How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics

Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality.

So, where did it come from, and why?

The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant scriptural quotes, said “compassion” a lot, and declared victory.

This replacement occurred in roughly three phases:

  1. Around 1850-1900, Victorian Christian morality replaced traditional morality in modernist Asian Buddhism. This hybrid was successfully re-exported to the West, but is now unknown in America, because Victorianism is considered old fashioned. It’s still influential in Asia.1
  2. Around 1900-1960, Western political theories were imported into Buddhist countries, and were declared “the Buddhist ethics of social responsibility.” This was the root of “engaged Buddhism,” one of the two main strands of current Western “Buddhist ethics.”
  3. In the 1990s, the recently-invented secular morality of the New Left, identity politics, and ecological consciousness was declared “Buddhist” by Consensus Buddhism. This is mostly what counts as “Buddhist ethics” in the West today, although most Asian Buddhists would reject it utterly.

So what?

Well, the question is: are we stuck with this stuff? Of course, advocates of “Buddhist ethics” would say “This is what The Buddha taught, so it is Eternal Truth!” But the correct answer is: No, ordinary people just made it up, over the past hundred and fifty years, to solve problems of meaningness that appeared newly in their times.

So, facing our own new problems of meaningness, we can—and should—invent something different. And since “Buddhist ethics” is half of Consensus Buddhism, this implies an extensive reinvention of Buddhism for the West.

This page covers the first two, mainly-Asian phases of the invention of “Buddhist ethics.” The take-away is that much of the “Buddhist ethics” encountered by Westerners in Asia in the twentieth century was already just rebranded Western ethics. The historical details may not interest most readers, in which case you can safely skip the rest of this post.

The third, most recent, mostly-Western phase is more relevant; it’s the subject of the next few pages.

I have not found any general history of modern Buddhist ethics; my attempt here may be the first in existence. I’m reasonably confident that the three points above are accurate, but I would like much more detail. It could provide starting points for your own research. If you find anything interesting, please post it in a comment below!

The wistful certainty of Buddhist ethics

By the Victorian era, Christianity’s beliefs had become obviously false. Since Protestantism had said beliefs were the only important thing, this was a problem.

So liberal Christians reinvented their religion: the new important thing was Christ’s humanistic moral teachings. Jesus was just a man, not supernatural, but he was the supreme moral teacher, and founder of Western Civilization. Likewise, they declared, ethics is the essence of all religions, and since all religions share a moral core, they are all basically right.

A problem with de-divinized Christian morality is that it no longer has a transcendent justification: an ultimate answer to “why” questions. Also, if Christianity is only one religion among many, then its morals may not be quite right. In fact, it’s obviously wrong on some points.

Nevertheless, Victorian liberals believed that there must be a correct system of ethics, which must come with some alternative unassailable foundation, and we must be able to find it. This is an example of the pattern of thinking I call “wistful certainty.” It’s wistful because there’s no reason to believe it. It is certain only because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Rationally-inclined liberal Victorians developed secular moral philosophy, trying to find new, rational foundations for more-or-less the same morals. (Current secular morality, both left and right, derives primarily from Christian morality.)

Romantically-inclined Victorians hoped for an alternative spiritual foundation for ethics. Rejecting rationality, they were sure Truth lay in the mystical connection of the True Self with the Absolute Principle of the Universe.2 Some great civilization, in a land less barbarous than the ancient Middle East, must have discovered a correct system of ethics, and must have based it on this mystical unity. Surveying the world’s religions, Buddhism looked most promising. (Buddhist morality is surprisingly un-bad compared with pre-modern alternatives.) Ah, the ancient wisdom of the exotic East!

Unfortunately, traditional Buddhist morality is plainly inferior to liberal Victorian morality. And, Buddhism does not use mysticism to justify its morals.3 But, these are mere details! Buddhism must have the correct ethics—so we need to look harder to find it.

In fact, since it is not there, the Victorians wrote the ethics they wanted onto Buddhism, creatively hallucinating the object of their desire.

But this was not just a European project. Asian Buddhist modernizers had their own reasons for inventing “Buddhist ethics,” and they collaborated vigorously in the project.

First, educated Asians recognized that European morality was, in fact, superior. It was at minimum a stage 4 ethical system: a rational structure of justifications that eliminates arbitrary rules and assigns sensible weights to different moral considerations. Traditional Buddhist morality goes no further than stage 3, which aims only at communal harmony, not justice. Although Asian intellectuals disagreed with some specifics, they could see the value of a justifiable structure; so the idea of a Buddhist version was compelling.

Second, Asian rulers constructed modern Buddhism as a defense against colonialism. Europe’s moral justification for colonialism was “bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted savages.” Demonstrating that an Asian country was fully civilized successfully prevented the colonization of Thailand and Japan. One of the greatest benefits of civilization was a just system of ethics, for which Christianity was the standard. Christianity was an instrument of colonialism, so it was urgent for Asians to invent an alternative system of ethics that would compare favorably with Christianity on Europe’s own terms.

The successive re-inventions of “Buddhist ethics” show the same pattern of “wistful certainty.”

  • The creators of Consensus Buddhism were hippies who left for Asia, sure there must be a better alternative to both repressive mainstream 1950s morality and amoral 1960s youth-culture hedonism.
  • Around 1990, when “Buddhist ethics” became suddenly urgent for new reasons, Consensus leaders were sure it must exist, or their religion would fail a critical test.
  • Many American Buddhists are now sure Buddhist ethics must give a transcendental justification for their left-wing politics.
  • Academic “Buddhist ethicists” are sure there must be such a thing (although they can’t find it).4

The unthought assumptions are “ethics is the valuable part of religion” and “Buddhism must be better than Christianity, because Christianity sucks and if there’s nothing better the whole universe is awful and we can’t face that.”

Buddhism imports Victorian morality

The British Indologists: Second-best ethics

By the early 1800s, Britain had grabbed Sri Lanka, most of India, and a chunk of Burma. British intellectuals, missionaries, and colonial administrators sought to understand these new possessions, including their history and religion.

They regarded Buddhism as primarily an ethical system, and the second-best one after Christianity. The 1842 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica wrote:

The doctrine and law of Gautama consist chiefly in observing five commandments, and abstaining from ten sins.

