01 August 2014

Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism

In the texts of early Buddhism we find several kinds or modes of morality. One of which is mainly aimed at being a good community member and one of which is aimed at preparation for meditation. In this essays I will outline the main approaches to Buddhist ethics that I see in the Pāḷi suttas. This line of reasoning first occurred to me in responding to a comment on my essay: Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas. (21 Mar 2014). I also argue that this variety of approaches to ethics argues against a single origin for Buddhism. As with other areas, Buddhist ethics is composite with some aspects not being completely integrated.

Being Good. 

This is the aspect of ethics that most of us are familiar with. The representative set of precepts is known as the pañcasīlāni or just pañcasīla. In this formula we undertake to refrain from certain actions: killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. When I've written essays on these topics (see links), they generated many comments and often sharply polarised responses! 

In the Triratna Order we follow a related set of precepts traditionally known as the dasa-kusala-kamma-patha or 'the path of the ten good actions'. In this set of precepts we undertake to refrain from killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, divisive speech, covetousness, ill will, and confusion. And we also undertake to cultivate the opposites of each of these.

One of my colleagues has just published a book which she titled It's Not About Being Good. But I'm afraid I disagree. These precepts are about being good, where good is defined in Buddhist cultural terms which, I argue, can be traced back to the Śākya tribe. The Śramaṇa religious cultures synthesised Zoroastrian (via the Śākyas), Vedic, autochthonic animistic and shamanistic ideas to produce a new set of moral values and rules that transcended the local community and situation. These rules are largely about getting on with people and creating a harmonious community, i.e. norms of behaviour for a community that have become formalised and normalised.

In my article on the possible origins of some aspects of Buddhism in Iran I cited the fact that in the region only Zoroastrians and Buddhists have a morality which applies to acts of body, speech and mind. And in both cases it is acts of body, speech and mind that determine one's afterlife destination. In Zoroastrianism there were only two possibilities, Heaven and Hell; while Buddhism came to see many possible rebirth destinations (gati) of five or six kinds (loka) contrasted with nirvāṇa which meant the end of being reborn altogether (a feature of Buddhism repudiated 500 years later by Mahāyānavādins who couldn't bear the thought of the Buddha leaving them behind). Buddhist morality is probably based on Zoroastrian morality and was transmitted to the Central Ganges Valley by migrating peoples including the Śākya tribe. 

We might therefore see this kind of social-norm morality as simply the morality of the Śākya tribe writ large. This is how the Śākyas treated each other and expected to be treated, and with the influence of Zoroastrianism and the experience of migration it's possible they already saw their values as universal. This should not be seen as an attempt to trivialise Buddhist ethics. Clearly community was very important to the early Buddhists and a whole genre of texts, the Vinaya, was created with the intention of regulating the monastic community to try to create a harmonious and positive community. And the way examples are given it's clear that the community was often far from harmonious.

This code was then used to transform the Theory of Karma. The earliest versions of karma occur in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad where it probably still refers to ritual actions. However there was a right way and a wrong way to perform the rituals necessitating at least two afterlife destinations. With the application of ethics to karma—a process Richard Gombrich calls ethicisation—the Śākyas created a unique combination of morality, eschatology and soteriology, which all revolved around the intentional behaviour of the individual. The key statement of this principle occurs just once in the Pāli texts (AN 6.63) but it is picked up by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (chp 17) a s representative view. The statement is cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi  cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā. "Intention is what I call an action, monks. Having intended one acts with body, speech or mind." (See also Action and Intention)

We say that the precepts are part of the three fold path, i.e. śīla, samādhi, and prajñā or ethics, meditation and wisdom. And it is true that the five precepts are referred to as sīla. However the precepts call themselves sikkhapāda 'training steps'. And note that the dasa-kuasala-kamma-patha don't include the word sīla either.

Preparation for Meditation.

A friend and I were discussing Ayya Khema's approach to meditation recently. My friend mentioned her admonition that if you want to meditate you need to get out of the hindrances and stay out. And this brought to mind something I quoted from Ayya Khema in my article about the Spiral Path texts for the Western Buddhist Review. That for meditation to be possible it was necessary to experience some pāmojja. The two statements amount to much the same thing: pāmojja is the state of no (gross) hindrances. 

