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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Review: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

The Birth of Insight: meditation, modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. By Erik Braun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, xvi + 257, ISBN 13: 978-0-226-00080-0 (cloth), US $45.00, ISBN 13: 978-0-226-00094-7 (e-book), US $7.00 to $36.00.

Reviewed by Douglas Ober

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Review: Milarepa’s Biographies

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. By Andrew Quintman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, 336 pages, ISBN 978-0-231-16415-3 (paperback), $35.00 / £24.00; ISBN 978-0-231-16414-6 (cloth), $105.00 / £72.50.

Reviewed by Massimo Rondolino

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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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Review: The Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. B. Alan Wallace. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. xi+292 pages, ISBN-13: 9780231158343 (pbk), $27.95.

Reviewed by Eric Haynie

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Review: Prebish, Modern Dharma Pioneer

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer. By Charles S. Prebish. Toronto: Sumeru, 2011, 266 pages, ISBN 978-1-896559-09-4 (pbk), $24.95 US/CAD; £17.50.

Reviewed by Nicole Heather Libin

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A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 17, 2010

Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will

Riccardo Repetti
Kingsborough College, City University of New York

I argue that central Buddhist tenets and meditation methodology support a view of free will similar to Harry Frankfurt’s optimistic view and contrary to Galen Strawson’s pessimistic view. For Frankfurt, free will involves a relationship between actions, volitions, and “metavolitions” (volitions about volitions): simplifying greatly, volitional actions are free if the agent approves of them. For Buddhists, mental freedom involves a relationship between mental states and “metamental” states (mental attitudes toward mental states): simplifying greatly, one has mental freedom if one is able to control one’s mental states, and to the extent one has mental freedom when choosing, one has free will. Philosophical challenges to free will typically question whether it is compatible with “determinism,” the thesis of lawful universal causation. Both Frankfurt’s metavolitional approval and the Buddhist’s metamental control are consistent with determinism. Strawson has argued, however, that free will is impossible, determinism notwithstanding, because one’s choice is always influenced by one’s mental state. I argue, however, that Buddhist meditation cultivates control over mental states that undermine freedom, whether they are deterministic or not, making both mental freedom and free will possible. The model I develop is only a sketch of a minimally risky theory of free will, but one that highlights the similarities and differences between Buddhist thought on this subject and relevantly-related Western thought and has explanatory promise.

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Cultivation of Moral Concern in Theravāda

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 11, 2004

Cultivation of Moral Concern in Theravāda Buddhism: Toward a Theory of the Relation Between Tranquility and Insight

Ethan Mills
Augsburg College

There are two groups of scholars writing on the two main types of Buddhist meditation: one group that considers insight (vipassanā) to be essential and tranquility (samatha) to be inessential in the pursuit of nirvana, and a second group that views both samatha and vipassanā to be essential. I approach an answer to the question of which group is correct in two steps: (1) an outline of the disagreement between Paul Griffiths (of the first group) and Damien Keown (of the second group); and (2), an augmentation of Keown’s assertion that samatha can cultivate moral concern. I am not definitively solving the problem of the relationship between samatha and vipassanā, but rather I show that by making Keown’s theory of the cultivation of moral concern more plausible we have more reasons to accept his larger theory of the importance of both samatha and vipassanā.

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Review: Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 7, 2000

Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics. By Gustaaf Houtman. Tokyo: ILCAA Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Monograph Series, no. 33, Publication of the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999, viii + 392 pages, ISBN 4-87297-748-3 (paperback), Free.

Reviewed By Karen Derris

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Review: Essays on Meditation

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 3 1996

Buddhism in a Foreign Land: Essays on Meditation. By Robert Mann. Bradford on Avon: Aukana, 1996, 160 pages, £7.50.

Reviewed by Amadeo Solé-Leris

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Meditation as Ethical Activity

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 2 1995

Meditation as Ethical Activity

Georges Dreyfus
Williams College

Despite the fact that the various Tibetan Buddhist traditions developed substantive ethical systems on the personal, interpersonal and social levels, they did not develop systematic theoretical reflections on the nature and scope of ethics. Precisely because very little attention is devoted to the nature of ethical concepts, problems are created for modern scholars who are thus hindered in making comparisons between Buddhist and Western ethics. This paper thus examines the continuity between meditation and daily life in the context of understanding the ethical character of meditation as practiced by Tibetan Buddhists. The discussion is largely limited to the practice of meditation as taught in the lam rim (or Gradual Stages of the Path).

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