The Ethics of Buddhism
by Prof. Linda Patrik
Philosophy Dept. Union College
This is the recap of a talk given at the March 9, 2003 CDHS monthly meeting.
would you describe yourself? Are you a self-contained being? Maybe your thoughts
and actions follow a linear path from beginning to end. Or do they? Either way,
how does your sense of self inform your sense of ethics? Linda E. Patrik, Professor
of Philosophy at Union College, guided us as we reexamined the idea of "self"
in a talk on "Buddhist Ethics: Karma and Compassion." She described
the atheist aspect of Buddhism along with the Theory of Interdependent arising,
Karma and compassion.
Buddhism is a form of atheism because it does not believe in a creator of the universe or creator of a universal moral code. Nor does it see any evidence for a soul or even a "self" in the western sense. Patrik describes Tibetan Buddhism (derived from movements in ancient India based in meditation) as "an investigation of psychological states that give rise to action, happiness, and pain." The Buddhist view is that there is no singular cause of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The Theory of Interdependent Arising:
1. Everything arises from multiple causes and conditions.
2. There is no self, i.e., no singular, immortal agent of human actions.
3. No one has an individual ethical destiny, separate from the destiny of humanity.
This deep connection between all living things is the basis for the ethics of Karma and compassion. Karma means action. It involves interdependence. Instead of being separate entities, we are like interconnected strands of energy that continue (reincarnate) after the body dies. This interdependence involves time (our actions affect our future), people and sentient beings (our actions affect others) and space (our actions affect our surroundings).
Another aspect of Karma is its structure of interconnectedness and Patrik used metaphors to describe them:
Responsibility: The universe is like a spider web. Unlike the western idea of action being a linear movement (starting in the mind, running outward and then dissipating), in Karma there is no single cause and effect. An action doesn't just start in a person's head. It is a movement affected by and influencing the whole "spider web." Each action is related to our past and future. It has impact on others and the environment. There are no separate things in the universe as all are interconnected like a giant web.
Reverberation: Like the ripples in a lake after a rock has been thrown in. Actions repeat and become habitual (as if the rock is a yo-yo). Others observe and imitate us. If we act in a positive or negative way, this encourages others to act positively or negatively.
Recursion: Like a rubber band or a boomerang. Actions do not go in one direction and dissipate. They snap back to the starting point. For every action there is a reaction and a good action produces a positive response while a bad one produces suffering.
Compassion is a central theme of Tibetan Buddhism and is expressed in the belief that nobody should be left out or abandoned. The meditation is aimed at achieving highly sensitive mental states to be aware of the suffering of others. Three stages of completely voluntary ethical vows are involved. They are taken in formal ceremonies:
1. "To forsake both injury to others and its basis." (Analogous to the basement of a building.) Vows of personal perfection. Don't lie, cheat or steal. Let go of anger, greed, states of mind that create flawed motivations.
2. To attain enlightenment for the sake of others. (Analogous to the walls of a building.) Vows of altruism, placing others welfare before one's own. Development of compassion. Immerse yourself in problem areas, work to eliminate suffering through activism and/or meditation
3. To benefit others and attain enlightenment quickly. (Analogous to the roof of a building.) Vows of "swift" altruism. Penetrating to the core of interrelatedness. Vows taken with a tantric master. Mantras, body movements, speech acts, mental disciplines, visualizing.
Patrik concluded with the message that Tibetan Buddhism and its form of ethics is very important to preserve. The Tibetans kept high-level meditation techniques and the most interesting philosophical debates from dying out. Now it is time for those in the west to help preserve this tradition as well.
She invites us to attend the 2003 Spencer Leavitt Lecture Series at Union College, which is free and open to the public (April 30-May 2, 7 pm, Olin auditorium). For more info see: www.union.edu/PUBLIC/PHLDEPT/SL2003.html
Q. Does Buddhism have a concept of freedom from karma like in India?
A. In Buddhism this would be called enlightenment and can be understood in the ethical vows. 1. Freedom from creating bad action. Nirvana - a state of complete peace. 2. Keeping karma - being willing to be in the hot spots in order to help others. 3. Third vows are a faster version of the second.
Q. In Western ethics, justice and fairness are the central theme; is this true in Buddhism?
A. In Buddhism, karma is the umbrella term for justice. Whatever action we commit returns to us.
Q. If Buddhists don't believe in a soul, what exactly reincarnates?
A. Sensations, perceptions (ever changing currents), currents of energy. If you don't believe in reincarnation literally, you might view it as a "noble lie" in that you would be motivated to treat others well if you view them as having once been your mother in a previous incarnation.
Q. What impact has modern western science had on traditional Buddhist theory?
A. Buddhists focus on the inner world while the west focuses on external world. There have been activities to bring the two groups together, including scientific research.
Q. Could an emphasis on meditation lead to political quietism?
A. To some extent, yes, as nonviolence is part of Buddhism. But there was resistance in Tibet and there have been street demonstrations (for which they have been arrested, tortured).
Q. Having trouble with notion that we have no "self."
A. Buddhist view is that "self" is a delusion. How do you define it - your body, your emotions? They have looked for it in meditation and can find no separate "self."