Quiet lives hit troubled times

Contemporary Buddhist Ethics - Transforming the Mind

December 8, 2000

Urgyen Sangharak****a asks how Buddhism relates to modernity

Religion is undergoing an aggiornamento. Christianity has perforce led the way, and other religions are increasingly obliged to follow. As a very old religion, Buddhism is probably as much in need of an update as any other, especially as it continues to spread in the West and as its views on contemporary issues are increasingly sought.

Updating is not easy. Many of the problems we face today are the result of social, economic and technological developments that could not have been imagined in ancient times, and to which there is no reference in the Buddhist scriptures.

Moreover, historically the Buddhist order of monks has been the backbone of the religion, and in traditional Buddhist societies the view that the monk should not be concerned with the problems of civil society and family life was and is influential.

This view cannot survive in the modern West. In his introduction to Contemporary Buddhist Ethics , Damien Keown points out that one of the prominent features of contemporary western Buddhism is an increased emphasis on lay organisation and lay participation. As the momentum of modernisation gathers pace, it is difficult to hope that the problems of modernity will go away and allow the monk to resume "an untroubled medieval pace of life".

In this innovative volume, seven scholars examine a range of contemporary moral issues from a Buddhist perspective. They address specific issues in applied ethics: human rights, animal rights, ecology, abortion, euthanasia and business practice. Two chapters explore the sources, nature and classification of Buddhist ethics, and trace its ethical teachings back to their roots to discover the foundations for Buddhist ethics in the modern world. The articles will be of interest to anyone with an interest in Buddhism, comparative ethics or contemporary moral issues.

James Whitehill conjectures that Buddhism is most likely to succeed in the West if Buddhist ethics are grafted to and enriched by the character-based "ethics of virtue" tradition that goes back to Socrates and Aristotle. He is critical of the kind of ontological dismissal of morality preached by Robert Aitken, a contemporary interpreter of Zen who is enmeshed, according to Whitehill, in D. T. Suzuki's vigorous anti-rationalism and antinomianism. Robert Florida concludes that, traditionally, Buddhists have understood that the human begins at the instant of conception, when sperm, egg and vijnana , or "intermediate being", come together. There is no qualitative difference between an unborn foetus and a born individual. Abortion is thus taking a life - a violation of the first precept.

Yet in Thailand, one of the most devout Theravada Buddhist countries, the abortion rate is high, possibly in the range of 300,000 a year. In Japan, which may have the highest abortion rate in the world, many Buddhist temples conduct memorial services for aborted foetuses - a bizarre practice that has been adopted by some North American Buddhists.

Potentially the most controversial chapters of the book are those on Buddhism and human rights and Buddhism and animal rights, by Keown and Paul Waldau respectively. Waldau shows that although the first precept prohibits intentionally killing or causing harm to animals as well as to humans, in many respects the general view of animals in Buddhism may be characterised as negative. Buddhist tradition appears to accept the instrumental use of "other animals" such as elephants, the training of which involves great cruelty. Waldau believes, nonetheless, that the tradition has great potential for a contribution to environmental ethics and to the benefit that increased environmental awareness entails for other animals' lives. He does not examine the notion of rights or ask what place it has in contemporary Buddhist discussion of ethical issues.

This is done by Keown, who explores some of the issues that must be addressed if a Buddhist philosophy of human rights is to develop. While admitting that there is no word in Sanskrit or Pali that conveys the idea of "rights", understood as a subjective entitlement, he believes that the concept of rights is not alien to Buddhist thought. Buddhism recognises duties, and because these duties are reciprocal and complementary, as between husband and wife, he argues that the fact that one of the parties has duties implies that the other has corresponding rights. For Buddhism, however, duties imply not corresponding rights but corresponding duties. It does not follow that one party's duty implies the other party's right. Buddhist ethics cannot be grounded on the concept of rights.

For the Dalai Lama, Buddhist ethics are grounded on compassion. His Transforming the Mind: Teachings on Generating Compassion consists mainly of the teachings he gave in London in 1999 on The Eight Verses on Transforming the Mind, a short but important text written by the 11th-century Tibetan master Langri Thangpa. The book is divided into four chapters. The first three are: "The basis of transformation", "Transforming through altruism" and "Transforming through insight". The fourth is a verse-by-verse commentary on Thangpa's text.

Because the basis of transformation is meditation, the teachings in chapter one deal with such topics as meditation as a discipline, the obstacles to meditation and the nature of consciousness, as well as discussing the four seals, a set of doctrinal axioms common to all schools of Buddhism, and the epistemological question of how the validity of the path is to be ascertained.

Generating compassion is dealt with in chapter two, which is as much the heart of the book as altruism is the heart of the Dalai Lama's own Mahayana Buddhism. The bodhichitta or "altruistic intention" (an unavoidably weak translation) is the aspiration to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This involves both the development of compassion for sentient beings and the wish to attain enlightenment. According to an ancient authority, the practice of bodhichitta surpasses all ethical practices, so that, the Dalai Lama believes, "the practice of generating and cultivating the altruistic intention is so comprehensive that it contains the essential elements of all other spiritual practices". But compassion must be combined with the complementary factors of wisdom and insight.

This is dealt with in chapter three, which contains a succinct account of the subtle and obscure Mind Only school that will be of particular interest to students of Buddhist philosophy.

Urgyen Sangharak****a (D. P. E. Lingwood) is founder, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Contemporary Buddhist Ethics

Editor - Damien Keown
ISBN - 0 7007 18 X and 1313 1
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 217

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