07 March 2014

The Death of a Child: Moral Particularism in Early Buddhism?

Nepalese Boy: Herald Sun
One of the questions that have concerned philosophers throughout history is whether or not there are universal moral principles. Most Buddhists consider that the moral principles of Buddhism are universal. Moral training rules (śikṣāpada/sikkhāpada) and monastic etiquette (Vinaya) are some of the most characteristic features of Buddhism. 

Although we generally see Buddhism as presenting general moral principles, in this essay I'm going to argue that there is at least an element of moral particularism in the Pāli texts. In the extreme this view says that morality is not about the application of moral principles and that, in fact, there are no universally applicable moral principles. Moral generalists argue that the same principles apply to the same situations all the time. A moral particularist denies this. For example we might say that because something is against the law that there is reason not to do it. But others will say that breaking the same law is a duty.

An interesting contemporary example is the case of Edward Snowden. Snowden was legally and contractually obliged to keep the secrets of the NSA secret. However because the NSA appeared to be breaking the law, and because he got no positive response through legally available channels, he decided that he must break the law and his contract. He stole documents, released them to the news media, and fled the country. For some people the ends do not justify the means. Snowden is simply a criminal who has broken the law and possibly harmed his country. Others see his broken promises as necessitated by the criminal activity of the NSA. Some people see moral rules as always applicable, while others see that each situation is unique. 

Buddhist ethics are spelled out in stories. Most people find it easier to understand a moral principle if they can relate it to through seeing people interact, whether in life or in imagination. This may be the reason that the Jātakas became the main vehicle for teaching ethics in Theravāda Buddhism. Below I very briefly outline three stories in which the moral problem is the same in each case - coming to terms with the death of a child. If there are universally applicable moral principles then we would expect responses to similar situations to be similar. If there are no universally applicable moral principles then we would expect the responses to be different in each case.  

Buddhists probably know the story of Kisā Gotamī and her dead baby. She takes the baby's corpse to the Buddha and asks his help for her "sick" baby. The Buddha says he can help, but only if Kisā can obtain some mustard seed from a house where no one has ever died. After traipsing around the town, Kisā cannot find a house where no one has died and comes to accept the fact that her baby has died, and that humans all die. The moral message is that death comes to all of us and not losing our heads when death takes our loved ones is an essential skill for a good life - because death always comes, and as one of my mentors once said, death is never convenient. The fact that Kisā is so attached to her child that she goes mad when it dies is not criticised.

By contrast in the Piyajātika Sutta (MN 87) the Buddha meets an unnamed man whose son has died and is beside himself. In Indian literature the unnamed person in examples like this is often called Devadatta:  it's the equivalent of "Joe Bloggs". So that's what we'll call him. Devadatta is walking the streets, dishevelled and unhinged calling out "my only son, where are you?" The Buddha simply tells the man, "That's just how it is, those we love cause us all kinds of grief and misery" (Evameva gahapati, piyajātikā hi gahapati , soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass[a]-upāyāsā piyappabhavikā 'ti) and he leaves it at that. The Buddha goes on his way but the Devadatta thinks that the Buddha has got it all wrong. Like most people he thinks that the people we love, especially our children, are a source of happiness. Devadatta seeks solace with gamblers, who represent the worst aspects of society, and they quickly confirm his view that the Buddha has it all wrong. King Pasenadi hears about the exchange and is rather disconcerted by this apparent callousness in the face of death. Pasenadi inquires of his wife, Queen Mallikā, whether the story is true and when she confirms it they discuss the implications together. In a set piece discussion, then deduce that those we love really are a source of all kinds of misery and that it is marvellous how insightful the Buddha is. In the end the shock of the initial rejection, which so strongly contrasts with the Buddha's reaction to Kisā Gotamī, is worked out to some extent, but the story remains unsettling to anyone who loves someone and does not want them to die.

The third story is generally also well known, but not for the particular aspect I will highlight here. I've covered it in writing about the saccakiriyā or "truth act" and it involves the Buddha intervening in the difficult, potentially fatal birth of a child, by giving Aṅgulimāla a magic spell to recite. Here the almost fatalistic acceptance of death is seen in a new light. In this story the magic of the saccakriyā or truth act is used to ensure mother and baby don't die in childbirth. The Buddha intervenes to prevent their death. The implication here is that their death was unsettling to Aṅgulimāla and the Buddha simply enabled him to do something about it.

So here we have three distinct attitudes to the death of a child: 
  1. gentle coxing towards the acceptance of the universality of death; 
  2. fatalistic acceptance that love implies attachment and that attachment brings suffering; 
  3. the use of taboo means (i.e. magic) to avoid the death of mother and child. 
Now clearly these stories are not precisely the same. The comparison between the cases of Kisā and Devadatta is striking. In one the Buddha is portrayed as kind and compassionate. He takes time and effort to help Kisā to understand. Devadatta however is simply left with the barest of factual accounts: "C'est la vie" (Evameva). We suspect that the case of Devadatta was inexpertly composed to provide a frame for the discussion between Pasenadi and Mallikā. It provides them with the stimulus to consider the consequences of familial love and attachment in a way that is far more sympathetic than the frame story. But because the story is canonical we must consider that at some point some early Buddhists thought this a plausible enough depiction of the Buddha dealing with a distraught grieving father to compose and preserve it. On the face of it the Buddha fails to help Devadatta and appears rather callous.

Of course death is inevitable. For any self-aware living being this knowledge is terrible. As living beings we desire continued life above all things. So the irresistible force of life meets the immovable object of death and, in the cases of Kisā and Devadatta, the result is madness. In one case the madness is cured and in the other it is not. But in the case of Aṅgulimāla the prospect of death is put off by the use of magic. Buddhist texts are rather ambivalent about magic. Some miracles are performed by the Buddha and form an important aspect of his hagiographies: the so-called "twin miracles" or the conversion of the Kassapa brothers at Uruvela are two examples. And yet in other places the monks are forbidden to use magic, and in another the Buddha denies rumours that he is (simply) a wizard.

My point here is that there does not seem to be a moral principle which applies in each case. Sometimes one can use magic and other times not, with no discernible pattern, Sometimes the Buddha takes extraordinary care of a grieving parent and other times he simply says "C'est la vie". These stories taken together seem represent at least some level of moral particularism. We can deduce from these stories that early Buddhists did not see behaviour simply in terms of general moral principles, but allowed for different responses to seemingly similar situations depending on factors which are not preserved in the stories themselves.


A very good introduction to the subject of moral particularism can be found in this interview with Jonathan Dancy on Philosophy Bites. [Thanks to Dhīvan for pointing this out]. 
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