Blogging Buddhist Ethics

Pretty much my life. (Via the NY Times)

One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to focus more clearly and fully on my phd work, including here at this blog. 26 days in, and I’m ready to start (procrastination is okay).

Where were we? Oh yes, Buddhist Ethics.

To put it succinctly, I’m re-evaluating Buddhist ethics and comparing it to Kantian ethics. This is difficult because Buddhist ethics is very difficult to pin down: do we mean silaVinaya? Everything suggested as kusala? To simplify things I just work on the Pali Canon and the ‘early’ development of the Pali tradition: commentaries (where/when helpful), same with Abhidhamma, and the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa. I’m really trying to focus on the earliest material possible; this in itself is a difficult task.

Next I’m comparing what I find (and/or create) with the ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Many people find this odd, as they have only the barest knowledge of Kant’s ethics, usually reduced to the Categorical Imperative, and that usually reduced to just the first or second formulation of the Categorical Imperative (out of 3, possibly 4 distinct formulations). It’s true that these are key to the Groundwork (hence the title of the book they’re found in) of Kant’s ethics, but there is much, much more to it.

So where are we now? (Or, where am I in my work?) I’m looking at how Buddha and Kant describe “our condition.”  I’m looking at (and for – any suggestions would be very welcome) key metaphors in the Pali canon to describe our world. Obvious ones include samsara, suffering/dukkha, the 4 Noble Truths in general, giving a description of the whole ‘problem’, ’cause’, ‘diagnosis’, and ‘path/cure’. On an epistemological level, the metaphor of bodhi, or awakening, itself is interesting. And of course nirvana and, key for my work, dhamma as a metaphysical foundation for morality.

Many people also scoff at the idea that the Buddha had anything to do with metaphysics. This is simply an over-generalization of the Buddha’s refusal to answer certain metaphysical questions. This may also hinge on defining ‘metaphysics’. I take it as a set of beliefs or theories regarding that which goes beyond the world of sensation, generally relating to the foundation for or ultimate nature of the world of our experience.* And the Buddha does clearly talk about the conditioned world (loka/lokiya) of our experience and some further, higher (lokuttara) realm (see the PED for a brief discussion and references).

While the ‘higher realm’ here could be understood as simply the end of the path without any transcendent implications, that fails to explain the binary nature of the term’s use in comparison with worldly, conditioned experience. There is something fundamental that happens as one enters the higher path (one literally becomes a sotapanna, a stream-enterer). And there is something fundamental that happens at the further point of (full) awakening, bodhi. Ven. Yuttadhammo explains this a bit here:

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Why call the person at a key stage in the path a ‘stream-winner’ (or ‘enterer’)? Why a stream? Is this a reference back to the (?) Upanishad in which the true self (atman) is said to be a stream flowing toward the sea (brahman)? Or perhaps, though less likely, it is a reference to the quenching of thirst experienced here (thirst being the second noble truth and the cause of suffering). That will be explored, along with other key metaphors, in future posts.

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  • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

    With respect, whatever it is you are doing makes about as much sense as jamming a trombone into a milk carton. Trying to understand dharma by running it through a Kantian filter — or vice versa — is just going to distort whatever it is you’re looking at so that it conforms to the filter. It’s far more useful to learn to drop western intellectual and philosophical assumptions to see dharma as-it-is. But if you’re determined to jam the trombone into the milk carton anyway, good luck with it.

    • Justin Whitaker

      No worries, Barbara – I’ve heard such sentiments many times before. Comparative philosophy and comparative religions have heard such sentiments since their inception; so there are cases to be made against the whole enterprise. But the work goes. on. One problem is that we often have a hard time dropping our own philosophical assumptions because we don’t really *understand* them. We just think the world is this way and we’re seeing it free from all lenses. This has been much of the history of Westerners coming into contact with Buddhism – claiming to see it ‘as-it-is’ – but always just seing it ‘as-they-want-to-see-it’. On the other hand are even deeper purists who say that you cannot understand the Dharma outside its ‘original’ language(s). Once you translate it through the filter of English, or whatever Western languate, you’ve imposed your own assumptions on it, such as translating ‘piti’ as ‘happiness’ – both terms with rich and culture-bound connotations. Something is lost once you set aside the original language. There are those who think religions, especially non-Judeo-Christian religions – should not be taught in schools, even Universities for various reasons. There are plenty of issues at hand and I continue to find myself in very good company with other scholars and religious leaders trying to work through them. Alas, again, the work goes on.

      • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

        “I’ve heard such sentiments many times before.”
        People are trying to help you, you know. Comparative philosophy and religion are fine, but unless you have a strong and even intimate knowledge of both things you are comparing, what you’ll end up with is a mess. This is basic neuroscience; it’s how our brains work. We are wired to see connections and commonalities, and if there aren’t any we’ll subconsciously create them. So what you intend to do is perilous. At the very least, some guidance from someone who is intimately acquainted with both academia and dharma would save you a lot of wrong turns, I suspect. The only one who comes to mind is Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen lineage holder who also has a PhD from Berkeley Graduate Theological Union and who has been a professor at Loyola University in Chicago. I don’t know him personally, but I’ve read some of his work, and he can be as “academically correct” as anyone. I think he’s doing something at Berkeley now. There may be other such people I don’t know about.

        Believe me, I’m not a purist, but I’ve been a formal Zen student since the late 1980s (originally with John Daido Loori; now with Susan Jion Postal), and after all this time it’s possible I do know what I’m talking about. Sometime, anyway.

        Regarding “stream entering,” I’ve heard a lot of different explanations. The one that works for me is that there’s a point at which the dharma takes over and carries your practice as if you are being pulled by a current. It’s a common experience; I’ve felt it many times.

        • Justin Whitaker

          My thanks if you too are trying to be helpful, Barbara.

          My ‘credentials’ are under the ‘About’ page above, but I hold a good BA in philosophy, a good MA in Buddhist studies, additional graduate studies of philosophy, several years of teaching and TA-ing in both, time spent practicing with and learning from different traditions around the world. I’ve only been at it a decade or so, but I did ‘quit my day-job’ so all of this has been full-time (often more than). So, by the standards of those who set them (basically those who teach me), I’m well-qualified for the work I’m doing.

          Comparativists are a diverse lot, and the good ones understand the potential problems in the work. What is most helpful is discussion of precisely where a pitfall/problem might exist and the possibilities of working around it. Blanket condemnations, which is what your analogy might look like, tend to come from people who don’t understand the area of study very well, or understand one side a bit but not the other. Typically, I have found that ‘understanding gives rise to appreciation’. Interfaith dialogue forms a useful model for my approach; of course both sides come with pre-understandings of both the other and the world, but through open discussion each can find appreciation of the common threads between the two faiths as well as the differences.

          Thanks for the mention of Dan Leighton; I’ve heard of him over the years. Thansk also for your suggestion on ‘stream entering’. It’s creative and perhaps quite helpful, but I’m looking specifically for explanations rooted in the early texts.

  • Clarke Scott

    @Barbara With respect, what arrogance! Patronizing wins you no fans. Ever.

    And even though I disagree often with my good friend Justin, your comment is not only unfair, not called for, but simply wrong. Perhaps even a reflection of your own bias more than anything else.

    As Buddhism has, for millenia, butted up against other system. It’s own history tells us so. Internal and external debates are simply part of the process of philosophy as practice and Buddhism practitioners of the past have never been shy of a good old philosophic argument.

    However, I feel your worry is more about Buddhism being misunderstood. This concern has some force. For it is indeed happening. But just as often from outside the academy as from inside it.

    I for one believe Justin’s project is indeed worthwhile and potentially a fruitful. For if Buddhism wants to be taken seriously in the western academy it must engage the giants of that tradition. Such people as, I don’t know, Kant.

    Would you prefer that Buddhism in western universities be researched and then taught by people without little interest in the practice? People who have an alternative agenda perhaps?

    I’m sure you felt quite pleased with your comment. But to many I am sure it just looks silly.

    • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

      I’m sorry if you found it arrogant. But in my experience people who try to understand Buddhism by jamming it into western philosophy somehow end up with some really distorted ideas about Buddhism.

      Your attitude seems to be that this Asian spiritual/philosophical stuff can’t possibly be taken seriously until you re-package it as something that looks more like western philosophy. Now, who’s being arrogant? Not to mention bigoted?