Theravada Buddhism and The British Encounter and The British Discovery of Buddhism include lengthy discussions of this theory of Buddhism as mainly ethics. Authors of the time produced diverse proofs that Christianity was superior to Buddhism (although Buddhism was considered surprisingly good). The similarity of Buddhism to Catholicism was much noted and derided—which later motivated the Protestant Buddhist Reformation.

The idea that Buddhism is mostly ethics might sound odd to Consensus Buddhists, for whom meditation is the most important thing, with ethics coming second. However, meditation hadn’t been invented yet.

I have not found evidence that early European theorizing about Buddhism fed into the Asian Buddhist modernization project that began with Mongkut. I think it’s likely, though.

Mongkut invents Buddhist ethics

Mongkut, the genius who became King of Siam in 1851, single-handedly invented modern Buddhism.

Before becoming King, Mongkut was a monk, and he also gave himself a complete Western education, including Western philosophy and religion. He had close relationships with several Christian priests and pastors, including the local Roman Catholic Bishop.

Mongkut invited [the Bishop] to preach Christian sermons to his brother monks in the Wat. The sermons and discussions were impressive. Mongkut admired the Christian morals and achievements which the Bishop explained to his yellow-robed congregation, but [Mongkut] could make nothing of Christian doctrine. With immodest presumption he commented: “What you teach people to do is admirable but what you teach them to believe is foolish.”

The kingdom which he inherited was a feudal corner of Asia, an absolute monarchy in which the people were forbidden to look upon the face of the King. Slavery was common, polygamy normal… King Mongkut determined to change all this.5

“What you [Christians] teach people to do is admirable but what you teach them to believe is foolish” neatly summarizes the “Buddhist ethics” project overall.

I have not yet found a detailed discussion of Mongkut’s Christianizing reinvention of Buddhist ethics. I do know that his Foreign Minister, a member of his close circle, published a book that “presents Buddhism as primarily a system of social ethics; heaven and hell are not places but have a moral or pedagogical utility; kamma is not an actual causal force but a genetic principle…”6

The Rhys Davids: A body of moral doctrine

Thomas and Caroline Rhys Davids founded and operated the Pali Text Society. They published English translations of the Theravada scriptures and traditional commentaries, plus their own commentaries and explanations of Buddhism.

They had an enormous influence on Asian Buddhism because the traditional texts had never been translated from Pali into other Asian languages. Very few monks (and no lay people) could read Pali. Progressive Asian elites could read English, however, so the Rhys Davids translations and commentaries became the de facto source for modern Theravada.

The Rhys Davids had their own agenda and interpretation of what Buddhism should be, however, and their translations reflected that.

The contents of the books are not mythological, nor theological, nor metaphysical, but above all ethical, and in the second place, psychological.7

Caroline “as a student was already a prolific writer and a vocal campaigner in the movements for poverty relief, children’s rights, and women’s suffrage.”8 Her first Pali Text Society publication was A Buddhist manual of psychological ethics. In her “Buddhism and Ethics,” she writes that “Buddhism is only a body of moral doctrine,” and “even the remarkable efforts of Buddhism in psychological analysis were apparently made solely for an ethical purpose.”

Olcott and Dharmapala: the Buddhist work ethic

Sri Lankan Buddhism was modernized by the extraordinary team of the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and the Western-educated Sinhalese Anagarika Dharmapala. (I discussed this in “A new World Religion” and “Theravada reinvents meditation.”)

Olcott, the President of the Theosophical Society, read progressive Victorian ethics into Buddhism:

Olcott insists that Buddhism perfectly embodies the social virtues highly valued among liberal modernists: women are on a “footing of perfect equality with men”…9

This is completely false, but by wistful-certainty logic, it should have been true, and therefore it must have been true.

Dharmapala invented a new “lay Buddhist ethics” that had almost no Buddhist content. Rather, “Protestant and Western norms [were] assimilated as pure and ideal Buddhist systems.”10 His 1898 Daily Code for the Laity:

can be said to apply Protestant values to the details of daily life, very much on the model of any late Victorian manual of etiquette. The aim throughout is to elevate rustic manners. The pamphlet contains 200 rules on such subjects as conduct recommended for women, children and servants, table manners, and how to use the lavatory. In its more ethical aspects, as in relations between the master of the house and his dependents, the booklet stands in the tradition of the Advice to Sigala. But when Dharmapala prescribes use of the fork, an object hardly known in Sri Lanka below the upper-middle class, the specifically western model is evident.11 This was true in less trivial matters as well. Thus Dharmapala and the other early Protestant Buddhist lay leaders preached a sexual puritanism to such effect that not only has monogamy become the norm of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie; it is believed, quite incorrectly, to be the traditional norm. The bourgeoisie have adopted western Victorian morality, and the contemporary West is considered lax and corrupt in falling from that standard. By a similar misunderstanding Dharmapala considered caste to be un-Buddhist.12

The Advice to Sigala, or Sigalovada Sutta, is the only Theravada text that can plausibly be interpreted as a code of lay morality more detailed than the Precepts. That made it important in early attempts to invent “Buddhist ethics.” It’s an odd document; I’m not sure what to make of it. The central point seems to be “to get to heaven, you need to be rich; here’s how to be rich.” That may be an attractive message in Asia, but it’s repellent for leftish Americans, so it’s strictly ignored by Consensus Buddhists.

The Advice is sound, though. The way to prosperity—for individuals and societies—is delayed gratification. You have to cut current consumption in order to invest in productive assets. You need to control your impulses and remain level-headed. You need to work hard, you need trustworthy business partners, and you need to avoid time-wasting, mind-clouding interpersonal conflicts. That’s the Buddha’s advice to Sigala.

It’s also the essence of the “Protestant Work Ethic,” which—Max Weber argued influentially in 1905—is the basis for the modern world: capitalism, rationalism, and the nation-state. This ethics began in Calvinism, but already in Weber’s time it had transformed into fully secular mainstream morality. And into Buddhism—in Dharmapala’s Code.

The Sigalovada is peculiar in presenting an ethics of delayed gratification in service of material accumulation.13 Generally, Buddhism is renunciate, not Protestant.14 The critical difference is that Buddhism says all sensual gratification ties you to samsara by making it seem attractive, so all sense pleasures must be abandoned. Protestant Buddhism replaces renunciation with suspicion, and with moderation. Enjoyment is dangerous, because it can lead to impulsiveness and overconsumption. However, pleasures are OK if they are the right kinds of pleasures in the right amount at the right time for the right reason, so long as you carefully guard against having too much fun and thereby losing control.

