Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Bile & Bodhisattvas: Santideva on Justified Anger

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Bile & Bodhisattvas: Santideva on Justified Anger

Article excerpt

Background: Santideva and Bodhicitta

Santideva was a Buddhist monk in India in the 8th century and continues to be one of the most studied and quoted Buddhist philosophers in the world. His most famous work, a classic of Mahayana Buddhist literature, is the Bodhicaryavatara (Tibetan: byang chub sems dpa'i spyod pa la 'jug pa). The title of this text has been variously translated as Engaging in Bodhisattva Deeds, The Way of the Bodhisattva, and How to Lead an Awakened Life. This text became very influential in Tibet and continues to be central to Tibetan Buddhist ethical thought.

The Bodhicaryavatara instructs the reader how to develop certain character traits, affects, and ways of experiencing the world. This cultivation has been interpreted in various ways, e.g., as consequentialist in nature (Goodman) or as a virtue ethic (Keown). Others, such as Jay Garfield, argue that to try force Buddhist ethics to fit in Western categories like virtue ethics or consequentialism is a mistake and that what is essential to it is its phenomenological character (that is, to be a Bodhisattva is to experience the world in a particular way). Interpretive issues aside, there is agreement that the text involves instructions for developing certain mental and emotional states, and also intentional and behavioral tendencies in oneself.

Central to this development is the cultivation of what is known in Sanskrit as bodhicitta. Sometimes rendered in English as "enlightened mind" or "spirit of awakening," the term has two elements: bodhi ("enlightenment") and citta ("heart" or "mind"). Together they form a single concept referring to a complex psychological state that involves being motivated to end all suffering and unselfishly develop a deep understanding of the world. Jay Garfield explains it this way:

   It is a standing motivational state with conative and affective
   dimensions ... [Which] demands the development of skills in moral
   perception, moral responsiveness, traits of character, insight into
   the nature of reality so deep that it transforms our way of seeing
   ourselves and others, and what we would call practical wisdom.

Garfield's explanation highlights some of the complexity and subtleties of the notion. As Francis Brassard notes, it often connotes "a specific spiritual approach and especially the fruits it produces" (150). There is much to be said about the notion, but for my purposes it will be enough to see that bodhicitta is a family of mental states that involves one experiencing the world in a certain way perceptually and emotionally, having certain intentions, and being able to carry them out.

The Argument: Persons & Bile

In the chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara on patience (Tibetan: bzod pa), Santideva offers arguments which attempt to show that anger towards persons who harm us is never warranted. The argument is also discussed by later figures in the tradition like Tsongkhapa, a very influential Tibetan lama from the 15th century in his seminal work The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tibetan: byang chub lam rim chen mo).

I will examine a particular strand of this argumentation, occurring at verse twenty-two and following, that relies on drawing similarities between animate and inanimate causes. Santideva starts the argument with a challenge:

   We are not angry at bile and other such
   Sources of great suffering.
   We are angry, however, at those with minds.
   But they're all incited by conditions (VI.22) (3)

Santideva's challenge is this: both inanimate things like bile and living beings with minds can be sources of pain, and yet we assume that only living beings are the proper object of attitudes like resentment and anger. But Santideva points out that mind or not, both are the product of certain conditions. For example, both someone who hits us out of anger and a toothache are both simply the results of particular situational factors coming to fruition. …

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