      I don’t see how anyone can *honestly* study Dogen or Nagarjuna without being in awe of them, and if western philosophy professors are too short-sighted and bigoted to see that, the solution is not to revise the Asian masters so make them more compatible with Kant, but to gently persuade the professors to pull their thick heads out of their culturally biased asses.

    • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

      Clarke Scott — Something I just thought of — do read an opinion piece by Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, who wrote about western philosophical chauvinism (such as yours) in the New York Times –

      “Western philosophy is always the unmarked category, the standard in relation to which non-Western philosophy provides a useful contrast,” Smith writes. “Non-Western philosophy is not approached on its own terms, and thus philosophy remains, implicitly and by default, Western.”

      Do read the whole thing; I think he makes some valid points. Then take the time to look up the phrase “psychological projection” and reflect on it.

  • Doug

    Hey Justin,

    Re. your definition of metaphysics: “I take it as a set of beliefs or theories regarding that which goes beyond the world of sensation, generally relating to the foundation for or ultimate nature of the world of our experience.”

    The first part of this, claiming that metaphysics is “that which goes beyond the world of sensation,” is unwarranted. It already assumes a particular, questionable metaphysical claim: viz., that ‘the world of sensation’ is not something of metaphysical relevance. Why would that be? ‘The world of sensation’ is itself composed of existing things that have relations and structure.

    To put it another way, Kant’s arguments may have some purchase against a certain sort of so-called ‘transcendental’ metaphysics, a metaphysics that essentially runs beyond our ability to know it. But they are not relevant to an empirically- or scientifically-minded metaphysical picture.

    Metaphysics is the study of the way things hang together, in the most basic sense. Any theory, including one that involves sensations, will resolve its descriptions into a set of basic objects and a structure into which those objects fall. The objects constitute that theory’s ontology, and the objects plus structure are its metaphysics. So for example Hume’s metaphysics (indeed, his ontology) includes ideas and sensations, and his metaphysics includes such things as resemblance and causation. The Buddha’s ontology includes the five aggregates, and his metaphysical picture includes dependent origination, among other things.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for jumping in, Doug. Of course, metaphysics is also a (heavily?) debated area of philosophy. I do follow Kant in saying that Hume went too far in essentially rejecting metaphysics. (It’s been a while, so I’m referencing wikipedia now:

      It seems that if you reject *all* of the transcendent, then you can reduce how ‘things hang together’ to physics. Then perhaps the nature of the laws of physics *become* your metaphysics? Turning to a perhaps (no doubt) better source: – “How, then is metaphysics to be defined? Is metaphysics (as metaphysics is now understood) simply a compendium of philosophical problems that cannot be assigned to epistemology or logic or ethics or aesthetics or to any of the parts of philosophy that have relatively clear definitions?

      There is no entirely satisfying answer to this question.”

      But, getting back to your final lines, I think we are in fact in agreement. If we take the 5 aggregates as ontology, is it not then a metaphysical claim that they represent a ‘complete ontology’? Perhaps not. But yes – dependent origination, dharma (in the sense of being the special something that he has awoken to), karma (as being only fully knowable by an awakened one), etc, do seem to lie in the realm of metaphysics as I (from the Kantian view) see it. Whereas questions like, why is the sky blue? are *not* metaphysicsal as they are perfectly explainable in physical/sensible terms. Again, if we get down ‘deep’ enough there we might start talking about metaphysics – perhaps in discussing how something physical can cause a ‘mental’ sensation – but this again ‘goes beyond’ the merely sensible or physically explainable. I don’t want to say that metaphysics has nothing to do with the physical/sensible realm, but that it simply goes beyond it…

      In any case, thanks again – I appreciate such thoughtful comments and can happily admit I don’t have the final word on metaphysics :)

      • Doug

        Hey Justin,

        Yeah, the five aggregates may not be a complete ontology, but at least for the Buddha it’s an ontology of mind. E.g., perhaps “form” resolves itself into the four elements?

        Dharma, in terms of the eternal truth that the Buddha propounds, is a separate topic, thorny in its own right.

        Re. “Why is the sky blue?”: right, this isn’t a question about metaphysics. It’s a question about electromagnetic waves, optics, and the physical processing of the visual system in the brain. But each of those explanations depends upon asserting the existence of certain things (viz., electromagnetic waves, brains, eyes, qualia) interrelated in particular, complex causal ways. Metaphysics is the study of all this in the most abstract way possible.

