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In his interesting recent Buddhism and Political Theory, Matthew Moore sums up current scholarly work on Buddhist ethics noting “There are several major debates ongoing in the field, particularly whether early Buddhist ethics are better understood as consequentialist or a version of virtue ethics (almost no one argues for deontology)…” (113)

My friend and fellow blogger Justin Whitaker is a major part of the “almost”. I once described him as a “voice in the wilderness” for interpreting Buddhist ethics in terms of Kantian deontology. But I was delighted to hear that he has recently completed his dissertation, in a way that should make that voice a little louder. And I was happy to have a chance to read it.

To say that I am delighted that the work exists is not, of course, to say that I agree with it. I am not convinced by the dissertation’s attempt to read Pali Buddhism in terms of Kantian ethics, and I will explain.

The dissertation compares Pali Buddhism to Kant in a variety of ways, but the ones which I find most interesting, and are probably most central to his account, are the ones in which Buddhism is taken to articulate some sort of moral law independent of human desire and motivation – as Kant also does. Such a claim is of particular interest to me because of its take on the question of ethical internalism and externalism. I have typically taken Buddhists to articulate an internalist approach – where they appeal to our preexisting motivations and derive the value of the path from those. A prime example is Śāntideva’s insistence that suffering should be prevented because “no one disputes that!” – the only question then being whether we should prevent our own suffering, or everyone’s. Justin suggests an alternative, externalist, reading of Pali Buddhist texts – in which they posit a moral law that human beings are obliged to follow irrespective of their motivations.

Justin pursues the idea of a moral law with respect to two key Pali Buddhist concepts, dhamma and kamma (equivalents of the Sanskrit – and English – words dharma and karma). On p24 he stresses these two concepts as central to his interpretation. I’ll talk about the former this time and the latter next time. Justin claims that the term dhamma “means not only [the Buddha’s] teachings or doctrine, but also the truth or nature of reality itself, toward which the teachings were claimed to be pointing. This truth is thought to exist prior to and apart from the Buddha’s own discovery and exposition of it.” (21) I understand that such a claim about dharma is common in later Mahāyāna traditions such as the Yogācāra, which identify a cosmic Dharmakāya (dharma body of the Buddha). I was intrigued to hear that there might be a support for it in the Pali texts that are the dissertation’s focus. But where do these texts actually say this?

Justin’s key reference for this claim is the Paccaya Sutta (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.20, SN II.25 in the Pali Text Society edition). Later in the dissertation (p108) he quotes Abraham Vélez de Céa in a similar vein – “It is true that the Dharma could be interpreted as a transcendent reality with respect to Buddhas because it can exist even when there are no Buddhas in the universe” – but it turns out Vélez de Céa is getting it from the very same sutta. So the claim that the dhamma exists as a transcendent moral reality seems to stand or fall primarily, if not entirely, on the Paccaya Sutta. Justin (pp 21-2) quotes this sutta as follows:

Whether the Tathāgatas [Buddhas] arise or the Tathāgatas do not arise, that condition stands, the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma, this causality. A Tathāgata gains highest awakening to this and understands it.

Striking, yes? It would seem that this sutta says the dhamma exists whether or not there are buddhas around to teach it. But does it? Let us look a little closer. Justin’s footnote to the quote notes that the Buddha actually “is speaking specifically of dependent origination, paṭiccasamuppāda, sometimes said to be equivalent to the Dhamma.” But that is not quite right. The source Justin quotes for the “sometimes” is the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta. What that sutta actually says is not that dependent origination is the dhamma. It says that one who sees the dhamma sees dependent origination, and vice versa; to understand one is to understand the other. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same. To understand the nature of heat and how it works is, at some level, to understand cold – but that doesn’t mean heat and cold are the same! And that is a difference that really matters here, because while the dhamma (in a Buddhist context) is unquestionably good, dependent origination is bad! The dhamma offers you a way out of the cycle of dependent origination that otherwise, normally, traps you in suffering.

So in the Paccaya Sutta, what stands irrespective of buddhas is not the dhamma itself but dependent origination. But it might nevertheless seem that the sutta still describes dependent origination – “that condition”, “this causality” – as “the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma”. Such a description would at least hint that there might be a permanent dhamma grounded in the reality of dependent origination.

But it seems to me that that too is not what this sutta is saying. The terms translated as “the groundedness of the Dhamma, the lawfulness of the Dhamma” are dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā. And if we look to Buddhaghosa’s aṭṭhakathā (commentary) on this sutta (available at the wonderful Pali Tipiṭaka site), we find that as Buddhaghosa parses out these words, he renders dhamma in the plural (dhammā, dhamme).The groundedness and lawfulness are of dhammas – those mental states or elements to which everyday phenomena are reducible – and not of the Dhamma itself. (This is itself assuming that niyāmatā can be rendered “lawfulness”, which I think is itself quite questionable; its usual meaning is more like “constraint”.) Those dhammas operate in ways grounded in the law of paṭicca samuppāda; it is that groundedness, not the Buddha’s teaching, that exists independently of the buddhas. It seems to me that Justin and Vélez de Céa have both been misled on this point by a homophone.

Now it is possible that Buddhaghosa got the sutta wrong. Jayarava, in an excellent post on this passage, notes that the translations of both Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi render it “the dhamma”, as Justin does. But I don’t see any reason to disagree with the canon’s most august commentator other than the word of these translators. For I know of no other passages in the Pali canon that suggest the dhamma as a cosmic reality. (I’d be interested if anyone can find me some.) As far as I can tell, the suggestion that it is, is a much later Yogācāra invention. Which would suggest that if one really wanted to push this aspect of the Kant-Buddhism comparison, one would probably want to go away from the Pali and toward Yogācāra.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.