copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 10 (The ethics industry) part d

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Skilful means


In the Mahayana, some of the limitations of the ethic of purity and of monastic legalism were recognised at an early stage. It could be said that an important part of the Mahayana revolt was an ethical one, for by the first century CE the monastic leaders of the Buddhist world were beginning to be seen as literalistic, narrow-minded, and individualistic.


The Mahayana answer to this was the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva is seen as a being who puts off individual enlightenment in order to save others, and is motivated by universal love. I have already discussed the effect of this ideal in chapter 3 in relation to the theme of love. However, another important dimension of it was the ethical approach represented by skilful means. The bodhisattva is not represented as a stickler for the rules, but rather as being willing to break them in a greater cause. In order to bring all beings to enlightenment, any rule could be broken. The end justifies the means.


As Damien Keown remarks, however, this alternative ethic has had a limited impact on the ethics of ordinary Mahayana practitioners[1]. It is normally seen as the skilful means of the advanced bodhisattva, meaning that it is only to be used by those with high levels of insight. So, whilst there are stories of bodhisattvas who kill, steal, eat meat, take intoxicants etc. because of their special knowledge that doing so would enable other beings to move towards enlightenment, beings without such knowledge are not entitled to use an intention to help other beings as an excuse for their bad actions. More ordinary Mahayana Buddhists are still stuck with the precepts and the Vinaya as prime Buddhist indicators of right moral conduct.


The effect of the skilful means doctrine, then, is not to liberate ordinary Buddhists from legalism, but to put them even more in the power of the revelations of the Buddha or other great teachers. Instead of encouraging ordinary Buddhists to integrate a concern for the consequences of their actions into everyday life, the doctrine of skilful means encourages them to feel themselves absolutely ignorant in comparison to great teachers, who understand so much that they are even able to bend the rules that ordinary mortals have to follow. Rather than encouraging us to see wisdom on a continuum, it separates people into the two categories of “wise” and “deluded” and reinforces the elitism already found in the monastic system.


The idea that it is leading beings to enlightenment that justifies the exercise of skilful means also takes it beyond the sphere of ordinary experience. Ordinary people are seen as too far from enlightenment to be able to judge what would reliably lead to this ultimate guaranteeing state. The more immediate development of wisdom, which ordinary people might better be able to see, is not taken to count as a justification for the exercise of skilful means. Thus the idea of an absolute goal and a final guarantee, which we have found distorting Buddhist understanding throughout, continue to do so at the point where Buddhist ethics show promising signs of coming out of their legalism. Because we do not have access to the revelation either of enlightenment itself or of (its substitute in the Mahayana) the experience of great beings who are close to enlightenment but are only putting off its final attainment, our judgement is, in effect, worth nothing, and we are enjoined to follow the rules.


At the very same time as figures like Nagarjuna were emphasising the Middle Way in Buddhist philosophy, Mahayana ethics were moving further away from it than ever. For the Buddha’s approach to his own ethics involved questioning and experimenting with the words of the wise in his day, and questioning their assumptions in order to move beyond them. While still far from enlightenment, he was quite prepared to break the rules laid down for him by his father or by the ascetic tradition, using only his own limited and fallible judgement. For all the supposed rule-breaking in Mahayana scriptures, there is little sign of this kind of reasoned and experimental approach to conduct, but only big, sweeping revelations or their absence.