Comments on “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system”

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jamie s 2015-09-25

I am appreciating this series very much. Thank you.

This morning I was re-reading some of Cook-Grueter’s work on stages of adult development. (Various different versions can be found on different websites, here’s one:

It reminded me again that every human is going to interpret and accept or reject the philosophies they encounter from the position of their own personal worldview. So there will always be people who will take to and defend the rule-based articulations of Buddhism, ethical views of the same material, and so on. That will never change as long as humans are born and develop…

I’m pretty sure that you have a kind of dual-perspective about what you are writing: 1) without challenging writing like this, it can be easy to remain comfortable in an unchallenged half-conscious philosophies, and 2) without this very straight-forward and completely obvious writing like this, it can be rare to experience that ease that comes from hearing someone echo your thoughts. It’s kinda funny that the same text can do both things!

I don’t think it’s a matter of convincing people that one view/stage of Buddhism is more right than the other, but rather creating the raw material for possibly moving people more quickly through all of these considerations in their lifetime… which is a kind of mysterious process itself. I have no idea how someone suddenly looks back and realizes the limitations of their old philosophy.

Greg 2015-09-25

I read Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics by Charles Goodman - a couple of years ago. As far as I recall, it was a comparative study of traditional Buddhist ethic and various western systems. Worthwhile, as I recall.

Curt Kastens 2015-09-25

Is your goal to create a “science” of ethics?

David Chapman 2015-09-25

jamie — An upcoming post analyzes Buddhism in terms of Kegan’s developmental framework, which is mostly closely similar to Cook-Grueter’s (with the same intellectual roots). Kegan does write a lot about “how someone suddenly looks back and realizes the limitations of their old philosophy,” i.e. what drives the stage transitions. I’ll suggest ways Buddhism could support that.

Greg — Yeah, I read several scholarly reviews of that while writing the footnote that mentions him. Everyone thought it was an impressive work, although most remained unconvinced of this consequentialist interpretation.

Curt — No, that would be a stage 4 project (and impossible). Stage 4 is a necessary step in ethical development, but not the endpoint.

jamie s 2015-09-25

Looking forward to learning more!

jayarava 2015-09-26

Hi David,

On the whole this is really interesting stuff. It is so rare to read sustained critical thinking about Buddhism. I hope at some point you’ll say more on the distinction between morality and ethics - I find this doesn’t stay in my head and it seems that it might be important in what you are saying.

I could quibble here. I found your account of traditional karma a bit too superficial and tendentious (presented as superficial in such a way as to support your argument). But since I agree with your conclusions about Western Buddhists and that seemed to be the main point, I’ll not try to pick it all apart.

I will say a couple of things. Karma is simply a supernatural monitor, and thus works exactly the same as any religious overseer. Thus Buddhist Karma is like any religious doctrine of morality. Your complaints against it hold true for all systems of ethics based in religion. Although singling Buddhism out has rhetorical value, it might actually be more effective to show that Buddhism is just another religion doing what religions do (at a time when religion was just beginning to get organised).

The passages in the Kālāma Sutta that most people take to be about intellectual freedom are in fact a statement of Buddhist ethics - the rationale behind the precepts is one’s own experience of interacting with people. Most people seem not to understand this, but that’s what the Kālāma Sutta is mainly about. The Second passage that comes to mind is from the Udāna (Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1)

Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmo ti.

Traversing all the directions in the mind
Nothing dear than self is found
Others too love themselves.
Therefore don’t harm another self that is loved. [my translation]

Which is to say that the basis of traditional Buddhist ethics is in fact empathy. Did Keown not mention these in his account? I find it surprising, since they directly address the question. It is true that these ideas about motivation for good behaviour are never developed into a systematic account of ethics. Perhaps they were over-shadowed by the developing Karma Doctrine? But then there is no systematic account of ethics anywhere on the subcontinent at this time - Buddhism seems to be ahead of the pack and, as you may know, I have argued (in a peer reviewed article) that this is because the Śākya tribe were ultimately from Iran and had brought some Zoroastrian ideas to India with them). Is there a developed system of ethics somewhere else at that time? When did they begin to be composed?

