abortion, David Chapman, Disengaged Buddhism, gender, modernity, Peter Harvey, Seth Zuihō Segall, United States
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. 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 it… but. 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.
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.
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David Chapman said:
Amod, thank you for a most generous response!
I, too, am anti-political, in some sense. (I hope to write about this at some point!)
It had not occurred to me that this had anything to do with Buddhism. Having thought about it for a few hours, I suspect that it does! That is, it’s because I’m a Buddhist that I’m anti-political.
This seems important, and I’ll probably devote considerably more thought to it!
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, David. I try to write generously when I can! More on Buddhist anti-politics next time (two weeks); I’m glad you find the point congenial. I am also working on a response to your tantra post, to come after that. It will probably be less sympathetic overall but I hope you’ll still find it of interest.
David Chapman said:
Thanks, Amod, I look forward to reading it!
Some of your recent posts eloquently express the value and attraction of Sutrayana (as opposed to Yavanayana!). It is not surprising that you are less sympathetic to Tantrayana, since it contradicts Sutrayana (as well as Yavanayana) in many ways.
Duncan McGregor said:
This is a response to your blog regarding “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud which is a commentary on someone else blog. I admit I am no academic so it is possible that I may have misunderstood some of the argument or the context in which it is made. I am a practitioner of buddhism and would disagree that here is no such thing as Buddhist ethics. Please feel free to comment on my response, I would enjoy the discussion and I would not get offended. I rarely have an opportunity to discuss my faith it has been so very long since I have been near a sangha.
The modern (or perhaps more accurately North American) practice of Buddhism has changed Buddhism significantly. It is a question I wonder about a great deal. The practice is very different. For example I lived in a Korean temple in Toronto and the Koreans (who started their faith practice in Korea) that attended the temple would never meditate they would offer gifts to the buddha and do prostrations leaving the meditation for the monks and priests. However the Canadian (those who started practice in Canada) meditation was very central to our practice and we minimized any devotional practice.
A more disconcerting trend is ignoring the spirituality religious side of Buddhism is being significantly minimized and ignored. As western Buddhists we (asa group)are picking and choosing the teachings that most fit into our rationalist individualistic culture. My personal concern is that discarding religious purposes for lets stay meditation or mindfulness (to avoid samsara) for more practical purposes (may decrease stress, help you prefer perform better at your job, better relationship with your partner) is not only antithetical to the renunciation of the original buddhism but is a very, thin, weak interpretation of the purposes of this very religious practice. Some authors (Stephen Batchelor) have suggested stripping away the religious just allows to have a “pure” form of Buddhism. This I believe is hubris. It is not that we Westerns have a more pure form of Buddhism but we are uncomfortable thinking outside our normal social constructs and that what Buddhism would demand of us. Needless to say that Modern Buddhists have issues that need to be worked through especially translating Buddhism in the west in its nascent stage.
Although this is less a modernist buddhist problem than a Buddhist problem. Each time Buddhism has been transplanted it has changed. The Mahayana school is very different than the Theravada schools. This is however, Buddhism is being transposed onto a modernist, individualistic, rationalist society and that without a doubt is having challenges.
Granting the following issues I think that Chapman misses the point regarding Buddhist ethics. I would argue that it is not specific rules that make an ethic Buddhist or not but the worldview that explains why those rules are important.
For example Thou shall not steal is a traditional Christian ethic (ten commandments). And yet most left leaning Californians would agree with it without having to be Christian. So what makes the ethic Christian? It is the religious worldview that is attached to it. God gave Moses guideline for his chosen people to live and by living through these Guidelines you will please God. Does the Californian have to change their ethics to believe in not stealing? Nope but their reasoning would have to change to disappointing an omnipotent being for it to be considered Christian.
The Bible also okays slavery, has no gender equality, and even ok genocide and yet most modern Christians do not believe any of those things.
Does this mean that there are no such thing as Christian ethics? That Christian ethics are a fraud? I think you could argue Christians this have changed over time (including engaged Christianity such as Martin Luther King) that how the bible has been interpreted and a focus on Jesus’s teachings rather than the old testament has significantly changed Christian ethics but that does not mean they do not exist. They exist because for practicing Christians still articulate a changing ethic through a worldview with a foundational belief on a omnipotent, omnipresent diety that will someday determine how they spend their afterlife.
