Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Review: Gods of Medieval Japan

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 24, 2017

Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 1: The Fluid Pantheon by Bernard Faure. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015, xii + 496 pages, ISBN 978-0-8248-3933-8 (hardback), $55.00.
Gods of Medieval Japan, Volume 2: Protectors and Predators by Bernard Faure. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015, x + 512 pages, ISBN 978-0-8248-3931-4 (hardback), $55.00.
.
Reviewed by Joseph P. Elacqua

Read article

Review: The Ethics of Śaṅkara and Śāntideva

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

The Ethics of Śaṅkara and Śāntideva: A Selfless Response to an Illusory World. By Warren Lee Todd. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013, xii + 220, ISBN: 9781409466819 (hardback), $149.95.

Reviewed by Joseph S. O’Leary

Read article

Is Compassionate Killing Psychologically Impossible?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

On Compassionate Killing and the Abhidhamma’s “Psychological Ethics”

Damien Keown
University of London Goldsmiths

Is compassionate killing really psychologically impossible, as the Abhidhamma claims? Previously I discussed a Vinaya case that seemed to show the contrary. Reviewing my conclusions in the light of commentarial literature, Rupert Gethin disagreed and restated the Abhidhamma position that killing can never be motivated by compassion. This paper supports my original conclusions and argues further that the Vinaya case reveals underlying problems with the Abhidhamma’s “psychological ethics.”

Read article

Predictions of Women to Buddhahood in Middle-Period Literature

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

Predictions of Women to Buddhahood in Middle-Period Literature

Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā
Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts

This article studies narratives related to the topic of women receiving a prediction or declaration (vyākaraṇa) for Buddhahood. The texts in question—in their received form—have their place in the Indian Buddhist traditions of the Middle Period. The first episode taken up is the story of Princess Munī who receives the prediction of becoming the present Buddha Śākyamuni; this is found in the so-called “Scripture on the Wise and the Fool.” The second episode is the story of Yaśomatī who receives the prediction that she will become the Buddha Ratnamati; this is found in the Avadānaśataka. When evaluating these comparatively rare instances of predictions received by women, two aspects come up for special consideration: (a) the textual significance of variations regarding the presence or absence of a change of sex, and (b) the epistemological and soteriological consequences for female audiences of women’s narratives constructed by the third-person perspective of male monastic text transmitters. The variations document that the transmitters did not always perceive the transformation of sex into a male as a categorical necessity. This transformation may not have been integral to these narratives of the bodhisattva path as articulated by the textual communities in which these texts originated and circulated.

Read article

The Four Realities True for Noble Ones

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

The Four Realities True for Noble Ones: A New Approach to the Ariyasaccas

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya

Peter Harvey recently argued that the term sacca of ariyasacca should be interpreted as “reality” rather than as “truth,” the common rendition. In this paper, although I basically agree with him, I see quite different implications and come to a wholly new interpretation of the four ariyasaccas.

Read article

Holistic Eco-Buddhism and the Problem of Universal Identity

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

Nature’s No-Thingness: Holistic Eco-Buddhism and the Problem of Universal Identity

Marek Sullivan
University of Oxford

“Holistic eco-Buddhism” has been roundly criticized for its heterodoxy and philosophical incoherence: the Buddha never claimed we should protect an “eco-self” and there are serious philosophical problems attendant on “identifying with things.” Yet this essay finds inadequate attention has been paid to East Asian sources. Metaphysical issues surrounding eco-Buddhism, i.e., problems of identity and difference, universalism and particularity, have a long history in Chinese Buddhism. In particular, I examine the notion of “merging with things” in pre-Huayan and Huayan Buddhism, suggesting these offer unexplored possibilities for a coherent holistic eco-Buddhism based on the differentiating effects of activity and functionality.

Read article

Compassion in Schopenhauer and Śāntideva

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Compassion in Schopenhauer and Śāntideva

Kenneth Hutton
University of Glasgow

Although it is well known that Schopenhauer claimed that Buddhism closely reflected his own philosophy, this claim was largely ignored until the mid-late Twentieth century. Most commentators on Schopenhauer (with some recent exceptions) since then have mentioned his Buddhist affinities but have been quite broad and general in their treatment. I feel that any general comparison of Schopenhauer’s philosophy with “general” Buddhism would most likely lead to general conclusions. In this article I have attempted to offer a more specific comparison of what is central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy with what is central to Mahāyāna Buddhism, and that is the concept of compassion.

Read article

Dōgen’s Primer on the Nonmoral Virtues of the Good Person

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Dōgen’s Primer on the Nonmoral Virtues of the Good Person

Douglas K. Mikkelson
University of Hawai’i at Hilo

The Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki provides a good introduction to Dōgen’s ideas about the virtues possessed by “the good person.” His depiction includes, but extends beyond, the conception of a “morally good” human being. This is evident by the number of “nonmoral” virtues that are manifest in the text. Edmund Pincoffs presents a schematization of numerous virtues based on his conception of virtues and vices as dispositional properties that provide ground for preference or avoidance of persons. This schematization seems especially well suited for an exploration and description of the nonmoral virtues that appear in the Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki.

