Ethics

Traditional Buddhism makes the claim that it is possible to eradicate the root causes of suffering—namely, greed, hatred and delusion—and that doing so requires following a method. An indispensable part of that method is leading a pure life, a life in which one does no deliberate harm to oneself or to others.

Essential to any discussion of Buddhist ethics is a discussion of Buddhist views of karma (deliberate action) and its psychological (and perhaps physical) consequences. A discussion of karma brings us back to a discussion of causality in general, for karma is seen as but a particular kind of causation. Karma is usually described as having the effect of reinforcing habits; that is, the more a type of action is done, the more likely one is to do the same kind of action again in the future. Any discussion of habit formation invites questions about the extent to which agents have freedom to choose; the clear Buddhist assumption is that beings do have free will, but that this freedom to choose can be significantly diminished by consistently making bad decisions. Can this capacity to choose good paths of action become so diminished that a being in effect loses the freedom to choose? Can beings become so depraved that the very idea of doing good no longer occurs to them? Some Buddhists argued yes, while others claimed otherwise.

Among those who argued that a being could become so depraved as to lose the will to do good, there arose the notion that they could nevertheless be brought out of depravity by a kind of grace. One being of exceptionally high virtue might transfer the benefits of that virtue to a being of exceptional depravity. How might such a transfer of merit take place? How could belief in such a doctrine be defended? This issue will be explored in this unit on ethics, and the question will be tied to metaphysical and epistemological concerns discussed in previous sections.

Although karma is usually discussed mostly from an individual point of view, no discussion of Buddhist ethical theory would be complete without some discussion of collective action, especially political theory. What, from a Buddhist point of view, are the responsibilities of a government for its citizens, and how should one country conduct itself in a community of nations? Is war ever justifiable? If so, under what circumstances? Is an individual Buddhist best advised to stay out of the disturbing fray of public life or to work out a path of personal liberation by working for the liberation of others?

What is karma?

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