“Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics

By “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) I mean what is taught by Consensus Buddhism.

For several years, I have repeatedly asked:

Is there any significant issue on which “Buddhist ethics” disagrees with contemporary Western leftish secular ethics?

So far, no one has said “Yes, if you are an American Buddhist, you should do so-and-so, whereas leftish secular Americans think you should do the opposite.”1

Doesn’t that strike you as remarkable?

Emaho! How wonderful! The Buddha validated everything we believe, 2500 years ago. He was ★ENLIGHTENED★, so it must be true!

But what an astonishing coincidence… Long, long ago, in a land far, far away—Siddhartha Gotama discovered the very same correct ethics that was only rediscovered in America a few decades ago!

Well, obviously I am being snarky. My point is that Consensus “Buddhist ethics” couldn’t possibly be Buddhist ethics.

And, indeed, it isn’t. If Buddhism has any ethics at all—which is debatable—it is nothing like “Buddhist ethics.” Consensus Buddhists would loathe the morality of traditional Buddhism, if they had any idea what it was.2

This contrast isn’t controversial among academics. My next few posts explain the differences between “Buddhist ethics” and Buddhist ethics in detail. Obviously Joe Bloggs Buddhist doesn’t want to hear that, though, and may react with hostile incredulity.

How can Joe believe in “Buddhist ethics” when a moment’s reflection reveals it could not possibly have existed in Asia? Because “Buddhist ethics” is—or was, until recently—a successful strategy for making Joe look good within leftish Western culture. More on that in another upcoming post.

Because I am making fun of modern “Buddhist ethics,” you might assume that I advocate traditional, “authentic” Buddhist ethics instead. I don’t; as will become obvious, I am even more opposed to the tradition.

Instead, I am pointing out that if “Buddhist ethics” is identical to current secular ethics, there’s no point pretending it is Buddhist. I mostly agree with secular ethics, and I am a Buddhist; unfortunately, I don’t think these two things have any useful connection.

I would welcome a modern Buddhist ethics, if it were genuinely different from secular Western ethics. I’d find that really exciting, because I am a Buddhist, and I spend a great deal of time thinking about ethics. However, there doesn’t seem to be any such thing. I think that is not a coincidence: traditional Buddhism has few, if any, resources of use for modern ethics.

  1. A month after I posted this, Amod Lele pointed out one: the ethics of righteous anger. I think he’s correct about this one. If he finds more, I may need to rethink my thesis! 
  2. There are some non-Consensus white Buddhist leaders whose ethical teachings are much closer to tradition. For example Thanissaro Bikkhu advocates genuine Buddhist renunciation. That is definitely unacceptable to nearly all American Buddhists, though.