Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Possible Misunderstandings in Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

Ethical Confusion: Possible Misunderstandings in Buddhist Ethics

Stephen A. Evans

The running debate whether or not puñña and kusala refer to the same class of actions evinces a lack of clarity over the meaning of puñña, accompanied by unwarranted assumptions about motivation and by a tendency to conflate “karmic” results with what we would today consider ordinary consequences, that is, roughly, those accruing through material, social or psychological processes. The present paper reviews the contributions of Keown, Velez de Cea, and Adam to the discussion, then argues that in the Nikāyas puñña” almost always refers to the force of goodness generated by certain actions and issuing in pleasant karmic results, rather than to a class of actions; that in spite of the Buddhist belief that puñña is gained, such actions are not typically motivated by craving; and that conflating karmic results with ordinary consequences hampers our ability to understand Buddhist ethics. It is suggested that questions about the relations among the cluster of concepts that make up the mythology of kamma and vipāka, and their relationship to what we call morality or ethics, be asked anew.

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Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 12, 2005

Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Buddhist Morals: A New Analysis of puñña and kusala, in Light of sukka

Martin Adam
University of Victoria

This paper offers a new basis for assessing the nature of Buddhist moral thinking. Although consistent with Damien Keown’s view that Buddhist eth­ics may be considered a form of virtue ethics, the account outlined here does not aim to determine which western ethical theory Buddhism most closely matches. It suggests instead that Buddhist discourse presupposes different kinds of moral agency, distinguishable on the basis of the spiritual status of the agent. The moral language characteristically employed in different texts of the Pāli Canon differs accordingly. This accounts for some of the difficul­ties experienced by modern authors attempting to make comparisons with western traditions. Apparent inconsistencies among the texts can be resolved if one takes careful note of the spiritual status of the moral agents under dis­cussion. The argument is based upon an analysis of a particular conceptual schema found in the Pāli Canon, namely, the tetrad of four logical categories of action based upon the pair of the bright and the dark (sukka and kaṇha). This schema is employed in order to clarify the relationship of two more commonly discussed terms, puñña and kusala.

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Kusala in Canon and Commentary

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 3 1996

Good or Skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary

L. S. Cousins
University of Manchester

This paper examines the use of kusala in the commentarial sources and finds that, although the commentators are aware of various senses of the word kusala, they tend to give primacy to meanings such as “good” or “meritorious.” A detailed examination of the canonical Pāli sources gives a rather different picture. The original meaning of kuśala (Sanskrit) in the sense with which we are concerned would then be “intelligent.” Its sense in early Buddhist literature would be “produced by wisdom.” The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the concept of puñña—”fortune-bringing action” rather than “merit.”

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