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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 236-239

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Book Review

An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics:
Foundations, Values and Issues

An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues. By Peter Harvey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xx + 478 pp.

In my 1993 review article on Damien Keown's brilliant book The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (see Buddhist Studies Review 10, 1 [1993], 95-108), I praised Keown's volume as one of the very most important research studies on Buddhist ethics to have been [End Page 236] written in the last half of the twentieth century. It ultimately became the grounding basis for the highly successful online Journal of Buddhist Ethics, and has helped to reawaken interest in an exciting but often overlooked aspect of the Buddhist tradition. I have no doubt that Peter Harvey's new work will do for the beginning of the new century precisely what Keown's did for the end of the previous one. In a few words, it is a scholarly masterpiece, a splendid in-depth tour of the entire Buddhist ethical tradition.

Because of our shared interest, I had known that Peter Harvey was working on a comprehensive study of Buddhist ethics for some time prior to its publication, but as late as August 1999, I had not seen any part of it in manuscript form. While attending the International Association of Buddhist Studies meeting in Lausanne, I got my first chance to see the foundation of this book—its bibliography. Knowing that I am a bit of a bibliophile, Peter rather matter-of-factly handed me a copy of the bibliography and asked what I thought of it. It would be sorely understating the case to call it anything short of overwhelming, and while its totality would have been impractical to include in the book, it surely whetted my appetite for the book that is under review here.

Harvey says in the introduction that "The schools of Buddhism have rich traditions of thought on ethics, though this is often scattered through a variety of works which also deal with other topics. This book aims to be an integrative over-view of ethics in the different Buddhist traditions, showing the strong continuities as well as divergencies between them" (1). In so doing, he has given us a volume that can easily serve as a stand-alone text for any university course on Buddhist ethics. The book is really divided into two major parts: Chapters 1-3, which introduce the reader to the foundation of Buddhist ethics, both Hinayana and Mahayana; and chapters 4-10, which cover the applications of Buddhist values to a wide variety of issues, some of which are both volatile and controversial. The book concludes with a glossary, list of references, list of useful addresses (some of which lead the reader into the Internet), and several valuable indexes.

In the first portion of the book, chapter 1 considers "The Shared Foundations of Buddhist Ethics." It is a concise and clear survey of basic Buddhist ideas, culminating in a discussion of the place of ethics on the Buddhist path, a consideration of wise and skillful actions, and the means for distinguishing between good and bad actions. Moreover, the first chapter leads directly into the second, "Key Buddhist Values." Here the reader is taken through a very thorough consideration of the lay precepts—and especially the five precepts—and of monastic values. From this solid base, Harvey expands outward into a consideration of interpersonal relationships and social ethics. Unlike most studies of Buddhist ethics, Harvey gives ample attention to Mahayana ethics (in chapter 3, "Mahayana Emphases and Adaptations"). He considers the ethics and precepts of the bodhisattva, the role of compassion, wisdom, and skill-in-means, including such controversial topics as compassionate killing, compassionate stealing, noncelibacy, and lying. He also leads us through some specific sectarian applications of Buddhist ethics by considering Tantra, Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren. Throughout, Harvey offers his readers a helpful mix of primary and secondary [End Page 237] literature, as well as a consideration of ancient and...