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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 5f - Temporary and permanent integrations)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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f)       Temporary and permanent integrations


i)                    Temporary integrations


Having concluded my account of integrative practices, before turning back to more directly philosophical concerns it remains only to give some account of the kind of results which may be expected from integration. This consists mainly in an explanation of the crucial distinction between temporary and permanent integrations. This distinction in turn must be distinguished from that between partial and complete integration: for the time being I shall confine myself to the discussion of temporary and permanent partial integrations, but return to the question of the complete and permanent integration of desires (or enlightenment) at the end of this section[53].


The distinction between “temporary” and “permanent” integration is most clearly described not in terms of time but in terms of dependency on conditions, although a description in terms of time perhaps does more justice to our more immediate experience. A temporary experience of integration arises in dependence on rather limited conditions: for some reason the ego has gained a temporary alliance with at least some parts of the rejected psyche, but at least some of the underlying conditions leading to distrust and rejection  of those parts have not been eradicated, so they will be likely to return before long. By contrast, a “permanent” integration is still dependent on some conditions (and thus perhaps not literally “permanent” in the strictest sense), but these conditions are no more than those sustaining the life and consciousness of the individual who has achieved them. When a permanent integration has been achieved, the psychological conditions influencing the degree of integration of that individual’s psyche have been stabilised so that any further changes in her bodily state or environment meet with the same degree of integration of response. I shall be returning to offer a more detailed account of permanent integration in the next subsection, but for the moment temporary integration must be defined in relation to it: a temporary integration is any integration in which such psychological stabilisation has not yet taken place.


Within the sphere of temporary integrations, further distinctions of the kind I have already described can be made between integrations of desire, meaning and belief. As I have already explained[54], the integration of belief reaches a point of completion prior to that of enlightenment which is traditionally known as stream-entry. This marks the beginning of permanent partial integration of desire. Up to this point, then, temporary integrations of desire, meaning and belief can be distinguished, always interdependent but to varying degrees. The significance that can be attached to such temporary integrations and the role that they can play in helping to achieve permanent integration can here be clarified.


To begin with temporary integrations of desire in the form of dhyana. This form of integration is so temporary that it may only be momentary, is so dependent on particular psychological and other conditions that it may disappear at the slightest change of those conditions, and is marked by an intensity of aesthetic experience rather than any degree of stability. It is found most commonly in states of meditation, but may be associated with aesthetic absorption of any kind accompanied by deautomatisation of the nervous system. The traditional Buddhist accounts of the nature of dhyana, however, make it clear that it is only subtly or residually a state with any cognitive or representational content: after the first level of dhyana, thought is said to disappear[55] (though I have heard practitioners remark that this should probably be interpreted to mean that it becomes a very subtle guiding intention). From a representationalist viewpoint, the mind appears to be “empty” (leading to widespread dualistic misconceptions about the nature of dhyana, such as its confusion with mere blankness, distraction or even psychosis): but what has occurred is a temporary integration of desire, with some (mainly affective) integration of meaning, but very little integration of belief. It is not normally the case that such a state is ever harmful, but it is possible that in some circumstances it could be morally insignificant.


The moral significance of the state of dhyana is limited to its direct or indirect effect upon states of (implicit and explicit) belief. The process of cultivating dhyana through integration of attention, as I have already commented[56], may involve dealing directly with belief (for example in overcoming doubt), and the after-effects of having experienced dhyana may be greater openness and clarity in considering beliefs. More indirectly, dhyŒna may affect belief via integration of meaning. The integration of meaning produced by dhyana (or by the effort applied to achieve it), whilst still temporary, may be longer-lasting than the integration of desires in dhyana itself, leading (in my experience) to a much greater spontaneous sense of the rich meaningfulness of representations lasting perhaps for a few hours after a dhyana experience. Such a temporary extension of meaning may enable one to also integrate one’s beliefs further, leaving a longer-lasting legacy.


