Bohemian Buddhist Review

Oxford University Press' booklets on Buddhism

Oxford University Press delivers booklets for our time 

Does anyone care about ethics?  Do we even know what it means anymore? More to the point, are we willing to learn about it, live by it, and apply said ethics to our complicated lives? 

Oxford University Press recently asked BoBuReview to review some of the booklets in their new series, "A Very Short Introduction to . . . ," which are perfect for our short attention spans but seemingly insatiable appetite for information. The booklets under review here include  OUP's "A Very Short Introduction to Buddhism" and "A Very Short Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism," both very good, basic texts, plus the one that particularly engages me, "A Very Short Introduction to Buddhist Ethics." 

The Dalai Lama recently gave a lecture on Secular Ethics at Emory University that really cuts to the chase. The moral crisis the world is facing, His Holiness said, in so many words, is due to a lack of ethical principles. Compassion teaches us to approach problems from our hearts, which is also where we can access ethical solutions. 

The first chapter in OUP's "A Very Short Introduction to Buddhist Ethics," is on Buddhist morality. Damien Keown, the author, names "a common moral core underlying the divergent customs, practices, and philosophical teachings of the different schools" of Buddhism. 

The Buddhist version of the Golden Rule counsels us not to do anything to others we would not like done to ourselves. The Buddha's basic moral teachings "guide the conduct of some 350 million Buddhists around the world today," and are embodied in the compassionate actions and non-violent teachings of HH Dalai Lama, though His Holiness does not necessarily represent all schools of modern-day Buddhism. 

The natural, universal law of dharma is manifest in the often-misunderstood laws of karma, "in particular those relating to the consequences of moral behavior," Keown writes. Karma cannot be simplified into a system of punishment and rewards. "It is intention, O monks, that I call karma," the Buddha said. 

Westerners might find it challenging to consider that it is the motivation behind an action that determines the karmic result, not the outcome itself. 

Since there are numerous basic teachings on Buddhism available in print and online -- the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Ten Virtuous Acts, etc. -- I'm going to confine comments largely to things I found somewhat different or particularly noteworthy in Keown's pithy little book. For instance, in a paragraph on creating merit (or good karma), Keown writes "To do good deeds simply to obtain good karma would be to act from a selfish motive and would not earn much merit." 

So much for helping elderly people across the street to earn a Boy/Girl Scout badge. 

In Buddhism, "the task of the virtues is to counteract negative dispositions called kleshas," which are somewhat analogous to vices in the West.  The famous Three Poisons of Buddhism are greed, hatred, and ignorance or delusion; their opposite virtues are non-attachment, benevolence, and understanding (though the specific words change according to different texts, their meanings are similar.) 

One of the many things I admire about Tibetan Buddhism in particular is its ability to see through some of our poisonous personal attributes to the wisdom on the other side, so to speak. At least it gives one hope that when the kleshas come calling, there's a glimmer of another place to be. 

"One of the most basic principles of Buddhist ethics, and one for which Buddhism is widely admired, is that of ahimsa, or non-harming," Keown writes. 

Ahimsa is not just a principle of moral right, but an active one of caring for life and all living creatures. (Would that our nuclear scientists had been Buddhists, they might have foreseen the danger of storing, much less using, nuclear materials.) Again, the key factor here is one of intent. Accidental harming does not carry the same negative karma as intentional; this concept carries over into other weighty topics that "A Very Short Introduction to Buddhist Ethics" discusses, such as abortion and euthanasia, to be discussed in following reviews. 

In Chapter Two, Ethics East and West, Keown asks if there can be a "representative Buddhist view" on moral issues, i.e., do all Buddhists agree on all moral questions? Going back to Aristotle, who stated that "moral norms are to develop character," Keown gets into applied normative ethics and defines the differences between Mills' utilitarianism and Kant's deontology but concludes that since Buddhism posits good consequences from positive actions, Buddhist ethics "bear a greater resemblance to Aristotle's virtue ethics than any other Western theory." 

So what's the diff between morality and ethics? Keown proposes that morality "is used to denote the standards or values of a society as they exist 'on the ground," whereas ethics "refers to the critical analysis of those values by people such as philosophers." He adds that he wouldn't want to push the definitions too far, though he does think that Buddhism has a "good deal to say about morality," but comparatively little about ethics. (I leave it to scholars to debate the issue further.) 

I'm not sure Americans make such fine distinctions, if they even think of the topic outside of the groves of academe. I personally admire Thich Nhat Hahn's guidelines to living a moral life. His 'Fourteen Precepts on Engaged Buddhism,"  <>  
would seem to me to be the best possible basis for a moral/ethical life for Buddhists, or anyone else for that matter.
(More on Chapters 3 & 4 coming soon.)