Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Cessation of Suffering and Buddhist Axiology

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Cessation of Suffering and Buddhist Axiology

Article excerpt


Axiology is the study of the good. What is good? What makes something good? What is the ultimate good--the summum bonum? In this article, I examine Buddhist axiology while focusing on this final question: What is the ultimate good according to the Buddhist tradition? The Buddhist tradition is of course vast. To make this task manageable, therefore, I focus on the Pali Canon. I will not argue that the Pali Canon represents original Buddhism or that all Buddhist traditions share a common axiology, but I do believe that identifying the core axiology found in the Pali Canon will move us forward in our understanding of the Buddhist tradition as a whole.

In section 1, I review the most promising contemporary interpretations of Pali Buddhist axiology and argue that they fall short in important but understandable ways. In section 2, I argue for what I call the Nirodha View, which maintains that, at least according to the Pali Buddhist tradition, the cessation of suffering is the sole intrinsic good. In section 3, I defend the Nirodha View against objections and suggest that even non-Buddhists should take the view seriously.

Section 1: Nirvana and the Good

In traditional axiology, philosophers have focused on questions about what counts as intrinsically good. What is good in itself? Money is good, for instance, but not intrinsically. Money is not good in itself; it is only instrumentally good because it is good only insofar as it leads to (or is perhaps constitutive of) a more fundamental good, the most fundamental of which is good, not because it leads to something else, but because it is good in itself--because it is intrinsically good.

In the Western tradition, philosophers have endorsed many different views about what is intrinsically good. As an example, consider hedonism. On a rough and ready version of hedonism, only pleasure is intrinsically good and only pain is intrinsically bad; everything other than pleasure is good only insofar as it leads to or contributes to the experience of pleasure and everything other than pain is bad only insofar as it leads to or contributes to the experience of pain. In other words, pleasure is good in itself, whereas everything else is good instrumentally or extrinsically good.

Classical Pali Buddhists are not hedonists, but according to the standard view, they endorse a similarly straightforward axiology. This is the "Nirvana View":

   The Nirvana View: Nirvana is the ultimate good. In other words,
   only nirvana is intrinsically good; everything else that counts as
   good is only instrumentally good to the extent that it contributes
   to the attainment of nirvana.

Classical Buddhists distinguish between two levels of nirvana (Pali: nibbana): (i) nirvana-with-remainder (sa-upadhisesa-nibbana), better known as nirvana-in-this-life, and (ii) nirvana-without-remainder (nirupadhisesa-nibbana), better known as parinirvana. Roughly, nirvana-in-this-life is a state of moral and spiritual perfection and serves as a precondition for parinirvana, which one achieves only at death (when no life remains). Western scholars have focused their attention on nirvana-in-this-life as the ultimate good in Pali Buddhism.

Damien Keown is the most sophisticated proponent of the Nirvana View, but it is typically the default view among western scholars as far back as William James and Arthur Schopenhauer. (3) This is what Keown himself says:

   By "nirvana," I understand the summum bonum of Buddhist
   soteriology. To avoid any confusion, I am concerned
   ... only with that nirvana in terms of which ethical goodness
   can be predicated of a human subject, namely "nirvana
   in this life." (19)

   Nirvana is the good, and rightness is predicated of acts
   and intentions to the extent which they participate in
   nirvanic goodness. (177)

Keown also links nirvana with the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, where eudaimonia is a technical term that means "human flourishing. …

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