The Buddha's Analytical Ethics
Dr. Amar Singh
1. Ethics examines and determines the criterion of moral
judgment, good and bad action, result, values, virtues, goal of human life, etc.
An attempt in this paper is made to analyze some Sautraantika ethical doctrines,
as found in the Sutras. It is analytical in the sense that it has critically and
minutely analyzed ethical concepts and practice.
2. There is a deep rooted
misconception prevalent among some modern scholars who consider Buddha's ethics
as mere revival of Vedic or Upanisadic ethics as holds S. Radha Krishanan and
followed by others. "The only metaphysics that can judge Buddha's ethical
discipline is the metaphysics under-lying the Upanishads." An analysis of
Sutra analytical ethics goes contrary to this deep rooted misconception which
has also been examined in this paper.
3. The Analytical Philosopher (vibhajjavaadin)
Buddha revolutionized the traditional metaphysical ethics and ritualistic conduct.
The survey of early Sutras reveals beyond doubt that he was stern against the
contemporary Brahmanic as well as non-Brahmanic (Aajivika, Jainas) Philosophy
of moral principles and conduct. Sometime, an illusion is created by similarity
of the terms such as Karma, Dharma etc. The Buddha did use these terms such as
Karma, paapa, pu.nya, maitri, Karu.naa etc, but he radically changed their connotations.
He did not coin new terms or invented new the framework of existing language.
Sometimes, the Buddha is criticized by Brahmins as Akriyaavaadin (non-actionalist)
for refuting all traditional ethical concept and practice which clearly verify
Buddha's critical attitude towards determinism (niyativada), theism (iswaravaada),
soulism (aatmavaada), asceticism, Purohitavaada (Priestism), castism (jaativaada)
etc. as false ethical concepts and practice.
4. The survey of Vedic literature
brings into light that some of the philosophers of the Vedas, particularly last
chapter of Yajurveda suggest a theory of detached Karma. The human virtues such
as loving kindness (maitri), compassion (Karu.naa), non-violence, justice, wisdom
etc. are duly mentioned. Some of the ancient Vedic seers were quite aware of importance
of Karma and moral virtue which were appraised by the Buddha himself. These ancient
norms later on, were replaced by fatalism, determinism, ritualism as evinced by
'Satapatha Braahma.na. "The sacrifice is two fold with oblation men satisfy
the Gods, with gift the human gods (Brahmins) when qualified convey the worshipper
to heavenly world." [Sat Brah. II. 22, 6 and IV. 344].
5. The moral values
were long ago recognized by Indian seers but the criterion of moral action was
solely derived from scriptural or priestly authority. The Buddha's revolution
turned the head of Authoritarianism down to the feet of Empricism, Pragmatism
and Personal experience. It can be considered to be a Copernicus Revolution in
the field of ethics.
6. Now, permit me to deal with fundamental principles
of Ethics found in the Sutras and followed by the later Sautrantikas. The present
author found following nine differential characteristics of the Sutra ethics:
Volition as the criterion of an ethical judgment.
b. Supremacy of Karma.
Freedom of Will.
d. Human responsibility.
7. Volition as criterion
of moral judgment: Volition (cetanaa) was categorically taught by the Buddha as
criterion of moral (Kusala) or immoral (Akusala) action. He considered action
(Karma) as the cause of diversities of the world against the traditional view
of god as the creator. There is no trace whatsoever of the evidence of volition
or cetanaa as the criterion of ethical judgment in Pre-Buddha literature which
lay stress on testimony or priestly authority as the criterion of moral judgment.
there is slight difference between the connotation of the terms 'volition' and
'will'. Volition (cetanaa) and will (cetiyitvaa) signifies active aspect of volition.
There is an important puzzling question of ethics: whether an intention or consequence
(result) should be a criterion of moral judgment ? Intuitionalists advocate intention,
while Utititarianists take utility or consequence as the criterion. The Buddha's
inclusion of volition or will does not exclude consequence also. Every good volition
and will is invariably followed by happy feeling and vice versa. This consequence
appears in the form of happiness or unhappiness.
A good intention is an award
in itself invariably linked with happy feeling irrespective of consequence But,
exhorts the Buddha, there is no escape neither in caves nor in ocean from of results
(phala) of action, Thus, we find unique reconciliation of volitionalism and Utilitarianism
in the Sutra Ethics.
