Sunday, 22 March 2009

Gethin poking some fun at modern revisionist scholars

...the "ethical" portion of the discourse is to be preferred to the "mythic" precisely because it is ethical, and, as we all know, the earliest Buddhist teachings were simple, ethical teachings, unadulterated by myth and superstition; we know that early Buddhist teaching was like this because of the evidence of the rest of the canon. Here the argument becomes one of classic circularity: we arrive at a particular view about the nature of early Buddhism by ignoring portions of the canon and then use that view to argue for the lateness of the portions of the canon we have ignored. (p.215)
From "Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña-Sutta to the Mahāyāna," Rupert Gethin, History of Religions, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Feb., 1997), pp. 183-217

Notes on Keown's review of Kalupahana's Book on Buddhist Ethics 1997

I have not read the book, "Ethics in Early Buddhism", or anything (that I recall) of substance from David Kalupahana. This review makes me want to read it (eventually) just to see what NOT to do in my own work. I recall being warned to be wary of Kalupahana's ideas by Paul Williams in Bristol as well.

The review is in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Apr., 1997), pp. 337-340

Notes on Masao Abe's 1983 paper "God, Emptiness, and Ethics"

Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 3. (1983), pp. 53-60.
Stable URL:

1: key people:
2: key themes:
  • Ultimate reality - ontology - metaphysics
  • Epistemology
  • Soteriology
  • Ethics
  • Eschatology
  • Two Truths, Samsara/Nirvana (n.b. this discussion shows the complexity of this doctrine in a way that is parallel to that of Kant's noumenal/phenomenal distinction. Each has both ontological and epistemic import throughout, and each has been misunderstood as applying to only one of these realms)
  • Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
  • kataphatic / apophatic (via-negativa)
3: argument:

Christian ethics are Eschatological, pointing to an end-time (judgment, coming of God, etc) and therefore temporal and historically oriented. "Buddhist ethics and its dynamism are
based on this dialectical tension of 'already' and 'not yet', a tension which is not future-oriented but absolute-present-oriented. Thus, in Buddhism, at each and every moment of history, a development toward the endless future is at once the total return to the root and source of history, that is, unchanging eternity." (p.60)

Rupp and Cobb, as per Thurman's criticism, misunderstand this ahistoricity as implying a certain death (or lack) of ethics.

Notable Quotes:
Thurman also emphasizes the inseparability of the insight of Emptiness from
ethical action and the interdependency of metaphysics and ethics in Buddhism. (p.54)

... Murti overlooks the discontinuity between samsara and Nirvana. In Bud-
dhism, samsara is realized as the beginningless and endless process of living-
dying. There is no continuous path from samsara to Nirvana; (p.54)

Buddha thus showed the way to attain Nirvana by realizing the dependent co-
origination of everything in the process of samsara. (p.56)

In order to make this point clearer, let me quote a well known discourse of a
Chinese Zen master, Ch'ing-yuan Wei-hsin of the T'ang dynasty. It runs as
Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen I said, 'Mountains are
mountains; waters are waters.' After I got an insight into the truth of Zen
through the instruction of a good master, I said, 'Mountains are not moun-
tains; waters are not waters.' But now, having attained the abode of final rest
(that is enlightenment), I say, 'Mountains are really mountains; waters are
really waters. ' (p.56)

Along the lines of Wei-hsin, we can state with full justification:
Before Buddhist practice, I thought 'good is good, evil is evil.' When I had
an insight into Buddhist truth, I realized 'good is not good, evil is not evil.'
But now, awakening to true Emptiness I say, 'good is really good; evil is
really evil.' (p.57)

As both Eckel and Thurman emphasize, Buddhist Emptiness is not merely
an ontological ultimate reality devoid of practical commitment. (p.57)

As I suggested before, ethics belongs to conventional truth. However, true
and genuine ethics may be in the mundane world, it cannot arrive at ultimate
truth as Emptiness. There is no continuous path from ethics to Emptiness. In
order to reach Emptiness ethics must be realized as "ignorance" and be turned
over completely. However, this is only the negative aspect of Emptiness. In its
positive and affirmative aspect, in which Emptiness empties itself, ultimate
truth expresses itself in the form of ethics and ethics is thereby reestablished in
light of Emptiness.

Accordingly, although ethics belongs to the conventional realm, it is not
subordinate to the realization of Emptiness, for ultimate truth can express itself
only in the mundane world. In this sense Emptiness may even be said to be
subordinate to ethics. In Madhyama-kakarika,Nagarjuna says, "The ultimate
truth is not taught apart from practical beha~ior."~ In Nagarjuna the ontologi-
cal realization of Emptiness is always connected with practical and soteriological
concerns. (p.58)

When Nirvana is simply taken as the goal, ethics may be dissolved in Emptiness and history may not be clearly realized. This is why throughout its long history Mahayana Buddhism has emphasized "Do not abide in Nirvana" and severely rejected an attachment to Emptiness as a "rigid view of nothingness' ' or a "literal understanding of negativity." (p.59)

Cobb says, "In the Bible, Yahweh is portrayed as righteous, and the appropriate response to Yahweh's righteousness is human righteousness." Due to the transcendent character of this divine righteousness, if I am not wrong, Christian ethics becomes an eschatological ethics which is somewhat future-oriented. (p.59)