I particularly enjoyed your summary of the Vinaya.

Curt Kastens 2015-09-26

It has been years since I have read your previous writings. I have no doubt forgotten much of it. Hey, not that what you wrote was is was so forgettable. I only have a bad memory.

jayarava 2015-09-26

Another thought wrt to the pañcaśīla. When taking them in Pāli we say

pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi etc

I undertake (samādiyāmi) the training-path (sikkhā-padaṃ) of refraining (veramaṇī) from killing living things (pāṇa-atipātā). So although collectively the precepts are referred to as śīla, individually they are sikkhā-pada (Skt śikṣā-pada).

Now, the root of śikṣa is √śikṣ (to wish to; attempt; undertake). Formally it derives from the desiderative form of √śak ‘to be able’ and thus literally means “desires to be able”. The student (śikṣin) desires to be able to do something. So they seek out a guru (someone with gravitas, since guru literally means “heavy”) who lays down the law (śāsana) in the form of a śikṣā-pada. Pada is literally “foot”, but sometimes foot-print (and therefore “sign, mark”), and by association “track, path”. So a śikṣa-pada is a “path of training”. In the case of Buddhism the training is either for a better rebirth or it is to not be reborn (and the former is “better” in the sense that it makes it easier to escape from rebirth).

As you say. This is not ethics per se. This is a program of training aimed at ending rebirth. I’m reliably informed that in Anālayo’s new book on Compassion and Emptiness he makes the point that for early Buddhists “compassion” largely consisted in teaching people the Dharma, not in helping the needy. The problem from a traditional Buddhist pov is not poverty, illness and so on. These are simply givens for humans. The problem they address is rebirth.

Amod Lele 2015-09-26

Funny you should mention this now. A month or two ago I published an article that basically argues why you’re wrong. :)

I agree entirely with your previous two posts, though - “Consensus Buddhism” frustrates me a lot, especially in the ways it doesn’t see how its view of Buddhist ethics is drastically different from traditional Buddhist ethics. Which was in some respects the topic of my previous article…

David Chapman 2015-09-26

jayarava — Yes, my intention was not to single out Buddhism as particularly bad. In fact, on the next page, I suggest that traditional Buddhist morality was probably the best among pre-modern cultures. (And I draw out historical implications of that on the page after, but that’s not posted yet, so I can’t link it.) Even despite that, I don’t see anything in the traditional morality that could be useful in modernity.

Are you drawing a distinction between empathy and compassion? If so, what is it? (I discussed compassion at length, so I’m confused by your question about empathy.)

The ethics/morality distinction, as used here, I take from Keown (although I don’t think it’s original with him). It’s about whether or not there are systematic justifications. This is pretty much the same distinction as between stages 3 and 4 in the Kohlberg framework. I have long post coming up that looks at Buddhism through that lens.

for early Buddhists “compassion” largely consisted in teaching people the Dharma, not in helping the needy

Yes, this gap is what led to Engaged Buddhism. I’ve sketched the history of that in an upcoming post.

David Chapman 2015-09-26

Amod Lele — Thanks for the pointers! I think you are right that Shantideva is, at minimum, an exception to my claim that there’s no multistep reasoning. I have added a footnote referencing your paper!

I’m not sure how wrong you think I am :-) . Do you think he developed a coherent general system? Based on my memory of the BCA (from many years ago) I don’t, but possibly I could be persuaded. While writing this, I had intended to re-read it, but I disliked it so strongly the first time around that I couldn’t bring myself to revisit it.

Amod Lele 2015-09-26

I’m not quite sure how wrong I think you are either. :) A lot depends on what you mean by “general system”, and for that matter by “morality” in the first place. (I have toyed in the past with the idea that what Śāntideva offers is “ethics without morality”.)