I would make the parallel claim for Buddhism. If you take the Buddhist rule regarding Right speech (no harmful speech) most left leaning Californians would agree you should not gossip or be unkind through speech (although practicing this rule is always challenging). The rule does not make it a Buddhist ethic though it is the worldview attached to it. The idea that our actions (karma) can cause negative repercussions that would affect whether we reach enlightenment and be freed from Samsara. If that is the worldview attached to this ethic how could you argue that it is not Buddhism? To have this as a Buddhist ethic one should believe in Karma (as understood from Buddhist texts not Hindi ones), Samsara, and the possibility of Nirvana. This a foundational belief system that can only be linked to Buddhism making the rule a specific buddhist one.
I would argue Modern Buddhist practices (such as Engaged Buddhism) whether they are Buddhist or not is not determined whether this is a new practice in the Buddhist tradition but what the foundational worldview that informs this practice. Is it taken form Buddhist texts or beliefs? Like Christianity what is ethical has changed drastically over time as interpretations of holy texts have changed it does not make today’s Christians any less Christian than their predecessors. I would argue the same with Buddhists.
I enjoyed your article Amode. It got me thinking about my own practice and how I define myself as Buddhist. I look forward to any feedback and I hope this message finds you well. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!
Amod Lele said:
Hi Duncan, and welcome – thanks for this! I didn’t realize you considered yourself a Buddhist. And I think you are, broadly speaking, right in that what matters most for whether someone’s really in a tradition of ethics is how they reason about ethical issues and come to their actual judgements. I think David Chapman’s challenge is interesting and relevant in that it suggests a prima facie problem: that is, if one’s supposedly Buddhist ethical reasoning leads one to exactly the same concrete ethical judgements as a secular non-Buddhist in the same environment, that provides good reason to at least suspect that maybe that reasoning is not as specifically Buddhist as one might hope. You would expect that different reasoning would lead one to different results, and if it doesn’t, something at least seems a little fishy.
Duncan McGregor said:
Yes I took the precept ceremony (Chogye order Korean Zen) to be formally included into that sangha almost 15 years ago and initially became a member of the sangha over 20 years ago. I am very far from an expert and have wrestled with my faith for some time.
I would agree if one did not change any of their ethical values that would be fishy but a wide variety of religious traditions hold identical ethical beliefs (prohibitions on killing and stealing) and although different reasoning they have come with the same conclusions so I do not see that as problematic for certain ethical issues. David Chapman’s challenge would work equally to left leaning Christians I imagine.
Having said that I totally agree with you that using Buddhist beliefs to determine what is ethical arguably you will come to some different conclusions than before you began practice (although there maybe some similarities). It is something that I wrestle with are my ethical leanings of secular humanist or am I using Buddhist teachings (as been taught to me and I understand them) to determine courses of action? Not sure there is a definitive answer. It definitely got me thinking about what it means to call yourself a Buddhist.
In my practice I sadly spent little time with academics who study Buddhism so the article and comments I find very interesting. Thanks again.
David Chapman said:
Yes, I think that’s right. I think, also, that this is the reason liberal Christianity has imploded in the past few decades (the number of adherents has drastically decreased). It does not have a compelling answer to the question “what do you offer that secular humanism does not?”
I think the same thing has started to happen to Yavanayana/Consensus Buddhism.
Amod Lele said:
I generally agree with you on that; see this post for my overall take. (The followup that it mentions at the end is here.) However, I am under the impression that the picture within the United States has changed in the years since the 2010 study: it now appears that conservative churches are shrinking along with the liberal ones. Still, I think even that just takes the US back to the pre-1970s era where people just assumed secularization was inevitable, as the 1970s and 1980s showed it was not.
