As in many other religious and ethical traditions, the status of suicide in Buddhism is contested and ambiguous, from the earliest Pāli record through to twentieth-century Mahāyāna praxes, and in a sense particular to Buddhist thought, paradoxical. This chapter will focus on three main areas: (1) the canonical accounts of suicide in the Śrāvakayāna and Mahāyāna traditions; (2) their theorization in a Buddhist psychological and phenomenological understanding of suicide; and (3) the ramifications of that understanding for contemporary social and medical practice, namely in assisted suicide and autothanasia, and for recent Buddhist history, above all for evaluating the Tibetan Buddhist self-immolations evident since 2009.
This chapter examines the legal details surrounding the full ordination of women into the Buddhist monastic traditions. These legal details need be appreciated in order to understand difficulties involved in current attempts to revive an order of female monastics, bhikṣuṇīs, where it has come to be extinct. The chapter begins with the account of the foundation of the bhikṣuṇī order in the way this is found in the Dharmaguptaka, Mūlasarvāstivāda, and Theravāda Vinayas. Next it surveys the legal parameters that emerge from one of these gurudharmas, which concerns bhikṣuṇī ordination, and how according to these three Vinayas subsequent ordinations were carried out. Then it turns to the transmission of the bhikṣuṇī ordination lineage until modern times to set the frame for appreciating the present situation.
This chapter has two major goals. The first is to introduce some of the major sets of bodhisattva precepts and to discuss their significance in both India and East Asia while paying attention to some of the areas that our current state of knowledge does not allow us to understand. Besides the contents of the precepts, bodhisattva ordinations and the expiation of wrongdoing are considered. The second part of the chapter, with particular emphasis on the Tendai school of Japan, focuses on how the bodhisattva precepts led to a more nuanced understanding of Buddhist ethics by focusing on such issues as killing and compassion.
The Buddhist tradition is justifiably known for its commitment to the primacy of ethical reflection. On the issue of nonhuman animals, the tradition-wide commitment to an undertaking to refrain from killing, known as the First Precept, offers a moving example of humans’ abilities to apply ethics to nonhuman animals on questions about animal protection for companion animals, food animals, entertainment animals, wildlife, and captive animals. Buddhist reflections on humans’ relationship to nonhuman animals, including questions of non-lethal harms, also have features that are illuminated, as is the First Precept, by a comparison with contemporary animal rights and animal protection debates.
Amy Paris Langenberg
In surveying the discursive landscape of ancient, classical, and medieval Indo-Tibetan Buddhist sexual ethics, this chapter takes a Foucauldian approach that holds Buddhist sexual norms and ideals to be an evolving discourse productive of a wide variety of sexual persons. It focuses on the manner in which Buddhist sexual ethics foster states of self rather than Buddhist ethics as a universally applicable set of moral obligations. Topics considered include the theory and practice of brahmacarya, representations of the Buddha as hyper-masculine, the sexual upāyas of bodhisattvas as articulated in Mahāyāna teachings, the revalorization of sexual union as a yogic practice in medieval Indian and Tibetan Tantra, and articulations of lay ethics in the scholastic traditions of classical and medieval India and Tibet. This chapter also contextualizes instances of sexual abuse in contemporary Western Buddhist saṅghas and notes the emergence of a distinctive queer Buddhist discourse.
This chapter addresses the question of whether it can ever be doctrinally or ethically appropriate in Buddhism to discriminate against women. It does this by assessing arguments for female inferiority that are found historically within the texts of the tradition. It attempts to demonstrate that such views are not doctrinally or ethically reinforced or substantiated, and therefore appear to have found their way into this religious literature through the ingestion of cultural mores and norms, rather than through advocacy of them as foundational and fundamental to the tradition. However, once engrained as part of revered texts, challenging such views can appear as sacrilegious if done by a practitioner, or as evidence of non-comprehension/lack of respect for tradition by an outsider. Anālayo discusses something akin to this in his chapter in this volume, in noting how differences in interpretation of texts can result in differing standpoints.
This chapter reviews Buddhist approaches to war and violence. Because ethics is the basis by which people make choices, the chapter’s focus is not purely on scriptures, but rather on the wider field of lived choices and the doctrine that relates to such choices. Buddhists have decided to go to war and have committed various acts of violence. The chapter begins with a brief chronological overview of Buddhist-inspired conflicts, wars, and the ethical debates and decisions surrounding these events. It then addresses the ambiguous subject matter of violence. Applying the Buddhist interdiction of ahimsa (non-harm/non-injury), it reviews doctrinal and historical cases in which Buddhist doctrine or Buddhists have justified harm/injury by means of murder, torture, capital punishment, and discrimination. The chapter ends with an examination of the ways in which Buddhists respond to war and violence.
