Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system

On this page and the next, I will argue that traditional Buddhism has no ethical value for liberal, educated Westerners. There is no “ancient wisdom of the Buddha” to draw on when constructing a modern Buddhist ethics. That is why modern “Buddhist ethics” has nothing in common with the tradition.

These two pages may seem like an attack on traditional Buddhism, but my intent is only to dispel a modern illusion. The myth of “Buddhist ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, most of what Buddhism has to offer. It needs to be cleared away to make Buddhism visible again.

These pages might be misunderstood, at this point, as the core of the series on “Buddhist ethics.” They’re not; the uselessness of traditional Buddhist morality is just a background fact. We need it to understand why modern “Buddhist ethics” had to be invented as a replacement.

Summary of the two pages

This summary is all you need as background to understand the rest of the series. If you accept what I say here, you can skip ahead. Otherwise, you can read on for details.

There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics

This assertion relies on a distinction between “ethics,” which involve justifications, and “morals,” which are statements about right and wrong that are given without explanations. Traditional Buddhism has only morality, not ethics, in this sense. Some modern academic Buddhist ethicists attempt to supply the missing justifications, by borrowing Western ethical principles.

Supposed Buddhist ethical principles

Karma and compassion are often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics. However, neither of these actually supplied systematic foundations for Buddhist morality. Most traditional moral teachings aren’t justified in terms of either one. In fact, it’s rare for them to claim any justification at all.

Karma and compassion are also utterly inadequate as bases for a modern ethical system. Acting to improve your karma, in hope of a better next life, is just self-interest. Compassion is a transitory subjective feeling; if people only acted ethically when they felt compassion, wrongdoing would be far more common.

Supposed Buddhist moral systems

Traditional Buddhism has various codes of conduct, and lists of virtues, that are semi-moralistic. This section discusses the lay precepts, vinaya, the bodhisattva paramitas, and samaya. These are rules or ideals for conduct.

None of these seems to have been intended as a systematic code of morals. In each code, some rules have no moral content. None of them gives broad coverage of moral topics. They are incoherent lists, without any explanations for why things are right or wrong. That means they give no guidance when rules conflict.

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.

The bodhisattva practices may have distinctive value, however.

Buddhist morality is Medieval

Much of the specific moral content of traditional Buddhism is abhorrent to liberal Western values. The next page in this series discusses traditional Buddhist sexual morality, the absence of any concept of human rights, and Buddhism’s support for slavery, patriarchy, and wars of conquest.

“No ethical value” is relative

Traditional Buddhist morality is better than many traditional alternatives. It’s better than many systems elsewhere in the world today, too. That’s not the relevant standard of comparison, though. Does it have anything to offer contemporary Westerners? No.

There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics

This is stated explicitly by some leading authorities. One is Damien Keown, who founded the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and wrote one of the two standard English-language textbooks on the subject. In the section “On the absence of ‘ethics’ in Buddhism” in his Buddhist ethics: A very short introduction, he writes:

[Buddhism contains no] treatises on ethics. There is not even a word for ‘ethics’ in the early Indian texts – the closest approximation to it is śīla, often translated as ‘morality’ but closer in meaning to disciplined behaviour or self-restraint. In the course of Buddhist history there never arose a branch of learning concerned with the philosophical analysis of moral norms. (p. 27)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism agrees:

It’s not clear that Buddhist thinkers have a concept of moral obligation at all. … Many statements that can be read as being about ethics can also be understood in a non-normative way, as descriptions of how a spiritually developed being actually behaves.

These authors are using “ethics” in a specific sense. As the SEP article observes:

Buddhism [does] attach considerable importance to systems of rules that codify moral discipline.

Keown draws a distinction between “morality” and “ethics.” Buddhism has “morality”: lists of Thou-Shalt-Nots and of virtuous character traits. It has little or no “ethics”: broad principles which explain why particular actions and traits are good or bad.

There seems to be a remarkable lack of interest or curiosity about the concepts and principles that underlie Buddhist moral teachings. (Keown, p. 28)

What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics. Mostly, Westerners take the “whats” as given; we don’t need to be told not to kill, steal, and lie. That’s kindergarten stuff. What we want to know is how to use principles to resolve conflicting moral considerations.

Occasionally Buddhist texts give one-step explanations like “adultery causes suffering, so don’t do it”; that’s about as sophisticated an explanation as you get. Multi-step ethical reasoning is absent,1 and there’s definitely no overall system that makes sense of the moral details.

The Buddhist texts that are now interpreted as “ethical” are typically lists, which often seem miscellaneous, with no apparent structure. Often they mix, on an equal basis, items that seem “moral” and ones that don’t. Modern academic “Buddhist ethics” tries to infer principles from these texts, but this seems artificial and forced.

The Mangala (“Blessings”) Sutta and the Parabhava (“Downfall”) Sutta are central for “lay Buddhist ethics.” They are only a page each. If you don’t know them, I recommend following the links and reading them now.

Keown describes the Mangala Sutta as an “extensive and rambling list of good things.” Mostly everyone would agree that these are “blessings,” but there seems to be no order to the items, no logic to the list, no explanations, no underlying principles. The Parabhava Sutta is a similar list of random bad things. Neither relates in any obvious way to the Eightfold Path, the Ten Lay Precepts, the Ten Kleshas, or any of the other well-known quasi-moral lists.

Modern Buddhism interprets the Mangala and Parabhava lists as having moral force: “to support mother and father” is a “blessing” because you ought to do that. But some items seem merely pragmatic, not moral: “to be skillful in handicraft” is a good thing, but it’s hard to view it as an ethical issue. It seems more consistent to simply take the Suttas’ titles at their word: these are just lists of things that are likely to make you happy or unhappy.

Even though it’s not clear these texts concern morality, much less ethics, they are major resources for modern Theravada’s “lay Buddhist ethics.” This is out of desperation: they are among only a handful of Pali texts, out of thousands, that could possibly be relevant.

Supposed Buddhist ethical principles

This section is about karma and compassion, often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics.


For most Asian Buddhists, monastic and lay, the main reason to conform to Buddhist moral rules is fear of hell. Śīla is often formulated as “I undertake to refrain from…”; you choose to not-do certain things in order to avoid punishment in your next life.

In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all. It’s just pragmatic and self-interested. Karmic morality is “a vast scheme of profit and loss… downright selfishness, which abhors [wrong-doing] not because of its sinfulness, but because it is a personal injury, … merely a calamity to be deprecated, or a misfortune to be shunned.”2

In terms of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, karmic morality is stage 1, the “obedience and punishment orientation.” In the West, most children grow out of it during the first few school years. As an ethical system, karma is literally juvenile.

