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In the Hope of Nibbana
The Ethics of Theravada Buddhism
By Winston L. King
Pariyatti PublishingCopyright © 2001 estate of Winston L. King
All rights reserved.
THE FRAMEWORK OF SELF-PERFECTION
1. Buddhism and Ethics
Anyone who has read even a very little in the early Buddhist Scriptures is aware that from its beginning Buddhism has been centrally concerned with the moral discipline of life. Ethical language abounds in the discourses of the Buddha. Over and over again we see him portraying the Good Life in these terms: the avoidance of violence, harsh language, and all anger; the tethering of riotous emotions; reduction of the scale of one's desires; restraint of the sense-life; control of the self by its own inner power; the purification of the mind; the eradication of such evil dispositions as greed and hatred for example, that lead to evil action; the cultivation of a serene and benevolent mind capable of compassionating all beings without distinction. Not only so, but he presents in the same passages a systematic methodology of ethical discipline and culture by which one may achieve such virtue; ethics here is obviously not merely a matter of pious exhortation to be righteous or a species of emotionally inspired heroism, but the steady pursuit of a rationally conceived goodness.
It is likewise true that metaphysics and religion are largely bypassed, at least in the usual sense of those words. Metaphysical questions, those having to do with the ultimate origin of the universe, for example, are classed as questions whose discussion has no ethical or religious value-as well as being intrinsically unanswerable. The Buddha remained metaphysically agnostic throughout his career, turning rather to a humanistic and ethical way of life whose main interest was psychological analysis and ethical culture rather than metaphysical theory. Likewise the Buddha turned away from the religious practices of his day. He criticized the priests for their overweening pride and false pretensions to revealed knowledge; their elaborate rituals he ridiculed as useless for man's improvement; he undercut the socio-religious caste structure by redefining a Brahman or high caste person in terms of character rather than birth and opening the Order of monks and nuns to men and women of any caste; and the Brahmanical gods he gently lampooned and put in their place of not-so-wise and not-so-important minor spirits.
This has inspired many Western interpreters in particular to conceive Buddhism as purely and simply a moralism. We shall have occasion to note many times later that Buddhism is no "mere morality" since it aims at goals which completely transcend the ethical and always places its ethic in that transcendent context. But for the moment we may say that there is indeed a very central and major ethical concern in Buddhism which contemporary Theravadins (Buddhists of the "southern" or Pali Canon tradition) continue to emphasize. Indeed the Theravadin is not always agreeable to having Buddhism called a religion, or faith; and if he does allow or use such a description of his way of life, he is always insistent upon restating his use of it. Buddhism, he will say, has no dogmas, superstitions, necessary rituals, mediating priests, or blind faith in an unknown (and unknowable) God. But "if by religion is meant a system of deliverance from the ills, of life, then Buddhism is a religion of religions." 1a Or it would be congenial to most Theravada Buddhists to have the Dhamma (Teaching of the Buddha) described as a clear, logical, coherent and scientific ethico-philosophical doctrine of spiritual liberation.
It is also true that now and again Buddhism is reaffirmed in a social-ethical context reminiscent of its earliest form. One of the most interesting of such restatements is that of the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who, taking along with him several millions of fellow members of "untouchable" castes in India, recently espoused Buddhism. He says that he found no secure or honorable place for his people in caste-ridden and religious Hinduism; therefore he turned to moralistic and rationalistic Buddhism. There follows his characterization of the two faiths:
Hinduism is characterized by the particularity of not being founded upon morality. Indeed the morality of Hinduism is not an integral part of its doctrine but appears as an entirely distinct system, a force supported by social necessities and not at all by dogmatic obligations.
Contrarily the religion of the Buddha is morality; morality is the veritable root of the religion, and Buddhism would not exist without it. This is due principally to the fact that Buddhism does not believe in a God which it presents for the adoration of the faithful and because, specifically, it is morality itself which in Buddhism plays the basic role taken by the deity in other religions.
Thus Dr. Ambedkar retains the name of religion with regard to Buddhism but makes it almost completely a moral discipline. And though Theravada Buddhists might not agree completely with Dr. Ambedkar's interpretation of Buddhism — an earlier book of his was criticized in Burma as being quite defective doctrinally — in the main they would approve his central moral emphasis, and assert that ethical development is an intrinsic part of the Buddhist way of salvation.
But this is not quite the end of the matter. One cannot go on directly and simply from the proposition that morality is central to Buddhism to describe its ethical teachings, after the manner of Western moral philosophers. For before the concrete ethical precepts and practices of Buddhism can take their place in the proper perspective necessary for their understanding, we must observe what the Buddhist philosophy seems to mean by the ethical category and to consider the total context to which it is relevant.