James Mark Shields
Despite the strong historical relationship between the early Indian Buddhist saṅgha and the merchant classes, Western scholars have for only a few decades explored in detail the deep and abiding connections between Buddhist ideas and practices and the broad sphere of human activity called ‘economics’. This chapter investigates the connections between Buddhist ethical teachings and economic ideas and practices, particularly in the context of modernity. After analysing the concept of ‘economics’ as it has been understood and employed in Western and Asian thought, it moves into a discussion of economic ethics for the Saṅgha and laypersons, both in the early tradition and in the East Asian cultural context. Finally, the chapter provides a critical examination of more recent attempts to formulate a ‘Buddhist economics’, focusing in particular on both the problems and possibilities of such in the work of E. F. Schumacher and P. A. Payutto.
In addition to summarizing key concerns in Theravāda Buddhist Economics by scholars such as E. F. Schumacher and the Thai monk Payutto, this essay explores how descriptions of the West, Western development, and the “science” of economics serves in that literature to construct Occidentalist versions of Southeast Asian traditionalism and religious orthodoxy. It then introduces the previously unstudied work of Shérab Tendar, a prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholar in the contemporary People’s Republic of China who has written prodigiously on what he considers to be a scripturally based Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhist Economics. Comparing these three influential iterations of Buddhist Economics, this essay argues that this movement has less to do with economics proper than with what I call trans-Buddhist “scales of value”: site-specific desires and measures of sought after outcomes that here privilege the economy and economic behavior as a technique for individual, social, and environmental well-being and emancipation.
Global pressures on human–environment systems are higher than ever before in human history, generating broad ethical engagement in many quarters. Citizen calls for moral response from world religious and political leaders have grown more urgent as pressures mount. Buddhist philosophy contains a wealth of insight and moral guidance regarding human–environment relations, offering a promising avenue for ethical response. This chapter reviews work to date in Buddhist environmental ethics, noting influences from and on Western ethics and areas of tension in current thinking. Arguments are made for complementary development of both individual virtue ethics and constructivist social ethics. Moral dimensions of consumerism and climate change are examined as case studies, drawing on Buddhist values such as non-harming, compassion, meditative awareness, and skilful means.
Sīlavādin Meynard Vasen
The three main ethical theories in Western philosophy can be used as a framework from which to bring out the features of Buddhist ethics; hermeneutical questions regarding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of comparison; a consideration of Buddhist ethics as virtue ethics, centring around the notions of practices, narratives, and traditions, as proposed by MacIntyre, including a discussion of relativism in the context of naturalism, the fact/value gap, and cognitivism/non-cognitivism; a critique of consequentialism including a discussion of Goodman and Singer on altruism and compassion, agent-neutrality, and personhood, especially the bodhisattva-ideal; a critique of deontology that argues that there are no moral absolutes, and that only the wise can establish in a particular situation what is right, that is, what leads to a more awakened state. Conclusion: a discussion of why it is fruitful to see Buddhist ethics as a member of the family of (neo-Aristotelian) virtue ethical theories.
In recent years, Buddhist ethics are being marshalled in novel ways as a means to unify Tibetans and articulate a vision of ethnic identity and progress in line with Buddhist values. This chapter traces several contemporary strands of ethical mobilization, both on the Tibetan plateau and in the diaspora, with a keen interest in the formation of ethical Buddhist subjects. This chapter contrasts a new set of ten Buddhist virtues in eastern Tibet, articulated by cleric-scholars at Larung Buddhist Academy in 2008, with other incidents and movements, such as the fur-burnings of 2006, the Lhakar or ‘White Wednesday’ boycotts and pledges underway since 2009, the tragic wave of self-immolations that have escalated since 2011, and a distinct articulation of nonviolence with the ‘amulet for peace’ introduced in 2012.
The anthropological literature dealing with Buddhist ethics in the Theravāda countries of South and Southeast Asia may be divided into five categories, whereby ethics is defined as guidelines for right action oriented toward a particular goal: (1) ethics of statehood or political ethics; (2) ethics of salvation or monastic ethics; (3) ethics of engagement, including both social and environmental ethics; (4) karmic ethics for the laity; and (5) ethics of worldly benefit, as emphasized by some modern urban Buddhist movements. These categories highlight debates that have historically occupied anthropological scholarship, countering claims that Buddhism is an apolitical, purely individualistic or asocial, world-renouncing religion that is divisible into ‘big’ and ‘little’ traditions. This review, covering both theory and rich ethnographic evidence from Thailand, demonstrates the plurality and complexity of ethical Buddhist practice in the region.