Karma can motivate you to do the right thing—so long as the rules are correct and clear—but it is useless in figuring out what to do when rules are unclear or conflicting. It gives no explanations for the rules, so you have to take them on faith; and (as we’ll see) most Westerners would reject much of traditional Buddhist morality. And, of course, there’s zero reason to believe that karma works as advertised; particularly since literal, physical heavens and hells are its traditional mechanism.


Many modern Buddhists claim that Buddhist ethics flows from compassion, which makes it superior to other leading moral brands. Compassion-based morality is certainly a step up from karmic rewards and punishments, so this may seem more promising.

Compassion is a primary virtue of most ethical systems; there is nothing distinctively Buddhist about it. Some might say that Buddhist ethics are distinctive in that everything flows from compassion. This is simply false. Most Buddhist morality texts don’t justify their rules on the basis of compassion. Not only are the rules not justified via compassion, it’s hard to see how some could be. As a random example, oral sex is forbidden in most discussions of sexual morality. It’s not just that this seems uncompassionate to us, it’s hard to imagine that compassion was considered relevant by the people who forbade it. That is, they didn’t mistakenly think that oral sex was contrary to compassion; compassion simply wasn’t a consideration.

Compassion is the desire to end others’ pain. A desire is a subjective feeling. That is not a workable basis for ethics, because your actions, and their outcomes for others, should be more ethically important than how you feel. Like fear of hell, compassion can motivate ethical action. However, it doesn’t give reliable guidance about what to do.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term “idiot compassion.” His student Pema Chödrön said:

It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of “I can’t bear to see them suffering.” In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.

Compassion-based morality is stage 3 of ethical development. It’s appropriate for adolescents. In the West, many adults outgrow it, moving into stages 4 and 5. In a later post, I will suggest that modern “Buddhist ethics” may actively hinder moral development, holding people back at stage 3 instead of encouraging them to mature into later stages.

Because compassion is purely subjective, people disagree about what is compassionate. Prominent Buddhist authorities have justified torture on the basis that is compassionate. Maybe they do feel great compassion toward the people they have ordered tortured; but I think torture is wrong, however they feel about it.

Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts, which are where ethics gets difficult. For an individual, there are conflicts between considerations. If someone you care about has taken up a self-destructive habit, should you point out the harm they are doing? In the short run, they will find that upsetting; in the longer term, it might help them make better decisions. Or it might distance them from you, making it harder to help. Compassion does not help weigh these concerns.

Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts between people, either. Consider a child custody case in which the parents will live thousands of miles apart. Regardless of the outcome, all parties will suffer. A decent judge will feel compassion for all; and if compassion is equal for all parties, it may provide no basis for decision. Perhaps the judge feels more compassion for one parent than the other, based on superficial personal likes and dislikes. Then what? How the judge feels about it should not be relevant.

A modern Buddhist may say “the judge should find a solution that is compassionate toward all,” but that is meaningless verbiage. People can be compassionate; “solutions” cannot. A ruling may be motivated by compassion, but that does not necessarily make it the right or best one.

Compassion is also inadequate as a basis for ethics because people don’t reliably feel each other’s pain. If everyone stopped acting ethically when their compassion stopped, we’d be in deep trouble. At the more primitive end of the ethical scale, we need fear of punishment to ensure basic morality when compassion breaks down. At the more sophisticated end, people do the right thing because it is the right thing, regardless of how they happen to feel.

An example: you are a doctor, caught in a brutal civil war. Your city has been invaded, and as you operate in the emergency room, you are terrified about what may be happening to your spouse and children. You haven’t heard from them in two days because the telephone network is down, and there are rumors of hideous atrocities. Casualties from both sides arrive constantly—and you treat them equally. You do the best you can for an enemy soldier with a bullet in his thigh, even though he may have slaughtered your children an hour ago. While you stitch him up, you may hate him. His side is wrong and barbaric, and you may feel no compassion for him at all. You save his life because it is the right thing to do. You don’t do it because of how you feel, or because it’s your job, or because it’s required by the Geneva Convention. You do it because it’s right.

Buddhists sometimes admit that compassion does not always help them know what to do. Often then they talk about what an enlightened being with perfect compassion would do. This replaces actual compassion with theoretical speculation. And how would we know what the ideal bodhisattva would do? This has to be reasoned out in some way, often using rules (deontology) rather than compassionate feeling.

In Western Buddhism, compassion-based ethics often slides into utilitarianism, without anyone noticing. Compassion is for “the suffering of all sentient beings”; so in cases of conflict, it seems reasonable to compare the magnitude of suffering. The action that minimizes overall suffering is the best one. That is an exact statement of negative utilitarianism. This is not at all a compassion-based ethics, because it is based on quantities of suffering of others, rather than your own feelings. It’s possible that you would feel compassion exactly in proportion to the amount of others’ suffering, but this is rarely true in practice, and the two are entirely different in principle.

It’s hard to argue that utilitarianism is the central principle of Buddhist morality.3 There are passages in Mahayana scripture that seem to use basic utilitarian reasoning, under the rubric “upaya,” for example to argue that lying and even killing is right when it prevents greater suffering. These are scarce and ambiguous, however.

In any case, utilitarianism is certainly not distinctively Buddhist. And the negative version (which considers only suffering, not enjoyment) is generally considered wrong. It implies that the best possible action would be to kill all sentient beings, thereby permanently ending all suffering. (Whatever suffering this might cause in the short run is tiny compared to the total amount of suffering that would otherwise occur over the next few billion years.) Most people would consider destroying all life on earth unethical.

Supposed Buddhist moral systems

This section discusses traditional lists of rules or ideals of conduct upon which modern Buddhists have tried to build “Buddhist ethics.” These are vinaya; the lay precepts; the bodhisattva vows, paramitas, and practices; and samaya.

For each, I will point out that the overall intent of the list is not moral at all; each includes rules that have nothing to do with morality. Each, also, includes rules that would be repellent to liberal Westerners. (The paramitas are an exception.) To the extent that they are morally acceptable, they are not distinctively Buddhist.

Haphazard bits of moral discussion, not clearly relating to any of the systems, also appear here and there in standard Buddhist texts and in local and oral tradition. The Mangala and Parabhava Suttas are examples. This miscellaneous moralizing lacks coherence, and it is often difficult to see how it relates to Buddhist principles at all.


