Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


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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