But such longer-term gains from dhyana are contingent upon the re-investment of its immediate fruits into further integrative effort: without this the experience of a temporary integration of desire may be enjoyable but not very significant morally.  Such remarks apply equally to less strongly focussed but still purely aesthetic states, such as the deep appreciation or absorbed performance of art or music: these have the potential to create moral changes, and can indeed be powerful in this regard, but this does not mean that they themselves constitute moral changes. Aesthetic absorption within a strongly morally coherentist philosophical framework, particularly, can fail to engage with important but rejected moral issues just beyond that sphere of coherence: the beliefs within which the aesthetic experience is framed simply exclude the greater context from active consideration, and the increase in meaning, sensitivity and attention that may result from aesthetic absorption is applied purely within the delimited sphere. It may be said that the ego’s temporary extension here has had little representational engagement. As the soldiers move out from the defended walls, the enemy withdraws and leaves the field clear without any resistance, apparently melting away. New territory is excitedly surveyed; but this does not mean that peace has been reached, and, as soon as the soldiers, beginning to feel vulnerable in the open, move back to the walls, the enemy reappears.


The temporary integration of attention, nevertheless, provides a basis for aesthetic values. Like moral values, aesthetic values can thus be seen to be neither “objective” in some metaphysically realist sense because they are properties of the object, nor merely relative because they are properties of the subject. Rather aesthetic values reflect the degree of integration of attention in the person viewing the aesthetic object: an object to which we can also provisionally attribute properties which stimulate the integration of attention (though to what extent they are really there is a matter for ongoing investigation).[57]


To move on from the temporary integration of desire to that of meaning, then, it appears that meaning occupies an intermediate point between desire and belief in terms of its degree of dependence on immediate conditions and hence its degree of temporariness. The affective aspects of meaning are closely associated with desire and hence remain only for a short time after a temporary integration of desires has dissipated: but such affective changes cannot be entirely separated from cognitive meanings, which may be altered through extensions of meaning gained during the affective integration of meaning, and linger longer. Perhaps a temporary integration of desire and affective meaning may even enable us to break through into a new defeasibility context, with long-lasting effects. But even changes in cognitive meaning may not last as long as beliefs: for beliefs, solidified in habits and representations, may outlive even the sense of their meaning which was essential for them to be first arrived at.


An illustration of this may be seen in my response to a particularly strong narrative: perhaps a typical modern example would be a film. I emerge from the cinema slightly ecstatic, for I have seen an archetypal story strongly presented through the visual medium. It was both beautiful, engaging my attention (though not to the point of dhyana) and it extended my sense of meaning through its engagement with archetypal characters. The first thing to fade is that immediate absorption, almost as soon as I leave the cinema: but it leaves a sense of meaning, the affective features of which last perhaps for the remainder of the evening. I think over the film with a quite immediate sense of  its richness, which consists not just in the story itself, or of visual images, but in their connotations. Stimulated by this, perhaps I begin to reflect in a way which extends the cognitive meaning of the film, relating it to other aspects of my experience. By the next day, though, when I reflect on the film or talk about it, it is mainly in this cognitive way. I may also be forming beliefs about it and expressing opinions. A few months later perhaps only the bare details of the plot will be left in my mind, which may or may not be able to evoke a more immediate sense of its impact. My beliefs about it, such as an assessment of its literary or aesthetic quality, are perhaps likely to last longest.


The moral significance of meaning, like that of desire, is thus limited to its effects on beliefs. Although temporary integration of meaning will generally last longer than that of desire, it may still conceivably not have any effects on belief. The value of non-dualist approaches to narratives, which I described in the previous section, is limited to the way in which extension of meaning is, beyond a certain point, essential to the integration of belief: I can only develop beliefs that are meaningful to me. A further independent value, again based on integration, can thus be posited between aesthetic and strictly ethical values, based on the meaning that the viewer appreciates in representations. The possible independence of the values may not be quite as striking as that of the aesthetic values of the Nazi pianist in the Warsaw Ghetto[58], but we could imagine other comparable examples likewise dependent on moral coherentism. For example, there could conceivably be a writer (or a reader), whose sense of meaning is wide and highly cultivated. He spends all day reading and writing books and living in a refined world of apparently unlimited meaning, but he lives in a tower, surrounded by starving people who are regularly beaten up by the writer’s employees who extort money from them. The development of virtual reality could provide other similar theoretical examples, all of which would be based on a strictly observed moral coherentism. The writer would undoubtedly find the notion of the people outside his tower meaningful, and may even sympathise with them, but he does not change the fixed belief which maintains his coherentist situation.


