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How helpful is Melford Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic distinction in describing Buddhism? It can be tempting to line it up too closely with other dichotomies – to say that kammatic Buddhism is practised by householders and nibbanic Buddhism by monks, for example. Damien Keown (Nature of Buddhist Ethics 86) notes that in Spiro’s own survey of Burmese villagers, many laypeople say that they would prefer nirvana for their next life and most monks do not describe striving for nirvana as one of their main functions; so such a mapping of kammatic/nibbanic onto householder/monk would be false.

But Keown takes this point about laypeople and monks much too far when he draws the conclusion that therefore Spiro’s kammatic/nibbanic “theory does not fit the facts”. I think Spiro’s language suggests kammatic Buddhism is for householders and nibbanic is for monks, but he never actually claims that, let alone making it a part of the theory. Spiro explicitly says that “all three systems are found in varying degrees in all Buddhists.” (Buddhism and Society 13. The third system is “apotropaic” Buddhism, superstitious practices of magical protection from illness and demons.) Rather, sociologically, kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism are ideal types, analytical constructs that help us observers make sense of what we see. Spiro distinguishes between “religious virtuosos” in which nibbanic Buddhism is more prominent and the more kammatic “religiously unmusical masses” (66), but he never assumes that monks are necessarily virtuosos or householders unmusical.

So when Keown claims the kammatic/nibbanic distinction “stems from an overestimation of the significance of the distinction between lay and monastic lifestyles” (Nature 85), I think this is a gross misreading of Spiro. I have found no place where Spiro maps the one distinction on to the other at all, and Spiro explicitly proclaims that that is not what he is doing. Spiro’s supposed overestimation is nothing more than Keown’s straw man.

Rather, what Spiro is noticing – entirely appropriately, in my view – is a tension between the nibbāna-focused path of the suttas and abhidhamma on one hand, and on the other the utterly different Buddhism one finds in the Mahāvaṃsa and in the everyday life of Buddhist countries, where nirvana seems irrelevant. The Mahāvaṃsa is particularly relevant here because it shows the kammatic/nibbanic distinction doesn’t even map onto the standard distinction between textual and everyday (“lived”) Buddhism: it is a distinction that shows up between texts. It is significant to me that Keown, whose work is mostly based on texts, does not discuss texts like the Mahāvaṃsa: texts that provide even a casual reader with a striking contrast to the suttas’ goal of transcending suffering.

My criticism of Keown on Spiro aligns with my previous criticism on eudaimonia: Keown fails to see Charles Taylor’s distinction between a Platonic-Stoic “revisionist” account of the good, in which normal human ends like romantic partners and material wealth play no proper part, and an Aristotelian “comprehensive” account in which they do. I think that a distinction of this sort has played a significant implicit role in the history of Buddhism, and that the kammatic/nibbanic distinction is very helpful in articulating its particular Buddhist form (nibbanic Buddhism as revisionist, kammatic as comprehensive). As Spiro himself notes, these ideal types are found in various ways in all Buddhists – but we see nibbanic Buddhism much more strongly in the suttas and kammatic much more in the Mahāvaṃsa.

Spiro and Keown are both thinking about the kammatic/nibbanic distinction descriptively –whether it’s helpful in describing how Buddhists in Buddhist societies do in fact think about karma and nirvana. But this sort of distinction can also be normative. The 20th-century Sri Lankan monk Henpitagedara Gnanavasa made a very similar distinction (described by H.L. Seneviratne) between bhāvagāmī and vibhāvagāmī. Literally “going to being” and “going away from being”, Seneviratne renders these latter terms into English as “conducive to rebirth” and “conducive to escape from rebirth”. For Gnanavasa, the Five Precepts and acts of merit-making like giving to monks are bhāvagāmī: they are helpful, but the ultimate point of the Buddhist path requires vibhāvagāmī acts of self-control like the five additional precepts taken by monks. In that respect Gnanavasa does indeed map the distinction onto the householder/monk distinction – but in a way that is immune to Keown’s objections to such a mapping, because Gnanavasa’s intent is normative. For Gnanavasa, kammatic (bhāvagāmī) Buddhism is helpful, but we should be practising a nibbanic (vibhāvagāmī) Buddhism – and following a monastic life is what will get us to the latter. The distinction is not intended to provide a sociological picture of what Buddhists happen to do, but to distinguish a less and a more effective way of getting us out of suffering.

I agree with Gnanavasa that the distinction is important from a normative Buddhist theological perspective. My relative evaluation of the two sides of the distinction, though, is very different from his. I will discuss that point more next time.

Cross-posted on the Indian Philosophy Blog.