Since renunciation is totally unacceptable to Westerners, and since Protestantism is the basis for secular Western ethics, quietly replacing Buddhist values with Protestant ones was the key move in constructing “Buddhist ethics.”

Buddhism, Western political theories, and social justice

In the 1800s, Christians criticized Buddhism for its complete lack of teachings on social responsibility. Hinayana is a path of individual salvation through withdrawal from society. Mahayana recommends saving all sentient beings, but has little practical advice about how, and none as to how society should be organized. Buddhist scripture takes feudalism15 for granted, and endorses the cosmic right of kings to rule (so long as they support Buddhism).

Although social and political issues such as kingship, war, crime, and poverty are mentioned in scriptures, [they and later Buddhist thinkers] had little interest in developing moral or political theories. The concept of justice, for example, is seldom—if ever—mentioned in Buddhist literature.16

In reply to missionary criticism, Theravadins pointed to the Sigalovada Sutta; but it only explains how a rich man should treat his immediate associates. It’s far from a Buddhist theory of social justice. Buddhism could give no serious response until well into the 1900s.

In that century, Asia imported various Western political and social ideologies. These were lightly sprinkled with Buddhist jargon, thereby giving rise to supposedly-Buddhist theories of social responsibility, which were re-exported to the West.

The modern term, coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, is “engaged Buddhism.” This has scant, if any, relationship with traditional Buddhist doctrine or practice. It is:

in fact Greco-Judaic ideals of social action and social transformation… Teachings that prioritize action for societal good do seem comfortable and ‘right’ to many Americans, of course. This should come as no surprise if the values of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ derive fundamentally from these Westerners’ own intellectual tradition, albeit couched in ‘Buddhist’ terms. The Buddha’s discourses in the Pāli texts, in contrast, focus on liberation within an individual’s ‘world of experience’.17

‘Buddhist’ vocabulary is sometimes employed in a framework of values that belong much more to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In recent years, for instance, there has been movement towards an ecumenical ‘Buddhism’ that defines itself as ‘Engaged’ with social and environmental issues. Some have justified this focus by referring to doctrines from the texts such as ‘skillful conduct’ and ‘inter-dependence’. Given their native philosophical frameworks, though, the connections between some of the textual doctrines cited and the social activism advocated are quite tenuous.18

Engaged Buddhism’s Western roots don’t invalidate it. Maybe there could be a fruitful synthesis. But one should ask whether there is one, and what (if anything) it draws from Buddhism. One should wonder whether pretending Western ideas are Buddhist is a strategy for hiding their flaws.

I’ll discuss only two threads in the Asian development of Buddhist social theory: Buddhadasa Bikkhu in Theravada, and the lineage of Engaged Buddhism, which began with Chinese Humanistic Buddhism.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu: Dhammic Socialism

Buddhadasa Bikkhu (1906-1993) was a key Thai Buddhist modernizer. He developed his own method of vipassana, and eventually abandoned Buddhism for a European Perennialist theory of universal religion.

He also was a socialist, and developed a “Dhammic Socialism” that was a major influence on the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy. He had many Western students, and I assume that his political ideas were an influence on Western “engaged Buddhism,” but don’t have specific evidence of that.

Engaged Buddhism

Taixu (1890-1947) and his student Yin Shun (1906-2005) were founders of Chinese Humanistic Buddhism. Taixu was heavily influenced by Western political theory, and was actively involved in the 1911 modernist revolution that overthrew the emperor and established the Republic. He wrote:

My social and political thought was based upon ‘Mr. Constitution’, the Republican Revolution, Socialism, and Anarchism… I came to see Anarchism and Buddhism as close companions, and as a possible advancement from Democratic Socialism.

He was also strongly influenced by Christianity. “While in Europe, Taixu saw the successes of Christian charitable organizations and hoped to bring that organization style into his reformed Buddhism.” His version of Buddhist modernism sought to establish a Pure Land on earth: in the human realm, not a mythological paradise in the sky.19

As a young man, Yin Shun studied comparative religion, particularly Christianity, in depth. He turned to Buddhism only in the late 1920s, and became a monk in 1930. By that time, Buddhism in China was in steep decline, and widely criticized as useless superstitious nonsense that brought no benefits to lay people. Yin Shun agreed, and wished to reform it as a religion of practical charitable action. He became a disciple of Taixu. After the Communists took power in the 1940s, he moved to Taiwan, where he became the most influential Buddhist leader. He and his students established Humanistic Buddhism as the foremost Taiwanese religion, and their evangelism has spread the movement worldwide.

Thich Nhat Hanh, born 1926, is the most important figure in contemporary Buddhist social theory. His early conception of engaged Buddhism was based mainly on Chinese Humanistic Buddhism. He also studied comparative religion at Princeton University in the early 1960s, and is thoroughly conversant with Western philosophy, religion, ethics, and social and political theory.

Bikkhu Bodhi, a white American Theravadin (born 1944), was a student of Yin Shun. Bikkhu Bodhi has been a major contributor to engaged Buddhism, drawing primarily on Yin Shun’s ideas. He founded Buddhist Global Relief.

New Left ideas led many American Buddhists to see social injustice and structural oppression as primary causes of suffering. The Christian charitable model of providing direct practical assistance treats only symptoms, whereas the success of the 1960s protest movements showed that political action can strike at root causes. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is a network of radical Buddhist political activists, influenced particularly by Thich Nhat Hanh. Many—perhaps most—of the leaders of Consensus Buddhism are members.

It’s interesting to compare the activity lists of Buddhist Global Relief and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Buddhist Global Relief, although mentioning “social justice” in passing, provides food, money, technical training, and general education to poor people in Asia. This is the Christian charitable model. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship organizes marches against (as of September 2015) Shell Oil, “racism, sexism, climate disasters, and economic oppression,” development plans on one California farm and possible contamination of others with possibly toxic chemicals, and American police weapons expos. This is the New Left protest model.