More  usually, though, the relationship between meaning and belief produces a much closer correlation than this. Extensions in meaning tend to confront us with certain beliefs which we then adopt quite readily. For example, a prejudice based on incomprehension, if broken down by encounter and/or reflection, is likely to be accompanied by changes in belief about the former object of prejudice.


It is integration of belief, however, which is the most lasting of the levels of temporary integration, although until the point of stream-entry it is still mutable. It is partly the representational nature of belief which produces this lasting effect: for the representations of our beliefs, especially when they are communicated, constantly return to remind us of them and help us produce consistency. Beliefs can be spoken, then heard and repeated by others, written down or pictorially symbolised.


More importantly, though, implicit beliefs are written into social conventions and into our very nervous systems through habit and custom. Here William James’s observations on the moral effects of habit become useful[59]. A habit which has carved its way through our neural pathways, making a worn channel to be easily followed, has been adopted in relation to a certain environment and certain conditions, which comprise the unconscious representations to which the neural pathway corresponds. Our whole bodies, rather than only our brains, become adapted to the same set of assumptions about a correspondent reality as those which become representations when made conscious, with any interruption to that pathway being responded to as a threat: our automatic egoistic response is to remove the interruption which challenges our habit and resume the worn path, rather than change that path and its implicit representation.


Whether implicit or explicit, then, beliefs are often difficult to change. This makes integration of belief difficult to achieve without also cultivating an auxiliary integration of desire and meaning. But it also means that, once achieved both implicitly and explicitly, even partially integrated beliefs have a strong momentum. It is this momentum which constitutes confidence: not a near-complete deautomatisation of the nervous system, like a temporary integration of desire, nor the opening of new possible pathways which correlates to the extension of meaning, but rather a complex and flexible enough automatisation to adapt effective new strategies in each situation of challenge.


Nevertheless, beliefs do change, whether due to changes in strategy or changes in conditions. Even integration of belief (so long as it remains partial) cannot therefore be described as permanent. Even an individual with a quite well-entrenched non-dualist approach, placed in an unsympathetic environment, may reverse and disintegrate. Even if she holds fast to what she believes are non-dualist ideas, they may quickly begin to play the role of dualist ones as they become narrowed and dogmatic in response to dogmatism around her.


Integration of belief short of stream-entry is thus still temporary integration because it is reversible. But reversibility must be distinguished from subjectivity. In entering into integration of belief, an individual has entered the path of objectivity, for insofar as she has achieved integration of belief (or systematic non-dualism) thus far she has attained dispositional objectivity. Her judgements are fallible[60], both because of the effect of conditions beyond those of integration (such as lack of available information or limitations in mental capacity), and because complete integration has not yet been achieved, but insofar as she makes errors of judgement that could have been avoided by a stream-entrant in the same circumstances, these will be due to her remaining dualistic tendencies of belief[61].


Temporary integration of belief must thus be distinguished from temporary integration of desire or meaning of the sort I have discussed, despite the fact that it is not yet permanent. For this reason I shall refer to it as objective integration. Objective integration, however, is not limited to integration of belief, since a secondary integration of desire and meaning can then occur in dependence upon the integration of belief. The extension of beliefs to create objectivity of desire and meaning is perhaps the main role of the vipassanŒ practices of the Buddhist tradition discussed in the last section, and is the effect of making explicit beliefs fully implicit. Sometimes the reverse process is also required, of making a strongly implicit confidence much more explicit (in which case Sceptical argument may be more helpful).


