Friday, 15 January 2010

Buddhist Ethics - Context

First we must see the context in which Buddhism arose. I like using a comparison between the times of the Buddha and our own age as a way to engage the students, so that they think about contemporary society and what it might have been like to be alive in the age of the Buddha.

First we look at six aspects of the "Age of the Wanderers" as it has been called, a time of great change and social transformation in early India.

Then we wonder about similarities between then and now. It's pretty amazing when we put these side by side. We are in an age of incredible change, just as the Buddha was 2500 years ago. Who are the modern Brahmanas and Shramanas?

If the students understand just this, and engage with it intellectually and imaginatively, the rest will flow like the waters of the Ganges... 

Notes on Buddhist Ethics, Day one

Day one is about introductions and orientation. The students will have read much of Walpola Rahula's excellent book, "What the Buddha Taught." So they won't be in the dark about Buddhist concepts, but "Buddhist Ethics" will still be something new to them.

We'll begin with me, my background as a student of philosophy and Buddhist Studies; I could crack a joke about studying PS and BS, but I have a feeling I'd be the only one laughing. As such, I'm most interested in ideas (and hence texts). But I also see the importance of looking at what people actually do. So while we look at and examine texts, we should ask what contextual factors influenced these ideas and how the ideas were put into practice, if indeed they ever were.

I'm also a practitioner of Buddhism - having practiced in many traditions and never formally setting roots in any.  That said, I'm mostly familiar with practices and texts of the Theravadin tradition.

Now for some Buddhist Ethics. What is it? Where do we find it?

Ethics might be:
  • a set of principles of right conduct, or
  • a theory or system of moral values.
Ethics also is:
  • The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy, and
  • The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession: e.g. medical ethics.
What we are doing here is the third one, and what we'll look at are the first two.

"Buddhism" is sometimes hard to pin down too. But as students or scholars, the usual convention is to start with the historical person, Siddhartha Gautama, the body of teachings attributed to him, and the community that formed around him in his lifetime and after.  These are known to Buddhists as the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; the three jewels, or the three refuges.

Because the tradition is so old, with the Buddha living approximately from 483-403 BCE, there have been countless historical developments in "Buddhism." Today we might wish to highlight the many different "Buddhisms" by pointing out the differences between Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, and Thai Buddhism, or between Sakya Tibetan Buddhism and Geluk Tibetan Buddhism, and so on. There are divisions, and divisions within divisions, so that we have to be careful not to think we ever know all of "Buddhism" - even when we know the early texts or the teachings of this or that great master very well.

On the other hand, it cannot be the case that "anything goes" in our definition of Buddhism. If a Westerner picks up and enjoys a book on Buddhism and begins to identify him/herself as a Buddhist, we might wonder: does this person take refuge in the 3 jewels? Does this person believe that good actions bring good rewards and bad actions lead to bad consequences? Does this person practice generosity with the understanding of no-self and/or interconnectedness?

It helps to keep in mind that "Buddhism" itself is a Western term, created by Europeans as they colonized India. There, people who identified themselves as followers of Ganesh or Shiva were lumped into the soup of Hinduism, while those who followed Buddha and Jina Mahavira were deemed different enough (as followers of human teachers rather than deities/gods) to get their own categories as Buddhists and Jains.  

For our purposes, we'll stick pretty closely to the core texts. Keeping in mind what is covered in "What the Buddha Taught" we'll look at Peter Harvey's excellent, "Introduction to Buddhist Ethics." This book also traces out the contours of the early texts, and then moves us into some of the changes brought about in Mahayana Buddhism. Here we'll explore the concept of Upaya (or "skillful means") along with such developments as Tantra, Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren Buddhism.