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David Chapman has on his blog a provocative new series of posts about Buddhist ethics. You can get a strong sense of the tenor of these posts from their titles: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud, “Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics, Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system, Buddhist morality is Medieval, and How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics.

I think that in these posts Chapman is doing something useful and important: he is taking the critiques of Yavanayāna Buddhism made by recent contemporary scholarship, and exploring their concrete and practical implications in a way that many of those scholars are too timid to admit. Chapman pushes the issue constructively, rejecting a great deal not only of the modernist Buddhism that so often goes under the name of “Buddhist ethics”, but of traditional Buddhism as well.

There is much to be said for this critique. It comes down to two parallel critiques, one of the traditional, one of the modern. Chapman notes that modern readers, whom he presumes would include everyone reading his articles, cannot endorse the moral norms found in traditional Buddhist texts; and he is surely right on this. I suspect I have stronger sympathies for traditional Buddhist norms than most, but certainly not to the point of many of the norms he lists, such as support for slavery or for gender inequality. Such a dissatisfaction with traditional norms leads naturally to an attempt to found a modern, Yavanayāna Buddhist ethics. But what does such an ethics mean?

It is on this latter point about the modern that Chapman pushes the issue well, in ways any Yavanayāna Buddhist should think about. Friend of this blog Seth Zuihō Segall makes the essential point that traditions change and evolve, a point I’ve also made in the past. Chapman accepts that point, but in this case he asks the next question, an important and fundamental one. That question is: what then is still Buddhist about “Buddhist ethics”? How is being this sort of Buddhist different from not being a Buddhist? He asks:

If this contemporary “Buddhist ethics” is valuable, it must tell us something that is true, significant, and distinctive. It must include teachings not already understood by (say) a non-Buddhist college-educated left-leaning Californian. If she learned about—and accepted—“Buddhist ethics,” which of her ethical principles or actions would she have to change?

I can’t think of any. Can you?

I can think of at least one in the contemporary “Buddhist ethics” literature: abortion (garbhahata). Peter Harvey’s book on Buddhist ethics is very suited to the concerns of a “college-educated left-leaning Californian”, since the issues it concerns itself with are political issues of a sort that deeply concern left-leaning Californians but are often intentionally avoided in classical Buddhist texts. Chapman cites Harvey as an example of the Buddhist-ethics mindset he finds problematic:

Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics devotes an entire chapter, 56 pages long, to “Sexual Equality.” This simply does not exist in Buddhism. Harvey really, really wants it to exist, but in the end he doesn’t say it does, because it doesn’t.

Yet Harvey does acknowledge that those texts see abortion as a wrong, even to the point of believing it should be illegal (which I do not believe myself). He is able to find resources within the tradition to take a position on, say, homosexuality more suited to contemporary left-leaning sensibilities, but he has a hard time with that one. The idea that abortion should be illegal is, to put it mildly, not one that would find widespread acceptance among left-leaning Californians.

So even in the contemporary literature on Buddhist ethics that Chapman disdains, there would seem to be at least one example of a belief at odds with the standard teachings of left-leaning Californians. But it’s not enough. As mentioned, I support legal abortion myself, so it’s a question worth asking of me: what is Buddhist about my position? More importantly, it hardly seems that opposition to abortion – a concern one has to dig hard in traditional Buddhist texts to even find – would be enough to mark one as distinctively Buddhist. In that respect, I think Chapman’s challenge to the conventional Yavanayāna Buddhist-ethics literature (such as Harvey) is actually about right. If contemporary Buddhist ethics is to be contemporary Buddhist ethics, there needs to be something more clearly Buddhist about it than this.

And here I turn back to a key point of my dissertation and especially my first JBE article: a great deal of Buddhism has been anti-political. It warns us away from the kinds of political concerns that take centre stage in the ethical thinking of our prototypical Californian – or denizen of Massachusetts.[1] That point is unarguably and distinctively Buddhist.

But Chapman should rightly object here: in what sense is it modern? Isn’t anti-politics itself just another medieval worldview like gender inequality, that everybody now would and should discard? Don’t we know better than that now?

Well, that is where I say: not so fast. I do not think that political activism falls in a category with a recognition of gender equality, that its worth should be obvious to all thinking people nowadays. I think political quietism remains tenable. After some thought I have realized that I do not myself endorse itbut. I do accept a much larger portion of it, I think, than would most Californians or Cantabrigians. I will say more about this next time.

[1]My state’s name does not lend itself well to demonyms. Wikipedia claims that the terms “Massachusite” and “Massachusettsian” were once used, but that it is now preferred to simply say “Bay Stater”, which is unlikely to make sense to anyone from outside New England.