Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Capital Punishment: a Buddhist Critique

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 24, 2017

Capital Punishment: a Buddhist Critique

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

Capital punishment is practiced in many nation-states, secular and religious alike. It is also historically a feature of some Buddhist polities, even though it defies the first Buddhist precept (pāṇatipātā) prohibiting lethal harm. This essay considers a neo-Kantian theorization of capital punishment (Sorell) and examines the reasons underwriting its claims (with their roots in Bentham and Mill) with respect to the prevention of and retribution for crime. The contextualization of this argument with Buddhist-metaphysical and epistemological concerns around the normativization of value, demonstrates that such a retributivist conception of capital punishment constitutively undermines its own rational and normative discourse. With this conclusion the paper upholds and justifies the first Buddhist precept prohibiting lethal action in the case of capital punishment.

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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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Facing Death from a Safe Distance

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 23, 2016

Facing Death from a Safe Distance: Saṃvega and Moral Psychology

Lajos Brons
Nihon University and Lakeland University

Saṃvega is a morally motivating state of shock that—according to Buddhaghosa—should be evoked by meditating on death. What kind of mental state it is exactly, and how it is morally motivating is unclear, however. This article presents a theory of saṃvega—what it is and how it works—based on recent insights in psychology. According to dual process theories there are two kinds of mental processes organized in two “systems”: the experiential, automatic system 1, and the rational, controlled system 2. In normal circumstances, system 1 does not believe in its own mortality. Saṃvega occurs when system 1 suddenly realizes that the “subjective self” will inevitably die (while system 2 is already disposed to affirm the subject’s mortality). This results in a state of shock that is morally motivating under certain conditions. Saṃvega increases mortality salience and produces insight in suffering, and in combination with a strengthened sense of loving-kindness or empathic concern both mortality salience and insight in suffering produce moral motivation.

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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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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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Review: Death and Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Death and Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism: In-between Bodies. By Tanya Zivkovic. London: Routledge, 2014, xx + 147 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-83067-6 (hardback), $140.

Reviewed by Jay Valentine

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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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Review: Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China. Edited by Paul Williams and Patrice Ladwig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN: 9781107003880 (paper-back), $39.99.

Reviewed by Nicolas Sihlé

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The Trolley Car Dilemma

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

The Trolley Car Dilemma: The Early Buddhist Answer and Resulting Insights

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya

In this paper, I attempt to give a Buddhist answer to the Trolley Car Dilemma posed by Michael J. Sandel and also present insights that I have discovered along the way.

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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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Review: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Bonds of the Dead: Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism. By Mark Michael Rowe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, xv + 258 pages, ISBN 978-0-226-73015-8 (paper), $29.00.

Reviewed by T.O. Benedict

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Buddhism, Punishment, and Reconciliation

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Buddhism, Punishment, and Reconciliation

Charles K. Fink
Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus

One important foundation of Buddhist ethics is a commitment to nonviolence. My aim in this paper is to work out the implications of this commitment with regard to the treatment of offenders. Given that punishment involves the intentional infliction of harm, I argue that the practice of punishment is incompatible with the principle of nonviolence. The core moral teaching of the Buddha is to conquer evil with goodness, and it is reconciliation, rather than punishment, that conforms to this teaching. I argue that a commitment to nonviolence requires not only that we refrain from inflicting intentional harm, but that we refrain from inflicting unnecessary harm, and that this has important implications concerning the practice of incapacitation. I analyze the concept of harm and argue that the Buddhist understanding of this notion leads to the conclusion that none of the standard justifications for punishment are compatible with the principle of nonviolence, properly understood.

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Brain-Centered Criteria for Death

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

Buddhism and Death: The Brain-Centered Criteria

John-Anderson L. Meyer
University of Hawai’i

This essay explores the two main definitions of human death that have gained popularity in the western medical context in recent years, and attempts to determine which of these criteria—“whole-brain” or “cerebral”—is best in accord with a Buddhist understanding of death. In the end, the position is taken that there is textual and linguistic evidence in place for both the “cerebral” and “whole-brain” definitions of death. Because the textual sources underdetermine the definitive Buddhist conception of death, it is left to careful reasoning by way of logic, intuition, and inference to determine which definition of death is best representative of Buddhism.

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Review: Death in Thailand

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 10, 2003

The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. By Alan Klima. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 336 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 0691074607.

Reviewed by Patrice Ladwig

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Review: Lack and Transcendence

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 5 1998

Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. By David Loy. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1996, 248 pages, ASIN 0391038605, US $49.95.

Reviewed by Michael F. Stoeber

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Review: How Great Beings Die

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 5 1998

Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die. Compiled and Edited By Sushila Blackman. New York: Weatherhill, 1997, 160 pages, ISBN 0-8348-0391-7, US $12.95.

Reviewed By Mavis L. Fenn

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Buddhism, Brain Death, and Organ Transplantation

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Buddhism, Brain Death, and Organ Transplantation

Damien Keown
Goldsmiths College, University of London

This article raises concerns about the degree to which potential donors are aware that their layman’s understanding of death may not be the same as that enshrined in protocols employing the criterion of brain death. There would seem to be a need for greater public education of a kind which acknowledges the debate around the practical and conceptual difficulties associated with brain death, and makes clear what the implications of a diagnosis of brain death are for the donor and his or her relatives. The remainder of the article explores the discrepancy between the modern concept of brain death and the traditional Buddhist understanding of death as the loss of the body’s organic integrity as opposed to simply the loss of its cerebral functions.

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