By “ethics,” in quotes, I mean talk about ethics, rather than what people actually do. This page explains “ethics” as signaling: personal advertisement. We all display “ethicalness” as a strategy for looking like attractive mates and coworkers, by signaling class status, tribal loyalty, and superior personality traits.
Although this post is part of a series on leftish “Buddhist ethics,” most of it applies equally to all ethical posturing. As you read it, you can imagine the small adjustments required for Christian rightish “ethics,” or for secular centrist “ethics.”
People really, really want Buddhism to be about ethics, even though it isn’t. Anyone who has read more than a couple Buddhist books knows:
From this, one ought to conclude that “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist at all. It just is leftish secular morality. Calling it “Buddhist” does not make it so. Although most Buddhists know the facts, no one draws the obvious conclusion. Why do Buddhists want to pretend we have a distinctive “Buddhist ethics”?
Traditional Buddhist morality is obviously wrong. But the Buddha was enlightened, and Buddhism is the correct religion; so it seems that, due to some minor mistake, the tradition does not represent the true Buddhist ethics.
Since we know what is ethically correct—and Buddha would surely agree!—we can fix it for him. That is the principle of FTFY Buddhist ethics.
[Note to future historians: “FTFY” is 2015 internet slang for “fixed that for you.”]
Current “Buddhist ethics” is identical to current Western leftish secular ethics. How can Buddhist leaders pretend that it has anything to do with Buddhism? How can traditional Buddhist moral teachings be explained away? FTFY is the main rhetorical strategy.
Also, the Buddha got many things wrong, for various excusable reasons. However, we know what he should have said. For example, he surely knew slavery was wrong. However, he had to work within the constraints of the existing regime, so he had to endorse it anyway due to politics. How fortunate that we can fix that for him!
Many of the Western creators of Consensus Buddhism say in their autobiographies that they went to Asia because they were disgusted with the sex-and-drugs hedonism of hippie culture. Coming from Protestant cultures, they were looking for a system of self-restraint, but they had rejected Christianity.
The lay precepts against sexual misconduct and intoxication may have come at first as welcome repudiations of hippie self-indulgence. However, as we’ll see on the next page, they had to be loosened, reinterpreted, and effectively negated to function in America.
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:
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
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.”
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.
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.
Traditional Buddhist morality developed in feudal theocratic cultures. Mostly, it is typical for such societies: similar to what you’d find in Medieval Europe or the nastier parts of the contemporary Islamic world. It is crude, arbitrary, patriarchal, and often cruel.
In Europe, Enlightenment rationalism enabled smart people to say “wait, that’s nasty and stupid.” Christian morality gradually became less barbarous, and evolved into secular ethics.
Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional morality with Victorian Christian morality in the late 1800s, and with leftish secular morality in the the 1980s. (The two pages after this one discuss that.) The result is that modern “Buddhist ethics” has no similarity to traditional Buddhist morality, much of which would horrify Western Buddhists.
On this page and the next, I will argue that traditional Buddhism has no ethical value for liberal, educated Westerners. There is no “ancient wisdom of the Buddha” to draw on when constructing a modern Buddhist ethics. That is why modern “Buddhist ethics” has nothing in common with the tradition.
These two pages may seem like an attack on traditional Buddhism, but my intent is only to dispel a modern illusion. The myth of “Buddhist ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, most of what Buddhism has to offer. It needs to be cleared away to make Buddhism visible again.
These pages might be misunderstood, at this point, as the core of the series on “Buddhist ethics.” They’re not; the uselessness of traditional Buddhist morality is just a background fact. We need it to understand why modern “Buddhist ethics” had to be invented as a replacement.