David Chapman 2015-09-26

That’s a very interesting post; thanks! There you wrote:

On ethical grounds – grounds of gentleness, of patience, of mercy, of resisting anger – one fights against morality, because of its tendency to anger and punishment.

Since I’ve recently been immersed in Kegan’s moral development framework, my immediate impulse is to assimilate what you said to the stage 3 / stage 4 distinction. I think that’s probably not right, but might cast some light on it. If you aren’t familiar with Kegan, his stages 3 and 4 are pretty much the same as Kohlberg’s. Stage 4 is systematic, and “ethical” in Keown’s sense, where stage 3 lacks justifications, and is merely “moral.” Stage 4 includes the notion of justice (which depends on justifications), which stage 3 lacks.

I’m somewhat skeptical that Neitzsche was pointing at the same distinction, but it’s been a long time since I read Twilight of the Idols. One of my favorite books ever, however, so maybe it’s time for a re-read!

Greg 2015-09-26

David and Jayarava, I’ve read and enjoyed both of you for a number of years now. As two of the very few people I’ve encountered who are critically engaged with Buddhism with integrity, I thank you for your efforts.

I have a question for you both, if you don’t mind a slight tangent: has the wind gone out of Western Buddhism the last five years or so, as the interested populace is able to access more and more of various kinds of information that is deflating in various ways? And/or encountering the ongoing critique that you both have offered, along with the more earth-scorching one offered by Glenn Wallis & co?

Sometimes it seems to me like it has, based on what I see as a diminshed level of online vitality. But perhaps that is my own projection based on my own evolution, or due to the evolving character of the internet.

nannus 2015-09-26

Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin? These sound like lists of rules for a good life from any pre-literate culture and I would not be astonished if you could find most of those ideas in Yoga, Jainism or in other cultures. This stuff might be pre-Buddhist and was just incorporated into a corpus of Buddhist teachings.

The repetitive style of many Sutras seem to hint to their origin as oral traditions. I doubt that a non-literate culture can go beyond a certain point of complexity in its philosophical thinking (see But it is interesting that nothing comparable to Western ethics seems to have been developed later (and that’s what I take home from your article). Is there any reason inherent in the Buddhist thought system for this? Or is there anything specific in western culture that drove it into the direction of developing principle-based ethics, while other cultures did not?

David Chapman 2015-09-26

Greg — Thanks for the compliment!

has the wind gone out of Western Buddhism the last five years or so, as the interested populace is able to access more and more of various kinds of information that is deflating in various ways? Sometimes it seems to me like it has, based on what I see as a diminshed level of online vitality.

These are interesting questions. When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism four years ago, I said that I sensed it was about to be over. I think it now is over. Later in this ethics series I have some suggestions about why.

The most obvious point (which is part of what got me working on this) is that it was mostly a Baby Boomer phenomenon, and they’ve reached an age where they don’t have so much energy for it. There hasn’t been nearly enough discussion, in my opinion, about what that implies and how to deal with it. Buddhism in the West will, at minimum, be drastically diminished when they pass.

I doubt that criticism from me and others has had much to do with it. I doubt many Consensus folks even encounter us, and they probably immediately reject what we have to say if they do. But I have no actual evidence!

Later in this series, I’ll suggest that the main thing is that familiarity breeds contempt. 25 years ago, Buddhism was an exotic, exciting, unknown quantity. Now everyone “knows” it’s just generic leftism plus mindfulness meditation. That’s not interesting, and if you want the two pieces, you can get them elsewhere with less hassle and nonsense.

David Chapman 2015-09-26

nannus — Thanks for an interesting comment!

Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin? ... This stuff might be pre-Buddhist and was just incorporated into a corpus of Buddhist teachings.

