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 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