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Ethics in Early Buddhism (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 50, Number 4, October 2000
pp. 628-630 | 10.1353/pew.2000.0009

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Reviewed by
Ethics in Early Buddhism. By David J. Kalupahana. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995. Pp. ix + 171.

Ethics in Early Buddhism by David J. Kalupahana is a small volume that makes a large contribution to the study of Buddhist ethics. As the title suggests, Kalupahana, an internationally recognized scholar of early Buddhism, focuses his scholarship on the discourses of the Buddha contained in the Pāli canon. But his philosophical concerns are as broad as the field of ethics itself, and his understanding of Buddhist ethics is based on a careful analysis of the full development of Buddhism, Mahāyāna as well as Theravāda texts. As in his earlier work, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities (University of Hawai'i Press, 1992), Kalupahana argues cogently for a pragmatic, experientially grounded, understanding of Buddhist [End Page 628] thought, rejecting the essentialist and absolutist interpretations of experience that characterize so much philosophical thought, Asian as well as Western.

Part 1 situates early Buddhist ethics in its historical context, contrasting it with the deontological ethical theory that characterized much of the Upaniṣads and that culminated in the Bhagavad Gītā on the one hand and with the utilitarian theory that grounded much ancient Indian practical thought, including the realpolitik of Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra on the other. This historical context contributes to our ability to see how the Buddha steered a middle path between moral absolutism and the moral relativism of self-interest.

In part 1 Kalupahana also tackles the problem of knowledge, for much of moral theory is shaped by epistemological concerns, with epistemological absolutism giving rise to moral absolutism and epistemological relativism giving rise to moral relativism. Here Kalupahana analyzes the Buddha's experiential method of insight and understanding, which gave rise to the central Buddhist insight into the nature of existence, namely interdependent arising (paṭicca samuppāda), a middle view that eschews essentialism and eternalism on the one hand and nihilism on the other. His conclusion is that early Buddhist ethics is a middle way rooted in the middle-way ontology of paṭicca samuppāda and grounded in an experiential way of knowledge. Part 1 concludes with illuminating explorations of what this middle way ethics has to contribute to the important ethical issues involved in the fact-value distinction, the problem of will or choice, and the relation of the individual and society.

In part 2, the heart of the book, Kalupahana proceeds to analyze the Buddhist conceptions of the moral life, its underlying principle, and its justification. As he notes, the early discourses present various accounts of the moral life. Integrating these accounts, Kalupahana examines Buddhist morality in terms of its beginnings in the cultivation of virtues (sīla), its flowering in the practice of the eightfold path, and its fulfillment in the attainment of the freedom of nibbāna.

In a careful analysis of the Brahmajāla Sutta, the seven virtue clusters that are mentioned or discussed in many places in the early discourses are identified and clearly explained. The first virtue cluster includes non-hurting (ahiṁinline graphic), which, in its positive sense, is the virtue of friendliness and compassion. The second, non-stealing, in its positive sense, is being satisfied with what one has. The third, avoiding vulgar sensuality and evil, focuses on living the "higher" life of brahmacariya. The fourth focuses on telling the truth and being trustworthy, while the fifth extends the virtue of truth-telling to refraining from malicious speech and using speech to create harmony, and the sixth extends right speech even further, renouncing all harsh speech and taking care always to speak lovingly to help others. The seventh virtue cluster is also about speech, namely refraining from gossip and frivolous talk and, positively, to use speech that is appropriate to the occasion and that promotes morality and well-being in the community.

These seven virtues, which advance the well-being of both the individual and society, are the foundation of Buddhist morality on which the morality of the noble eightfold path builds. As Kalupahana points out, "These seven virtues are embodiments [End Page 629] of the ultimate criteria of...