There is a perfectly well-known demonym for people from Massachusetts. However, it may be a bit salty for a philosophy blog :)
Amod Lele said:
Yes, I left that one off intentionally. :)
Justin Whitaker said:
Hmm…. Thanks for this, Amod. I have lots of thoughts on this, and will comment here and perhaps in longer posts over at my blog as time allows. I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s and your point that tradition changes and evolves. I’d push further though and say that this is always a ‘wide’ process, with something of a mainstream in the middle and conservative forces on one side and progressives of one sort or another on the other side. So ‘tradition’ (and it’s a word that is too easily reified and put in stark opposition with it’s ‘other’) provides a breadth of resources for Buddhists today to draw from in their interactions with the modern world. Many will draw from the strong strain of non-political action, but others may draw inspiration from Buddhists who have been active in politics in one way or another.
All of that can be accepted as “Buddhist” enough, even if it *looks like* something similar that happens to be non-Buddhist.
I have to admit I’ve had a hard time figuring out just what Chapman has been saying: some of the posts have been clearly hyperbolic, factually dubious, as someone called him out on “clickbaity” and as he noted in one comment, satirical.
So I don’t want to get too mired in details over there. But, for instance, I have a hard time knowing just what ethics (or “morals” if we want to leave theory/metaphysics out of it) of a “college-educated left-leaning Californian” are.
I have relatives who fit this description and there is plenty of diversity among them; and there is plenty in the 5 precepts to challenge them, in different ways. Going further into metaphysics, there is the need to understand (and not just theoretically) the pervasiveness of suffering and the possibility of awakening, both pretty far, I think, from the mindset of said Californians.
If contemporary teachers are saying “oh, don’t worry about those” then they might be breaking with tradition (we’d have to look deeper, but this may be the case); whereas if teachers are saying “let’s look at how to bring these into your life” then they’re fitting right in with how laypeople have been encouraged to take on the precepts throughout the tradition.
I’d have to look more into the history of abortion – which I agree is another clear area where our Californian would be challenged by Buddhist ethics – but I suspect that for as long as there have been abortions, there have been Buddhists seeking to ease the suffering of the women having them. In Thailand they’re illegal but extremely widely available and in a country of 90% Buddhists, I don’t know of a single abortion clinic bombing or mass protest similar to what we see in the US. In Japan, Jizo has become a patron saint of sorts for aborted fetuses. This isn’t to say that Buddhist ethics is not historically strongly anti-abortion, but it shows that Buddhist ethics is also not monolithic. I think one can, drawing from traditional resources, both oppose abortion in principle and also oppose making illegal on compassionate grounds.
What is “Buddhist” about such a position is tough to say, but I think it has something at least to do with accepting the Buddhist path as a reality and possibility for oneself and others and consciously affirming that one’s motivations come from an affirmation of that path. That’s pretty abstract, but I think it’s true and allows for the breadth of particular actions and beliefs that we find in the history of Buddhism.
Amod Lele said:
Regarding abortion I think that’s absolutely right. Especially, I think it is impeccably Buddhist to say that the content of laws and perhaps even crimes themselves is less important than easing the suffering of those hurt by either, often in a way independent of law and government. More on that topic next time.
I think you are also right about the diversity among “college-educated left-leaning Californians”, and I’m putting together a post on that topic that I hope will follow it (primarily in response to his attempted tantric critique, which was not up when I wrote the post above).
David Chapman said:
I respect your depth of knowledge of Buddhist ethics, which is a central topic of study for you, and not for me.
You said that some things I said were “factually dubious.” It would help improve my writing if you could point these out. If anything is actually wrong, I would want to correct it; and if it is disputed, I would want to include alternate views (in a footnote at least).
Thank you very much!
Amod Lele said:
Thanks for that too, David. I am always delighted when someone’s response to being accused of inaccuracy is “OK, please let me know what I got wrong.”
Justin Whitaker said:
Again, I don’t want to get mired in a kind of point-by-point discussion. I’ll offer a few observations, but really I would prefer others to look closely at the categories and claims in your posts to see how they hold up.
For me, claims such as “Traditional Buddhist morality is obviously wrong,” or that it is “medieval” simply paint with way too broad a brush, as some commenters have kind of picked up on, and when using a term like “medieval” it helps immensely to define just what you mean by it (to art historians it refers to one period of time, to Catholic theologians it means another, and it’s hard to know just what it would mean in the context of Buddhism). “Traditional” is also a term that should be carefully wielded.
