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Morality in Buddhism

Understanding Morality and No-Self in the context of Western and Buddhist Themes



Can there be morality without self? Do we need a sense of self for morality and ethics to work?

The question of selfhood or personhood — or of what it means to be an ‘individual self’ or a ‘person’– is central to understanding our actions and behaviors or how we ought to be behaving or acting. Hence, the concept of ‘self’ is linked to morality and it is also what constitutes our identity. The history of western philosophy, starting from the early Greek classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle to Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, and Charles Taylor, has explored and engaged with issues of the self and the relation between selfhood and morality. ‘Self’ is the starting point of all rational and empiricist inquiry, and it would not be either untrue or presumptuous to say that western philosophy is essentially a philosophy of the ‘self’.

One of the most fundamental assumptions for ethics or morality to work is that there is an individual self or person who is rational and free. It is this assumption of a rational, free individual capable of making decisions and being responsible for them on which the entire domain of ethics and morality is based. There is a doer or an agent, and the action is performed by the agent. The agent and the action constitute the two objects of ethics. The rightness or wrongness of the action is dependent on the consequences of the action. Without an agent, there is no moral agency and with no moral agency, there is no moral responsibility associated with the action. Without the self, there can be no morality because the sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behavior and values come from a sense of self, i.e. central to morality is the possession of a moral self.

Non-western traditions, particularly Buddhism, offer an alternative view to the western self-centered conception of morality because of its unique perspective on the nature of the self. The Buddhists reject the dominant western metaphysical views on the nature of self — such as ‘the self being some kind of a unified whole persisting through time’ or the Kantian constructionist view of the self as the product of reason, a regulative principle because the self “regulates” experience by making unified experience possible’. The Buddhist view of the nature of self is the rejection of the unified essential self, called the doctrine of no-self (anatta). The doctrine argues that the “self is nothing more than a bundle of states and properties beneath which we tend to project a fiction of an enduring self”. This view finds resonance with many modern thinkers particularly Hume and post-modern thinkers who speak of a non-essential, transient self and call for the erasure of the category of self.

This then brings us back to the central metaphysical question of this article: can morality work without the concept of self? In the absence of a self “for any kind of self-orientation, nothing at all can be justified at least in the sort of ultimate sense” and therefore there is a tendency for contemporary thinkers to portray Buddhist ethics as a kind of moral-antirealism, where there is the rejection of ethics and morality. But Buddhism is, if not any other thing, first and foremost an ethical system.

The absence of self or a fixed underlying essential self has ethical implications. The ideal of a Bodhisattva (a person on the path to Buddhahood) in Mahāyāna Buddhism represents the Selfless ethics of Buddhism. A Bodhisattva embodies the highest ethical ideals, and there are many different interpretations of this ideal in Buddhists texts across traditions. A Bodhisattva is one who willingly continues to go through the cycle of birth and rebirth (Saṃsāra), even willing to undergo varied degrees of suffering for as long as it takes for others to reach enlightenment despite being far ahead in terms of spiritual development and fully capable of achieving full liberation on their own. They delay their liberation for the sake of the others while helping others also achieve the same. This is in contrast to an arhat, driven by self-interest whose motive is the attainment of one’s own liberation as opposed to others. At the heart of this bodhicitta (enlightened mind) is a type of compassion (Mahākaruṇā) grounded in the apprehension of emptiness. Bodhisattvas extend their compassion to all sentient beings. Emptiness (Śūnyatā) is the ultimate truth that is gained through perfected wisdom grounded in an impartial form of compassion or benevolence.

The underlying motivation for self-sacrifice and selflessness for the benefit of others is driven by the bodhicitta. The bodhicitta (translated as ‘desire for enlightenment or ‘awakening’) emphasizing the altruistic motive of a Bodhisattva (a spiritual aspirant of the Mahāyāna tradition) was introduced by Śāntideva, the 8th-century Mādhyamika philosopher. The bodhicitta is one who is aware and has realized both cognitively and conatively the no-self doctrine. Śāntideva in his Bodhicāryavatāra (Introduction to the Practices of Awakening) claims that “it is the nature of reality which is the premise for conclusions about how human beings should act”, so metaphysics logically entails ethics for Śāntideva, which is also the case with western philosophy.

Concerning the notion of free will or agency, just like the idea of a persistent ‘person’ or ‘self’ is an illusion for Śāntideva. Human beings are a part of a chain of cause and effect, the person is nothing more than a link in the chain of causes and effect, no action can be attributed to him. All of these actions and deeds are a result of several conditioning factors, everything is dependently originated (pratītyasamutpāda). Contemporary thinkers like Charles Goodman have interpreted the doctrine of no-self as representing a form of consequentialism, where there is a rejection of all composite entities including persons. Goodman says “since there are not ultimately any experiencers, it cannot matter who experiences particular burdens and benefits, so it is ok to ignore the distributive effects of our actions, and simply maximize the good”. Buddhist ethics argues that the internalization of a no-self will lead to the development of more compassion or karuṇā. While others like Mark Siderits have spoken about the uniqueness of Buddhist morality and argued that it is wrong to look at Buddhist Ethics either from a deontological or consequentialist perspective.

The Buddhist view is that moral behavior flows from mastering our own ego and desire and cultivating loving-kindness (metta) and compassion (karuṇā). Buddhism is also not about moral absolutism. It is as Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Tibetan Buddhist and teacher says, “There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism, and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. ‘Buddhism’ encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. … When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation–whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion–and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha’s teachings”.

In conclusion, I have argued that for the most part, the history of western philosophy has been about self, and the issues surrounding the self. The relation between selfhood and morality (good) is inextricably connected in western philosophical thought, but that is not the case with Buddhism. The selfless ethics of the bodhisattva, is rooted in the denial of selfhood (anatman) and all other concepts connected to the self. This denial comes from the realization of emptiness; however, this realization does not mean that it leaves behind morality. For the Buddhists, morality works at the level of conventional or everyday reality, but not at the level of ultimate reality where one is beyond morality. The Bodhisattva is the embodiment of the highest ethical ideals of altruism/ selflessness and works in the field of emptiness or no-self at the level of ultimate reality, but lives an ordinary life, undergoing pain and suffering at the level of conventional reality for the overall well-being of others and to guide them on the path of liberation. The bodhisattva way of life does provide a moral framework that justifies self-sacrifice or selflessness, however, there are obvious conceptual, ethical, and philosophical difficulties when we attempt to reconcile the doctrine of no-self with contemporary moral issues of agency, free will, and moral responsibility. Nevertheless, Buddhist Selfless morality provides an effective alternative to the dominant western self-centered morality and to understand/evaluate the ethical implications of Buddhists doctrines. Narmada P Narmada P holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Hyderabad, India. Her areas of research include Indian Intellectual History, Early Buddhist Ethics, Metaphysics, and Social and Political Philosophy.

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