  1. A little-known fact: Buddhism was hip and popular in New York and Boston in the 1890s, just as it was in the 1990s. (The First World War seems to have put an end to such frivolity.) Sri Lankan Buddhism maintained Victorian Christian morality until the late 20th century; see the quote from Gombrich below. 
  2. They got this idea from Hegel, mostly. 
  3. Shantideva’s work connecting Mahayana ethics and metaphysics may be an exception. 
  4. Damien Keown, one of the foremost academic Buddhist ethicists, expresses this view in a recent paper. He points out that no workable Buddhist ethics currently exists, and there are reasons to think none can exist, but “we should not give up the search just yet.” 
  5. Robert Bruce, “King Mongkut Of Siam And His Treaty With Britain,” Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 9 (1969), pp. 82-100
  6. Donald K. Swearer, “Buddhism in Southeast Asia,” in The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, p. 134. 
  7. Thomas William Rhys Davids, Buddhism: Its History and Literature, 1896, p. 80. 
  8. From the Wikipedia article on her
  9. David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, p. 101. 
  10. Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka, p. 215. 
  11. Dharmapala’s Buddhist ethics also includes eight rules on “how to behave in buses and trains.” 
  12. Richard F. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, p. 142. 
  13. The Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta has a similar message. I don’t know of any others. 
  14. Tantra is, of course, neither renunciate nor Protestant. A later post discusses the ethical implications of that. 
  15. Some Buddhist authors reject the word “feudalism” on the grounds that the South Asian “samanta” or “mandala” political model was not exactly the same. The theoretical differences between the two are mildly interesting in a geeky way, but don’t amount to much. (Basically, the samanta model is a bit looser.) Anyway, the practical reality of both the feudal and samanta systems amounted to whatever the local warlord could get away with; theory be damned. 
  16. Damien Keown, “Buddhist ethics: a critique,” in Buddhism in the Modern World, p. 217; italics added and words omitted for concision. 
  17. Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America, 2004, p. 155. 
  18. Strong Roots, p. 269. Similarly, Jan Nattier wrote in 1997: “So thoroughly do Elite Buddhist concerns (such as ‘engaged Buddhism,’ much of it the result of Western social activism exported to Asia and subsequently re-exported to the West) dominate the media’s picture of Buddhism that these groups often appear to be the only game in town.” 
  19. He was, therefore, attempting to immanentize the eschaton

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

35 thoughts on “How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics”

  1. So there’s a lot to talk about here, but let me first get out of the way this stuff about a “stage 4 ethical system”. IMHO, this line of thinking needs to go, as it’s possibly the single least justifiable piece of Wilber’s system (which, overall, has significantly less reasoning about ethics than Śāntideva’s does). Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny in ethical development; the claim that it does depends on an ignorance of premodern systems and their differences. Even assuming that you’re right about Buddhism having no ethical system (as I’ve already questioning), medieval Christianity certainly did; Thomas Aquinas was more systematic about his ethics than are most 20th-century ethicists. And given that Kohlberg’s evidence is drawn from modern Western societies in the first place, even at the individual level it’s a leap too far to generalize his ideas of stages of reasoning outside those societies.

    Some further thoughts on the point:

  2. Hi David,

    As usual a couple of comments. Buddhism was popular in Europe in the 1890s as well (alongside interest in the Upaniṣads). Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Aisa was a best seller.

    You say “Traditional Buddhist morality goes no further than stage 3, which aims only at communal harmony, not justice.” I’m not sure I agree with this. Buddhists certainly had a conception of a “just world” and the idea goes back a long way in India. Karma is the instrument of creating a just world, and like other religious systems relies on an afterlife to enact justice. And Buddhists clearly sought to retain and maintain karma & rebirth as they tinkered with doctrines over the centuries. For example in trying to fix the disconnect between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, the Buddhists tinkered with pratītyasamutpāda and largely left karma alone. I attribute this to a commitment to the myth of a just world.

    Is it delaying justice until the afterlife that makes you argue that traditional Buddhism did not aim at justice? Or does the theory of karma not qualify for some other reason?

    It might be worth mentioning that TW and CAF Rhys Davids founded the PTS and were the first and second presidents. In fact German scholars had begun working in/on Pāḷi a little earlier I think. TW had worked as a judge in Ceylon and the local lawyers kept bringing up precedents from monastic law. Getting access to these legal precedents is what motivated him to learn Pāḷi. And of course as a classically educated Englishman he was well placed to do so.

    You mention that Mahāyāna Buddhism takes feudalism for granted. I think you could go further than this and argue that it endorses feudalism. Indeed this was a major factor in the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in ca. 552 CE, from the Korean aristocracy directly to the Japanese Aristocracy (who were partly Korean). Certain texts, notably the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā and Suvarṇabhāsottama, endorse and promise to protect kings who have the text recited or copied. It reinforced the existing authority provided by Confucius for Imperialism – the emperor was obliged to bestow order and culture on the poor, stupid barbarians. In East Asia the monasteries were key players in feudalism, and of course in Tibetan the monks became the feudal lords.

  3. David, I understand your historical line of reasoning here, but am unsure what your main point is. All religions follow this line of evolution as they engage with other traditions. We can see how Avicenna’s, Maimonides’s and St. Thomas’s encounters with Aristotle changed Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We can see how Judaism morphed from an animal sacrifice cult devoted to one deity among a world of many deities to a book-based monotheism stressing prayer, charity, and repentance. We can see how Buddhism morphed as it journeyed from culture to culture and era to era, influenced by other emerging Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese religions and philosophies like Tantra, Bon, and Taoism. We can see the current Catholic Church under Pope Francis struggling with traditional Catholic ethics and newer emerging social and political ideas about equality. All these religions are streams of history that evolve as they encounter, are challenged by, are misunderstood by and re-construed in the light of new conditions and ideas. There is no eternal, unchanging Buddhism. I would say — rather than saying there are no Buddhist ethics — that there are different sets of Buddhist ethics that have changed with different cultures and eras, as Peter Harvey’s “Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” clearly shows: The Tibetans abhorred homosexuality, the Japanese, not so much.

    As any philosophical and religious tradition matures, it has to deal with the same issues concerning deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, etc. that all philosophical and religious ethical systems eventually have to deal with. It shouldn’t be any wonder if eventually, through dialogue, they begin to converge. What will keep any Buddhist ethics still “Buddhist” is a continued emphasis on non-harming and non-greed and and a sustained emphasis on interdependence and compassion. It does not need to claim to be uniquely Buddhist, because every tradition is free to rediscover the dharma –“the ways things are.” I’m reminded here of Thich Nhat Hanh’s claim that given his interpretation of emptiness as “interbeing,” Buddhism entirely made up of non-Buddhist elements, in the same way that a flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements.