That’s an excellent question. While writing this series, I spent a couple of full-time days obsessing over the Sigalovada Sutta, which is another of the few used as a basis for “lay Buddhist ethics.” It doesn’t sound Buddhist to me, and I suspected it’s a non-Buddhist text that got slipped in, with light editing… but I don’t know much about early Buddhism, so my opinion isn’t worth much. Jayarava might have a much-better-informed take on it.

The repetitive style of many Sutras seem to hint to their origin as oral traditions.

Well, that’s always been the claim! You could read about the Buddhist Councils (where they were supposedly all recited from memory) for more on that.

But it is interesting that nothing comparable to Western ethics seems to have been developed later (and that’s what I take home from your article). Is there any reason inherent in the Buddhist thought system for this? Or is there anything specific in western culture that drove it into the direction of developing principle-based ethics, while other cultures did not?

I don’t know of any other culture that developed a systematic ethics, so I’d look to the European Enlightenment for a causal story. (Confucianism might be another? I don’t know much about it.)

jayarava 2015-09-27

@nannus and @David

Re the question “Are the Mangala and Parabhava Sutta even Buddhist in origin?”

How do we identify something that is not Buddhist in origin? The usual procedure would be to locate the text, or the main idea of the text, in some pre-existing literature and they try to explain why the causal arrow points one way and not the other.

A little example. Buddhists use a division of the person into “body, speech and mind”. This occurs no where else in Indian literature within 500 years of possible dates for the Buddha. But it does occur in Zoroastrian texts that clearly pre-date Buddhism. But is there a vector for transmitting an idea like this? Well it turns out that amidst the scant information we have about the Śākyas are one or two facts that are difficult to explain if the Śākyas were not originally from Iran. There is supporting circumstantial evidence from Vedic texts. So in my published article on this, I suggested (based on an original informal argument by Michael Witzel) that the body, speech and mind found it’s way into Buddhism from Zoroastrianism. But even a fairly well worked out argument like this remains conjectural.

See: Attwood, Jayarava (2012) Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3.

There’s certainly some cross over of traditions. Jātaka stories and some Dhammapada verses cross sectarian lines and can be found in the Mahābhārata or in Jain texts. But proving particular texts are “pre-Buddhist” would be quite difficult. I imagine the Maṅgala Sutta would be an interesting study - maṅgala means “luck, good fortune” and is probably closely related to the folk traditions of the day, the Vinaya describes village folk as “maṅgalikā” (superstitious). Folk traditions are clearly part of the mix from the earliest evidence. This is the source of tree devas, yakkhas, and nāgas as “spirits” (in Pāḷi nāga mostly means “elephant”).

But even if you could prove pre-Buddhist origin, so what? Most things Buddhists did or believed were ultimately pre-existing. The fact that the ideas were adopted and accepted as canonical by Buddhists kind of trumps any “origin” narrative. Buddhism is what Buddhists decide it is; and that’s all it ever had been.

jayarava 2015-09-27

@David re empathy - hmmm. Is there a distinction between empathy and compassion? You define compassion as “Compassion is the subjective feeling of another’s pain.” Empathy is more broadly based to include other dispositions, and it is objective - we unconsciously recreate the emotional disposition of the other in our own bodies, not in our mind. We literally feel what others feel. Emotions are contagious. This ability is what makes social lifestyles possible for animals.

You argue that it’s about how we feel and thus not a good basis for ethics. But in fact empathy is about being aware of and responsive to how others feel. Empathy is a reliable way of gaining knowledge of the internal dispositions of other members of our species, especially if we share a culture or a more intimate relationship. Which is a good basis for rules (at least on a small scale). This is the explicit argument of the first section of the Kālāma Sutta (the one that no one sees or gets; and that is routinely misinterpreted as being about “free thinking”).

The reason I don’t harm other people, or that I regret having done so, is because in my right mind I understand how they would feel about being harmed. It’s not fear of punishment (karma) or self-interested. It is the ability to put myself in their shoes. This is also the basis for the Brahmavihāra meditations.

