Sunday, 3 January 2010

How to Teach Buddhist Ethics

The good news is that I've been invited to sunny southern California to teach Buddhist ethics (/philosophy?) to 50 college students over 5 days this month. The tough thing now is determining just how to go about teaching it.

In fact, the format is a bit up in the air (as far as I know), so some of my assumptions may be incorrect, but here is what I think I'm expected to do.

Give the students, who I assume will be fairly new to Buddhism, an overview of the entirety of Buddhist Ethics (Peter Harvey 2000 style) in 5 hours.


The fact is, I probably will teach right from his book, "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics."

But I also had the odd notion of trying a dual chronological approach, starting in the 1960s with the publications of Winston King's "In the Hope of Nibbana" and (1970) Melford Spiro's "Buddhism and Society" - setting up the very simple dualism of kammic vs nibbanic Buddhism as an introduction. I could spend a whole lecture describing how these categories have been and could be used to describe the activities of Buddhists the world over (Geoffrey Samuel carefully utilizes them in his brilliant 1990 book on Tibetan Buddhism, "Civilized Shamans").

Then I would move forward to the late 1970s, when a panel at the American Academy of Religions, including Harvey Aronson and Donald Swearer, debunked the simplistic duality of kammic vs nibbanic Buddhism. Then again we could revisit Buddhist history to question the motivations behind certain words or activities by the Buddha and his followers.

Third, I could move forward to 1992 and Damien Keown's sweeping effort to categorize Buddhism as a species of virtue ethics and his critics. Here we would see the difficulties encountered with aspects of upaya (skillful means) which violate basic Buddhist Ethics.

Already I think I have enough for 5 days (easily) with just those three 'movements' in the history of the study of Buddhist Ethics. But I'm guessing this approach, basically saying, "let's look at Buddhist Ethics by seeing what Western scholars say it is," is not the best one, or the one that my employers will be satisfied with.

Perhaps an exploration of the study of Buddhist Ethics is a worthy project down the road. It would of course include folks like Hammalawa Saddhatissa and others who were influenced by and influential in the development of the academic discipline of Buddhist Ethics.

But for now, for students new to the religion, I think Harvey's approach is best.