    If “Consensus Buddhism” (I still think your “Consensus Buddhism” is a straw man) has come to more or less agree on an understanding of what it believes to be the best Buddhist modernist ethics it can devise, I’ve no problem with it. If you have a better ethics that still feels consistent with core Buddhist principles, on with the show.

  4. Amod Lele — Kohlberg’s model was tested extensively trans-culturally; it’s not just based on Westerners. The finding was that the stage series is invariant in all cultures (although in some cultures, few people get beyond stage 3).

    I have a pretty low opinion of Wilber; I don’t take him seriously, and wouldn’t want to defend him. I do think that stage 4 has a coherent logic that you can’t reach either as an individual or as a society unless you’ve got stage 3 solid, and the same for 5 following 4.

    Systematicity is a matter of degree; all the great ancient civilizations were somewhat systematic. And individual geniuses rise above the ambient level; Shantideva and Aquinas being two fine examples.

    From your interesting post on Wilber and MacIntyre:

    There is no attempt to show why egocentric or sociocentric ethics breaks down on its own terms and needs to move to a higher level.

    This is central to Kegan’s work. He does work out, in detail, exactly this. I’ll explain that in an upcoming post (scheduled for about three weeks from now).

  5. jayarava — Thanks, as usual!

    Is it delaying justice until the afterlife that makes you argue that traditional Buddhism did not aim at justice? Or does the theory of karma not qualify for some other reason?

    What I said was that stage 3 doesn’t aim at justice, rather than that Buddhism doesn’t. I can see how my wording makes this less clear than it should be, but couldn’t find an easy patch, even using a footnote. The karmic system of cosmic justice seems stage 1 to me. Absent from Buddhism, apparently, is any consideration of this-worldly justice (which would tend toward stage 4).

    worth mentioning that TW and CAF Rhys Davids founded the PTS


    you could go further than this and argue that it endorses feudalism.

    Excellent point; I’ve added a half-sentence to that effect.

  6. Seth Zuiho Segall — Hi, nice to see you here again. I like your writing a lot (although we have quite different views on Buddhism).

    The overall question is “What do we want Buddhism for?” What does it have to offer that we can’t get easier or better elsewhere?

    The recent imbroglio over Buddhist vs secular mindfulness puts this question pointedly. (I have written a page about this, which I’ll post in around two weeks.) What does Buddhism have to offer that MBSR does not? Ron Purser and others have argued that Buddhism teaches ethics and MBSR does not. Secularists have replied by saying that they do teach ethics, so the criticism is unjustified. My upcoming post references your own particularly clear defense along those lines.

    But if ethics is not Buddhism’s special sauce, which secular mindfulness cannot offer, then what does distinguish it?

    What will keep any Buddhist ethics still “Buddhist” is a continued emphasis on non-harming and non-greed and and a sustained emphasis on interdependence and compassion.

    Isn’t that emphasis characteristic of all contemporary leftish secular ethics? (The first page in this series cites Haidt and Lakoff as saying that it is.)

    You have done a nice job defending secular mindfulness against Buddhist criticism. How would you defend Buddhism against the secular criticism that it has nothing to offer besides generic leftish ethics and mindfulness meditation, both of which are available elsewhere with less jargon and mythology?

    If you have a better ethics that still feels consistent with core Buddhist principles, on with the show.

    I do intend to sketch that, in upcoming posts, although it won’t be more than a sketch!

  7. BTW, here is a good review of research on the cross-cultural validity of Kohlberg’s theory.

    At present [1985], 44 studies have been completed in 26 cultural areas. Longitudinal research has been carried out in the following countries: Bahamas, Canada (French), India, Indonesia, Israel (kibbutz), Turkey, and the United States. The remaining 20 cultural areas are represented only by cross-sectional studies: Alaska (Eskimos), England, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, New Guinea, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Thailand, Yucatan, and Zambia.

    Kohlberg’s model does have several serious problems (mostly because it over-emphasizes rationality). Kegan incorporates emotion, relationship, and action into the model, thereby correcting many of the issues with Kohlberg’s theory. I don’t think it’s The Truth About Ethics, but I find considerable valuable insight there.

  8. I’m looking at the article by Snarey and thinking that Kohlberg’s model seems to be at odds with the bulk of evolutionary oriented stuff I’ve read in recent years. It still looks like Neoliberalism and makes all kinds of assumptions that now seem false to me. I don’t see any human culture in which stage 1 is meaningful – stage one is a regression away from the basic structure of a successful social animal. Wild chimps seem to me to operate at stage 3. The model makes no distinction between intimates and strangers, and I think we’re already established that this is crucial in understanding human morality. I’ll try to track down something by Kegan, but this model looks anachronistic at best.

    I remain to be convinced that how people answer questions about moral dilemmas tells us anything at all about how they behave on a day to day basis.

    I find laughable the assumption that one can test individuals out of contact with their social setting and get meaningful insights into their behaviour. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are and how we make decisions.

  9. More fundamentally I think Richard Payne’s point about agents is crucial. Buddhism is not an agent. Only Buddhists can be agents. Buddhism is not at any moral stage. Buddhists can be at different moral stages in the same community with the same rules. The rules themselves tell us nothing at all about the moral development of individuals, nor the social dynamic in which they operated. Indeed the same rules may reflect very different ethical development in different cultures across time and place.

    Therefore you seem to be misusing the model of stages of moral development. Kohlberg’s model doesn’t apply to cultures, it applies to individuals (and as above I don’t think this application makes sense either!)

    Buddhism at any stage offers a variety of motivations for ethical behaviour: for example, fear of suffering in this life, fear of a bad rebirth, and fear of disapproval (of community, of the wise, of the Buddha); desire for a better rebirth, desire to end rebirth, desire for approval, desire to transcend suffering, empathy etc. How such motivations translated into moral behaviour at any point in time is moot. The further back in time we go, the less information we have – following something like an inverse square law. We have to rely more and more on texts we know to be unreliable. If we know the texts to be fictions, then justifying a judgement about what moral stage Buddhists were at at any point in time requires something other than the evidence of the texts. And what we are not seeing is other kinds of evidence for the argument.

    My guess is that we have no reliable information about how Buddhists actually behaved before about 1900. Thus no real information on how moral Buddhists were.

