Buddhist Ethics
By Hammalawa Saddhatissa

Reviewed by Koller, John M.

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 2000)
pp. 294-297

Copyright 2000 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

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Philosophy East and West, Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 2000)

Buddhist Ethics is a reissue of a classic work by the late Venerable Saddhatissa (d. 1990) first published in 1970. While the primary focus is, as the title indicates, Buddhist ethics, this book is about much more than merely the ethical dimensions of Buddhism. Because the author sees the entire human effort to attain perfection, the effort to become whole, as a realization of interdependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), he sees ethical striving and insight meditation as a single, unified human activity. Consequently, this work on Buddhist ethics is really an analysis of the fundamental principles of Buddhism. It is a work of solid scholarship that carefully considers the most basic teachings of Buddhism, quoting extensively from the original texts on which Saddhatissa's analysis is based, explaining them in relation to the fundamental aims and insights of the Buddha's own practice and teachings.

    Because the historical scholarship of the last thirty years has enabled us to differentiate with greater clarity and specificity between different periods and movements within the various Buddhist traditions, the author's claim to speak for all of Buddhist thought appears somewhat quaint, and the book slightly dated. However, because of his reliance on primary Buddhist texts, it turns out that Saddhatissa's Theravāda roots and persuasion do not constitute a bias that blinds him to the Mahāyāna understanding of core Buddhist teachings.

    Saddhatissa's motivation for writing this book is clearly stated in the preface to the second edition, which was published in 1987. There he stated that there has been a steady decline in the understanding and observance of ethical principles and ideas in the last fifty years, confronting humankind with "enormous destructive forces." "The only way one can retrieve this situation," he says, "the only sensible way forward, is to live according to the religious, ethical and moral standards accepted by one's own traditions and in understanding and compatibility with those of others." To this end, he explains, "This book analyses, examines, and explains the ethical concepts from a Buddhist point of view" (p. ix).

 

 

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    Indeed, in our present historical period, when violence and terror as methods of dealing with differences between peoples appear to be replacing civility and moral principles, we may well wonder about the decline of ethics. Buddhist Ethics is a valuable guide for anyone who wonders about what ethics is, what kinds of knowledge it involves, how it contributes to attaining the highest human goals, and what the basic principles of moral life are. Although the bulk of the book is concerned specifically with Buddhist ethics, the author establishes in the first chapter, through an analysis of and comparison with the ethical thought of Plato and Aristotle, that most of the major underlying questions are nearly the same for Aristotle and the Buddha. There are, of course, major differences as well as similarities in how these questions have been formulated, analyzed, and answered, and the author's careful attention to these differences helps us understand the ethical as the fundamental human activity across cultural differences. Although the focus of the book is clearly Buddhist ethics, the depth of explanations and the apt comparisons will inevitably illumine the reader's own moral convictions even as it lucidly explains the underlying principles and practices of Buddhism.

    One of the interesting features of this book is its organization. From his comparative study of ethics Saddhatissa identifies four fundamental ethical questions: (1) What is the origin and source of knowledge of the highest good? (2) What are the sanctions of moral conduct? (3) What are the ideals or standards that give moral principles their value? and (4) What is the ultimate aim of life that underlies moral ideals? (p. 4). The seven chapters of the book are arranged to focus on each of these questions in turn. Thus, chapter 1, which introduces the issues, also gives a brief summary of the core teachings of Buddhism in the context of pan-Indian thought at the time, while chapter 2 focuses on the central insights of the Buddha into the nature of reality and knowledge of the middle way of right conduct. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the sanctions of moral conduct through an inquiry into the precepts and refuges of Buddhist practice. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with the ideals or standards that give moral principles their value, taking up, in order, "The Underlying Ideals of the Moralities" (chapter 5), "The Layman's Duties to His Associates" (chapter 6), and "The Layman's Relation to the State" (chapter 7). The last chapter, "The Ultimate Goal," takes up the question of the ultimate aim of life that underlies moral ideals in terms of the realization of enlightenment.

    What this organization reveals is Saddhatissa's deep conviction that ethics is the heart of Buddhism. Unlike other expositors of Buddhism -- for example, some representatives of the Cha'n and Zen traditions, who sometimes regard moral practice as a kind of preliminary to the meditational practice of mindfulness, and who take enlightenment to be a kind of epistemological transformation, a new and holistic way of seeing reality -- Saddhatissa regards moral practice and the practice of mindfulness as a seamless whole. How moral practice and mindfulness practice constitute an integral whole becomes clear in chapter 4, in the examination of the first moral precept, "I undertake the precept to abstain from the taking of life." The first part of the analysis makes clear that this precept is about not hurting or injuring any living beings, and that this non-hurting, despite its apparently negative form, is actually a

 

 

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positive injunction to practice loving-kindness (metta) to all beings. The practice of loving-kindness follows from understanding the close relationship of complete interdependence (paṭicca-samuppāda) that each person has with all living things, a relationship so close that, as Saddhatissa says, "the harming of any living creature is inevitably the harming of himself" (p. 59).

    As Saddhatissa proceeds to examine the processes whereby a person cultivates the virtue of loving-kindness, it becomes clear that the practice of mindfulness is critical to these processes, and, indeed, that mindfulness is the key to transforming moral practice into enlightened living. It is by meditating on one's own feelings, seeing where there is enmity, ill will, and distress, that one can begin to overcome these negative feelings and replace them with their opposites, namely friendship, goodwill, and peacefulness. Seeing the loving-kindness that arose in oneself in the past in response to acts of loving-kindness shown by others and connecting it to the emulation of such exemplars of loving-kindness enables one to begin recognizing and developing loving-kindness in oneself. From this base it is possible to begin developing loving-kindness toward, first, a friend, then a neutral person, and then even a hostile person (p. 63). But even as one progresses through these five steps and actually begins to develop an attitude of loving-kindness -- even toward one's former enemies -- old habits, irritations, angers, and resentments are likely to arise and become obstacles. Saddhatissa reviews the classic ten meditative methods for overcoming these obstacles. The ninth method, "Resolution into elements," reveals the integral relationship of meditation and ethics. Becoming aware of feelings of anger toward someone, a person should direct awareness not only to the feelings themselves, but also to the objects of the feelings, asking "What is it I am angry with? Is it the hairs of the head, the earth element therein, the water element, the fire element, or the air element that I am angry with? Or among the five aggregates or the twelve bases or the eighteen elements, ... with which aggregate, which base, which element ... am I angry? Or [is it] the mind, mental-object, or mind-consciousness elements that I am angry with?" As the text says, "When one tries the 'resolution into elements,' one's anger finds no foothold" (p. 69).

    It is through these meditative practices that one develops the ethical virtue of loving-kindness, which, according to the Dīgha-Nikāya, allows one to live calmly and peacefully, "pervading the entire world with one's heart imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, measureless, free from enmity and free from afflictions" (Dīgha-Nikāya 1.250).

    Consistent with his recognition that ethical development through meditative awareness leads to nirvā.na, Saddhatissa emphasizes the ethical development of laypersons as well as monastics, devoting two whole chapters to lay ethics. As a result of his conviction that individuals exist together in symbiotic social relationships, making each individual responsible for acts of the whole society, one of these chapters, chapter 7, focuses on the relation of the individual to the state, making a unique contribution in this area.

    In summary, this is a book that can be recommended to all students of Buddhism

 

 

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and ethics, both beginning and advanced, because of its accessibility, timeliness, and sound scholarship.