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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2 thoughts on “Possible Misunderstandings in Buddhist Ethics”

  1. 1. It may well be that Premasiri initially problematized the relation between these concepts.
    2. “What we seem to have here are distinctions and refinements of distinctions never made in the tradition in order to answer questions never asked in defense of a thesis that has no precedent.”

    Being fortunate enough to attend Prof. Premasiri’s lectures, I thought I might suggest further information on these statements. While reading through this article, I felt that “ethics” under Encyclopedia of Buddhism written by Premasiri will be able to answer your questions further. He discussed much about Buddhist moral reasoning and the utilitarian, teleological, and Golden Rule approach–more misinterpretations about Buddhist ethics from a Western perspective. Since I was in the class, of course I was able to discuss such misinterpretations.

    Regarding the first statement, in his article in the Encyclopedia, he states that concept of kusala and punna was misinterpreted by S. Tachibana (Ethics of Buddhism). Tachibana was influenced by Upanishadic doctrine (the omnipotent Upanishadic knowledge elevates the knower beyond the range of ethical, aesthetical and logical distinctions). He goes on to say that “The Bhikkhu, the Brahmana, and the Buddha are said to be free from such distinctions as good and evil, pleasantness and unpleasantness, purity and impurity and so on… When one reaches this state of culture, distinctive ideas will be absolutely abolished…He has reached the mental condition where there is no consciousness of moral, aesthetical, or logical distinction; the relative ideas therefore of good and evil, pleasure and pain, agreeableness and disagreeableness, right and wrong are all annihilated for him.”

    To quote Premasiri, “If he means that the Buddha was indifferent to all moral distinctions after becoming enlightened, he is quite wrong. For it was after his enlightenment that he did confidently assert the distinctions between what is good and bad, right and wrong…The Buddha criticized some of his contemporaries for adopting a skeptical attitude towards moral questions. Tachibana’s view, which has been reaffirmed by a number of other scholars on Buddhism, is a consequence of an erroneous rendering of Pāli terms.”

    In class, he was constantly reminding us not to misinterpret Buddhist doctrines which may sometimes arise out of lack of comprehension of Pāli Language. Again, this is only for the purpose of information and not to criticize anyone.

  2. Uttaro,
    Thanks for the comment. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in questioning western reconstructions of Buddhist ethics.

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