    Also as I’ve said several times without getting a response, the sutras are not the only class of Buddhist text, and my understanding is that Jātakas were far more important in informing lay ethics than sutras, certainly in Theravāda countries. One would not expect sutras to be of any importance in formulating secular morality, even in nominally Buddhist countries. The role of sutras seems to be vastly overstated and the other kinds of Buddhist literature, particularly śāstric, are ignored completely in this account. By the Common Era few if any people, even monks, learned about Buddhism from reading sutras. The narrow focus on sutras is a modernist preoccupation.

  10. Thanks for introducing me to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Taixu and Yin Shun. They were remarkable people who led some pretty amazing social movements in their day. And their writings on both eastern and western social philosophies sound intriguing. I’m going to read more about them in my quest to further develop engaged Buddhism.

  11. @Seth Zuiho Segall; Touché. I tried to say this in another comment, but yours is so much more erudite. Buddhism is constantly changing and adapting, taking on new ideas and new forms from cultures into which it is adopted, and as you pointed out, so does every other religion.

  12. jayarava — Thank you again for extensive, on-point comments.

    Your 1:36 a.m. comment accurately identifies most of the main problems with Kohlberg’s model. He was transferring ideas from moral philosophy, which is comprehensively worthless, to experimental psychology. The data are highly reproducible, but the implications he drew are somewhat mistaken.

    Kegan does correct all the problems you identify, except that his work predates the evopsych revolution. I think his story is compatible with evopsych, but no one has yet done that synthesis explicitly. I think that could actually correct a “pendulum swung too far” tendency in Haidt’s work (e.g.) to completely discount rationality.

    One of Kegan’s major sources of insight was his work as a psychotherapist and as an organizational consultant. Much of what people want psychotherapists and organization consultants for is help with actual real-life moral dilemmas, so he had heard hundreds of people talking those through. This has a very different texture from the silly hypothetical problems Kohlberg worked with, and those differences drove the theory changes. As a source of data, it’s anecdotal and unscientific, but he was subsequently able to operationalize and validate the insights experimentally.

    I don’t see any human culture in which stage 1 is meaningful

    All children go through stage 1. There is no intact adult culture in which stage 1 is predominant.

    The model makes no distinction between intimates and strangers

    Yeah, Kohlberg thought that universalism was the highest morality, so he downplayed that. Others working in the general framework have looked at how ingroup/outgroup relationships work differently at different stages.

    I’ll try to track down something by Kegan

    His Evolving Self is the only available introduction, and it’s fairly hard going. I will provide a ~3,000 word overview in this blog series before applying it to Buddhism.

    Buddhists can be at different moral stages in the same community with the same rules. The rules themselves tell us nothing at all about the moral development of individuals, nor the social dynamic in which they operated. … Kohlberg’s model doesn’t apply to cultures

    Yes, definitely. However, a culture provides—or fails to provide—specific resources for development from stage to stage. If the fundamental social practices and moral concepts needed to develop to stage 4 are not present in the culture, it is difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to make that transition. The main reason I’m going on about this is that I will argue (in about three weeks) that Consensus Buddhism is failing to provide the resources needed to transition to stage 4, and may actively hinder that development. Better Buddhisms could actively support it, instead.

    (Until I actually lay out that argument, it may not be useful to prefigure it here in more detail…)

    My guess is that we have no reliable information about how Buddhists actually behaved before about 1900. Thus no real information on how moral Buddhists were.

    I agree. What we can say is that there is no written record that suggests stage 4 social practices and moral concepts were available in any Buddhist culture—other than, possibly, the Nalanda university culture of the Pala era, exemplified by Shantideva.

    my understanding is that Jātakas were far more important in informing lay ethics than sutras… The narrow focus on sutras is a modernist preoccupation.

    I agree. But that’s exactly why I’m focusing on them too! This page is about how contemporary Western Buddhist ethics came to be. And the answer is, in part, that it’s a Victorian invention based on the Protestant assumption that the suttas were the correct basis for Buddhist ethics. That was silly for lots of reasons, but the “Buddhist ethics” we have now reflects their misunderstanding—and has nothing to do with pre-modern Buddhist moral practice.

  13. Thanks, Amod, I look forward to reading them!

    There’s about eight more posts in this series, which take it in directions that might not be expected yet. Possibly it would make sense to wait to respond until it finishes (mid/late October), but obviously that’s up to you!

  14. That’s actually about the timing I imagine, although the posts are already written – I try to have a regular schedule of a post every two weeks, so they go up well in advance. May or may not rewrite…

  15. David, I have a few thoughts on this. First, this is a very interesting topic. I have been pondering social/political theories for some time and noticed that Buddhism is not very rich in them, except for maybe the Tibetan theocratic one. This got me to thinking that Rawlsian thought could easily fit well with the leftish Buddhism. OTOH, you could probably easily fit a number of other theories, including more conservative ones. Still, Rawls is my favorite and seems to me to be the best fit as it balances compassion with freedom/responsibility. I have also tried to match western ethical approaches and this seems to me to be where it gets trickier. Different versions of the dharma seem to match all the different theories. We have stoic ideas in theravadan/sutrayana approaches; Mahayana seems to go well with Aristotle and virtue ethics, along with Christian ethics; vajrayana seems to approach something like Utilitarianism and enters into Nietzche land, and dzogchen enters into postmodernism and maybe then ethics becomes heavily Nietzchian while maintaining all the earlier systems. It seems that these vehicles step through all kinds of levels of ethical approaches so they are all in there. By the time you are practicing dzogchen type meditations you need to have absorbed all of the different earlier levels and be able to embody them spontaneously and toggle between them without intention. Just like vajrayana and mahayana point out that their approaches exist in the early sutras but were just not unpacked, so I think is the case here.The west has a gift, and a curse, for analysis, but the East still had the same ideas just not so heavily rationalized. Therefore, our own traditions and thinking really can fit without conflict into Buddhist thought. The earlier Buddhists clearly did a lot less developing of political thought, however, but maybe that was a good thing. When Western religion heavily mixed politics and religion it led to the suppression of our religious traditions and caused them to be edited for political reasons. This led us to be talking about Buddhism right now, as it was free to develop without too much interference (although even it got very political in China and Tibet). Again, when the Gelug order got powerful it suppressed other schools of Buddhism in Tibet and led to a suppression of their thought, which has only recently revived(in the Rime movement). I think it would be great to really merge these worlds and we will all benefit.