On the other hand I see some limits to this. Scale is important. We evolved to live in small groups. I think empathy alone probably works exceptionally well below the 150 Dunbar Number where one knows everyone that one is interacting with. And works increasingly less well above it. The problem with empathy is that it’s a spotlight (almost a laser), not a candle. We can be very empathetic to in-group and murderous towards out-group without any sense of contradiction. And this is confirmed in studies of oxytocin, the molecule associated with empathy. Dose someone with oxytocin and they are more loving towards kith and kin and more aggressive towards strangers at the same time.

The biggest towns in the mid-late first millennium BC were probably only around 10,000 people. Both Rājagṛha and Śrāvastī were tiny places, judging by the remains. The bhikkhu Saṅgha was a few hundred in any one place at most (supporting 100 non-productive members of society probably required 10,000 agricultural workers each producing a small surplus after taxes - has anyone ever calculated this?). So the early Buddhists were mostly concerned with quite small scale communities.

Large scale societies require a completely different set up. Almost everyone I see in a day is a complete stranger. We don’t share a religion, politics, or any other kind of allegiance (I’m currently celebrating the Welsh win over England at rugby, because though I live in England I like seeing them lose at sports). If we are to do business (and trade so often seems to drive ethics) then we need a common code of conduct that we will both adhere to, and a system to oversee, administer and enforce our agreements. Buddhism was never geared up for that.

As Greg Schopen has pointed out many times, the Vinayas (at least 7 are extant) are not illustrative of how monks behaved, only of what they believed and to some extent how they misbehaved. Schopen has said that where-ever there is archaeological evidence, it inevitably contradicts the texts. And he criticises arguments about how Buddhists lived that are based solely on texts. For example: many monasteries were involved in commerce and became centres of wealth and power. In one of his memoirs, Sangharakshita recalls that during his early days in India he was invited to meet “the richest monk in Sri Lanka”.

The fact that rules against sex in the Theravāda Vinaya go into so much detail suggests that monks were in fact more concerned with circumventing the rule against sexual-activity than with following it! The obvious conclusion from the Vinaya is that few monks were motivated by a desire to renounce the world! Most had to be coerced into it.

Buddhist monks as a class were not (and arguably are not) concerned with renunciation in any systematic way. For many the life of a monk was a considerable step up the socio-economic ladder and restrictions can always be circumvented; or it was a road to temporal power for those born outside the aristocracy. In a place where the average person is poor and thin, many monks grow grossly fat on their alms. True renunciants are rare, though they play an important role in the faith of less committed religieux.

And I think the weakness identified by Schopen is apparent here - we cannot assume that because the literature of Buddhism says a thing that it is an accurate reflection of historical fact. Imagine trying to understand WEIRD culture only through the laws we passed centuries ago. How much would it tell us much about how WEIRD culture actually works? Not much.

That Buddhists have adapted their behaviour to the times is not a problem as far as I can see. We did, we do, we will. Buddhism is whatever some group of Buddhists say it is - no other definition of Buddhism can include all the variations that we know about. And it is this which enables us to have this very stimulating discussion.

With all these caveats I do find this line of reasoning compelling and thought provoking. My concern is to make the case stronger and to close perceived loopholes. I want to see this argument succeed. I’d like to see this material come out as a book - I think you’d engage a wider audience with a printed book. I’d be willing to help publish it :-)

BTW I also find Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra repellent.

David Chapman 2015-09-27

jayarava, thank you for the kind words!

I think you are quite right that compassion (or empathy) was adequate as a basis for ethics in homogeneous, small-group societies, and that systematicity was required as societies became both larger and more diverse. (I told a similar story here, but the insight is pretty broadly known.)

I think your point (and Schopen’s) about the vast gap between scripture and institutional tradition is critical for understanding how Buddhism worked, and mostly still works, in Asia. Buddhism was, and is, very different what scripture says. In particular, as you note, few monks actually attempted renunciation (much less vipassana!).