Vinaya is the code of conduct for monks.4

Vinaya is by far the most developed quasi-moral code in Buddhism. Compared with the Mangala and Parabhava Suttas, for example, it is much more extensive (227 to 366 rules, depending on the version), and also has some structure. Like them, though, it’s highly miscellaneous and jumbled. Most of it is pragmatic, or just arbitrary, rather than moral. (There are many rules about what monks should wear, for instance.) Vinaya mainly lacks principled explanations. It is structured by the degree of transgression, from worst to least bad, rather than by topics.

Based on the specifics, you can try to guess what the underlying principles are, to give it some structure. My summary is:

  1. No sex. This is the most important thing. Don’t even think about it! Also, don’t do anything else fun. Enjoyment makes revulsion impossible, and revulsion is the basis for all non-tantric Buddhist practice.
  2. Don’t do anything that would make monks as a class look bad to laypeople, because then they might give us less money.
  3. Don’t get in fights with other monks. (Jeez!)

Vinaya regulates a specific training discipline; it is not an ethical system. As ethics, it would be severely inadequate. It does not address most ethical issues; its fundamental principle (renunciation) is irrelevant unless you are doing hardcore practice; and most of its rules have no moral content at all.

Modern Buddhism frequently quotes traditional texts on the importance of “ethics,” but these usually are actually talking about vinaya. The word they use is śīla, “discipline”; vinaya is the main referent, although it does cover the lay precepts as well.

The lay precepts

There are ten lay precepts. Most Western Buddhists only know about the first five. They are to refrain from (1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying, and (5) drinking.

As a moral code, the five precepts are elementary, kiddie stuff. They are also not distinctively Buddhist. All moral codes share the first four, and many (including Islam and some Christian sects) also forbid drinking.

The first precept is unusual (not unique) in abjuring killing non-human animals. Perhaps this is a distinctive, valuable Buddhist ethical principle? No; it is unworkable. Anyone who farms unavoidably kills worms when digging. This causes Buddhist laypeople—mostly farmers until recently—much needless trouble and worry. (Conveniently for monks, laypeople provide their food, and vinaya forbids monks to dig.) Mahayana Buddhism recognizes that killing even people is sometimes better than alternatives. (I’ve discussed that at length in “Buddhists who kill.”)

Are the lay precepts actually about morality?

Unlike the lists we’ve looked at earlier, the five precepts all address unambiguously moral concerns. Except maybe the fifth, against drinking… is it moral or merely pragmatic? Buddhist authorities disagree about the reason for it. Most discussions boil down to “if you get drunk enough, you’re liable to do something else that’s wrong.” That is a pragmatic, not moral, argument. In many Buddhist cultures, it’s considered fine to drink, so long as you don’t get so drunk as to do stupid things—although the wording of the Precept, and most canonical discussions, suggest that any amount of alcohol is a violation.

The Sigalovada Sutta explains that drinking causes:

present waste of money, increased quarreling, liability to sickness, loss of good name, indecent exposure of one’s person, and weakening of one’s wisdom.

Quarreling is a moral issue, perhaps; the others, probably not. “Weakening of wisdom” is consistent with some authorities who say that the point is that alcohol interferes with meditation practice—a spiritual, not moral, concern.

The five precepts are the first of ten. More pious laypeople take either eight—considered the minimum needed to actually practice Buddhism—or all ten. When taking more than five, the sexual precept is changed to one of complete celibacy. The others are: not eating after noon; not listening to music or watching dancing or theatre; not wearing jewelry, perfume, or nice clothes; not sleeping on a bed, but only on the floor; not handling money.

These additions are not moral rules at all. “Not eating after noon” hardly seems to go with “not stealing.” So what’s the point? They are vows of renunciation, meaningful only if you are on the renunciate path. They are transitional between lay and monastic practice.

In fact, the lay precepts (whether five, eight, or ten) are simply the first, most important rules of vinaya, slightly modified to make them more practical for lay people. This suggests that the first four were originally only moral by accident. The lay precepts are phrased “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from…”, not “I promise not do harm by…”. Their very wording suggests they are not about morality.

It’s useful to think of vinaya as the disciplinary code of an overseas military base. Military regulations may forbid killing, stealing, sex, lying, and drinking, but not because they are immoral. The code preserves the unit’s ability to fight, by maintaining good relations with local civilians, preventing conflict between soldiers, and making sure soldiers are psychologically prepared for combat (vipassana).5

Killing or stealing from other soldiers creates divisions that interfere with the unit’s ability to fight the enemy. Killing or stealing from local civilians can make them turn hostile; you may need their support, or at any rate you don’t want them supporting the enemy. Sex between soldiers is prohibited because “it can create jealousy and tensions in the unit; it can be a distraction from the job, which is fighting a war.” Sex with civilians is also often prohibited for various practical, non-moral reasons. Lying to superior officers obstructs their ability to coordinate the unit; lying to other soldiers creates conflicts within the unit. Alcohol is prohibited or tightly regulated to keep discipline and because it interferes with the ability to fight effectively.

As far as the Precepts are concerned, lay people are simply defective monks. If you are going to practice Buddhism properly, you maintain vinaya. The Lay Precepts are a half-assed approximation. They don’t have a distinct principle or justification.

This point is important because almost all Western Buddhists reject renunciation. Unlike lay Asian Buddhists, we do not even aspire to that path. It does not point in the direction we want to go.

Because humans are naturally moral creatures, the first five precepts were interpreted as a code of morality; but that was probably not their original intended function.

An inadequate subset of a code of training rules intended to accomplish something we don’t want: this is an unpromising basis for Western Buddhist ethics!

Paramitas and their practices

The paramitas are Buddhist virtues. Different lists of six to ten appear in different scriptures.

These virtues are not distinctive; many or most other ethical codes include them. The exceptions, such as dhyana (meditation) and bala (spiritual force) are not moral virtues. In fact, meditation is not really a virtue at all; and “virtue” is not really a good translation of paramita. “Accomplishments” might be closer.

Consideration of virtues can sometimes provide ethical insight, but it’s not possible to build a workable ethical system on them. They are too vague to provide specific guidance, or to resolve ethical conflicts. (This is acknowledged by most Western ethicists.)

Buddhism includes specific methods for developing moral virtue, such as mettā bhāvanā, lojong and tonglen, and chöd. I have personally found these valuable. I don’t know of anything closely analogous in other systems. I think if Buddhism has anything distinctively valuable to offer ethics, it is this.