  16. These “everything you were taught and think you know is wrong” moments are incredibly valuable. I suppose I’ve had 6 or 7 in my adult life that have substantially changed my orientation, including some I’ve experienced as a Buddhist. This seems to be another.

  17. @David Chapman; I have read all your posts thus far on “Buddhist ethics.” So far you have not once defined, in detail what “ethics” is. You suggest in several places that ethics involves “ethical principles”, but you never define those principles nor explain how they are to be applied in a variety of situations.
    In “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system”:
    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.”
    and again
    “What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics.”

    You never define ethics at all, you never explicate the principles that a Buddhist or non-Buddhist should understand and apply or how to apply them in divergent situations. Until you define what “ethics” is, your arguments against “it” (whatever “it” is) are specious.

  18. I will add that in many of your posts, you state what ethic is NOT, but not what it IS. And you vaguely describe a ‘Western ethics’, which you reject, but you never define or explain what you think a rigorous and appropriate ethics should be and how to apply it.

  19. Foster Ryan — Interesting points, especially about Dzogchen.

    Different versions of the dharma seem to match all the different theories.

    Yes; this is what much of Western academic Buddhist ethics is about: matching up common Western ethical theories with bits of Buddhism that seem compatible. I mostly don’t see the value in this, but whatever.

    our own traditions and thinking really can fit without conflict into Buddhist thought.

    Yes; since Buddhism has so little to say about ethics or politics, it’s compatible with anything.

    practicing dzogchen type meditations you need to have absorbed all of the different earlier levels … and toggle between them

    Yes; in upcoming posts I’ll suggest that this is interestingly parallel to stage 5 in Kegan’s framework. Stage 5 is meta-systematic; it’s the ability to fluidly switch frameworks based on an understanding of how they operate individually and how they relate to each other and to reality. This is also characteristic of postmodernity (as Kegan points out).

    I also think the parallels between Vajrayana and Nietzsche are significant. Both took some concept of “nobility” as fruitional. In both, that concept is somewhat problematic, but I believe it would be valuable to try to work out a notion of “nobility” that would function for us now.

  20. roughgarden — Almost nothing can be defined with complete precision. Outside of math, definitions are helpful only when there is a dispute that turns out to be due to different understandings of a term. So long as “we know it when we see it,” a definition is generally unhelpful.

    I am assuming readers generally have an unproblematic, common understanding of what count as ethical/moral issues. I’ve borrowed from Keown a particular distinction between ethics and morals, and defined that in a way I thought was clear. If it’s not clear, you could ask specific questions and I can try to clarify. Or, probably better, you could read Keown. I’m not doing anything new with that.

    you vaguely describe a ‘Western ethics’, which you reject

    There is not one Western ethics, but many ethical theories and practices. I don’t exactly “reject” any of them. I don’t think any are fully adequate.

    but you never define or explain what you think a rigorous and appropriate ethics should be and how to apply it.

    I don’t intend to do what I’m guessing you want here. My upcoming discussion of Kegan points in this direction, but I think you will find it unsatisfyingly abstract.

    Overall: In this series, I’m assuming a greater degree of sophistication on the part of readers than I do in most of what I write. Throughout the series, I’m taking for granted at minimum a basic understanding of mainstream Western moral philosophy. As the series progresses, it will get increasingly conceptually difficult. Unfortunately, the material just is complex and abstract and unfamiliar. Short of writing a long book, I won’t be able to carry all readers through it.

  21. Couple of thoughts on Leftist use of Buddhism (or visa versa):

    — Leftists are disproportionately atheists.

    — Atheists in America are looked at with great distrust and disgust.

    — Presenting oneself as a Buddhist let’s a Westerner (esp Americans) who has escaped Christianity say they are not Christian and yet still feel at least acceptable and ethical, as opposed to admitting they are filthy atheists. Thus “I’m Buddhist” became a comfortable sheep clothing for some ex-Christians and some natural atheists in a society that felt atheists disgusting and horrible.

    — So as a market technique (and for self-deception), Leftists are wise to grab Buddhism. And Buddhists are wise to grab leftist ideology.

  22. Thus “I’m Buddhist” became a comfortable sheep clothing for some ex-Christians and some natural atheists

    Yep! The page scheduled to appear on Monday (“What is ‘Buddhist ethics’ for?”) expands on this idea. Much of what it is for is to position yourself as vaguely well-intentioned without signing up for anything specific.

  23. David, what do you think about the Ashokan edicts?

    I’ve studied Yin Shun teachings, and attended retreats with Bhikkhu Bodhi. I appreciate your analysis (some of my fellow students, probably not so much).

    Another influential modern Chinese Buddhist thinker, in addition to Taixu and Yin Shun, is Xu Yun (Hsu Yun).

    Speaking of Yin Shun, there’s the example of his most prominent student, Cheng Yen. She (another important point) founded Tzu Chi, the largest Chinese-language and Buddhist NGO, running hospitals, clinics, and disaster relief around the globe. This activity was heavily influenced by Western models – official biographies mention her encounter with Roman Catholic nuns. Additionally, Tzu Chi has strongly embraced environmentalism.

  24. what do you think about the Ashokan edicts?

    I don’t know much about them. I have been intending to learn more for several years, but it’s never quite been “next on the list.”

    Thanks for the information about Xu Yun and Cheng Yen!

  25. David: You used McMahon’s “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” to critique Buddhist ethics as a form of disguised Protestant ethics. But your misrepresented his thesis because you only presented one of the two contributing influences. One is Protestantism, as you said, but not conservative Christianity, rather it was liberal, mystical Christianity.

    The second contributing influence was Romanticism, which McMahon said had a great influence on a particular kind of Buddhist ethics that rejected asceticism, rules and public morals and placed the source of ethical authority within “Nature” and the “primitive” or “natural spirit of man.” In particular, Romanticism was deployed against the plight of modern nihilism (see page 13 for a full description of Romanticism vs. nihilism), which you wrote about in this blog. That along with Scientific Rationalism and Christian liberalism are the three great influences on Buddhism modernism (see page 86 for exact quote).

