Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Grief, Impermanence, and Upāya

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

“To Whom Does Kisā Gotamī Speak?” Grief, Impermanence, and Upāya

Richard K. Payne
Institute of Buddhist Studies, at the Graduate Theological Union

This article develops a perspective on the nature of Buddhist pastoral care by considering the needs of the bereaved. Differentiating the interpretive frameworks of different audiences and understanding different contexts of interpersonal relations are necessary for effective pastoral care. A distinction between the goal of realizing impermanence and the goal of resolving mourning is heuristically useful in theorizing Buddhist pastoral care. The discussion also seeks to underscore the value of upāya as a positive moral injunction on teachers, indicating the need to properly match their audience and to employ the textual tradition responsibly.

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Review: Buddhist Reflection on a More Equitable Future

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

Valuing Diversity: Buddhist Reflection on Realizing a More Equitable Global Future. By Peter D. Hershock. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014, vi + 332 pages, ISBN 978-1-4384-4458-1 (paperback), $29.95.

Reviewed by Seth D. Clippard

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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

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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.”

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Everyday Religion and Public Health in Kathmandu

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

Puṇya and Pāp in Public Health: Everyday Religion, Material Culture, and Avenues of Buddhist Activism in Urban Kathmandu

Todd Lewis
College of the Holy Cross

In the dense settlements of old Kathmandu city, an urban ecology is fueled by abundant natural resources and sustained by a complex web of predator and prey species, all in a space dominated by human presence and practices. These include everyday activities in temples, roads, and homes that are rooted in Buddhist and Hindu doctrines. Both traditions emphasize non-violence (ahiṃsā) to all living beings, and adherents seek merit (puṇya) daily from feeding some of them. In light of the still chronic outbreaks of diseases like cholera, and especially in light of the threat of future avian-vector epidemics, a new avenue of doctrinal interpretation favoring human intervention might be developed based on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, an important Mahāyāna Buddhist text. In the spirit of “engaged Buddhism,” the discussion concludes with suggestions on how Newar Buddhist teachers today can use their cultural resources to shift their community’s ethical standpoint and take effective actions.

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Zen Meets Kierkegaard

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

A Love Knowing Nothing: Zen Meets Kierkegaard

Mary Jeanne Larrabee
DePaul University

I present a case for a love that has a wisdom knowing nothing. How this nothing functions underlies what Kierkegaard urges in Works of Love and how Zen compassion moves us to action. In each there is an ethical call to love in action. I investigate how Kierkegaard’s “religiousness B” is a “second immediacy” in relation to God, one springing from a nothing between human and God. This immediacy clarifies what Kierkegaard takes to be the Christian call to love. I draw a parallel between Kierkegaard’s immediacy and the expression of immediacy within a Zen-influenced life, particularly the way in which it calls the Zen practitioner to act toward the specific needs of the person standing before one. In my understanding of both Kierkegaard and Zen life, there is also an ethics of response to the circumstances that put the person in need, such as entrenched poverty or other injustices.

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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.

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Review: Introduction to Tantra

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire. By Lama Yeshe. Compiled and edited by Jonathan Landaw. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014, ISBN 978-61429-155-8 (paper-back), $16.95.

Reviewed by Alyson Prude

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Buddhism and Intellectual Property Rights

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Buddhism and Intellectual Property Rights: The Role of Compassion

Soraj Hongladarom
Chulalongkorn University

I offer the outline of a theory that justifies the concept of intellectual property (IP). IP is usually justified by a utilitarian claim that such rights provide incentives for further discovery and protect the innovator through a monopoly. I propose to broaden the protection offered by the IP regime. My argument is based on the concept of compassion (karuṇā), the aim of relieving suffering in all others. An analysis of how patented products originate shows that they typically depend not only on scientists in the laboratory, but on numerous factors and elements, many of which do not belong to the corporation in which the experiments are conducted. Because these elements have a necessary role in the discovery of inventions, they also deserve fair treatment. In practice, this could mean that the resulting patented product would be made more accessible to the general population and that the corporation would be more actively involved in society. In the long run, this could prove beneficial for all parties, including the patent holders themselves.

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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.

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The Ethico-Political Significance of Mindfulness

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Towards a Dialogue Between Buddhist Social Theory and “Affect Studies” on the Ethico-Political Significance of Mindfulness

Edwin Ng
Deakin University

This article stages a conversation between an emergent Buddhist social theory and current thinking in the humanities and social sciences on the affective and visceral registers of everyday experience—or what falls under the rubric of “affect studies.” The article takes the premise that prevailing models of Buddhist social theory need updating as they remain largely confined to macropolitical accounts of power, even though they argue for the importance of a mode of sociocultural analysis that would anchor itself on the “self” end of the self–society continuum. The article will thus explore ways to develop a micropolitical account of the ethical and political implications of Buddhist spiritual-social praxis—specifically mindfulness training—by formulating some hypotheses for dialogical exchange between Buddhist understandings and the multidisciplinary ideas informing the so-called “affective turn.”

