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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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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Battlefield Dharma

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Battlefield Dharma: American Buddhists in American Wars

Robert M. Bosco
Centre College

The Internet has become a space for today’s American Buddhist soldiers to think through difficult ethical questions that cannot always be resolved on the battlefield. I argue that this emergent cyber-sangha of American Buddhist soldiers signifies the arrival of an important new feature on the landscape of American Buddhism. As Buddhism integrates ever more deeply into American life and collective consciousness, it forms links with American conceptions of national security, military values, and America’s role on the world. When viewed in the larger social and cultural context of American Buddhism, the development of this cyber-sangha represents a new generation’s answer to the predominantly anti-war Buddhism of 1960s and 1970s that continues to define Buddhism in the public imagination. We are thus beginning to perceive the faint outlines of how American Buddhism might be changing—accommodating itself, perhaps—to a new post-9/11 nationalism.

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Attitudes Arising from Buddhist Nurture in Britain

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Attitudes Arising from Buddhist Nurture in Britain

Phra Nicholas Thanissaro
University of Warwick

Focus groups comprised of seventy-five self-identifying Buddhist teenagers in Britain were asked to discuss value domains that previous research has identified to be of special interest to Buddhists. These included personal well-being, the nature of faith, the law of karma, monasticism, meditation, home shrines, filial piety, generosity, not killing animals, and alcohol use. The findings suggest that some attitudes held by teenagers were conscious and intrinsically nurtured (“worldview”) while others involved social constructs (“ideologies”). The study finds that parents and the Sangha are mainly responsible for shaping “ideological” patterns in young Buddhists whereas informal nurture by “immersion” (possibly facilitated by caregivers) may be responsible for “worldview” patterns.

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The Role of Deterrence in Buddhist Peace-building

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

The Role of Deterrence in Buddhist Peace-building

Damien Keown
University of London, Goldsmiths

This article proposes that military deterrence can be a legitimate Buddhist strategy for peace. It suggests that such a strategy can provide a “middle way” between the extremes of victory and defeat. Drawing on evidence from the Pāli canon, notably the concept of the Cakkavatti, it argues that the Buddha did not object to kingship, armies or military service, and that military deterrence is a valid means to achieve the social and political stability Buddhism values.

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Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animal Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Violence and Nonviolence in Buddhist Animal Ethics

James Stewart
University of Tasmania

Boiled alive for killing an ant. Suffering endless demonic flagellation for trading as a butcher. According to some Buddhist writings, these are just a few of the punishments bestowed upon those who harm animals. Are such promises sincere or are they merely hollow threats intended to inculcate good conduct? Are there other non-prudential reasons for protecting animals? How do these views differ from preceding Indian traditions? These are some of the questions addressed in this paper. I will argue that the threat of a bad rebirth is a major factor in motivating Buddhists to abstain from animal cruelty. By comparing the Vinaya (both Mahāyāna and Theravāda) to the Sūtra literature I will argue that such claims may be exaggerations to motivate more compassionate conduct from Buddhist adherents. I also argue that Buddhist texts look unfavorably upon animal killing in a way unheard of in the Vedic religious tradition. Although there may be disagreement over what sort of harm may befall animal abusers, it is almost universally acknowledged amongst most Buddhist sects that animal killing is completely unacceptable. However, this pacifism lives in uneasy tension with the promise of extreme violence for impinging on these basic principles of nonviolence.

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Review: The Range of the Bodhisattva: A Mahāyāna Sūtra

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

The Range of the Bodhisattva: A Mahāyāna Sūtra. Translated by Lozang Jamspal. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2011, ISBN 978-1935011071 (cloth), $42.00.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Jenkins

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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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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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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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If Intention Is Karma

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

If Intention Is Karma: A New Approach to the Buddha’s Socio-Political Teachings

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

I argue in this paper that early Buddhist ethics is one of absolute values and that we can consistently use those absolute values to interpret some early teachings that seemingly show an ethic of context-dependent and negotiable values. My argument is based on the concept of intention as karma, the implications and problems of which I have also discussed.