These practices don’t count as either “ethics” or “morality,” exactly, though. That is, they are not a system of principles that provide justifications for morality; nor are they moral rules or virtues.

The paramitas are often discussed together with the Bodhisattva Vow, which is basically to help everyone else get enlightened. This is supposed to be the highest expression of compassion, but it is not clearly moral, and the vow is certainly not a basis for a broad ethical system.


Samaya is sometimes described as “tantric ethics”—wrongly.

Samaya is the set of training rules for Tantric Buddhism, analogous to vinaya for Sutric Buddhism. As with vinaya, many rules have nothing to do with morality, and the set does not address most ethical topics.

Some of the samaya vows might be elaborated into ethical principles. Samaya is more sophisticated than vinaya, and there are moral resources in Tantra that I suspect could be useful in modern Buddhism. (More about this in a later post.) It can’t be a comprehensive foundation, though.

  1. The work of Shantideva is a notable exception. 
  2. The quote is from Ernest J. Eitel, Buddhism: Its Historical, Theoretical, and Popular Aspects, 1884, p. 84. Many other examples, going back to at least 1852, are cited in Theravada Buddhism & The British Encounter, p. 57 et passim
  3. Some academics have tried, but most are skeptical. The main proponent of Buddhist utilitarianism recently has been Charles Goodman. He defends the interpretation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism,” which he wrote. However, his article is reasonably even-handed, and he discusses the evidence against as well. In later work, he argues for non-utilitarian consequentialism. Other academics have argued that Buddhist morality can be characterized in terms of other overarching Western theories. For example, Damien Keown has argued for a virtue ethics interpretation, and against consequentialism. Some (for example Jay Garfield) argue that no overarching theory can capture Buddhist morality; I agree. 
  4. There’s also versions for nuns, but nobody cares about them
  5. Vinaya’s similarity to a military discipline code has led some historians to suggest that monasticism originated (among the kshatriya, or military caste) as a modified version of military training. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

33 thoughts on “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system”

  1. I am appreciating this series very much. Thank you.

    This morning I was re-reading some of Cook-Grueter’s work on stages of adult development. (Various different versions can be found on different websites, here’s one:

    It reminded me again that every human is going to interpret and accept or reject the philosophies they encounter from the position of their own personal worldview. So there will always be people who will take to and defend the rule-based articulations of Buddhism, ethical views of the same material, and so on. That will never change as long as humans are born and develop…

    I’m pretty sure that you have a kind of dual-perspective about what you are writing: 1) without challenging writing like this, it can be easy to remain comfortable in an unchallenged half-conscious philosophies, and 2) without this very straight-forward and completely obvious writing like this, it can be rare to experience that ease that comes from hearing someone echo your thoughts. It’s kinda funny that the same text can do both things!

    I don’t think it’s a matter of convincing people that one view/stage of Buddhism is more right than the other, but rather creating the raw material for possibly moving people more quickly through all of these considerations in their lifetime… which is a kind of mysterious process itself. I have no idea how someone suddenly looks back and realizes the limitations of their old philosophy.

  2. I read Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics by Charles Goodman – a couple of years ago. As far as I recall, it was a comparative study of traditional Buddhist ethic and various western systems. Worthwhile, as I recall.

  3. jamie — An upcoming post analyzes Buddhism in terms of Kegan’s developmental framework, which is mostly closely similar to Cook-Grueter’s (with the same intellectual roots). Kegan does write a lot about “how someone suddenly looks back and realizes the limitations of their old philosophy,” i.e. what drives the stage transitions. I’ll suggest ways Buddhism could support that.

    Greg — Yeah, I read several scholarly reviews of that while writing the footnote that mentions him. Everyone thought it was an impressive work, although most remained unconvinced of this consequentialist interpretation.

    Curt — No, that would be a stage 4 project (and impossible). Stage 4 is a necessary step in ethical development, but not the endpoint.

  4. Hi David,

    On the whole this is really interesting stuff. It is so rare to read sustained critical thinking about Buddhism. I hope at some point you’ll say more on the distinction between morality and ethics – I find this doesn’t stay in my head and it seems that it might be important in what you are saying.

    I could quibble here. I found your account of traditional karma a bit too superficial and tendentious (presented as superficial in such a way as to support your argument). But since I agree with your conclusions about Western Buddhists and that seemed to be the main point, I’ll not try to pick it all apart.

    I will say a couple of things. Karma is simply a supernatural monitor, and thus works exactly the same as any religious overseer. Thus Buddhist Karma is like any religious doctrine of morality. Your complaints against it hold true for all systems of ethics based in religion. Although singling Buddhism out has rhetorical value, it might actually be more effective to show that Buddhism is just another religion doing what religions do (at a time when religion was just beginning to get organised).

    The passages in the Kālāma Sutta that most people take to be about intellectual freedom are in fact a statement of Buddhist ethics – the rationale behind the precepts is one’s own experience of interacting with people. Most people seem not to understand this, but that’s what the Kālāma Sutta is mainly about. The Second passage that comes to mind is from the Udāna (Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1)

    Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
    Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
    Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
    Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo ti.

    Traversing all the directions in the mind
    Nothing dear than self is found
    Others too love themselves.
    Therefore don’t harm another self that is loved. [my translation]

    Which is to say that the basis of traditional Buddhist ethics is in fact empathy. Did Keown not mention these in his account? I find it surprising, since they directly address the question. It is true that these ideas about motivation for good behaviour are never developed into a systematic account of ethics. Perhaps they were over-shadowed by the developing Karma Doctrine? But then there is no systematic account of ethics anywhere on the subcontinent at this time – Buddhism seems to be ahead of the pack and, as you may know, I have argued (in a peer reviewed article) that this is because the Śākya tribe were ultimately from Iran and had brought some Zoroastrian ideas to India with them). Is there a developed system of ethics somewhere else at that time? When did they begin to be composed?

    I particularly enjoyed your summary of the Vinaya.

  5. It has been years since I have read your previous writings. I have no doubt forgotten much of it. Hey, not that what you wrote was is was so forgettable. I only have a bad memory.

  6. Another thought wrt to the pañcaśīla. When taking them in Pāli we say

    pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi etc

    I undertake (samādiyāmi) the training-path (sikkhā-padaṃ) of refraining (veramaṇī) from killing living things (pāṇa-atipātā). So although collectively the precepts are referred to as śīla, individually they are sikkhā-pada (Skt śikṣā-pada).