2. Self-Development as the Context of Ethics
The ethic of Buddhism may be described in general as an ethic of self-development, though the nature of the self and its development must be carefully examined. It can be called self development in two basic senses: First as a process of the development of the self in terms of its inherent capacities; second, as a development of the self by the self. Both of these aspects are strongly emphasized as integral to the Buddhist way, though in somewhat different contexts. Thus in the first sense ethical progress, toward and including the perfection of the saint (arahant) and the Buddha, is not a matter of receiving an infusion of supernatural virtue, or a renewal of the moral nature by a work of divine grace; it is the development of those capacities inherent in human nature to their absolute maximum. Every man is a potential saint; Buddhahood is Perfect Manhood. And in the second sense, this development even to the maximum degree of Buddhahood, or perhaps especially Buddhahood, comes about only by one's own efforts. Buddhas are Self Perfected Ones.
Leaving aside momentarily the exact analysis of the Buddhist meaning of "self" we may note that the conception of ethics as consisting essentially of the perfection of the self by the self places the center of interest, the ultimate goal, and the means of development of the self unto perfection, squarely within the individual. Environing social customs and the cosmic status of human ethical values may be largely left out of account-even though not quite so much as seems to be the case at first glance. Thus ethics rather than being a matter of separate interest or independent status comes to be a division of the psychological realm and most of Western-style ethical theory is bypassed as of secondary value. "Ethic" for Buddhism is psychological analysis and mind control, not the search for a foundation of ethical principle, a hierarchical arrangement of ethical values, or an inquiry into their objectivity.
This makes the analysis of the "self" of primary importance, of course, for any essential understanding of Buddhist ethic. But this process has its necessary limitations; it is perhaps both impossible and undesirable of accomplishment for the Western reader, in full Buddhist style at least. For one thing this analysis has already been carried to encyclopedic proportions of elaboration and refinement in the third division of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma, and in the commentarial literature thereupon. Thus the mere enumeration of the constituents of mental states, the varieties of states of consciousness, and possible mental-moral attitudes is an exhaustive labor in itself; and the drawing forth of the logical possibilities of this already intricate material has been a major preoccupation of Buddhist monks for at least 1500 years. Even could it be done by some genius, which the present author is not, it is doubtful whether the statement of Abhidhammic ethical theory would be of much use or significance to the Westerner. Attempts in this direction up to the present are not particularly promising. The usual result seems to be a vocabulary and system of distinctions almost completely foreign and meaningless to the Western mind, in which the ethical element, in the Western sense, is lost sight of in an unfamiliar maze of Buddhist psychological terminology.
Secondly it may be questioned whether an exhaustive survey of such elaborations and enumerations is essential to a basic understanding of the Buddhist ethic, either for a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist. Confessedly Abhidhamma is the elaboration of those central themes present in the popular dialogues or suttas. Indeed if one must learn all the scholastic distinctions of Abhidhammic philosophical psychology before the essence of the ethic comes clear, he would be strangely like that man parodied by the Buddha in a famous discourse, who, though sorely wounded by an arrow, must needs know all about the kind of arrow which has wounded him, the nature of the' bow that shot it, the appearance of the shooter of the arrow, and so forth, before he will submit to the treatment of his wound. The main outlines and essential quality of the Buddhist ethic can indeed be known apart from the complete Abhidhammic analysis.
Analysis of the Self–The No-Self doctrine
The central Buddhist doctrine about the self, according to Theravadins at least, is its compounded and temporary nature. The empirically observable human being, and "empirical" observation for the Buddhist includes introspective analysis, is composed of five groups of elements called khandhas. The full or exact meaning of these terms is difficult to grasp in translation, but they may be listed as follows:
1.The Rupa or corporeality group. This is sometimes called "form" or "matter" as well, and roughly represents the physicality of the sentient being or person. This rupa is capable of successive refinements until it becomes almost immaterial in the case of the higher beings, however.
2.The Vedana or feeling group, including both physical and psychical sensibilities. This obviously includes the five ordinary bodily senses, insofar as they are identified with their experience-potential rather than the mere physical sense organs; and it adds a sixth, or mental, feeling recognized by Buddhism as a separate and independent sensibility. This group is thus physical sensation potential plus more generalized feeling overtones.
3.Saññaor perception. Roughly this is the power which is, or produces, perception of physical objects within the human psyche. In some contexts it is equivalent to the total power of consciousness.
4.Sankhara, translated as mental formations or mental factors. Later Buddhist psychologists divided this category into fifty-odd formations, some of general psychological nature such as mental impression, volition, vitality, concentration, conception, discursive thinking, interest, intention etc., and others of a moral nature such as faith, mindfulness, moral shame, tranquility, and their opposites.
5.Viññana, or consciousness. This is consciousness in the full personal sense of the word, that consciousness which binds the varied sense and feeling elements of the individual — physical awareness, bodily feeling-tone, and mental constructs — into a personalized unity.
