The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 22, 2015

The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics

Amod Lele
Boston University

Western Buddhists often believe and proclaim that metaphysical speculation is irrelevant to Buddhist ethics or practice. This view is problematic even with respect to early Buddhism, and cannot be sustained regarding later Indian Buddhists. In Śāntideva’s famous Bodhicaryāvatāra, multiple claims about the nature of reality are premises for conclusions about how human beings should act; that is, metaphysics logically entails ethics for Śāntideva, as it does for many Western philosophers. This article explores four key arguments that Śāntideva makes from metaphysics to ethics: actions are determined by their causes, and therefore we should not get angry; the body is reducible to its component parts, and therefore we should neither protect it nor lust after other bodies; the self is an illusion, and therefore we should be altruistic; all phenomena are empty, and therefore we should not be attached to them. The exploration of these arguments together shows us why metaphysical claims can matter a great deal for Buddhist ethics, practice and liberation.

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One thought on “The Metaphysical Basis of Śāntideva’s Ethics”

  1. I read this article with interest since I am currently looking into the connection between Buddhist metaphysics and morality. The article promises to be about this connection, though now that I look again, only in the words of Śāntideva. Still, I thought I could reasonably expect some contextualisation of the problem and perhaps some references to follow up. But this expectation was unfulfilled.

    I made quite a few notes.


    By “the Buddha” here I presume the author means “the early Buddhist texts”. Even stipulating that it is meaningful to speak of the Buddha discussing anything (which I don’t), the Buddha never, in fact, discusses “the unreality of the self”. The absence of this proposition is a longstanding feature of discussions amongst those of us who study Pāli texts.

    What the protagonist of the Pāḷi suttas says, repeatedly, is that we will not find ātman by examining the sensory apparatus or sensory experience. His argument is not metaphysical, but epistemological: not that ātman doesn’t exist, but that even if it does exist, we cannot *know* it. And this is because ātman is assumed to be absolute (or to reflect the absolute being of Brahman) and our sensorium is temporal.

    This kind of philosophical problem associated with absolute being is quite well known in European history from theists arguments about God; and from the mind/body problem. Religieux run into the same problems whenever we *define* two aspects of reality as being unable to interact or as unknowable to each other.

    That this epistemic argument becomes metaphysical is a fascinating and, I think, still understudied aspect of Buddhist philosophy. A description of the journey from metaphysical reticence to a full-blown metaphysical doctrines would be interesting. But that is not covered here.


    The author’s analysis of the word diṭṭhi-gata is faulty. Look at Coulson p. 93. Gata as the final member of a compound seldom means “gone”. e.g citra-gatā nārī does not mean “the woman has gone to the picture”, but “the woman in the picture”. That we continue to favour folk-etymologies in Buddhism Studies (c.f. tathā-gata, su-gata) is embarrassing.


    The examples of interpreters of the Cūḷamāluṅkya Sutta are both modern Zen teachers. What about some interpretations from people who have a background in interpreting Pāḷi texts? Why compare a silly popular view with the author’s more serious philosophical approach? The switch of level seems incongruent at best. Yes, we do find this kind of cod philosophy all over the internet, but how is that relevant to serious discussion of the relation of metaphysics to ethics in Buddhism in a learned journal?

    However, we do move briefly onto expert opinion. The author quotes Peter Harvey once. He also quotes Keown’s well known denial of normative ethics in “Buddhism”, but leaves out the necessary contextualisation. Compare footnote 35 in the author’s dissertation (p.49), which points out that Keown was talking about a wholly different body of Buddhist literature in a different language and composed more than 1000 years earlier than Śāntideva’s books.

    That early Buddhists might lack normative ethics and some Buddhists 1000 years later might have normative ethics is no contradiction. But it would be interesting to reflect on the changes in the intervening years, wouldn’t it?


    The shift in attitude to metaphysics has been written about in different contexts by, for example Noa Ronkin and Collett Cox. They both note the ongoing resistance to a metaphysical understanding of dharmas in Abhidharma texts, and the late collapse of this resistance.


    Judging from the introduction, the author’s intuition seems to be that his observations about Śāntideva’s engagement with metaphysics would be more interesting against the background of earlier reluctant or antithetical attitudes to metaphysics (I agree).

    Perhaps because his account of the background is so weak and undermines the notion of early Buddhists being reluctant to engage in metaphysical speculation, or perhaps because he is so very fascinated by his subject, the comparative analysis never comes. The conclusions don’t refer back to the introductory discussion at all as far as I can see. In the end we are left with some fairly banal observations about Śāntideva that seem to veer into the realm of apologetics.


    In one sense, the author’s argument seems to be that metaphysical beliefs matter in Buddhism since they shape doctrines and, through the development of moral rules, behaviours. I agree and would go further to generalise this: metaphysical beliefs always matter, even when they are tacit. What we believe is certainly a factor in how we expect people to behave.

    In Buddhism, both synchronically and diachronically, different Buddhist sects have made competing and conflicting metaphysical claims. This is surely the central conundrum for any Buddhist philosopher. It’s not simply that Śāntideva was idiosyncratic, but that his claims are unique amongst the plethora of competing claims – both vulgar and learned. That some Buddhists accept his claims is to be contrasted with the fact that most Buddhists past and present would reject them. Mādhyamikā have always been a minority.

    Moreover, those who share Śāntideva’s presuppositions about reality will be attracted to views which he bases on them; while those who don’t share them will be repelled.


    The question that goes unanswered is, what is Śāntideva’s epistemology? On what does he base his metaphysical claims? And on what criteria can we assess such claims? Are we simply to take him on his own terms, or can we apply our own terms?

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