    Now, the root of śikṣa is √śikṣ (to wish to; attempt; undertake). Formally it derives from the desiderative form of √śak ‘to be able’ and thus literally means “desires to be able”. The student (śikṣin) desires to be able to do something. So they seek out a guru (someone with gravitas, since guru literally means “heavy”) who lays down the law (śāsana) in the form of a śikṣā-pada. Pada is literally “foot”, but sometimes foot-print (and therefore “sign, mark”), and by association “track, path”. So a śikṣa-pada is a “path of training”. In the case of Buddhism the training is either for a better rebirth or it is to not be reborn (and the former is “better” in the sense that it makes it easier to escape from rebirth).

    As you say. This is not ethics per se. This is a program of training aimed at ending rebirth. I’m reliably informed that in Anālayo’s new book on Compassion and Emptiness he makes the point that for early Buddhists “compassion” largely consisted in teaching people the Dharma, not in helping the needy. The problem from a traditional Buddhist pov is not poverty, illness and so on. These are simply givens for humans. The problem they address is rebirth.

  7. Funny you should mention this now. A month or two ago I published an article that basically argues why you’re wrong. :)

    I agree entirely with your previous two posts, though – “Consensus Buddhism” frustrates me a lot, especially in the ways it doesn’t see how its view of Buddhist ethics is drastically different from traditional Buddhist ethics. Which was in some respects the topic of my previous article…

  8. jayarava — Yes, my intention was not to single out Buddhism as particularly bad. In fact, on the next page, I suggest that traditional Buddhist morality was probably the best among pre-modern cultures. (And I draw out historical implications of that on the page after, but that’s not posted yet, so I can’t link it.) Even despite that, I don’t see anything in the traditional morality that could be useful in modernity.

    Are you drawing a distinction between empathy and compassion? If so, what is it? (I discussed compassion at length, so I’m confused by your question about empathy.)

    The ethics/morality distinction, as used here, I take from Keown (although I don’t think it’s original with him). It’s about whether or not there are systematic justifications. This is pretty much the same distinction as between stages 3 and 4 in the Kohlberg framework. I have long post coming up that looks at Buddhism through that lens.

    for early Buddhists “compassion” largely consisted in teaching people the Dharma, not in helping the needy

    Yes, this gap is what led to Engaged Buddhism. I’ve sketched the history of that in an upcoming post.

  9. Amod Lele — Thanks for the pointers! I think you are right that Shantideva is, at minimum, an exception to my claim that there’s no multistep reasoning. I have added a footnote referencing your paper!

    I’m not sure how wrong you think I am :-) . Do you think he developed a coherent general system? Based on my memory of the BCA (from many years ago) I don’t, but possibly I could be persuaded. While writing this, I had intended to re-read it, but I disliked it so strongly the first time around that I couldn’t bring myself to revisit it.

  10. I’m not quite sure how wrong I think you are either. :) A lot depends on what you mean by “general system”, and for that matter by “morality” in the first place. (I have toyed in the past with the idea that what Śāntideva offers is “ethics without morality”.)

  11. That’s a very interesting post; thanks! There you wrote:

    On ethical grounds – grounds of gentleness, of patience, of mercy, of resisting anger – one fights against morality, because of its tendency to anger and punishment.

    Since I’ve recently been immersed in Kegan’s moral development framework, my immediate impulse is to assimilate what you said to the stage 3 / stage 4 distinction. I think that’s probably not right, but might cast some light on it. If you aren’t familiar with Kegan, his stages 3 and 4 are pretty much the same as Kohlberg’s. Stage 4 is systematic, and “ethical” in Keown’s sense, where stage 3 lacks justifications, and is merely “moral.” Stage 4 includes the notion of justice (which depends on justifications), which stage 3 lacks.

    I’m somewhat skeptical that Neitzsche was pointing at the same distinction, but it’s been a long time since I read Twilight of the Idols. One of my favorite books ever, however, so maybe it’s time for a re-read!

  12. David and Jayarava, I’ve read and enjoyed both of you for a number of years now. As two of the very few people I’ve encountered who are critically engaged with Buddhism with integrity, I thank you for your efforts.

    I have a question for you both, if you don’t mind a slight tangent: has the wind gone out of Western Buddhism the last five years or so, as the interested populace is able to access more and more of various kinds of information that is deflating in various ways? And/or encountering the ongoing critique that you both have offered, along with the more earth-scorching one offered by Glenn Wallis & co?

    Sometimes it seems to me like it has, based on what I see as a diminshed level of online vitality. But perhaps that is my own projection based on my own evolution, or due to the evolving character of the internet.

  13. Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin? These sound like lists of rules for a good life from any pre-literate culture and I would not be astonished if you could find most of those ideas in Yoga, Jainism or in other cultures. This stuff might be pre-Buddhist and was just incorporated into a corpus of Buddhist teachings.

    The repetitive style of many Sutras seem to hint to their origin as oral traditions. I doubt that a non-literate culture can go beyond a certain point of complexity in its philosophical thinking (see But it is interesting that nothing comparable to Western ethics seems to have been developed later (and that’s what I take home from your article). Is there any reason inherent in the Buddhist thought system for this? Or is there anything specific in western culture that drove it into the direction of developing principle-based ethics, while other cultures did not?

  14. Greg — Thanks for the compliment!

    has the wind gone out of Western Buddhism the last five years or so, as the interested populace is able to access more and more of various kinds of information that is deflating in various ways?

    Sometimes it seems to me like it has, based on what I see as a diminshed level of online vitality.

    These are interesting questions. When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism four years ago, I said that I sensed it was about to be over. I think it now is over. Later in this ethics series I have some suggestions about why.

    The most obvious point (which is part of what got me working on this) is that it was mostly a Baby Boomer phenomenon, and they’ve reached an age where they don’t have so much energy for it. There hasn’t been nearly enough discussion, in my opinion, about what that implies and how to deal with it. Buddhism in the West will, at minimum, be drastically diminished when they pass.

    I doubt that criticism from me and others has had much to do with it. I doubt many Consensus folks even encounter us, and they probably immediately reject what we have to say if they do. But I have no actual evidence!

    Later in this series, I’ll suggest that the main thing is that familiarity breeds contempt. 25 years ago, Buddhism was an exotic, exciting, unknown quantity. Now everyone “knows” it’s just generic leftism plus mindfulness meditation. That’s not interesting, and if you want the two pieces, you can get them elsewhere with less hassle and nonsense.