Buddhism posits a basic equality of sentient beings as faced with suffering and in need of liberation. It also regards humans in particular as having a precious kind of rebirth with great potential for liberation in spite of their different karmic backgrounds. Respect for others is seen in the reflection, ‘For a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that on another?’ (SN V.353–354; Harvey 2000: 33–34). This is given as a reason for not inflicting wrong action or wrong speech on others. This chapter discusses Buddhist ideals on good social relationships and the good governance of society, in which a government should seek to prevent poverty, punish crime in a way that is reform-orientated and compassionate yet effective, and sets an ethical example. It includes a discussion of attitudes to capital punishment, democracy, and the extent to which the law should encode ethics.
The chapter begins with a brief outline of specific ethical issues associated with abortion, assisted reproduction, and research use of embryonic stem cells. Buddhist attitudes are explored first by reference to scriptures and then by what is known about Buddhist attitudes in modern, mostly Asian societies, especially in regard to abortion, and the degree to which this fits with but also challenges the scriptural tradition. These attitudes are then considered on their philosophical merits, focusing particularly on the key claim of traditional Buddhist embryology that conception signals the presence of all the necessary elements of moral personhood, as understood by Buddhists, thus triggering the First Precept’s prohibition on the taking of a human life. Finally, the chapter considers what a less prohibitive Buddhist stance on abortion might look like, particularly in reference to various alternatives defended in contemporary philosophical discussions.
This chapter discusses the history of Buddhist traditions and violence, concentrating on the scriptural justifications, symbols, and actual manifestations of violence. It covers Theravada (Path of the Elders), Mahayana (Great Vehicle), and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). Theravada scriptures present on occasion a categorical imperative to avoid violence. Mahayana scriptures condemn violence and hold murder as an unwholesome act (akushala). Vajrayana doctrine is perfused with texts and commentaries that reject the use of violence. The chapter then outlines the elements of violence with regard to war, punishment, and social control. Among the various examples in the scriptures lies one from its founder Siddhattha Gotama, who abandoned his own familial allegiance for the sake of reconciliation.
Matthew J. Walton
This article looks thematically at several important aspects of Buddhist politics in Myanmar, from the precolonial period to the present. It considers a number of arguments regarding the use of Buddhism in both supporting and opposing political authority, especially as they are rooted in a dualistic conception of human nature. It presents several examples of Burmese Buddhist political thought that creatively combine traditional Buddhist ideas with other political ideologies and practices, revealing a once-vibrant tradition that will hopefully be revitalized with the country’s current political transition. The role of monks in politics is controversial in Myanmar, and the article looks at some of the unique aspects of monastic activism, using examples from the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” and the current anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalist movements. Finally, it offers several different strands of democratic thought, including a provocative Burmese Buddhist notion of “moral democracy.”
Barbra R. Clayton
This chapter explores the nature of the connections between contemporary understandings of the bodhisattva path as socially engaged, and the canonical Mahāyāna tradition in India—the Ugraparipṛcchā-sūtra and the works of Śāntideva. These canonical treatments of the bodhisattva’s career are compared with a contemporary understanding as reflected in the commentary on Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra by Pema Chödrön. This analysis reveals distinct visions of the bodhisattva, from the Ugra’s elite superhero, to Śāntideva’s saintly bodhisattva, to the modern view of the bodhisattva as social activist. The career of the bodhisattva is furthermore shown to involve a range of types of social engagement. While the canonical texts support the ideal of imbuing all daily activities with an altruistic motive, as well as endorsing selfless service to meet the needs and wants of sentient beings, only the contemporary reading of the bodhisattva path advocates social action to address systemic causes of collective suffering.
Buddhism was transmitted to China around the beginning of the Common Era and from there spread to the other societies in East Asia. The Mahāyāna tradition eventually became embedded in the ordinary life of those societies, closely intertwined with Confucian and Daoist ethics. Popular Buddhist ethics were basically utilitarian, a means to produce desirable consequences. In the twentieth century, reformers like Taixu (1890–1947) tried to purify this popular Buddhism and make it relevant to the challenges of modernity. The result was a ‘Buddhism in the Human Realm’ expressed as a virtue ethic that teaches its followers to develop the capacities to follow a bodhisattva path of creating a Pure Land on earth. This chapter explores the implications of this for the family, public life, politics and war, economic inequality, sexuality, and environmental ethics.
The exclusivist strand of Pure Land Buddhism that developed in China and took strong root in Japan stresses the inability of human beings to bring about their own liberation from the effects of karma through their own ethical practice, and instead views reliance on the working of Amitābha as the only possible path to liberation. Because of its denial of the efficacy of ethical action as a cause of Buddhahood throughout its history, this tradition has addressed a variety of delicate problems dealing with the relationship between ethical action and Buddhist attainment. This chapter explores how that tension played out in various recensions of the central sutra of the tradition, and the thought of two representative thinkers: Shandao (613–681) and Shinran (1173–1262). These considerations show that the Pure Land tradition offers many insights that might help advance discussions in the discipline of Buddhist ethics in the future.