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  • How Can a Buddha Come to Act?The Possibility of a Buddhist Account of Ethical Agency
  • Bronwyn Finnigan


In the past decade or so there has been a surge of monographs on the nature of ‘Buddhist Ethics.’ For the most part, authors are concerned with developing and defending explications of Buddhism as a normative ethical theory with an apparent aim of putting Buddhist thought directly in dialogue with contemporary Western philosophical debates in ethics. Despite disagreement among Buddhist ethicists concerning which contemporary normative ethical theory a Buddhist ethic would most closely resemble (if any), 1 it is arguable that all Buddhist ethicists (like all Buddhists) embrace and endorse the Four Noble Truths as a framing assumption. That is, a Buddhist ethic will (1) typically assume that we fallible human beings are in trouble—that is, that there is suffering (Skt. duhkha /Tib. sdug bsngal ); (2) diagnose the trouble; (3) posit a strategy for overcoming the trouble (for example, the Eightfold Path); and (often) (4) indicate what life would be like when one has overcome the trouble. Significantly, for any ethical theory that is ‘progressive’ in the sense of positing a strategy or pathway toward a desired teleological end, there will be a symmetric relation of dependence between the teleological end and the strategy employed to achieve that end. That is, not only will the stages of the pathway posited for overcoming the trouble be justified in relation to their role in constituting or producing the teleological end, but the teleological end itself will be determined by this process. 2 Arguably, the Four Noble Truths are also a framing assumption for the Indian and Tibetan tradition of Buddhist logic and epistemology that stems from the thought of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. According to this tradition, one major cause of our trouble is our employment of universals (samanya /spyi). 3 Most crudely, this practice leads us to (fallaciously) posit and reify the objects of our intentional states. 4 We think there really are people and middle-sized objects ‘out there’ toward which we direct our anger, fear, and clinging, and thereby perpetuate the suffering that is the central expression of our trouble.

More subtly, our employment of universals leads us to confuse our perceptual judgments 5 or conceptual cognitions (considered, ultimately, to be erroneous or distorted, bhrānta) with perception (which is considered to be non-erroneous or undis-torted, abhrānta). How shall we understand this? Perception (pratyakṣa / mngon sum) according to Dharmakīrti, is one of only two types of knowledge, or valid cognition (pramāna / tshad ma), 6 the second of which is inference (anumāna / rjes dpag). Perception [End Page 134] is considered to be the initial and direct acquaintance with a real object, where the only real objects in Dharmakīrti’s ontology are unique and momentary particulars (svalakṣaṇa / rang mtshan) capable of causal efficacy (arthakriya).

Importantly, perception is considered to be free from conceptuality (kalpanapoḍha) and, as such, is undistorted. By contrast, cognitions that are in any way mediated by concepts, language, memory, or recognition (such as perceptual judgments of the kind ‘this is such-and-such’ or instances of ‘seeing as’) are distorted. This is because their objects are conceptual constructs, or universally characterized phenomena (samanyalakṣaṇa / spyi mtshan), and universally characterized phenomena are not real. Moreover, although inference is considered to be a valid form of cognition, it is still a form of conceptual knowledge and, ultimately speaking, does not directly grasp a real particular object in its true nature. 7 Thus, inferential cognition is, essentially, distorted knowledge, unlike perception. 8

If we return to the framing assumption of the Four NobleTruths, the Dharmakīrtian system suggests a characterization of the mind not only of fallible human beings on the pathway to buddhahood, but also that of a buddha at the end of this process. Fallible human beings rely on inference as a source of knowledge, engage in conceptual cognition, and have dualistic awareness. These practices (and cognitive capacities) rely on universals/concepts and, as such, are distorted. 9 Our reliance on universals is often explained in terms of our ignorance (avidya / ma rig pa). A buddha...