  15. nannus — Thanks for an interesting comment!

    Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin? … This stuff might be pre-Buddhist and was just incorporated into a corpus of Buddhist teachings.

    That’s an excellent question. While writing this series, I spent a couple of full-time days obsessing over the Sigalovada Sutta, which is another of the few used as a basis for “lay Buddhist ethics.” It doesn’t sound Buddhist to me, and I suspected it’s a non-Buddhist text that got slipped in, with light editing… but I don’t know much about early Buddhism, so my opinion isn’t worth much. Jayarava might have a much-better-informed take on it.

    The repetitive style of many Sutras seem to hint to their origin as oral traditions.

    Well, that’s always been the claim! You could read about the Buddhist Councils (where they were supposedly all recited from memory) for more on that.

    But it is interesting that nothing comparable to Western ethics seems to have been developed later (and that’s what I take home from your article). Is there any reason inherent in the Buddhist thought system for this? Or is there anything specific in western culture that drove it into the direction of developing principle-based ethics, while other cultures did not?

    I don’t know of any other culture that developed a systematic ethics, so I’d look to the European Enlightenment for a causal story. (Confucianism might be another? I don’t know much about it.)

  16. @nannus and @David

    Re the question “Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin?”

    How do we identify something that is not Buddhist in origin? The usual procedure would be to locate the text, or the main idea of the text, in some pre-existing literature and they try to explain why the causal arrow points one way and not the other.

    A little example. Buddhists use a division of the person into “body, speech and mind”. This occurs no where else in Indian literature within 500 years of possible dates for the Buddha. But it does occur in Zoroastrian texts that clearly pre-date Buddhism. But is there a vector for transmitting an idea like this? Well it turns out that amidst the scant information we have about the Śākyas are one or two facts that are difficult to explain if the Śākyas were not originally from Iran. There is supporting circumstantial evidence from Vedic texts. So in my published article on this, I suggested (based on an original informal argument by Michael Witzel) that the body, speech and mind found it’s way into Buddhism from Zoroastrianism. But even a fairly well worked out argument like this remains conjectural.

    See: Attwood, Jayarava (2012) Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3.

    There’s certainly some cross over of traditions. Jātaka stories and some Dhammapada verses cross sectarian lines and can be found in the Mahābhārata or in Jain texts. But proving particular texts are “pre-Buddhist” would be quite difficult. I imagine the Maṅgala Sutta would be an interesting study – maṅgala means “luck, good fortune” and is probably closely related to the folk traditions of the day, the Vinaya describes village folk as “maṅgalikā” (superstitious). Folk traditions are clearly part of the mix from the earliest evidence. This is the source of tree devas, yakkhas, and nāgas as “spirits” (in Pāḷi nāga mostly means “elephant”).

    But even if you could prove pre-Buddhist origin, so what? Most things Buddhists did or believed were ultimately pre-existing. The fact that the ideas were adopted and accepted as canonical by Buddhists kind of trumps any “origin” narrative. Buddhism is what Buddhists decide it is; and that’s all it ever had been.

  17. @David re empathy – hmmm. Is there a distinction between empathy and compassion? You define compassion as “Compassion is the subjective feeling of another’s pain.” Empathy is more broadly based to include other dispositions, and it is objective – we unconsciously recreate the emotional disposition of the other in our own bodies, not in our mind. We literally feel what others feel. Emotions are contagious. This ability is what makes social lifestyles possible for animals.

    You argue that it’s about how we feel and thus not a good basis for ethics. But in fact empathy is about being aware of and responsive to how others feel. Empathy is a reliable way of gaining knowledge of the internal dispositions of other members of our species, especially if we share a culture or a more intimate relationship. Which is a good basis for rules (at least on a small scale). This is the explicit argument of the first section of the Kālāma Sutta (the one that no one sees or gets; and that is routinely misinterpreted as being about “free thinking”).

    The reason I don’t harm other people, or that I regret having done so, is because in my right mind I understand how they would feel about being harmed. It’s not fear of punishment (karma) or self-interested. It is the ability to put myself in their shoes. This is also the basis for the Brahmavihāra meditations.

    On the other hand I see some limits to this. Scale is important. We evolved to live in small groups. I think empathy alone probably works exceptionally well below the 150 Dunbar Number where one knows everyone that one is interacting with. And works increasingly less well above it. The problem with empathy is that it’s a spotlight (almost a laser), not a candle. We can be very empathetic to in-group and murderous towards out-group without any sense of contradiction. And this is confirmed in studies of oxytocin, the molecule associated with empathy. Dose someone with oxytocin and they are more loving towards kith and kin and more aggressive towards strangers at the same time.

    The biggest towns in the mid-late first millennium BC were probably only around 10,000 people. Both Rājagṛha and Śrāvastī were tiny places, judging by the remains. The bhikkhu Saṅgha was a few hundred in any one place at most (supporting 100 non-productive members of society probably required 10,000 agricultural workers each producing a small surplus after taxes – has anyone ever calculated this?). So the early Buddhists were mostly concerned with quite small scale communities.

    Large scale societies require a completely different set up. Almost everyone I see in a day is a complete stranger. We don’t share a religion, politics, or any other kind of allegiance (I’m currently celebrating the Welsh win over England at rugby, because though I live in England I like seeing them lose at sports). If we are to do business (and trade so often seems to drive ethics) then we need a common code of conduct that we will both adhere to, and a system to oversee, administer and enforce our agreements. Buddhism was never geared up for that.

    As Greg Schopen has pointed out many times, the Vinayas (at least 7 are extant) are not illustrative of how monks behaved, only of what they believed and to some extent how they misbehaved. Schopen has said that where-ever there is archaeological evidence, it inevitably contradicts the texts. And he criticises arguments about how Buddhists lived that are based solely on texts. For example: many monasteries were involved in commerce and became centres of wealth and power. In one of his memoirs, Sangharakshita recalls that during his early days in India he was invited to meet “the richest monk in Sri Lanka”.

    The fact that rules against sex in the Theravāda Vinaya go into so much detail suggests that monks were in fact more concerned with circumventing the rule against sexual-activity than with following it! The obvious conclusion from the Vinaya is that few monks were motivated by a desire to renounce the world! Most had to be coerced into it.

