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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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