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The Buddha and the Māgadha-Vajjī War

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 18, 2011

The Buddha and the Māgadha-Vajjī War

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya

According to an account recorded in Mahāparinibbānasutta, the Buddha had to meet a royal minister named Vassakāra when King Ajātasattu ordered the latter to visit the Buddha and inform him about the king’s plan to subdue the Vajjīs. After hearing Vassakāra, the Buddha spoke on seven Conditions of Welfare (satta aparihāniyā dhammā), which would ensure the prosperity of the Vajjīs as long as its citizens observed them. Vassakāra shrewdly inferred from the Buddha’s discourse how to defeat the Vajjī people and later actually forced them into submission. Regarding that event, there are some perplexing questions:

  1. Why did King Ajātasattu choose to consult a wandering ascetic on a significant matter of state like fighting a war?
  2. Vassakāra discerned how to defeat the Vajjīs from the Buddha’s exposition of the Seven Conditions of Welfare. So did the Buddha intend to help Ajātasattu defeat the Vajjīs? If not, what was his purpose in expounding the seven Conditions of Welfare to Vassakāra?
  3. If the Buddha really did not accept any kind of violence, as the tradition would have it, why did he not openly speak against it?

This paper will attempt to answer these questions and will argue, in the conclusion, that this event shows the Buddha’s disapproving attitude toward a political role of the Buddhist Order.

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Buddhist Ahimsā and its Existential Aporias

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 16, 2009

Violence and (Non-)resistance: Buddhist Ahiṃsā and its Existential Aporias

Martin Kovan
University of Queensland

This essay considers a paradigmatic example in Buddhist ethics of the injunction (in the five precepts and five heinous crimes) against killing. It also considers Western ethical concerns in the post-phenomenological thinking of Derrida and Levinas, particularly the latter’s “ethics of responsibility.” It goes on to analyze in-depth an episode drawn from Alan Clements’s experience in 1990 as a Buddhist non-violent, non-combatant in war-torn Burma. It explores Clements’s ethical predicament as he faced an imminent need to act, perhaps even kill and thereby repudiate his Buddhist inculcation. It finds a wealth of common (yet divergent) ground in Levinasian and Mahāyāna ethics, a site pregnant for Buddhist ethical self-interrogation.

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Buddhism, Nonviolence, and Power

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 16, 2009

Buddhism, Nonviolence, and Power

Sallie B. King
James Madison University

Contemporary Buddhists have in recent decades given the world outstanding examples of nonviolent activism. Although these movements have demonstrated great courage and have generated massive popular support, sadly, none of them has, as yet, prevailed. In this paper I will explore how nonviolent power was exercised in these cases. I will draw upon the work of nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp to help us understand the nature and sources of nonviolent power. I will then use that material to analyze the power dynamics of the Buddhist nonviolent struggles in Vietnam during the war years, and in Burma and Tibet today. I will also reflect upon Buddhist attitudes towards the wielding of nonviolent power in conflict situations.

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Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 14, 2007

Compassionate Violence? On the Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual

David B. Gray
Santa Clara University

Buddhism is often presented as a non-violent religion that highlights the virtue of universal compassion. However, it does not unequivocally reject the use of violence, and leaves open the possibility that violence may be committed under special circumstances by spiritually realized beings. This paper examines several apologetic defenses for the presence of violent imagery and rituals in tantric Buddhist literature. It will demonstrate that several Buddhist commentators, in advancing the notion of “compassionate violence,” also advanced an ethical double standard insofar as they defended these violent actions as justifiable when performed by Buddhists, but condemned them when performed by non-Buddhists.

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Review: Nonviolence in Religions

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 6, 1999

Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions. Edited by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher. Boston: Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, 1998, 177 pages, ISBN 1-887917-02-0 (paper), US $10.00.

Reviewed by Paul Waldau

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