Both the degree of interdependence and the degree of independence of belief and desire should now be becoming clearer. On the one hand, the backwardness of one can limit the integrative progress of the other, but on the other, they can make temporary advances independently of each other. The importance of belief is underlined by its role in enabling objectivity through the modification of response to one’s environment. As I shall elaborate in 6.a.ii, a changed response based on a modification of belief differs from one based on a modification of meaning and/or desire alone in that it involves a modified implicit philosophical model in which moral coherentism is held in tension with negative foundationalism. It is only by encountering the lack of foundations in our current worldview by challenging our beliefs that we can make objective progress, for temporary integration of meaning or desire alone still rests on implicit moral coherentism. The importance of desire, however, remains given its interdependence with belief. As I shall argue in 7.a, even in terms of normativity the two remain locked in a system of mutual causality whereby a normativity of one conceptually implies a normativity of the other.


ii)                  Permanent partial integration

N.B. I now have considerable doubts about the justification and usefulness of this sub-section, which seems to make metaphysical assumptions in order to fit in with the traditional Buddhist conception of stream-entry. However, I have left it in place for now, as it forms part of an integrated presentation which could not be easily revised piecemeal. For more details see concept page on partial integration.


As already stated, “permanence” of integration corresponds to a stability of psychological conditions which mean that the conditions for integration are no more than those required for the continued operation of the psyche as a whole: i.e. the physical[62] conditions enabling continued life and consciousness. If I become permanently integrated, though only partially, I will thus continue to manifest that same degree of integration in my response to, say, painful illness, social or political upheaval, or bereavement. This will be because my values will themselves no longer be projected onto the objects which are shown to be subject to change by these sorts of events: by fully appreciating their lack of positive or negative metaphysical substantiality, their role in my values will become a provisional one. Permanent partial integration can thus be identified with complete integration of belief or stream-entry.


Stream-entry can be understood in terms of systematic non-dualism of belief. A stream-entrant has completely abandoned representationalism and the projection this requires, leading to provisionality in relation to all theorisations. The theorisations will thus not necessarily be true in the terms of any representational defeasibility context, but will be the most appropriate which can be adopted given the limitations imposed by the stream-entrant’s situation such as past history, sensory distortions and limitations, limitations on contextually available information, and mental capacity to deal effectively with complexity of theorisation. A stream-entrant could, indeed, conceivably be grossly in error in scientific or moral terms simply because of limitations of information reaching him, since although all his representational beliefs are provisionally held he has not been exposed to any experiences which might lead him to practically question those beliefs. One could imagine here a blind stream-entrant in a world where only blind beings exist, denying the hypothesis of light, or a deeply autistic stream-entrant who is limited by mental capacities from even a hypothetical recognition of other thinking beings.


The stability of psychological conditions which stream-entry requires thus needs to be distinguished from the stability of physical conditions or even from other types of mental condition. This distinction does not require any metaphysical grounds in the form of ontological independence or supervenience for psychological conditions (as I shall argue more fully in the next chapter[63]) but rather a recognition of our ignorance of the nature of the interdependence which avoids awarding priority to any apparent type of condition over another.


That there should be such a stability of psychological conditions for the extended and partially integrated ego is no more remarkable than the functional stability of the ego itself despite its shifting identifications, the usefulness of believing that such stability exists in either case being limited by its pragmatic ethical value. The psychological stability of the stream-entrant indeed consists merely in the ego that represents itself as a whole psyche, projecting an integrative unity rather than an adversity or a premature synthesis. Its stability is still functionally that of the ego, because its actual identifications are still limited and shifting, but a complex structure of awareness enables the interpretative framework of the ego to operate consistently rather than being continually changed by the identifications that flow through it. The stream entrant thus still maintains an ego distinct from the psyche as a residue of previous conditions, but her projection of self and universe is entirely of a non-dualist framework where such distinctions have no more than provisional significance.