    Buddhist monks as a class were not (and arguably are not) concerned with renunciation in any systematic way. For many the life of a monk was a considerable step up the socio-economic ladder and restrictions can always be circumvented; or it was a road to temporal power for those born outside the aristocracy. In a place where the average person is poor and thin, many monks grow grossly fat on their alms. True renunciants are rare, though they play an important role in the faith of less committed religieux.

    And I think the weakness identified by Schopen is apparent here – we cannot assume that because the literature of Buddhism says a thing that it is an accurate reflection of historical fact. Imagine trying to understand WEIRD culture only through the laws we passed centuries ago. How much would it tell us much about how WEIRD culture actually works? Not much.

    That Buddhists have adapted their behaviour to the times is not a problem as far as I can see. We did, we do, we will. Buddhism is whatever some group of Buddhists say it is – no other definition of Buddhism can include all the variations that we know about. And it is this which enables us to have this very stimulating discussion.

    With all these caveats I do find this line of reasoning compelling and thought provoking. My concern is to make the case stronger and to close perceived loopholes. I want to see this argument succeed. I’d like to see this material come out as a book – I think you’d engage a wider audience with a printed book. I’d be willing to help publish it :-)

    BTW I also find Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra repellent.

  18. jayarava, thank you for the kind words!

    I think you are quite right that compassion (or empathy) was adequate as a basis for ethics in homogeneous, small-group societies, and that systematicity was required as societies became both larger and more diverse. (I told a similar story here, but the insight is pretty broadly known.)

    I think your point (and Schopen’s) about the vast gap between scripture and institutional tradition is critical for understanding how Buddhism worked, and mostly still works, in Asia. Buddhism was, and is, very different what scripture says. In particular, as you note, few monks actually attempted renunciation (much less vipassana!).

    However, modernist Buddhism (following the example of Protestant Christianity) explicitly rejects institutional traditions, and attempts (or pretends) to reconstitute itself on the basis of scripture. And the Pali Canon is pretty consistent about renunciation being the main point. So either modern Buddhism actually tries to do that (as Mongkut and Thai Forest tradition did), or else it becomes evasive and incoherent (as the Consensus did).

    Re the possibility of paper publication, the series has about 50,000 words in toto, which is just enough for a slim book. Would that reach a wider audience? The pages in this series have had about a thousand views each already. Based on experience with older pages, over the next few years they’ll gather many thousands each.

  19. Another thought regarding your point that Consensus Buddhism is mostly a baby-boomer phenomenon, and may fade when they pass. I am beginning to think that this might be right: that because baby boomers had the first really mainstream Western encounter with Buddhism (as opposed to more marginal groups like Theosophy), they were able to project onto it whatever they wanted. Dissident boomers like Schopen and Lopez and Gomez – all of whom were once together at the University of Michigan, perhaps not coincidentally – pointed out how real Buddhism was actually a lot more like the Christianity that most boomers hated, and less like the left-wing politics they were advocating. And I am wondering whether the decline of interest in Buddhism after the boom came about because our generation has internalized more of this critique, realized that actually Buddhism has a lot more to do with asceticism than it does with saving the environment and being allowed to bang whoever you want. So that the group that remains interested in Buddhism gradually shrinks to be the much smaller group who might also find some appeal in ascetic Christianity.

  20. @David I understand that the website reaches a wide audience, you do a lot better than I do on that score I’m sure. On the other hand I think a lot of the people you’d like to challenge with this material would not read it on the web, but would respond to it in printed form – a mindset about what kind of media are authoritative. And from my own point of view, I know for a fact this is true of people in my organisation. Also I can imagine leading a discussion group for Buddhists on the essays, and a small book would facilitate this. Plus you can make some income from selling books. Anyway, just a thought.

  21. “There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. This assertion relies on a distinction between ‘ethics,’ which involve justifications, and ‘morals,’ which are statements about right and wrong that are given without explanations.”

    If justification is necessary, the only justification-like answer the Buddha ever gives — that I have seen — is the end (or at minimum, reduction) of dukkha/suffering. This seems to me a fine justification for any ethical system, as long as one does not oversimplify it (for example by using a gross estimate of quantity as the only criteria). But if the concept of ethics was not part of his culture, we will of course not find it addressed in the suttas. And that would be why: “Karma and compassion are often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics. However, neither of these actually supplied systematic foundations for Buddhist morality. Most traditional moral teachings aren’t justified in terms of either one.”

    I agree that the Buddhist karmic system, as it is widely understood, is just self-interest, and is inadequate as a basis for ethics. But I disagree that “Compassion is a transitory subjective feeling” at least when it comes to Buddhist compassion as I have felt it and seen it in my practicing peers. That sort of compassion is a part of a worldview, informing everything, all the time. It’s not so much felt, as understood.

    “Traditional Buddhism has various codes of conduct, and lists of virtues, that are semi-moralistic. These are rules or ideals for conduct.” Yes indeed. It seems to me that the lists of things not to do and to do have two primary functions: (1) to help individuals cultivate a life that provides room and stability in which to develop insight, room provided largely by keeping practitioners out of trouble and (2) to improve the stability of the Sangha so that the teachings will be preserved and passed on (many of the rules seem to be created to help maintain the Sangha’s reputation in the eyes of the unenlightened). That some of these rules might have the effect of reducing pain and suffering, not for the Buddha’s followers, but for others as well, seems almost incidental.

    “There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics.” “To the extent that they are morally acceptable, they are not distinctively Buddhist.” Since the Buddha says that what he’s pointing out doesn’t belong to him, but that it has always existed — I take this to mean he’s pointing out fundamental truths about human nature — I don’t think there should be “Buddhist ethics”. Any ethics we, as Buddhists, work out should be based on things anyone can see, not just Buddhists.

    “It has little or no ‘ethics’: broad principles which explain why particular actions and traits are good or bad.” Little, maybe, but not “no”. The problem, as I see it, is that the reasoning is there in the suttas, stated plainly enough, and often enough, but it has been missed or ignored in favor of other aspects of Buddhism. I would suggest that the Buddha says, throughout his works, that it is unethical to base one’s views on speculation, supposition, misinformation, hear-say, and too few facts. He repeatedly points out that arguing over such views leads to trouble. It leads not just to trouble between any two individuals, but to war. And more than any other views, views (opinions) about the self (views that are disproven by our experiences when we are paying attention) cause problems. This is — as far as I can see — the central ethical point the Buddha makes.

    “Compassion is a primary virtue of most ethical systems; there is nothing distinctively Buddhist about it.” This is false. There is something distinctive about Buddhist compassion: it’s not the fleeting emotion you describe, nor are decisions based on Buddhist compassion about “how you feel” rather than a concern with the outcome of the situation for others. It’s not “idiot compassion”.