        Contemporary metaphysics is provided us in large part by the sciences. But it can’t all be, because there are some subjects that cannot be settled by scientific study, such as the status of values, or modality (possibility, necessity, counterfactuals, etc.). Modality is assumed in any causal system but is not usually made explicit except in philosophy discussions.

  • Robert M Ellis

    “Many people also scoff at the idea that the Buddha had anything to do with metaphysics. This is simply an over-generalization of the Buddha’s refusal to answer certain metaphysical questions.”
    The Buddha lived in a time when certain types of metaphysical beliefs were to the fore. The ones that people tend to rely upon now are slightly different. I don’t see how you can find any relevance in the Buddha’s rejection of metaphysics if you are not prepared to generalise from his attitudes to the metaphysical questions mentioned in the canon to others. Do you not think he was applying any more general principle that these points had in common with others? And what could that principle be other than something to do with the lack of accessibility of metaphysical beliefs to experience?

    In relation to the definition of metaphysics – I’ve debated th he does is fruitlessly with Doug before. I think if you conflate metaphysics with the mere products of analysis (as analytic philosophy does), you put yourself in a position that makes it impossible to understand what the Buddha was getting at in his rejection of metaphysics. He wasn’t rejecting analysis or scientific theory, no, but he does seem to be rejecting a certain type of claim: of a kind that can only be held dogmatically, assumes absolute representational meaning, and comes in dualistic pairs of opposed rejection and acceptance. Whatever you call it, why can’t we focus more positively on what the Buddha meant by this and how it applies today, rather than squabbling over terminology?

    Much as I also recoil from Barbara’s traditionalist arrogance, I also think that she may have an underlying point. It strikes me that in the project you are engaged in you could either try to understand Buddhism using what you have got from Kant, or you could try to understand Kant using what you have got from Buddhism. Personally, I have found it much more productive to focus on the latter, because otherwise there is a danger of just creating a Kantian acquisition of Buddhism. What did the Buddha really mean by his rejection of metaphysics, in a way that can be practically applied today? Once you have established this, you can consider how far Kant can contribute to that approach. My argument (given in the final section of my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 1′, on ethics) is then that the categorical imperative is one way of alerting us to objective moral requirements, but not the only one or an absolute one: virtue and consequences also offer alternative tests of objectivity.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Robert – thank you as well for jumping in. Jumping to your 3rd paragraph: I’m trying to offer a 3rd option: understanding not one in terms of the other, but rather ‘drawing them into comparison.’ This entails drawing up what should be a neutral framework (but it admittedly isn’t as I work in the same Western academic framework as Kant, so it is obviously slanted that way) and then asking what does each say about ‘x’ in that ethical framework. So I ask questions like: “what does Kant/the Buddha say about virtues?” Or what does Kant/the Buddha say about metaphysics? Again, it’s asymmetrical because there is more translation to do on the Buddhist side, but if I were writing for an audience of Buddhist scholars in traditional Buddhist countries I would ask different questions and the asymmetry would go the other way. (I actually have a book by a Sri Lankan scholar who compared the two in just this way) In any case, it doesn’t have to be the either/or that you indicate (at least I hope not).

      And as I noted in my reply to Doug, metaphysics is debated; so thoughtful people can disagree on it and still have fruitful dialog elsewhere (or on it as well)… I do (seem to) agree with some of Doug’s points, but I also agree with your assessment of the CI as (in at least one formulation) needing further ‘tests of objectivity’, as you call them. What I will show is that Kant also sees the importance of virtues and, to some extent, consequences in his overall ethical framework.

      Cheers :) jw

  • Robert M Ellis

    Sorry about the beginning of my second paragraph above: should read “I’ve ebated this fruitlessly…”

  • atomic geography

    I congratulate you on your ambitious undertaking. To a signficant extent, to get any where you will need to ignore a lot of sgnificant threads, under the assumption I suppose that the parts contain the whole. 2500 years later perhaps there is no “wild type” Buddhsm to be found. Good luck.

    By the way, I didn’t have a problem with Barbara comment. That you took her at face value speaks well of you.