copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 10

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The ethics industry

This chapter examines the approaches most often taken to ethics in the Buddhist tradition and measures them against the standard of the Middle Way. The monastic rules,  some common approaches to the precepts and the Mahayana doctrine of skilful means are all found over-dependent on concepts of purity and of metaphysical justifications for ethics. The Middle Way, as a universal method based in experience, is in fact needed whenever distinctively Buddhist moral judgements are made, and the role of the Middle Way needs to be much more explicitly recognised as far more important than the rules or precepts which it is used to interpret.

Click on the section summaries below to view the full text of each section:

a) Purge and purify

Buddhism is its own worst enemy when it comes to ethics, because it continually presents morality as a matter of purification - that is, of getting rid of unwanted motives or actions rather than transforming them. To successfully address conditions, Buddhist ethics needs to be more than the ineffective and alienating prohibition that is promoted by the ideal of purity.

b) Memorise the regulations

The frequent reference to monastic rules as an indicator of Buddhist ethics is also unhelpful, because it encourages people to think of Buddhist ethics in legalistic terms. Buddhist ethics is concerned with motive, and legalism is simply ineffective in addressing motives, as well as promoting formalism and hypocrisy.

c) Follow the precepts

Though the Five or Ten Precepts are theoretically 'training principles', in practice many Buddhists interpret them as rules. However, even as general principles the precepts are of very limited use without the Middle Way as a guide for how to judge their interpretation in specific cases. The Middle Way needs far more emphasis as a guide to morality and the precepts less.

d) Skilful means

On the surface the Mahayana doctrine of skilful means seems to promise flexibility about rules, but in practice it is usually applied only to advanced bodhisattvas. Its effect is thus to reinforce the discontinuous status of the enlightened or near-enlightened as a source of revelation, and devalue the judgement of ordinary people, who are not encouraged to apply their reason incrementally.

e) The academics move in

Academic treatments of Buddhist ethics have had the effect of reinforcing traditional approaches, because they are purely descriptive, and do not tackle the underlying philosophical questions about Buddhist ethics. Academic labours would be much better expended on the practical question of the interpretation of the Middle Way.


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