    Buddhist compassion is created out of insight, first into one’s own humanity, and then projecting from there (as Jayarava mentions), into others. I don’t know who you are hanging out with, who give you the impression it is “idiot compassion” of the disfunction-enabling sort, but my teachers have always pointed out that compassion without wisdom is worse than useless.

    I tend to distinguish between two kinds of moral behavior. One I call “outside-in” — in which we’re given rules to follow (maybe we are given reasons, maybe not), and we do that: because we should, because we are told to, because we hope that doing so gives us some advantage in the future (be it recognition for our Good Works or a better next life, or feeling better about ourselves, or whatever). The other I call “inside-out” because the morality comes from within after we have gotten a better understanding of ourselves and the way our attitudes affect our behavior and the results of our actions. If Buddhism is only understood as having outside-in morality, then you’re right, “modern ‘Buddhist ethics’ may actively hinder moral development.” But outside-in morality is not what the Buddhist teachers I am familiar with teach. (And I’m a Boomer.)

    So I disagree with this: “Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts, which are where ethics gets difficult.” And this: “Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts between people, either. ” You’re right that idiot-compassion, outside-in compassion might confuse the judge in the child custody case, but wisdom-based compassion, inside-out compassion wouldn’t, and here’s why: The practice of Buddhist methods of insight into the self has taught the judge to notice that the mother’s charming smile and outgoing personality makes her more appealing than the reticent father, whose silences seem churlish. The judge will notice her own feelings, and take those into account, and will further examine just how much she knows about all aspects of the case, as distinguished between what she knows, and what she just thinks she knows. She’ll check her assumptions, and work at obtaining more information where possible, because that’s what the practice teaches us to do. She’ll recognize that how kindly disposed she feels towards one or the other should not have a huge effect. How can that not be a more-sound-than-usual basis for making decisions?

    I am really not sure there even should be a Buddhist ethics and moral code. I believe what the Buddha offered — when he was talking about his own methods for liberation, rather than using the existing systems (e.g. karma and rebirth) as good beginning points for practice — was a way for us to gain the wisdom to make good ethical decisions ourselves, in our individual situations, in our cultural moment in the place and time we live in, based on a long practice of paying keen attention to how human interactions actually work. I would worry about dogma being added where it’s not needed.

  22. In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all.

    Not sure if you know it, but that’s also what confucians (especially Neo-confucians since Chinese Song dynasty) pointed out. They said that Buddhism is a profit-seeking way-teaching (They had no modern concept on religion) as opposed to Confucian-way, and argued that it’s a pathetic, vulgar and mean teaching in that respect.

    Another thing they pointed out is that the doctrine of Karma could be used to justify the evil.

    It goes roughly like this way: “A murderer may say ‘It’s your bad karma – accumulated due to your evil conducts you committed in your previous lives – which makes it possible for me to kill you now.’ Could we clearly refute his claim with Mr Shaka’s teaching of Karma and rebirth alone?”

  23. By the way, Confucians also thought Christianity is no better than Buddhism in terms of “profit-seeking”. When Matteo Ricci’s ‘The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ (天主實義) was first introduced to Korean literati Confucians in the 18th century, one of the common responses was like “Heaven and Hell? That’s a variant of Buddhism’s Karma and rebirth teaching, which is useful only to delude the world and deceive the people.”

    By the way, don’t get me wrong. I’m a Buddhist.

  24. “I don’t know of any other culture that developed a systematic ethics, so I’d look to the European Enlightenment for a causal story. (Confucianism might be another? I don’t know much about it.)”

    Most modern scholars of Confucianim would give a positive answer, especially about Mencius and Neo-confucianim. One of recommendable book about the subject is ‘A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought’ by Chad Hansen. Perhaps, his free online course on Ed-x, ‘Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought’ would be helpful and informative as well, especially for those who are not familiar with Chinese thought.

  25. Heaven and Hell? That’s a variant of Buddhism’s Karma and rebirth teaching, which is useful only to delude the world and deceive the people.

    That’s very funny!

    There’s enough similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that they must have had some common ancestry, and maybe influenced each other. jayarava traces Buddhism’s karma theory to Zoroastrianism, which also influenced Christianity, so maybe that’s the explanation.

    By the way, don’t get me wrong. I’m a Buddhist.

    Yeah, me too, despite a predilection for pointing out that Buddhism doesn’t do everything some people want it to.

  26. Great post, David. Real informative — thank you kindly. Two little thoughts.

    (1) Ahh, I see in this post that you differentiated ethics and morals. May I suggest you put this right up front in the beginning posts — it is central to your articles and if unstated, set up a perhaps unnecessary controversial tone, give that the other stuff is indeed controversial. ;-)

    (2) David, you said, “In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all. It’s just pragmatic and self-interested.” Odd, it seems that Christianity is essentially the same, so why would Christians point that out? Do you have a source on that?

  27. Sabio — I’m glad you are enjoying these!

    it is central to your articles

    No, not really. It’s useful vocabulary, but it would be equivalent to say “traditional Buddhist ethics is crude, unprincipled, conceptually simplistic, and useless for modern purposes.” I do say that a lot in the next post :-)

    The distinction will reappear in the guise of the stage 3 vs 4 discussion when I get to Kegan near the end of the series. Otherwise, it’s not important.

    Do you have a source on that?

    Yes, see footnote 2 to that paragraph :-)

  28. I never quite figured out how these so-called liberals received this divine blessing to judge everyone who thinks differently from them. It most certainly is NOT the European Enlightenment from which their standards derive.

    Your average modern liberal has a worldview slightly less dogmatic than the Taliban on which they judge everyone else in the world, and obviously the ideology is just as imperialistic.

    Such as this blanket statement written in the above blog “Buddhism is anti-sexual.”

    Buddhism is anti-degeneracy. Sick and perverted sexuality is condemned, as it should be. Anal sex is disgusting and clinically proven to create disease.

    If Buddhism isn’t for you, because its not reminiscent of something that you would witness in the Castro district of San Francisco on a Saturday night, than perhaps you should consider an alternative religion such as The Peoples Temple of Jim Jones.

    He was about equally as egalitarian as you claim yourself to be and had no qualms about arbitrary judgements of this so-called unfair patriarchal world in which we live.

    Perhaps that would suit you a lot better, because obviously Buddhism is not conforming to your needs enough.

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