However, modernist Buddhism (following the example of Protestant Christianity) explicitly rejects institutional traditions, and attempts (or pretends) to reconstitute itself on the basis of scripture. And the Pali Canon is pretty consistent about renunciation being the main point. So either modern Buddhism actually tries to do that (as Mongkut and Thai Forest tradition did), or else it becomes evasive and incoherent (as the Consensus did).

Re the possibility of paper publication, the series has about 50,000 words in toto, which is just enough for a slim book. Would that reach a wider audience? The pages in this series have had about a thousand views each already. Based on experience with older pages, over the next few years they’ll gather many thousands each.

Amod Lele 2015-09-27

Another thought regarding your point that Consensus Buddhism is mostly a baby-boomer phenomenon, and may fade when they pass. I am beginning to think that this might be right: that because baby boomers had the first really mainstream Western encounter with Buddhism (as opposed to more marginal groups like Theosophy), they were able to project onto it whatever they wanted. Dissident boomers like Schopen and Lopez and Gomez - all of whom were once together at the University of Michigan, perhaps not coincidentally - pointed out how real Buddhism was actually a lot more like the Christianity that most boomers hated, and less like the left-wing politics they were advocating. And I am wondering whether the decline of interest in Buddhism after the boom came about because our generation has internalized more of this critique, realized that actually Buddhism has a lot more to do with asceticism than it does with saving the environment and being allowed to bang whoever you want. So that the group that remains interested in Buddhism gradually shrinks to be the much smaller group who might also find some appeal in ascetic Christianity.

jayarava 2015-09-28

@David I understand that the website reaches a wide audience, you do a lot better than I do on that score I’m sure. On the other hand I think a lot of the people you’d like to challenge with this material would not read it on the web, but would respond to it in printed form - a mindset about what kind of media are authoritative. And from my own point of view, I know for a fact this is true of people in my organisation. Also I can imagine leading a discussion group for Buddhists on the essays, and a small book would facilitate this. Plus you can make some income from selling books. Anyway, just a thought.

David Chapman 2015-09-28

Thanks, that’s helpful! Yes, I can see that a paper publication would be seen as more authoritative by some.

Linda Blanchard 2015-09-29

“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.”

If justification is necessary, the only justification-like answer the Buddha ever gives – that I have seen – is the end (or at minimum, reduction) of dukkha/suffering. This seems to me a fine justification for any ethical system, as long as one does not oversimplify it (for example by using a gross estimate of quantity as the only criteria). But if the concept of ethics was not part of his culture, we will of course not find it addressed in the suttas. And that would be why: “Karma and compassion are often said to be the fundamental principles of Buddhist ethics. However, neither of these actually supplied systematic foundations for Buddhist morality. Most traditional moral teachings aren’t justified in terms of either one.”

I agree that the Buddhist karmic system, as it is widely understood, is just self-interest, and is inadequate as a basis for ethics. But I disagree that “Compassion is a transitory subjective feeling” at least when it comes to Buddhist compassion as I have felt it and seen it in my practicing peers. That sort of compassion is a part of a worldview, informing everything, all the time. It’s not so much felt, as understood.

“Traditional Buddhism has various codes of conduct, and lists of virtues, that are semi-moralistic. These are rules or ideals for conduct.” Yes indeed. It seems to me that the lists of things not to do and to do have two primary functions: (1) to help individuals cultivate a life that provides room and stability in which to develop insight, room provided largely by keeping practitioners out of trouble and (2) to improve the stability of the Sangha so that the teachings will be preserved and passed on (many of the rules seem to be created to help maintain the Sangha’s reputation in the eyes of the unenlightened). That some of these rules might have the effect of reducing pain and suffering, not for the Buddha’s followers, but for others as well, seems almost incidental.

“There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics.” “To the extent that they are morally acceptable, they are not distinctively Buddhist.” Since the Buddha says that what he’s pointing out doesn’t belong to him, but that it has always existed – I take this to mean he’s pointing out fundamental truths about human nature – I don’t think there should be “Buddhist ethics”. Any ethics we, as Buddhists, work out should be based on things anyone can see, not just Buddhists.