The integration of belief needs to be complete in order to be permanent, because whilst integration of belief is still partial, the effect of changing identifications in the ego can still be to shift from non-dualist to dualist beliefs, or to beliefs which are explicitly still non-dualist but implicitly dualist. Following the integration of belief, however, changing identifications mark shifting desires and meanings but this has no effect on beliefs. A foretaste of this can be gained whenever we gain awareness of our possession of a desire which is not in accordance with our current beliefs, since that awareness is not itself sufficient to change the desire immediately even though it may set up the conditions to do so in the long run. The stream-entrant has reached that position of awareness not merely momentarily but totally, in which his awareness of the dualities still at work in him is not sufficient to directly or immediately dispel them. Nevertheless, as far as we can tell, it appears to be only a matter of time, provided the non-psychological supporting conditions continue, until those dualities disappear.


The permanent partial integration of the stream-entrant is not merely one of belief, any more than are the temporary forms of objective integration mentioned in the last chapter. It can only be generally specified in terms of belief, but clearly also involves a high degree of integration of desires and meaning such as are interdependent with the integration of belief. With the permanence of integration of belief naturally goes a similar permanence in the other objective integrations which accompany it, and in the further advances in integration which we can take to follow stream-entry.


It may already appear from this account of stream-entry, before I get to any discussion of enlightenment itself, that the ideal of the permanent integration of belief is a distant one. But though distant, it is not obviously impossible, for it appears within our reach in a way that enlightenment does not, simply because it can be specified more completely than can enlightenment. The logic of stream-entry does not depend on the highly debatable proposition that any given individual is or was a stream-entrant, but emerges naturally from the nature of the different types of integration I have described in relation to one another. Whilst if we were to understand integration in terms of desire alone we would be left with, at best, an asymptote leading to the extrapolated point of enlightenment, the recognition that the egoistic mechanism of belief plays a vital part in the earlier phases of moral development provides us with a more definite goal in the development of beliefs that can overcome their own limitations, even if that definite goal ultimately needs to be seen in incremental terms against the broader background of the integration of desire.



iii)                Enlightenment


To the final goal of the process of integration, then. Complete and permanent integration of desires, meaning and beliefs corresponds in my view to the enlightenment (nirvana) described by the Buddhist tradition.


Traditionally (in the West as well as in Buddhism) there are two kinds of approach to the subject of enlightenment: one can either say nothing about it at all, or one can indulge in profuse and subtle (usually negative) metaphysics in relation to it. Either of these approaches can operate as different ways of attempting to appropriate the absolute: one can either fail to engage with it at one’s own level by speaking of it only in absolute and ineffable, rather than incremental, terms; or one can merely incorporate it into a set of metaphysical egoistic rationalisations. My argument in Part 1 should have made it clear that these extremes of treatment of enlightenment are very much continuous with Western treatments of the moral absolute, and that they are dualistic. It is only in the context of hypothesis about the path that any discussion of enlightenment is at all useful.


Such discussion needs to be based on a clear distinction between the symbolic, the philosophical and the psychological aspects of enlightenment on the basis of the different kinds of function which are served by these different types of discussion. My emphasis here, in accordance with the rest of this chapter, is naturally psychological, but it may help to first briefly explain the functionality and limitations of the other two types of account.


Symbolic accounts of enlightenment are inspirational and poetic, and primarily serve the purpose of integrating archetypes (particularly the Wise Old Man archetype, but also the others) through the recollection of such symbolism in meditation, ritual, narrative, art and poetry[64]. Such representations of enlightenment abound in the Buddhist tradition and have a central place in its practice.


Philosophical accounts of enlightenment form the other main type of account, attempting to give a literal account of enlightenment as a principle or ideal rather than as the disposition of a person. Such accounts of enlightenment inevitably identify it with what the enlightened person is claimed to know or experience rather than the state of the enlightened person herself. Such accounts are clearly doomed to fatuousness from the beginning, firstly because there is no clear “literal” position to begin a definitive description from, secondly because it misleadingly turns the psychological property of a situated individual into a property of the universe, and thirdly because the lack of any positive content in such accounts lends them to being incorporated into a dualistic framework.


