Ethical Confusion: Possible Misunderstandings in Buddhist Ethics

By Evans, Stephen A. | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Ethical Confusion: Possible Misunderstandings in Buddhist Ethics


Evans, Stephen A., Journal of Buddhist Ethics


There has been much fruitful discussion of Buddhist ethics over the last two decades, much of it in response to Damien Keown's The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (1992). However, the discussion has been complicated by a number of possible misconceptions leading to less than helpful formulation of important questions and attempts to solve at least one problem that does not seem to exist in the tradition (at least the Theravada) itself. In the present paper I address inadequate understandings of the term punna, the motivations for good and right behavior in the Buddhist context, and the distinction between what I shall call "karmic results" (2) and "ordinary consequences." (3) To motivate the discussion and provide context, I briefly review Keown's book and two responses, those of Abraham Velez de Cea (2004) and Martin T. Adam (2005). I do not mean by this choice of authors to imply that the issues and possible misunderstandings discussed here are exclusively the provenance of western scholars. Indeed Keown's thesis owes much to the work of Sri Lankan P. D. Premasiri, whom he cites, and all three authors reviewed here refer to Premasiri's position on the difference between punna and kusala, either agreeing or disagreeing. It may well be that Premasiri initially problematized the relation between these concepts; his paper, "Interpretation of two principal ethical terms in early Buddhism," (1976) is cited in nearly every academic paper I have found treating the subject. (4) Other nonwestern scholars have discussed the issue as well, for example P. A. Payutto (2012) of Thailand (although he does not reference Premasiri) and Piya Tan (2006) of Malaysia.

My purpose is to clarify a few concepts rather than to give an exposition and critique of these authors' work. Thus, I focus only on the issues here raised rather than their overall arguments, and make no attempt at proposing an overall characterization of Buddhist ethics. Neither is it my purpose to definitively characterize the relationship between punna and kusala, the debate about which motivates the present effort. Although I offer a suggestion here, the main purpose is rather to clarify some of the issues involved. It should also be noted that my expertise and experience are in the Theravada, and it is to that tradition that my remarks apply.

Keown, Velez de Cea, and Adam

Damien Keown characterizes Buddhist ethics as a virtue ethics, similar to that articulated by Aristotle. In his understanding, the rightness or wrongness of actions (5) has nothing to do with results or consequences of any kind; rather their moral status is determined solely by the "preceding motivation" (178). Actions are right to the extent that they manifest or participate in "nirvanic values" such as "Liberality (araga), Benevolence (adosa) and Understanding (amoha)," (ibid.). "If an action does not display nirvanic qualities then it cannot be right in terms of Buddhist ethics whatever other characteristics (such as consequences) it might have" (177). "Nirvanic qualities" Keown identifies with kusala dhamma (118), that is, by his definition, "those things which are to be pursued if enlightenment is to be attained."

But actions that are said to be good and right are associated in the Pali Nikayas and the tradition with punna as well as with kusala. Punna and its opposite, apunna or papa, have to do with kamma and the vipaka of karmic results, that is, actions and the pleasant or painful results necessitated by the law of kamma, often, though not necessarily, following rebirth. In his effort to maintain a unified ethics, Keown maintains that punna and kusala refer to the same set of actions--with an exception for arahants. (6) Kusala in Keown's formulation refers to the rightness of actions, that is, in his characterization, their participation in nirvanic virtues, and punna refers to the tendency of those same actions to generate pleasant results (122), though he does not follow this definition consistently. …

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