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date: 18 February 2020

Abstract and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Theravāda, political ethics, Gross National Happiness, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Vinaya, karma, asceticism

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