Such accounts of enlightenment need to be distinguished from accounts, such as those of the Madhyamika and Hua-Yen schools of Buddhism, of the “emptiness” (Shunyata) of phenomena, which assume a dialectical form and fulfil the function of Sceptical argument in undermining metaphysical attachments. These offer a negative foundationalism of the type to be elaborated in the next chapter, but are not accounts of enlightenment at all (or even of experience exclusive to the enlightened), rather of the phenomenal universe.


A third but neglected type of account, which I offer here, is psychological. According to this (provisional and hypothetical) account, enlightenment is the state of complete and permanent integration on the part of a situated individual. We can therefore identify the main features of enlightenment (though rather abstractly and tentatively) on the basis of the Middle Way which enables that integration. To offer this kind of account is by no means to reduce, relativise or individualise enlightenment. It offers universality and maximal objectivity in the sense that the identifications of the enlightened individual are universal: he identifies with all beings equally throughout space and time, and thus is motivated to act in a way which uses his situated body so as to aid all beings as effectively as possible. In aiding them he aims to fulfil their fully integrated desires as they would experience them if they, too, were enlightened.


A psychological account of enlightenment, though, does suggest that an enlightened person is also fully human. As far as we know, an enlightened person does not necessarily gain any special powers or capacities beyond those she had before enlightenment: she merely uses those powers to the maximum possible effect, probably resulting nevertheless in extraordinarily impressive concentration, awareness, energy, joyfulness, wisdom and compassion of the kind which is recorded of the historical Buddha. Nor does the enlightened person necessarily have any greater degree of knowledge about the universe than the unenlightened, though his refined and balanced judgement probably enables him to work out the best pragmatic truth available in any given context from the information available. The enlightened person is also thoroughly non-dualist, transforming her interpretation of perceptions. Yet this does not mean that she does not perceive objects as we do: only that she does so with a provisionality we may find it hard even to imagine.


Such a state appears achievable by a human being, yet nevertheless immensely challenging. We do not know whether or not any living or historical individual has ever achieved enlightenment, and the claim that any particular individual (even the Buddha) has achieved enlightenment immediately sets up distracting issues of specific verification, revelation and authority which are not essential to the Buddhist case, which stands or falls as a hypothesis regardless of such issues. The inspirational role of the Buddha as a symbol enabling integrative practice can be clearly separated from this. I shall be discussing some of the issues this approach is likely to raise for Buddhists further in the appendix[65].


A psychological account of enlightenment thus dispenses with the necessity for the historical occurrence of any such state, following the implications of non-dualism to their natural conclusions in recognising our ignorance of it, and avoiding the tendency to make metaphysical appropriations of it. Assuming that we do not appropriate an idea of the final goal, we do not need it to comprehend the nature of the path. Full incrementality and provisionality, with an asymptotic understanding of our progress, leave us in a state of uncertainty, but it is that very state that we must reconcile ourselves to in order to tread the path. At best we have a very provisional understanding of the goal which does no more than recognise the implications of the Middle Way as we can imagine its culmination: combining a full recognition of our situatedness with the challenge of universal identification.


[53] I assume here that there is no such thing as a temporary and complete integration. It should become clear from the account that follows that the conditions required to produce complete integration are solely a particular intensity and duration of those required to produce permanent integration.

[54] See 5.d.i

[55] Buddhaghosa (1991) §139 ff.

[56] See 5.e.i

[57] This formulation of aesthetics is one which could lead to a much more detailed discussion of aesthetics, which I hope to pursue in future work. For the moment, however, I must leave this interesting issue and pursue the main task of clarifying the nature of ethics, with aesthetics only mentioned in order to distinguish the two types of value.

[58] See 4.g.iii

[59] See 4.f.iii.

[60] “Fallible” here means in a pragmatic sense, i.e. consisting not in the possibility of a lack of isomorphism with metaphysical reality, but in the possibility of lack of optimal adaptation to an environment.

[61] See 2.a, 5.d and 6.a for more specific discussion on the nature of dualistic and non-dualistic belief-processes.

[62] “Physical” is not used here as opposed to mental: for clarification of this area see 6.b.iii.

[63] See especially 6.b.i

[64] See Sangharakshita (1990) p.39-50

[65] See especially 10.i


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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