    You also failed to disclose that McMahon also has a modernist critique of the particular form of Buddhism that you practice: western tantra. McMahon critiques western tantra as Global Folk Buddhism, a post-modern form that nonetheless shares the elements of global modernity found in the other forms. From “The Making of Buddhist Modernism”, to wit:
    Global Folk Buddhism
    pp. 261-262

    Toward this end of the continuum, we have a new development, which I call global folk Buddhism—the emerging “popular religion” within Buddhist modernism. It is an admittedly ironic category that confounds the usual taxonomies of “great’ and “little” traditions and “elite” and “popular” or “folk” traditions. Scholars often describe popular traditions as the relatively unsophisticated local religion of common people. They contain more ritual than complex doctrine, blend traditions liberally, and employ magic and manipulation of material objects for protection and other this-worldly benefits. They may include fetishism and witchcraft and are often disruptive of orthodoxy. Popular traditions tend to be local, rooted in particular places, versus elite traditions with their universalizing impetus. The latter are sophisticated, textual, philosophical, normative and often imperial. They belong to the higher social classes and offer themselves as universal, true for all times and places.

    Global folk Buddhism inverts certain staples of the popular/elite distinction: its appeal is often to the affluent; it is increasingly global, not tied to a particular locality; and tends to dismiss local, cultural and ethnic differences, instead privileging unity. Rather than being embedded in a particular cultural context, it is disembedded, merging into the currents of global discourse, commercial venues, popular culture, and social practices of the electronic age. This postmodern global folk Buddhism is a unique form of lay Buddhism that has emerged with the rise of globalization. It intermingles with continually emerging and expanding transnational popular culture, circulating primarily through television, print, and the internet. When elite Buddhist authors, work within the systems of significance, cultural practices, and commercial venues of this globalizing popular culture, they enact a variation of what Buddhist traditions have always done when bringing the dharma to a new place: they selectively and creatively re-present elements of Buddhism using the local vernacular, sometimes diluting it with local custom, accommodating it to local dialects, adapting it to local practices, and co-oping local deities—while often themselves, in turn, being shaped by all of these.

    What is unique to the postmodern situation is that the local vernacular customs, dialects, and practices of global folk Buddhism are not local—they are popular cultures. Their venues are the popular book, lecture tour, concert stage, website and CD. Practitioners of global folk Buddhism, like those of local folk Buddhisms, do not have a sophisticated understanding of their own tradition and liberally mingle it with their “native” customs—in this case various forms of self-help, sports, commerce, entertainment, drug use, fashion, corporate culture, and other religious traditions and subcultures (e.g. the “Dead Buddhist Society,” for fans of Buddhism and the Grateful Dead; Zen Management for corporate heads). Rather than the elite occupation of dismantling the self through rigorous meditation, global folk Buddhism becomes an aid in the ever-ongoing process of reflexive self-making and remaking that, according to Giddens, constitutes self-identity in the contemporary world (1991)[unquote]

  26. your misrepresented his thesis because you only presented one of the two contributing influences.

    I don’t see how I can have misrepresented him in this post when I didn’t even mention him. (I only cited him quoting Olcott.)

    The second contributing influence was Romanticism

    I have written about McMahan’s explanation of the influence of Romanticism on Buddhist modernism many times in this blog. I don’t see that omitting that from this particular post does him a disservice.

    McMahon critiques western tantra as Global Folk Buddhism

    No, he doesn’t. The passage you quote does not mention Tantra; nor is it about Tantra implicitly without mentioning it explicitly.

    You also failed to disclose that McMahon also has a modernist critique of the particular form of Buddhism that you practice: western tantra.

    If McMahan had done that, I probably would have discussed it somewhere. (He didn’t.)

    However, you seem to be suggesting that I am somehow covering something up by “failing to disclose.” Even if he had made such a critique, I do not see that I would be in any way responsible for commenting on it.

  27. Never really convinced that modern leftish buddhism has anything to do with it’s supposed purpose of enlightenment. If buddha was enlightened in a monarchic, feudal world – what difference does it make what your social context is ? The argument could be that an enlightened and sensitive outlook and upbringing gives people less emotional baggage to have to work on, a naturally clearer and lighter self – but is that really true ?
    A scientist could maybe mine data to see if more people become enlightened in a modern context than in a socially conservative one – but has anyone done that ?
    Same goes with all those other paths – Christian and Islamic mysticism, shamanism etc., what has modernism got to do with altered states and enlightenment, really ?

  28. You obviously know nothing about Buddhism at all and, as a result, your suppositions are close to being 100% wrong. In essence they are crackpot nonsense.

  29. Man, haters gonna hate, eh?

    David, there’s an awful lot I disagree with in your interpretations, but as a PhD in Buddhist studies I can say: don’t listen to this guy.

  30. Thanks, Amod!

    I have to admit that I really enjoy comments like richard baranov’s, and have even encouraged them a couple times (because I’m a bad person). However, most readers probably find them less entertaining than I do, so I restrain myself, and sometimes delete them if they become persistent.

  31. “How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics”
    There is nothing to import and export. All religions are one [Max Muller]. This can be seen from the definition Buddhism in Oxford Dictionaries:

    A widespread Asian religion or philosophy, founded by Siddartha Gautama in NE India in the 5th century bc.
    There are two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana.
    The first statement is false. ‘Siddhartha Gautama’ was not the founder of Buddhism.

    The second statement is an oversimplification: There are so many traditions today; by definition, they are different. For an explanation of tradition see World’s Religions, Ninian Smart or Religious Worlds by William Paden.

    According to Britannica, language of Theravada is Pali; and language of Mahayana is Sanskrit, There is a canon of Theravada called Tritpitaka. What is the canon of Mahayana?

    The Theravada canon is about 15000 printed pages, in an unknown language which is called Pali after Rhys Davids, who invented the language.

    This discussion will never end. After all belief systems cannot be justified by argumentation.

    I hope one of the participants will reply.

  32. Hi David,

    Hope this finds you well. Its been ages since we talked. At any rate, I’m nearly finished with the first draft of my book and I wanted to ask if I could get a little information from you as I cover your work in it. My question is:

    (i) Do you have any data on traffic to the site–amount and where from. Are there any posts that stood out particularly in terms of traffic? Any general patterns to add context?



    Dr. Ann Gleig Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Editor for Religious Studies Review University of Central Florida (PSY 226) 4000 Central Florida Blvd Orlando, Fl 32816-1352



  33. Hi Ann,

    Congratulations on the nearly-finished draft!

    I do have some traffic data. I’ll reply by email—it may be a bit complicated to do here.

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