You write of the Sigalovada sutta: “It’s an odd document; I’m not sure what to make of it. The central point seems to be “to get to heaven, you need to be rich; here’s how to be rich.”” Then you say it has been ignored by Consensus Buddhism. Who exactly IS Consensus Buddhism? :) I suppose since it’s “Consensus” it should be a large group of teachers or at least many prominent ones, right?
I suppose if I had at least a rough list I could then look up a couple instances where it is not ignored.
It’s actually a really good example of the Buddha introducing his practice, beginning with 4 harmful actions (the first 4 precepts) and then giving a deeper level of justification as to what makes them harmful (acting from desire, anger, ignorance, and fear) and a detailed exposition of the evils of breaking the 5th precept, expanded out to include sauntering in the streets at unseemly hours, gambling, excessive theatre, having evil friends, and idleness… This is all expounded upon at length before a somewhat basic moral sermon on caring for people around you (in the six directions). It really is a beautiful – and relatively simple – sutta.
The idea that tantra was banned is one of the more dubious claims. First, nobody has or had the power to “ban” tantra. Second, the precepts are not commandments, so encouraging that they be taken does not ban or somehow prohibit their being violated. Third, to my knowledge, tantra doesn’t work on the same level of logic or morality as the sutras, so taking the precepts at one level does not mean one cannot engage in practices at another level that might be interpreted as breaking those precepts. Fourth, if there was such a ban, it was a failure, as tantra continued on in the years after 1993.
That Buddhadasa Bikkhu “abandoned Buddhism for a European Perennialist theory of universal religion” is a pretty big claim to make, not backed by any citation or explanation.
There’s more, but most of it falls along the lines of me not really getting on board with your categories like Consensus Buddhism and lefty secular ethics; they seem too loosely defined. So when you say that Consensus Buddhist ethics *IS* lefty secular ethics, I find myself very much lost and admittedly a bit baffled by those who – at least in their silence – accept this equation.
David Chapman said:
All of your points, except one, are of the form “I didn’t understand this point clearly”; and since you would rather not engage, I won’t try to clarify here.
The one exception was about Buddhadasa Bikkhu, where you questioned a factual statement. I’ve added a link in my post; it is to his No Religion.
Justin Whitaker said:
I *did* engage, and you’re more than welcome to respond if you’d like to my other points.
As to Buddhadasa, I’m afraid you’re letting your imagination run beyond the evidence. This is no more an ‘abandonment’ of Buddhism than we find in Nagarjuna or a great number of great Buddhist philosophers.
Amod Lele said:
Also, regarding being clickbaity, well… even this post, let alone his, seems to have attracted way more dialogue than my blog usually gets, so at least it was successful. :) And at least he didn’t call the posts something like “Two men go into a conference to talk about Buddhist ethics. You won’t BELIEVE what they get wrong!”
David Chapman said:
Yes, I’m not sure what the “clickbaity” complaint is, exactly. I do write headlines to draw interest, and I see nothing wrong with that. There would be a legitimate complaint if they were inaccurate—that is, if the content of the post was other than the headline suggests. I don’t think that’s the case… There would also be a legitimate complaint if the posts actually had little content at all (typical of the sorts of “clickbait” people dislike—you are tricked into starting to read an article that has nothing non-obvious to say). That also doesn’t seem true!
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Joop Romeijn said:
A remark that perhaps has hardly touch te core of your blog, but: so what.
First you refer to an old post of you, about the term Yavanayan.:
I quote that post: “Traditionally there are held to be three yanas: the Theravāda of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia which adheres to early, pre-Mahāyāna teachings; the Mahāyāna prevalent in East Asia; and Vajrayana, the tantra-influenced variant of Mahāyāna prevalent in Tibet. I like to call the new Buddhism Yavanayāna.”
Nice of you to talk about ‘Theravada’and not about ‘Hinayana’. Tha political or spiritual correct language but you mean te same. You must know Theravadins never talk about ‘the three yanas’ or about ‘sutrayana’: it’s a bad a kind of framing differences between buddhist traditions. They are just different, without any system!
The result of my (amateur) study of really existing buddhismS: there is no system in it, no hierarchy, just anarchy, now and in the past
Greetings (from Europe where the term ‘buddholoog’ is quite normal)