Read article

Review: The Range of the Bodhisattva: A Mahāyāna Sūtra

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

The Range of the Bodhisattva: A Mahāyāna Sūtra. Translated by Lozang Jamspal. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2011, ISBN 978-1935011071 (cloth), $42.00.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Jenkins

Read article

Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part Two

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part Two

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

In China and Tibet, and under the gaze of the global media, the five-year period from February 2009 to February 2014 saw the self-immolations of at least 127 Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay-people. An English Tibetan Buddhist monk, then resident in France, joined this number in November 2012, though his self-immolation has been excluded from all accounts of the exile Tibetan and other documenters of the ongoing Tibetan crisis. Underlying the phenomenon of Buddhist self-immolation is a real and interpretive ambiguity between personal, religious (or ritual-transcendental), altruistic, and political suicide, as well as political suicide within the Buddhist sangha specifically. These theoretical distinctions appear opaque not only to (aligned and non-aligned, Tibetan and non-Tibetan) observers, but potentially also to self-immolators themselves, despite their deeply motivated conviction.

Such ambiguity is reflected in the varying historical and current assessments of the practice, also represented by globally significant Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. This essay analyses the symbolic ontology of suicide in these Tibetan Buddhist cases, and offers metaethical and normative accounts of self-immolation as an altruistic-political act in the “global repertoire of contention” in order to clarify its claims for what is a critically urgent issue in Buddhist ethics.

Read article

Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part One

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

In China and Tibet, and under the gaze of the global media, the four-year period from February 2009 to February 2013 saw the self-immolations of at least 110 Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-people. Underlying the phenomenon of Buddhist self-immolation is a real and interpretive ambiguity between personal, religious, altruistic and political suicide, and political suicide within the Buddhist saṅgha specifically, itself reflected in the varying historical assessments of the practice and currently given by global Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Part One of this essay surveys the textual and theoretical background to the canonical record and commentarial reception of suicide in Pāli Buddhist texts, and the background to self-immolation in the Mahāyāna, and considers how the current Tibetan Buddhist self-immolations relate ethically to that textual tradition. This forms the basis for, in Part Two, understanding them as altruistic-political acts in the global repertoire of contention.

Read article

Śāntideva on Gifts, Altruism, and Poverty

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

The Compassionate Gift of Vice: Śāntideva on Gifts, Altruism, and Poverty

Amod Lele
Boston University

The Mahāyāna Buddhist thinker Śāntideva tells his audience to give out alcohol, weapons and sex for reasons of Buddhist compassion, though he repeatedly warns of the dangers of all these three. The article shows how Śāntideva resolves this issue: these gifts, and gifts in general, attract their recipients to the virtuous giver, in a way that helps the recipients to become more virtuous in the long run. As a consequence, Śāntideva does recommend the alleviation of poverty, but assigns it a much smaller significance than is usually supposed. His views run counter to many engaged Buddhist discussions of political action, and lend support to the “modernist” interpretation of engaged Buddhist practice.

Read article

Consequentialism, Agent-Neutrality, and Mahāyāna Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Consequentialism, Agent-Neutrality, and Mahāyāna Ethics

Charles Goodman
Binghamton University

Several Indian Mahāyāna texts express an ethical perspective that has many features in common with Western forms of universalist consequentialism. Śāntideva, in particular, endorses a strong version of agent-neutrality, claims that compassionate agents should violate Buddhist moral commitments when doing so would produce good results, praises radical altruism, uses a critique of the self to support his ethical views, and even offers a reasonably clear general formulation of what we call act-consequentialism. Meanwhile, Asaṅga’s discussions of the motivation behind rules of moral discipline and the permissible reasons for breaking those rules suggests an interesting and complex version of rule-consequentialism. Evidence for features of consequentialism can be found in several Mahāyāna sūtras as well. In reading these sources, interpretations that draw on virtue ethics may not be as helpful as those that understand the texts as committed to various versions of consequentialism.

Read article

Mahāyāna Ethics and American Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Mahāyāna Ethics and American Buddhism: Subtle Solutions or Creative Perversions?

Charles S. Prebish
Pennsylvania State University & Utah State University (Emeritus)

“Mahāyāna Ethics and American Buddhism: Subtle Solutions or Creative Perversions?” initially explores the notion of two distinctly different forms of upāya, first presented by Damien Keown in his 1992 volume The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, in which one form of skill-in-means is available only to bodhisattvas prior to stage seven of the bodhisattva’s path and requires adherence to all proper ethical guidelines, while the second form of upāya is applicable to bodhisattvas at stage seven and beyond, and allows them to ignore any and all ethical guidelines in their attempts to alleviate suffering. This distinctly Mahāyāna interpretation of upāya is used to examine the presumably scandalous behavior of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche and Richard Baker, Rōshi, two of the most popular and controversial figures in American Buddhism. The article concludes that we can at least infer that applied in the proper fashion, by accomplished teachers, the activities allowed by upāya do present possibly subtle explanations of seemingly inappropriate behaviors. On the other hand, if abused by less realized beings, we must recognize these acts as merely creative perversions of a noble ethical heritage.