9. Supremacy of Action: The Buddha also offers the throne
of supremacy to action (Karma) which is the creator of variety, diversities and
multiplicities of the world against the traditional view of the one single agent
or god, or supreme being as the creator. The author cannot resist the desire to
put forward Buddha's own word on this question:
"Owner of their own Karma,
0 young man, are living beings heirs of their Karma, have karma as the wombs from
which they spring, having Karma as their refugee. Karma marks of living being,
making them become depraved and excellent" (kammassakaa maa.nava sattaa,
kammadaayadaa, kammayoni, kammabandhu kammapa.tisara.naa kamma.m satte vibhajati
yadida.m hinappa.nitataaya. Cuulakammavibhaagasutta, M.V.P. 14/511/176)
categorically gave highest importance to Karma in following words. "Because
of karma the world and people are continued. Just as a wheels of cart are bound
with an axil, similarly all being are bound with and controlled by action:
vattaati loko, kammanaa vattati pajjaa,
Kammanaa nibandhanaa sattaa, rathasaa.niva
yaayataa [Sn. 61]
10. The Buddha declared his unprecedented discovery about
four kinds of karma (cattaari imaani, bhikkhave, kammaani mayaa sayam abhi~n~naaya
sacchikatvaa paveditani) as follows:
Four kind of karma, Oh Bhikkhus, I have
realized by my own wisdom and then made known to the world. What are four? They
are black karma having black result, white karma having white result, black-and-white
karmas having back-and-white results and neither black not white karmas having
neither black-nor-white result and leading to cessation of karma [Ang, catukka
The karmas are also divided into bodily action (kaayakarma), verbal
action (vaaci-karma) and mental action (maanasa karma).
11. Freedom of Will:
Freedom of will is another fundamental principles of the Sutra ethics. It is the
free will or power of choice to perform good and bad deeds, which make ethics
possible. In the case where there is no free will or actions are determined, then
no question of moral teachings is applicable. The Buddha strongly laid stress
on freedom of will and refuted all kinds of determinism (niyativaada). The Buddha
analyzed three kinds of determinism which lead to non-actionalism (akriyavaada)
or annihilation (ucchedavaada) of all morality. They are the:
b. Godly determinism (I'svarak.rtaniyativaada)
c. Non-causalism (ahetukayvaada).
Prior-action determinism is a pre-Buddhist
ethical viewpoint claiming that our every present action good or bad is determined
by the actions of previous life. Second one advocates that all our actions good
or bad are determined by God, and third one proclaimes non-causal or accidentalism
leading to non-actionallism which is also a fatal blow to all ethical norms These
views cut off the very root of ethics which is grounded on Freedom of Will. The
Buddha vehemently refutes all these kinds of determinism. The Buddha exhorts "If
one essentially believes in determinism then the resolution that I should not
do this and I should do this, I should not perform this act, will not take place
when they loose the mindfulness (sati) about what is appropriate and what is not,
then they will fall into the reason-less-ness or into the net of defeat (niggaha),"
[Ang. Tik. 61]. It is another evidence of Buddha's demarcation from traditional
determinism and clearly reveals his revolutionary attitude onwards the orthodox
false ethical views.
12. Other kinds of non-actionalism (akriyavaada) was propagated
by some six contemporary ethical philosophers: Ajitakesakambi (materialism, ucchedavaada).
Puurana Kaassapa (moral scepticism), Pakudha Kaaccaayana (eternalism, akriyavaada),
Nigan.tha Nathaputta (prior-karma determinism) and Sa~njaya Bela.t.thi (skepticism).
The Buddha vehemently refuted all kindso f non-actionalism, skepticism and determinism
and taught the law of karma and its results in such an analytical way that was
not known before.
13. An analysis of karma as criterion of ethical judgment
in Kaalaamasutta of Anuttara-Nikáya brings forward following points:
Approved by your own experience, correct causal relation and correct logical judgment;
To be skeptical about any authority , testimony, majority, sophistry etc. That
means no blind faith in traditionalism and orthodoxism.
c. The deed in order
to be righteous must be meritorious.
d. Such a deed is praised by the wise.
Such a deed if performed in full, conduces to benefit and happiness to himself,
to others and to both.
14. Human responsibility: The Buddha also turned the
head of divine responsibility to the feet of human responsibility. He exhorted:
are the master of your self, there is no any other master. By proper training
of your (mind), you obtain the difficult master (Nibbána) [Attanaa hi attano
naatho, ko hi naatho paro si.maa, attaana va sudantena, naatha labathi dullabha.m]
have to see your own good and bad deeds not of others (na paresa.m vilomaani,
na perasa.m kataakata.m attanaava avakkheyya, kataani akataani ca).
either god, deities, ghosts, other people, society or any other agent or agency
is responsible for one's deed but the doer himself. Even the Buddha is only the
teacher who showed the path but you are the one who has to tread on it (tumhehi
kicca.m aatappa.m akkhaataaro tathaagataa). Such a doctrine of self-help and self-dependence
is seldom to be met with in pre-Buddhist ethics.
