Volume 18, 2011
Does Anātman Rationally Entail Altruism? On Bodhicaryāvatāra 8:101-103
University of New Mexico
In the eighth chapter of the Bodhicaryāvatāra, the Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva has often been interpreted as offering an argument that accepting the ultimate nonexistence of the self (anātman) rationally entails a commitment to altruism, the view that one should care equally for self and others. In this essay, I consider reconstructions of Śāntideva’s argument by contemporary scholars Paul Williams, Mark Siderits and John Pettit. I argue that all of these various reconfigurations of the argument fail to be convincing. This suggests that, for Madhyamaka Buddhists, an understanding of anātman does not entail acceptance of the Bodhisattva path, but rather is instrumental to achieving it. Second, it suggests the possibility that in these verses, Śāntideva was offering meditational techniques, rather than making an argument for altruism from the premise of anātman.