One of the discoveries that came out of surveying the Pāli and Chinese texts on the Spiral Path was that as a whole they present the threefold path as a series of progressive stages, illustrated by the image of rain filling smaller streams which fill larger streams, smaller rivers and larger rives until larger rivers fill up the ocean. This fact had been obscured in books about the Spiral Path by both Sangharakshita (1967) and Ayya Khema (1999) because they focussed on the Upanissā Sutta. In that sutta the sīla section of the path is replaced with just two steps dukkha and saddhā as a result of a rather clumsy attempt to link the two forms of dependent arising. As my article showed getting from dukkha to saddhā is not simple - typically commentators introduce three sub-steps to get from one to the other. This isn't clear until one looks at all the other texts which share a similar structure (eg. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, for a complete list see my 2012 article). Generally speaking saddhā arises on the basis of hearing the Dharma, and seems to precede sīla in the texts that include it. 

The Spiral Path texts describe a path. That path has three sections with two junctions. The first section is sīla leading to the liminal experience of pāmojja. Pāmojja ushers us into the second stage, samādhi or meditation (the word literally means 'integration'). Samādhi is one of the steps on the path with various other steps leading up to it. My conjecture is that each of the single words on the Spiral Path represent one of the four rūpajhanas. The junction between meditation and the next stage of wisdom is "knowledge and vision of things as they are" (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). With knowledge and vision we can see sense experience for what it is, we become fed up (nibbidā) with it, turn away (virāga) from it and experience liberation (vimokkha) and the knowledge of liberation.

But the sīla section of the Spiral Path is entirely unlike the precepts. Each text has a different selection from a series of related terms. Some of them, including the Pāli DN2 and many of the Chinese versions in the Madhyāgama, include the whole list. That list is:
sati, sampajanñña, yoniso-manasikāra, hiri, ottapa, saṃvara, and indriyesu gutta-dvāratā.

mindfulness, awareness, wise attention, shame, scruple, restraint, and guarding the gates of the senses.
I mentioned that saddhā is included in this list at times. In fact saddhā might be said to be the junction between non-participation and practising ethics. Typically saddhā arises when someone listens to a Dhamma discourse by the Buddha. On the basis of this faith one begins to practice sīla.

If we look at these terms we can immediately see that they represent something very different from the precepts. This really isn't about being good. This set of terms, with the possible exception of hiri & ottapa, is all about preparation for meditation: for getting out of the hindrances and staying out of them. And there is almost no overlap with sets like the five precepts (pañcasīlāni). One might argue that the "mind precepts" from the dasakuasala-kammapatha do overlap with these. However the kammapatha are general and the Spiral Path ethics are specific. The former are about the commitment to managing one's own mental states, and the latter constitutes a program for achieving that goal.

Hiri and ottapa are about one's own knowledge of what constitutes ethics and being cognizant of the opinions of respected group members. In truth they could be relevant in either of the two contexts I'm outlining here. But the fact is that they are associated with the Spiral Path so that may incline us to see them as natural to this context. One of the things we must constantly do is catch our minds wandering off and returning them to the object of meditation. It is hiri which facilitates this. And if our own sense of appropriateness fails us we can always imagine explaining to our teacher how we spent our meditation.

So there are these two very different approaches to ethics in early Buddhist texts: one for community life, and one for meditation. I don't recall seeing this distinction made before and I'm certainly aware of presentations that confuse the two modes. But there is at least one more aspect to Buddhist ethics, the quest for a good rebirth.

A Good Destination.

It's difficult to know exactly where to place this approach to ethics. It might not even be ethics, but it is an aspect of karma so it is at least related. This approach to ethics is as condition for a better rebirth and ensuring the livelihood of renunciants. It involves cultivating puṇya through good ritual acts such as generosity to renunciants. It seems to relate to the idea of rebirth in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

Puṇya (Pāḷi puñña) is a term drawn from Vedic ritualism but the practice of supporting renunciants seems to have been a widespread practice in Indian in the Iron Age. Puṇya is contrasted with pāpa and pāpa seems to straightforwardly mean "evil". So puṇya is the opposite of evil, or "good", though we often translate it as "merit". I suppose it is merit in the sense that if you collect enough of it, then you merit a good rebirth. A bit like Buddhist loyalty points. A surplus of puṇya leads to a good rebirth destination (suggati). 

