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Ethics in Mahayana Buddhism

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 Part 3. [Reflections and notes on Damien Keown's The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, 1992.]

Keown states that the nature of Mahayana ethics is very complex and there is evidence of development or rigorous engagement to its ethical tradition as opposed to the Theravada tradition (129). In Mahayana Buddhism (=MB), sila is classified as one of the six perfections (six paramitas) which are in turn are divided according to the scheme of sila, samadhi and panna as in the Eightfold Path. The six perfections are: generosity, morality, patience, courage, meditation and insight. The first three paramitas correspond to higher morality, the fifth to higher meditation, the sixth to higher wisdom, while the fourth (courage) is shared in common by all three categories (130). Why is courage shared by all these other moral attributes? What concept of courage in Buddhist ethics does it entail? These are questions that Keown seems to ignore or think of it as guranteeed, perhaps with a thin notion of courage as “will” of acting on. As opposed to Theravada, there are some terminological changes in Mahayana. For instance, wisdom is prajna and compassion is karuna, and upaya as skillful means.

In protest to the transcendency thesis developed by King and Spiro, Keown argues how the two (wisdom and sila) are interdependent. The interdependence of wisdom and skillful means is essential to Mahayana ethics and it is presented in this following relationship of possible scenarios of how the two are interconnected:

1. Wisdom not acquired through skillful means is bondage.

2. On the contrary, wisdom acquired through skillful means is deliverance.

3. Skillful means not acquired through wisdom are bondage.

4. On the contrary, skillful means acquired through wisdom are deliverance.

In the (1) a Bodhisattva turns his back on beings and seeks his own liberation, even though he understands the doctrine of shunyata, his development is unbalanced and he is doomed to fail. In the (2) case, wisdom gained is put at the service of the all beings while in the (3) a Bodhisattva is engrossed in false views and his actions go in vain. In (4) a Bodhisattva is not hampered in his activity guided by insight and is able to direct his activity towards liberation. Both (2) and (4) show the possibility of how both prajna and upaya can co-exist in the final good. Gampopa explains why neither prajna nor upaya are inadequate in themselves: “Any Bodhisattva who resorts to the one without the other falls into a one-sided Nirvana, into the desired peace and quietism of the Sravakas (in Mahayana, it refers to those who cultivate the ten virtues without great compassion or mahakaruna), and if one resorts to upaya without discriminating awareness (prajna), one do not go beyond the level of unintelligent ordinary beings and remain bound by chains of samsara (133).” However, there is still some room for variance in emphasis on either prajna or karuna within Mahayana tradition. The text Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna-paramita-upadesa-sutra), it seeks greater emphasis on wisdom but also warns excess of it. Morality in Mahayana is distinguished by its comprehensive classifications and scope which can be encapsulated in these three facets (138):

1. Morality as temperance or restraint.

2. Morality as pursuit of the good.

3. Morality as altruism or supererogation (beyond the call of duty).

Because of its comprehensive classification, scope and breadth of Mahayana ethics, it claims its superiority over Theravada tradition. According to Mahayana, its superiority lies in the fact that the Sravakas possess only the first of these three divisions who are ignorant of the third important division and they doesn’t not practice morality for the sake of other beings.

To conclude, Mahayana ethics evolved and it began with a critical view of the Theravada ethics for its failure to recognize the importance of ethics in soteriology and redresses the deficiency by addressing ethical perfection involving concern for other beings as equal importance to insight.