“It has little or no ‘ethics’: broad principles which explain why particular actions and traits are good or bad.” Little, maybe, but not “no”. The problem, as I see it, is that the reasoning is there in the suttas, stated plainly enough, and often enough, but it has been missed or ignored in favor of other aspects of Buddhism. I would suggest that the Buddha says, throughout his works, that it is unethical to base one’s views on speculation, supposition, misinformation, hear-say, and too few facts. He repeatedly points out that arguing over such views leads to trouble. It leads not just to trouble between any two individuals, but to war. And more than any other views, views (opinions) about the self (views that are disproven by our experiences when we are paying attention) cause problems. This is – as far as I can see – the central ethical point the Buddha makes.

“Compassion is a primary virtue of most ethical systems; there is nothing distinctively Buddhist about it.” This is false. There is something distinctive about Buddhist compassion: it’s not the fleeting emotion you describe, nor are decisions based on Buddhist compassion about “how you feel” rather than a concern with the outcome of the situation for others. It’s not “idiot compassion”.

Buddhist compassion is created out of insight, first into one’s own humanity, and then projecting from there (as Jayarava mentions), into others. I don’t know who you are hanging out with, who give you the impression it is “idiot compassion” of the disfunction-enabling sort, but my teachers have always pointed out that compassion without wisdom is worse than useless.

I tend to distinguish between two kinds of moral behavior. One I call “outside-in” – in which we’re given rules to follow (maybe we are given reasons, maybe not), and we do that: because we should, because we are told to, because we hope that doing so gives us some advantage in the future (be it recognition for our Good Works or a better next life, or feeling better about ourselves, or whatever). The other I call “inside-out” because the morality comes from within after we have gotten a better understanding of ourselves and the way our attitudes affect our behavior and the results of our actions. If Buddhism is only understood as having outside-in morality, then you’re right, “modern ‘Buddhist ethics’ may actively hinder moral development.” But outside-in morality is not what the Buddhist teachers I am familiar with teach. (And I’m a Boomer.)

So I disagree with this: “Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts, which are where ethics gets difficult.” And this: “Compassion does not, by itself, help resolve conflicts between people, either. ” You’re right that idiot-compassion, outside-in compassion might confuse the judge in the child custody case, but wisdom-based compassion, inside-out compassion wouldn’t, and here’s why: The practice of Buddhist methods of insight into the self has taught the judge to notice that the mother’s charming smile and outgoing personality makes her more appealing than the reticent father, whose silences seem churlish. The judge will notice her own feelings, and take those into account, and will further examine just how much she knows about all aspects of the case, as distinguished between what she knows, and what she just thinks she knows. She’ll check her assumptions, and work at obtaining more information where possible, because that’s what the practice teaches us to do. She’ll recognize that how kindly disposed she feels towards one or the other should not have a huge effect. How can that not be a more-sound-than-usual basis for making decisions?

I am really not sure there even should be a Buddhist ethics and moral code. I believe what the Buddha offered – when he was talking about his own methods for liberation, rather than using the existing systems (e.g. karma and rebirth) as good beginning points for practice – was a way for us to gain the wisdom to make good ethical decisions ourselves, in our individual situations, in our cultural moment in the place and time we live in, based on a long practice of paying keen attention to how human interactions actually work. I would worry about dogma being added where it’s not needed.

fripsidelover9110 2015-09-30
In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all.

Not sure if you know it, but that’s also what confucians (especially Neo-confucians since Chinese Song dynasty) pointed out. They said that Buddhism is a profit-seeking way-teaching (They had no modern concept on religion) as opposed to Confucian-way, and argued that it’s a pathetic, vulgar and mean teaching in that respect.

Another thing they pointed out is that the doctrine of Karma could be used to justify the evil.