Read article

Tsongkhapa on Choice and Emotions

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Emotions, Ethics, and Choice: Lessons from Tsongkhapa

Emily McRae
University of Oklahoma

This paper explores the degree to which we can exercise choice over our emotional experiences and emotional dispositions. I argue that we can choose our emotions in the sense that we can intentionally intervene in them. To show this, I draw on the mind training practices advocated by the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist yogin and philosopher Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa). I argue that his analysis shows that successful intervention in a negative emotional experience depends on at least four factors: the intensity of the emotional experience, one’s ability to pay attention to the workings of one’s mind and body, knowledge of intervention practices, and insight into the nature of emotions. I argue that this makes sense of Tsongkhapa’s seemingly contradictory claims that the meditator can and should control (and eventually abandon) her anger and desire to harm others and that harmdoers are “servants to their afflictions.”

Read article

Review: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. By Charles Goodman. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, viii + 250 pages, ISBN 978–0–19–537519–0 (cloth), $74.00.

Reviewed by Richard Hayes

Read article

Review: Forest Bodhisattvas and the Formation of the Mahāyāna

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahāyāna: A Study and Translation of the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā-sūtra. By Daniel Boucher. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008, xxiii + 287 pages, ISBN 978-0-8248-2881-3 (cloth), US$54.00.

Reviewed by Alexander Wynne

Read article

Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism? On Bodhicaryāvatāra 8:101-103

Stephen Harris
University of New Mexico

In the eighth chapter of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, the Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva has often been interpreted as offering an argument that accepting the ultimate nonexistence of the self (anātman) rationally entails a commitment to altruism, the view that one should care equally for self and others. In this essay, I consider reconstructions of Śāntideva’s argument by contemporary scholars Paul Williams, Mark Siderits and John Pettit. I argue that all of these various reconfigurations of the argument fail to be convincing. This suggests that, for Madhyamaka Buddhists, an understanding of anātman does not entail acceptance of the Bodhisattva path, but rather is instrumental to achieving it. Second, it suggests the possibility that in these verses, Śāntideva was offering meditational techniques, rather than making an argument for altruism from the premise of anātman.

Read article

Review: Masculine Images in Indian Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. By John Powers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009, 334 pages, ISBN: 978-0674033290 (hardcover); US $45.00.

Reviewed by Vanessa Sasson

Read article

Review: Bodhisattva Archetypes

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 13, 2006

Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression. By Taigen Dan Leighton. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003, 348 pages, ISBN 0861713338 (paper), US $14.95.

Reviewed by Amos Yong

Read Article

Śāntideva and the Bodhisattva Path

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 9 2002

Did Śāntideva Destroy the Bodhisattva Path?

Jon Wetlesen
University of Oslo

The question in the title has recently been answered in the affirmative by Paul Williams in his book on Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Williams assumes that Śāntideva attempted to justify the bodhisattva’s universal altruism on the basis of a reductive conception of a person, and that this entails a number of absurd consequences that are destructive of the bodhisattva path. Williams concedes that Śāntideva might have avoided these consequences if he had adopted a non-reductive conception of the person as a conventional truth, but Williams seems to assume that this would have to be an individualistic conception, and in that case it would have prevented Śāntideva from reaching his desired conclusion.

I argue that there may be a way out of this dilemma if we interpret Śāntideva’s conception of the person in the direction of an interpersonal holism. In this view, others are perceived not only as more or less similar to oneself, but as parts of oneself. The bodhisattva path is understood as a transformation from the small to the big self within the framework of conventional truth, and eventually to non-self within the highest truth. I believe that this approach takes better care of those few verses in chapter eight of Śāntideva’s book, on which Williams has based his interpretation, and that it is supported by a number of other verses in this context, to which Williams has not paid much attention.

Read article

A Buddhist Vision of Social Justice

ISSN 1076–9005
Volume 7, 2000

Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice

Sungtaek Cho
State University of New York at Stony Brook

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism’s engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation. It is my contention, however, that the concept of “selflessness” can become the basis of a Buddhist theory of social justice without endangering Buddhism’s primary focus on individual salvation. In this article, I show how the key concept of selflessness can provide a viable ground for Buddhist social justice by comparing it with one of the most influential contemporary Western theories of social justice, that of the American philosopher John Rawls. Drawing on the bodhisattva ideal and the Buddhist concepts of “sickness” and “cure,” I then demonstrate how selflessness can serve as a link that allows Buddhists to be socially engaged even while pursuing the goal of individual salvation.

Read article

Review: Bodhisattva Archetypes

SSN 1076-9005
Volume 7, 2000

Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classic Buddhist Guides to Awakening and their Modern Expressions. By Taigen Daniel Leighton. New York: Penguin Arkana, 1998, xviii + 364 pages, ISBN: 0–14–019556–4 (paper), US $14.95.

Reviewed by Franz Aubrey Metcalf

Read article

Review: Bodhisattva Practices

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 3 1996

Commentary on the Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. By HH the Dalai Lama, translated by Acārya Nyima Tsering. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995, x+106 pages, ISBN: 81-85102-97-X, Rs 120.

Reviewed by Jay L.Garfield

Read article