Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A "Revisionist View of Buddhist Ethics" ?

In his 1994 paper, Buddhist Ethics in Western Context: The Virtues Approach, James Whitehill describes Damien Keown's work on Buddhist Ethics as a "well-argued, revisionist view of Buddhist ethics."

In a later paper (1995) Keown seems to acknowledge this distance of his own work from traditional Buddhism when he asks:
In the context of human rights, which is the theme of this paper, an important preliminary question would seem to be whether traditional Buddhism has any understanding of what is meant by "human rights" at all. Indeed, it may be thought that since the concept of "rights" is the product of an alien cultural tradition it would be utterly inappropriate to speak of rights of any kind - "human" or otherwise - in a Buddhist context. (from here, emphasis mine)
By this they seem to mean that Keown is consciously breaking from the "traditional" approach found in Asian countries and attempting to formulate a broader, more theoretical and systematic understanding of Buddhist Ethics.
Given this definition, my work will also take on a "revisionist" approach to Buddhist ethics. What this means exactly, I'm not sure. Both the traditionalist and Keown (and me for that matter) want to describe the actual ethics of Buddhism, not just something we are making up.
Perhaps the traditionalist looks more at what Buddhists do? Or what is primarily taught in the monasteries as ethics? Perhaps the traditionalist even shies away from the use of the term 'ethics', knowing it is a Western category and that no clear slice of 'Buddhism' (yet another Western category) will fit into it.

Perhaps what makes his work, and mine when I do it, revisionist is that it attempts to explain things in a way that Westerners will understand - distanced, objective, disengaged. Whereas the traditionalist writes to move the reader/student forward on the path. The objectives are different. But this is simply the difference between scholarly and practical/practitioner-based Buddhist works. Are these the same categories? Are there other similar categories -- such as immigrant/convert Buddhism in the West -- that have similar lack of utility beyond the most superficial usage?

What does it mean to break from "traditional" Buddhist thought? What limits must still be in place? Much to ponder...