For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.
Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.
For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t really exist, why should we have ethical concern for them? Numerous ingenious answers have been proposed by brilliant philosophers. No one answer has been broadly accepted, which suggests none is satisfactory. Buddhists have argued endlessly, sometimes bitterly, about this problem; this continues in the contemporary West.
In this post, I will suggest that the problem lies in the Mahayana treatment of emptiness and form. Vajrayana offers a different understanding of what emptiness is and how it relates to form. In Dzogchen, this provides an alternative approach to beneficent activity. This approach seems strikingly similar to that proposed by the psychologist Robert Kegan, whose developmental ethics model and its application to Buddhism I discussed recently. I suggest that Dzogchen and Kegan’s work each cast light on the other, and together they may dissolve the foundations problem in both Western and Buddhist moral philosophy.