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The Politics of “Compassion” of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

The Politics of “Compassion” of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: Between “Religion” and “Secularism”

Masahide Tsujimura
Kobe University
Koyasan University

Since 1959, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has expressed the view that democratic reforms should be gradually carried out in the Tibetan political system. He did this by enlarging the connotation of the traditional Tibetan concept of chos srid zung ‘brel (union of dharma and polity). This paper will examine how the Dalai Lama succeeded in maintaining the traditional political concept of chos srid zung ‘brel in a modern Tibetan democracy by employing the idea of “compassion” to link “religion” and “secularism.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

Holly Gayley
University of Colorado, Boulder

This article examines the ideological underpinnings of ethical reform currently underway in Tibetan areas of the PRC, based on a newly reconfigured set of ten Buddhist virtues and consolidated into vows taken en masse by the laity. I focus on texts of advice to the laity by cleric-scholars from Larung Buddhist Academy, one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Tibetan plateau and an important source for an emergent Buddhist modernism. In analyzing texts of advice, I am interested in how lead-ing Buddhist voices articulate a “path forward” for Tibetans as a people, calling simultaneously for ethical reform and cultural preservation. Specifically, I trace the tensions and ironies that emerge in their attempts to synthesize, on the one hand, a Buddhist emphasis on individual moral action and its soteriological ramifications and, on the other hand, a secular concern for the social welfare of the Tibetan population and the preservation of its civilizational inheritance. In doing so, I view ethical reform as part of a broader Buddhist response to China’s civilizing mission vis-à-vis Tibetans and new market forces encouraged by the post-Mao state.

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Review: A 1918 Japanese Pilgrimage

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue, an English translation of Musume Junreiki by Takamure Itsue. Translated by Susan Tennant. Bowen Island, BC: Bowen Publishing, 2010, 274 pages, ISBN 978-1-45-054075-9 (paper), $16.95.

Reviewed by Ronald S. Green

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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

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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.

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Compassion and Equanimity

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 14, 2007

Do the Compassionate Flourish? Overcoming Anguish and the Impulse towards Violence

Chris Frakes
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

In this paper I argue that in order for compassion to be considered a virtue, Western philosophical accounts of compassion must be supplemented by Buddhist understandings. After examining two potential problems with compassion (that it may burden the compassionate agent with anguish such that s/he cannot flourish and that feeling compassion may give rise to violence on behalf of the suffering), I consider a way out of both of these problems. My central claim is that the proper emotion which demonstrates the virtue of compassion is that of equanimity.

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Authentic Love and Compassion

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

No Real Protection without Authentic Love and Compassion

John Makransky
Boston College

The focus of modern technocratic societies on material means for well being tends to ignore the significance of motivation: What sort of motive force drives the social policies and development strategies of our societies, and how does that affect the outcome of our endeavors to establish social stability and well-being? This paper will draw upon teachings from the Ornament of the Mahāyāna Scriptures (Mahāyāna-sūtra-alaṃkāra, ascribed to Maitreya circa the fourth century CE), teachings that focus on the motive power of boundless love and what happens where it is lacking. I will try to apply insights from that text to contemporary problems of social fragmentation and violence.

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Zen Social Ethics in Japan

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

What’s Compassion Got to Do with It? Determinants of Zen Social Ethics in Japan

Christopher Ives
Stonehill College

Judging from pronouncements by contemporary Engaged Buddhists, one might conclude that historical expressions of Zen social ethics have rested on the foundation of compassion and the precepts. The de facto systems of social ethics in Japanese Zen, however, have been shaped largely by other epistemological, sociological, and historical factors, and compassion should best be understood as a “theological virtue” that historically has gained specificity from those other factors.

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Review: Buddhism and Animal Rights

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights. By Norm Phelps. New York: Lantern Press, 2004. 208 pages. Paperback. ISBN 1590560698.

Reviewed by L. A. Kemmerer

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Martha Nussbaum on Compassion

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 11, 2004

Reflection on Martha Nussbaum’s Work on Compassion from a Buddhist Perspective

Maria Vanden Eynde

The current philosophical debate between care and justice reflects the debate between an image of self that is either autonomous and invested with rights or a self that is contingent, feeling and thinking. Our goal is to bridge the polarization between the two ethical theories of care and justice. For this, an extended self image would be introduced, carrying traits of both views. We aim to show that Nussbaum’s concept of compassion can bridge the dichotomy. But, rather than merely building on Nussbaum’s findings, we think it is essential to investigate what Buddhism, as a philosophy where compassion is central, can bring to this project. The topic of this paper then, is to relate Nussbaum’s work on compassion with Buddhist theory, at the same time opening the subject matter to the potentialities that are at hand in Buddhist philosophy.

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Can Killing Ever Be an Act of Compassion?

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 11, 2004

Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion? The Analysis of the Act of Killing in the Abhidhamma and Pāli Commentaries

Rupert Gethin
University of Bristol

In the Theravādin exegetical tradition, the notion that intentionally killing a living being is wrong involves a claim that when certain mental states (such as compassion) are present in the mind, it is simply impossible that one could act in certain ways (such as to intentionally kill). Contrary to what Keown has claimed, the only criterion for judging whether an act is “moral” (kusala) or “immoral” (akusala) in Indian systematic Buddhist thought is the quality of the intention that motivates it. The idea that killing a living being might be a solution to the problem of suffering runs counter to the Buddhist emphasis on dukkha as a reality that must be understood. The cultivation of friendliness in the face of suffering is seen as something that can bring beneficial effects for self and others in a situation where it might seem that compassion should lead one to kill.

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Review: Wisdom and Compassion in Mahāyāna Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 3 1996

Ocean of Nectar: Wisdom and Compassion in Mahāyāna Buddhism. By Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. London: Tharpa Publications, 1995, viii + 592 pages, , £16.95/$29.95 (paper).

Reviewed by John Powers

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