisticated versions available. So, reinforcing it with religious woo is unhelpful. However, this does depend on how ethically sophisticated an individual is. For the least sophisticated, emphasizing the importance of compassion might be a step up. And if they have trouble feeling that, then adding woo could help.

  5. Good points! My only contention may be the Buddhist focus on virtue. (I am not sure what the Pali/Sanskrit term means.) However, Virtue Ethics is a major player in Western ethics and philosophy and, though primarily focusing on Aristotle, most texts discuss Confucius and Buddha to some extent. Cheers! –okiebuddhist

  6. I could not agree more! Kudos, kudos, kudos… I have been grappling with this issue for a decade or so and my alternative on this particular matter is that Dharma reflects a ‘non-foundational morality of collaborative practice.’ Thanks for writing this. Next step is to convey this liberating text to the champions of this monstruous social construction of ‘Buddhist ethics’ and their Asian colonized epigons…

  7. It seems that “morality” vs “ethics” may eventually need defining to keep ideas clear. Are you using them differently?

    In your reply to roughgarden you say you have two point, but you also have a third, no?

    That modern buddhist ethics is potentially harmful [while using superiority rhetoric of ancient and unique.]

    Your writing, as always is refreshingly blunt, organized and succinct. Excited about what is coming. It makes me think of similar rhetorical, doctrinal ploys in other religions too. Religions like to pretend that without them there would be a collapse of morality, for without them ethics have no real base.

  8. It seems that “morality” vs “ethics” may eventually need defining to keep ideas clear. Are you using them differently?

    Yes, using a distinction borrowed from Damien Keown (the foremost Western Buddhist ethicist), which I explained briefly in a later post.

    That modern buddhist ethics is potentially harmful [while using superiority rhetoric of ancient and unique.]

    Yes, good point. To the extent that contemporary leftish secular morality is wrong, it’s harmful to reinforce it with magical justification by pretending it is Buddhist. Later I’ll point out ways I think it is wrong, and will suggest that the strategy has been somewhat successful: some people have been held back in their personal and moral development by it.

  9. As a practising buddhist from India, long identified the issue, but MUST CONGRATULATE you for bringing up this “most important & urgent issue”… This understanding comes of you from solid practise, not from theoritical fantasizing…. Long warned by Buddha himself.. SADHU SADHU SADHU…

  10. Excellent article.
    Please let me give my ‘two cents worth’.

    Not Western Buddhists but all Buddhists are the same excluding a few, a very few.
    The reason is: Buddhism is a ‘religion or philosophy’.
    The primary concern of religion is power; power over individuals or power over nations.
    Philosophers are individuals who rave over anything that come to their minds and who have the ability to play with words. Buddhists scholars also belong to this category.

    In the case of adherents of a religion, there are two points to note: Actions do not corresponds to words. What is true for the individual is not true for the group (nation). For the group, there are no rules; killing, viloence, subjugation is the norm. I will not elaborate on this. History of religions will establish beyond any reasonable doubt my thesis.

    The significant thing about Buddhist scholars is that they haven’t any need to establish the accuracy of their information. I came across a very interesting example of this in Wikipedia while looking for the ‘four noble truths’ of Buddhism.

    Carol Anderson notes that the four truths are missing in critical passages in the canon,[45] and states:
    … the four noble truths were probably not part of the earliest strata of what came to be recognized as Buddhism, but that they emerged as a central teaching in a slightly later period that still preceded the final redactions of the various Buddhist canons.[46]

    Stephen Batchelor notes that the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta contains incongruities, and states that
    The First Discourse cannot be treated as a verbatim transcript of what the Buddha taught in the Deer Park, but as a document that has evolved over an unspecified period of time until it reached the form in which it is found today in the canons of the different Buddhist schools.[47]

    According to Anderson, the four truths probably entered the Sutta Pitaka from the Vinaya, the rules for monastic order.[48][note 30] They were first added to enlightenment-stories which contain the Four Jhanas, replacing terms for “liberating insight”.[50][note 31] From there they were added to the biographical stories of the Buddha:[52][note 32]

    K.R. Norman concluded that the earliest version of the sutta did not contain the word “noble”, but was added later.[54]

    I can attest that every word uttered by Lord Buddha (Buddho Bhagva) are derived from the ‘four noble truths’ (cattari ariyasaccani) proclaimed by the Lord Buddha.

    I am sure that Carol Sanderson has read through the ‘final redactions of the various canons’ in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian canons. She doesn’t seem to know that different Buddhist traditions are based on interpretations of the ‘four noble truths’.

    Stephen Batchelor says ‘the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta contains incongruities’.Can he point out the incongruities? Batchelor’s statement is false.

    K. R. Norman: The word “noble” certainly did not appear in the earliest version of the Sutta; it is an English word. “noble” is a laughable translation of the word ‘ariya’. The contextual meaning of the word is something like: the four axioms on which the ‘Dhamma of the Lord’ is founded. Oxford Dictionary does not contain the term ‘noble truth’; most probably, because ‘truth is one’.

    By the way Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is a name given by whoever committed Lord’s advice given to Bhikkhus of the group of five into the written form. Incidentally Dhammacakka is not dhamma-wheel or wheel of truth.

    I am a person who has the highest respect for the Lord Buddha which I express in the following manner ‘namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambuddhassa’.

  11. Thanks for your article.But if Buddhist ethics are not ethics, then what are they? I believe that Buddhism has some traditions and customs, which are embedded in their ethics. Do you believe they have their traditions and customs? Also,what about the Buddha’s teachings?

  12. If Buddhist ethics are not ethics, then what are they?

    I answer that in “Ethics is advertising.”

    Buddhism has some traditions and customs, which are embedded in their ethics.

    See “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system” and “Buddhist morality is Medieval.”

    What about the Buddha’s teachings?

    We don’t know what he taught, or even if he existed at all. There’s no historical records. If the earliest available texts (which date from hundreds of years after he is supposed to have died) reflect his teaching accurately, then he had little to say about morality, and what he did say was crude and useless for modern people.

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