15. Emphasis on self help
ethical principles apparently indicates following important points:
of prayers and oblation.
b. It is a natural method.
c. Self effort in mental
d. Counter action vice with virtue.
16. The Buddha found Vedic
prayers to gods, for prosperity, for help, for removal of evil (durit) and to
bring good with various sacrificial rites related with them as ineffective and
useless. One has to rely on his own effect to achieve an end. Buddha's last word
to his discipline "be a light to your self and roam about relying on yourself
" remains a very significant in the history of ethics which considers human
endeavor as the guiding principles of all moral conduct Prayers and oblations
do not yield much result but certainly human efforts do. The Buddha exhorted that
just "as a stone thrown into the water can never be made a float by wishing
and praying even so an evil person who had died could not be made to enter heaven
by the wishful thinking and praying of other people. Despite such wishing and
praying he would definitely enter the world of mystery. The Buddha further said:
"there are these five things, Gahapati, which are desirable result hard to
get in the world. What five? They are longevity, lovely complexion, happiness,
honor, and rebirth in the heavenly world. One should neither pray nor merely dream
of them. But instead he should endeavor to fulfill the causes which will produce
them for him."
It is a fact undeniable that human being depend in some
way or other on each other's mutual aid, co-operation, loving, kindness (mettá),
compassion (karu.naa). etc. are natural phenomena of evolution but one has to
seek help from his own efforts. The enlightened teachers only teach the method
to achieve the ethical perfection but the efforts are necessarily made by the
17. The Dharma is considered in the sutras as natural
law of conditional origination (pra.tityasamutpaada) which all the time remain
un-contradicted, objective, unalterable truth, whether Buddha teaches it or does
not teach it. The Buddha also emphasized on the continuation of mental improvement
in following words:
I do not recommend a standstill in meritorious acts, 0
Bhikkhus, let alone lessening of doing so. I do favor the development of meritorious
deed but neither its ceasing nor its lessening.
18. The other differential
characteristic of the sutra ethics can be summarized as below:
It is universally applicable to all human beings irrespective of their caste,
creed, sex, nationality etc..
19. Practical: Everyone of its concepts and practice
is grounded on practical experience. It can be practiced in all times and places.
Psychological: The Buddha's ethical teaching were based on sharp and abstruse
analysis of mind (citta) and its functioning (cettasika); their wholesome (kusala)
and unwholesome (akusala) mental states, are deeply analyzed. Such a psychological
ethics is not found in pre-sutra literature.
21 Anti-passimistic: It is another
important feature, of Sautrantika ethics which contradict the present understanding
of Buddhistic ethics as passimistic in the beginning and optimistic in the end.
The study of Sutras reveals that the Buddha does speak about Dukkha in the world
but not that "everything is Dukkha by nature" (Saa"mkhya concept)
as he spoke about happy states in this very world and heavenly happy states too.
There are happy and unhappy states in this very life-time. The Saa"mkhya
element of pessimism entered into the interpretation of Dukkha in Buddhism which
caused the mistake of considering Buddhistic ethics as pessimistic in the beginning
and optimistic in the end. As a matter of fact, it is not pessimistic neither
in the beginning nor in the end. The practice of ethical laws brings about happiness
in the beginning, middle and in the end. (aadi kalyaana.m, majje kalyaana.m pariyosaana-kalyaana.m).
Therapeutical: The Buddha is called a doctor (Bhaisajayaguru) because like a doctor,
he taught the nature of ailment (dukkha), its causes (samudaya), its treatment
(nirodha) and method of treatment (marga). The diagnosis of various kinds of emotional
afflictions (Kilasas), perceptual illusions (Vipallasas), kinds of personality
(Carita), analysis of negative immoral forces (aku'sala) and their treatment through
opposite moral forces and DhyanaVipassana, definitely proves Sutra ethics to be
The Sutra ethics can be called an anti-dote, Therapy or
Reality; Therapy which has realistic anti-dote for all mental disturbances or
neurotic symptoms which are faced by all human beings in the course of critical
periods. The Sutra ethics not only cures by the method of concentration (Dhyana),
insight (vipassana) various kinds of practical meditations, it also provides sure
ground for preventive medicine by developing mental moral forces. The further
evolution of ethical principles of sutra ethics, psychologically and logically
analyzed and debated by later Sautrantikas in Kathaavathu, Abhidharmako'sabhaa'sya.
Pramaanasamuccaya and Pramaa.navaritika are left aside for future exploration.
short summary of some of the differential characteristics of ethical philosophy
found in the Sutras prove that the Buddha launched an ethical revolution to counteract
the traditional false ethical concepts and practice and showed mankind a correct
ethical method leading to Liberation.