It goes roughly like this way: “A murderer may say ‘It’s your bad karma - accumulated due to your evil conducts you committed in your previous lives - which makes it possible for me to kill you now.’ Could we clearly refute his claim with Mr Shaka’s teaching of Karma and rebirth alone?”

fripsidelover9110 2015-09-30

By the way, Confucians also thought Christianity is no better than Buddhism in terms of “profit-seeking”. When Matteo Ricci’s ‘The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ (天主實義) was first introduced to Korean literati Confucians in the 18th century, one of the common responses was like “Heaven and Hell? That’s a variant of Buddhism’s Karma and rebirth teaching, which is useful only to delude the world and deceive the people.”

By the way, don’t get me wrong. I’m a Buddhist.

fripsidelover9110 2015-09-30

“I don’t know of any other culture that developed a systematic ethics, so I’d look to the European Enlightenment for a causal story. (Confucianism might be another? I don’t know much about it.)”

Most modern scholars of Confucianim would give a positive answer, especially about Mencius and Neo-confucianim. One of recommendable book about the subject is ‘A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought’ by Chad Hansen. Perhaps, his free online course on Ed-x, ‘Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought’ would be helpful and informative as well, especially for those who are not familiar with Chinese thought.

David Chapman 2015-09-30
Heaven and Hell? That’s a variant of Buddhism’s Karma and rebirth teaching, which is useful only to delude the world and deceive the people.

That’s very funny!

There’s enough similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that they must have had some common ancestry, and maybe influenced each other. jayarava traces Buddhism’s karma theory to Zoroastrianism, which also influenced Christianity, so maybe that’s the explanation.

By the way, don’t get me wrong. I’m a Buddhist.

Yeah, me too, despite a predilection for pointing out that Buddhism doesn’t do everything some people want it to.

Sabio Lantz 2015-09-30

Great post, David. Real informative – thank you kindly. Two little thoughts.

(1) Ahh, I see in this post that you differentiated ethics and morals. May I suggest you put this right up front in the beginning posts – it is central to your articles and if unstated, set up a perhaps unnecessary controversial tone, give that the other stuff is indeed controversial. ;-)

(2) David, you said, “In the mid-1800s, Christians pointed out, correctly, that this is not an ethical stance at all. It’s just pragmatic and self-interested.” Odd, it seems that Christianity is essentially the same, so why would Christians point that out? Do you have a source on that?

David Chapman 2015-09-30

Sabio — I’m glad you are enjoying these!

it is central to your articles

No, not really. It’s useful vocabulary, but it would be equivalent to say “traditional Buddhist ethics is crude, unprincipled, conceptually simplistic, and useless for modern purposes.” I do say that a lot in the next post :-)

The distinction will reappear in the guise of the stage 3 vs 4 discussion when I get to Kegan near the end of the series. Otherwise, it’s not important.

Do you have a source on that?

Yes, see footnote 2 to that paragraph :-)

Brewski 2016-12-25

I never quite figured out how these so-called liberals received this divine blessing to judge everyone who thinks differently from them. It most certainly is NOT the European Enlightenment from which their standards derive.

Your average modern liberal has a worldview slightly less dogmatic than the Taliban on which they judge everyone else in the world, and obviously the ideology is just as imperialistic.

Such as this blanket statement written in the above blog “Buddhism is anti-sexual.”

Buddhism is anti-degeneracy. Sick and perverted sexuality is condemned, as it should be. Anal sex is disgusting and clinically proven to create disease.

If Buddhism isn’t for you, because its not reminiscent of something that you would witness in the Castro district of San Francisco on a Saturday night, than perhaps you should consider an alternative religion such as The Peoples Temple of Jim Jones.

He was about equally as egalitarian as you claim yourself to be and had no qualms about arbitrary judgements of this so-called unfair patriarchal world in which we live.

Perhaps that would suit you a lot better, because obviously Buddhism is not conforming to your needs enough.

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