With the ethicisation of karma getting to a good rebirth destination becomes an ethical issue. At best supporting renunciants might be seen as cultivating generosity which is one of the qualities one cultivates to be a good community members. As Reggie Ray has shown in Buddhist Saints the various lifestyles of Iron Age Ganges culture (householder, settled monastic and forest renunciant) all relied on each other in a variety of ways.

Buddhists took the Vedic notion of puṇya and married it to sīla so that puṇya comes to be seen as having soteriological value (though this change may well have happened in pre-Buddhist Vedic milieu as well). However they were care to limit the possibilities of merit to sotāpanna or stream entry. As Thanissaro says in his Study Guide on Merit:
"For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit." 
And that said almost the quotes on puṇya evinced by Thanissaro promise a good rebirth destination as the primary result of cultivating merit.


Thus we have these various modes of ethical practice evident in early Buddhist texts and persisting (though without an explicit distinction) into the present: being a good community member, preparation for meditation, obtaining a good rebirth. It may be that Buddhaghosa anticipated this distinction. Buddhaghosa cites a traditional classification of sīla in the Visuddhimagga which makes almost the same distinction I am making here. "What is virtue?" he asks and quotes the Paṭisambhidā (a commentarial text included in the Khuddaka Nikāya) as responding:
cetanā sīlaṃ, cetasikaṃ sīlaṃ, saṃvaro sīlaṃ, avītikkamo sīla 
virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant, virtue as restraint, and virtue as non-transgression. 
I'm following Ñāṇamoḷi's translation of sīla as 'virtue' in his translation of the Visuddhimagga (p.7). My first category might be seen to take in virtue as non-transgression; while my second category takes in virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant and virtue as restraint. Being a good community member is a matter of conforming to the norms of the community; while preparation for meditation means actively working on hindrances in an effort to eliminate them from one's mind, even if only temporarily. However, my reading of Buddhaghosa is that he doesn't see these different types of virtue as aimed at different goals. He doesn't quite acknowledge that being a good community member is a good in itself. However, the observation that there are different modes of ethics is not original. 

I haven't said much about the Vinaya in this essay. This is deliberate. I'm mostly interested in the suttas (I've been called a Sautrāntika for this reason). The Vinaya is certainly an expression of the moral principles found in the precepts, but primarily concerned with the minutiae of how to encode values as rules and then enforce them in a large and disparate community which has to live within a wider community that is not bound by the same values or rules. I've written about the law making process in an essay called: The Mad Monk and the Process of Making the Vinaya. The Vinaya is important in the history of Buddhist ideas, and I would say significant in the world's development of legal codes since it records the processes by which laws were made and enforced. But it was only ever intended to apply to the monastic community.

This is another case of distinctions being hidden by imposed unity. The desire to see Buddhism as a unitary phenomenon, at the very least springing from a single individual overwhelms our ability to see the evidence clearly. We're taught that Buddhist ethics has a single mode that covers all the bases;  that for example, the precepts for being a good community member are sufficient also for meditation. I think this simplification is probably an error, and that for meditation we need another, solitary, mode of ethical practice that is much more intensive. We're also taught that Buddhist ethics all grew out of the Buddha's awakening, though historically this simply cannot be true. The Buddha, if he lived at all, grew up in a community, the Śākyas, and must have absorbed the values of that community and expressed this in his teaching. And then at a later time Brahmanical values were super-imposed over Śākyan values. And then Mahāyāna overlaid yet another set of values.

So that this idea that as modern Buddhists bringing our values to Buddhism we are somehow doing something novel is simply ignorant and anachronistic. No adult convert can ever arrive in the Buddhist fold without a set of values and other baggage. 


Jayarava. (2008) 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 15.
Jayarava. (2012) 'The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.' Western Buddhist Review, 6. 
Jayarava. (2013) Possible Iranian Origins. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. 
Khema, [Ayya]. (1999) When The Iron Eagle Flies
Ñāṇamoḷi. (1956) The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1997. 
Ray, R. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India. Oxford University Press. 
Sangharakshita. (1967). The Three Jewels. Windhorse.

8 Aug 2014: Dayāmati (Prof R. P. Hayes) has penned an interesting response to this essay on his blog: How were Buddhists ethical? He compares various attempts to characterise Buddhist ethics in Western terms (including my suggestion that Buddhist ethics might be particularist). So far, he concludes, "no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others." And perhaps Buddhist ethics cannot be characterised in Western terms. 
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