This five-fold grouping is sometimes divided otherwise. It may be considered in terms of one physical and four mental factors; or as one physical aspect, three mental aspects, and consciousness per se, in which case the latter is the most important of all and was considered by some early Mahayana schools as the essence of a kind of super-self.
We must be careful how we understand these five factors, however. In a real sense they do represent an entity: the individual human being of ordinary human experience who is obviously a genuine unity of some sort, possessing a certain special identity which he shares with no other being. Buddhist writers insist that they do not discount the reality of this individual at a certain level of experience. But this is a relatively low level of experience, and the individuality known herein is actually of a very temporary and illusory sort. As we shall note in more detail at a later point, the prime quality of that ignorance which is the basic force binding man to rebirth and preventing his enlightenment, is the belief in and the emotional attachment to the idea of the reality of this temporary selfhood.
This five-element self is temporary when considered in any one of two or three contexts. There is the obvious brevity of human life; a few short years and the five-fold compound dissolves in death. And Buddhism with its doctrine of anatta, or noself, holds that the dissolution of death is a complete dissolution so far as any distinctive physical and/or mental-personal identity is concerned. The individuality of the individual is lost; there is no self or soul of any sort which carries on to another life, only an impersonal residue or impulse of kammic energy which is transmitted to a new sentient existence. That energy, to be discussed at a later point, is neither personally conscious nor identical with the deceased self, however.
But more importantly the individual is temporary even in the course of one human lifetime. He changes, i.e. "dies" and is "born," from moment to moment. He is literally a different man from what he was a few moments, hours, months, or years ago. It is only the rapidity of the change, and the scale on which it takes place — infinitesimal changes at infinitesimal intervals — which make it imperceptible to ordinary understanding and give the illusion of the sameness or identity of a self from moment to moment. For the body is subject to atomic change in its physical particles just as the rest of nature; one's whole body is entirely other, in this sense, after the passage of a few years, though the tiny individual changes themselves take only the billionth part of a lightning flash. If the rate of change in the physical element is this rapid, how much faster are the changes in the mental elements! Buddhism holds that the "mental moment," i.e. mental unit, is of much shorter duration than even the billionth-of-a-second-long physical unit, and is besides divided into seventeen successive submoments. Thus the mentality of the observer, his consciousness itself, is changing more rapidly than the physical element of his body; "I" am not the same, either physically or mentally, as "I" was a few short moments ago. As an individual, "I" am a pattern of physical-mental flux whose only existence is in the present moment. The past "I" is no more; the future "I" is not yet.
With regard to the mental pole of this chain of flux that is the "self," Buddhists believe that their viewpoint is increasingly confirmed by many interpretations of personality made by recent Western psychology. Their version of a chain of waxing-waning thought moments that compose the individual "mind" is often linked to the "stream of consciousness" theories of William James and others. The contemporary psychological and philosophical tendency to deny the separate existence of a self apart from the content of its own mental states is enthusiastically endorsed by Buddhist writers. The so-called "self" is the content of its awareness, no more, no less; as this content changes so does the "self." Hence there is no enduring self-identical person or soul to be found behind or beyond individual thoughts and feelings. And one of the main purposes of the meditative discipline is to bring the ordinary consciousness, which cherishes the illusion of its own separate and substantial identity, to the full and direct knowledge of its own emptiness and unreality.
It should be noted at the same time, however, that Buddhism rejects categorically those "materialistic" theories of human selfhood that trace the rise of consciousness from certain states of matter (or energy), or its particular organization in special patterns. Consciousness as we know it empirically does not represent a separate self, independent of related physical elements and indestructible; yet neither is it a mere byproduct of atomic arrangements. Buddhism indeed gives the reverse answer as the rule — that physical form is the result of mental powers or states. For "mind is the leader" or formative factor of all existence; and achievement of the higher powers makes it possible for an individual to totally change and reform his physical constitution at will.
Excerpted from In the Hope of Nibbana by Winston L. King. Copyright © 2001 estate of Winston L. King. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
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Table of Contents
BLD[PART I BACKGROUND AND FRAMEWORK]BLD,
I — THE FRAMEWORK OF SELF-PERFECTION,
II — THE SELF AS SUBJECT TO KAMMA AND REBIRTH,
III — NIBBANA AND ETHICAL VALUES,
PART II CONTENT AND APPLICATION — BUDDHIST ETHICS IN PRACTICE,
IV — THE ETHICAL JUDGEMENT,
V — THE BASIC PERSONAL ETHICAL PATTERN,
VI — THE GOOD SOCIETY AND ITS BETTERMENT,
VII — THE NEW SITUATION AND THE RESPONSE,
VIII — IN SEARCH OF A SOCIAL ETHIC,
IX — WHITHER BUDDHIST ETHIC?,
APPENDIX: Killing and Meat-Eating,