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Bodhisattva doctrine: ethics of Mahāyāna Buddhism
April 20th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Bodhisattva doctrine: ethics of Mahāyāna Buddhism
(last post of the recent short series on the bodhisattva  path)

The ethics of early Buddhism were very much framed in terms of monastic community. This was necessary to ensure the preservation of Buddhism, and took into consideration its particular local Indian context. While it is common nowadays to see some aspects of Buddhism criticised as based on antique Indian views (e.g. gender equality, or rebirth…), it is important to note that Buddhism could indeed preserve its teachings a lot better than e.g. the Jains… This may be partly attributed to the focus on building a functioning monastic community early enough (so that it was well-established and stable already when the Buddha died).

But the Mahāyāna understanding of ethics somehow had to go 'beyond', not only because it promoted a wider cultivation, inclusive of lay life, but also because this simply is the only valid consideration when faced with impermanence, with selflessness and with the understanding of 'wisdom' as 'appropriateness' to "reality as it is", 'thusness'.

Of course, Mahāyāna did not  reject early ethics, but it would reframe them "as they are": conventional.

'Evil' acts would thus be considered in multiple aspects:
• 'natural' or causality-based: unwholesome acts lead to more suffering,
• 'prohibited' or convention-based: acts might breach a local social context and be judged negatively… but are not intrinsically leading to more suffering (the context might very well be what's oppressive here rather than the act!).

Several 'conventional' aspects can be easily highlighted.

For example, the śrāvaka  vows and precepts might be seen as focused on this  life. This is not because they ignore rebirth (they explicitly consider rebirth in some cases), but because there is a clear distinction whether you're currently lay or monastic in this  life, here and now: if you were a monastic in a previous life (and may even have become a stream-enterer or a once-returner) but you're lay in this life, your previous monastic vows don't bind you in this life.
In a way, this focus is a great message: "you can attain Liberation in this very life."  This is important! But maybe it partly misses some enthusiasm vis-à-vis the possibility to continue the work, after arahantship or simply after this life (should parinibbāna  not be reached), just like it partly misses some enthusiasm found in lay practice.
A focus on 'this' life is very much 'conventional', because the notion of "one life" itself is quite arbitrary when looked at in terms of ultimate dhammas  (and even more so when the emptiness of these conditioned dhammas  is explicitly considered).
The bodhisattva  approach (with numberless beings to help and infinite dharma gates to enter…) supports a commitment less conventionally limited.

For example, the śrāvaka  vows might be seen as supportive of mindfulness (having rules about virtually everything is one way to pay attention to each action…), but the Mahāyāna would strongly refrain from seeing these as absolutes. Officially, the Theravādins themselves see these rules as 'restraints', not 'absolutes', but (black&white) exclusion from the monastic orders is still at stake!
The Mahāyāna approach would consider that the context still plays a role, and that we're not cultivating mindfulness "for the sake of mindfulness", not even in relation to the reputation of the order, but in relation to an intention and inspiration: bodhicitta

This has a rather profound impact on the understanding of ethics, because a breach of precepts in early Buddhist schools might have led to e.g. exclusion from the monastic community.
The Mahāyāna approach insists that the intention behind the breach is more important than the conventional rules themselves (no matter who proposed them). This is consistent with the "perfection of morality" (which can only be a 'perfection' when associated with Wisdom): rules are empty of essence, i.e. they're context-dependent!
Treating vows or precepts in context-less manner (or by focusing only on a partial view of context, e.g. "you're a monastic" —which might be true but doesn't capture the rest of the context…) is in-appropriate.

The bodhisattva  path (with its descriptions of bhūmis  so hyperbolic that they always amount to "there's work to do" no matter your attainments, even if you're an arhat! is bringing back ethics into a practical approach:  you're not perfect, there's work to do, what matters is how hard you try and cultivate qualities…

Life is dukkha  (1st noble truth), this is true even for ethical people (monastic or lay): failures will arise. What matters is to continue cultivating!
The Mahāyāna approach sets extremely ambitious goals (when described with the bhūmis)  and doesn't consider small failures as easily acceptable (a small moral failure might cancel eons of merit!), but it doesn't forget that even if the human birth is the most promising for Awakening, we cannot reasonably expect humans not to make mistakes!
This is not about 'forgiving' lightly; instead, this is about accepting that amends (i.e. continued cultivation) are more important than snap judgements. If you did wrong, don't ignore it, what do you  plan to do to fix the situation, how do you take responsibility for it?
This is, of course, perfectly aligned with the focus on emptiness, and on compassion as the root-quality giving rise to bodhicitta.

It is important to note that Mahāyāna does not claim that the śrāvaka  path is erroneous. It describes it as a perfectly sensible for those not ready yet (e.g. due to karma)  to embark on the bodhisattva path. Much of the differences I've stressed above might in fact be weakened (and I'll do so myself in a post to come).
The three vehicles are really just one. This absence of superiority is illustrated by some unfortunate scandals from Mahāyāna teachers (which don't cancel misbehaviours from Theravādins, e.g. in Burma, but clearly throw any claim of superiority into question).

By not taking rules as strictly as Theravāda does, the ethical frame in Mahāyāna might seem a lot looser than the śrāvaka  framework, but this is not the case: ethical breaches damage the whole causal web, and it is hard to justify how hurt might help spread the Dharma…
One has to be extremely mindful of one's intentions! Claiming  that a breach of moral precepts was for the benefit of all beings, or was an "expedient means", is not enough; it is easy to use the latitude as a cop-out, as a cheap excuse, but it isn't its purpose: bodhicitta  is not a "carte blanche," it actually matches the highest of ethical standards. Simply, it favours asking "how do you plan to fix it, for real, from here&now?"  instead of considering 'punishments'. It favours "second chances," but you cannot just talk about them, you have to actually  remedy the damage done.

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
Post Scriptum: as a way to reflect (instead of just taking rules blindly, e.g. out of reverence for the Buddha…), practitioners interested by ethics might want to follow the free  course  (currently running):
Post Scriptum:  +Bodhipaksa Dharmacari's discussion in illustrates how ethics, in Buddhism specifically, might be reflected upon (so that we can make ethics 'ours', as practitioners, and not just take ethics as something 'imposed' on us). 
Photo: © Peter Parks/AFP Photo, via