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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
79 spring 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly takes this one step further, suggesting that Buddhist ethics is a type of “char- acter consequentialism,” which is based on “a twofold theory of well-being that assigns intrinsic value to happiness and to virtue,” the two “goods” that are constitutive of well-being. Therefore, building on the standard form of conse- quentialism with its focus on happiness, character consequentialism also takes into account the net increase in virtue. Goodman argues that Theravada Buddhism, with its emphasis on strict adherence to the precepts, advocates one form of this approach, namely rule-consequentialism, in which one should follow the rule that, if followed by others, would lead to the greatest net increase in happiness or virtue. Contrary to polemical portrayals of the Theravada tradition, this form of Buddhist ethics emphasizes acting to promote not only one’s own enlightenment but the welfare of other sentient beings, as shown, for example, by the celebration of extreme self-sacrifice in the Jataka tale in which the Buddha in a past life offered himself to a hungry tigress and her cubs. In the emergence of Mahayana, the concern for the welfare of all sentient beings takes center stage. As Good- man puts it, “The most ethically sig- nificant development that occurs in the Mahayana traditions is, of course, that all Mahayana practitioners must vow to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. The goal is no longer sainthood and individual liberation ... Instead, Mahayanists must follow the much lon- ger path to buddhahood, so as to help bring about the enlightenment of all beings.” And with this central commit- ment to liberating others, compassionate bodhisattvas can violate the precepts if doing so leads to a net increase in hap- piness or virtue for those involved. Not surprisingly, violations of the precepts are acceptable only when done by highly advanced practitioners who have culti- vated a pure character and the wisdom that would enable them to discern the right thing to do. In making his arguments, Goodman calls into question the interpretative angle of Damien Keown, a British scholar of Buddhist ethics and co-founder of the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics, who has contended that the overall Buddhist approach is closest to virtue ethics, which began with Aristotle and empha- sizes cultivating a virtuous character as the key to fulfillment. Perhaps of greater interest to practicing Buddhists is how Goodman notes that such Buddhist texts as the Sutra of Golden Light view sukha (happiness) as taking two forms: “the happiness of this life” and “world-tran- scending happiness.” Allowing for the first form, Buddhism attributes at least some positive value to sensual pleasure and wealth, though with caveats—we must not become attached to sensual pleasure and wealth or slip into hatred and violence as we pursue them, and we must make sure that we share our wealth with those in need. Goodman offers a keen analysis of what often gets framed, especially in popular books on Zen, as a tran- scendence of ethics. He rightly argues that Buddhism is not suggesting that one transcend ethics per se but rather rules—and this applies only for those who have gone beyond the ego and the pitfall of moral pride. Illustrating this point is the layman Vimalakirti who, as Goodman tells us, “is able to respond creatively and flexibly, treating every sit- uation as an opportunity to lead others toward enlightenment.” A story in the Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti recounts how he was able to convert thousands of heavenly maidens whom Mara had sent to tempt him because, according to Goodman, “he does not take anything seriously: not his own sexual desires, or his own moral status, or the opinion of others, or the moral rules of Bud- dhism.” Goodman suggests that Bud- dhist teachers and activists can avoid what is known as “compassion fatigue” by realizing emptiness, taking themselves lightly, and knowing “how to laugh at their own delusions.” Implied in this transcendence is the compassion and wisdom of highly real- ized Buddhists. Commenting on how enlightened beings supposedly do not need to deliberate about what they should do, Goodman writes: “They can certainly spend time in theoretical inquiry into the facts of a situation, thereby ascertaining which movements of their bodies would produce the best conse- quences for sentient beings—though they wouldn’t need to do so very often, as they would normally simply see, intuitively, what the best action is.... Once they see what would have the best results, the corresponding movements just happen, without intervening states such as deci- sions and the formation of intentions. The cause of these movements is the unimpeded flow of natural great com- passion. The abandonment of all selfish desires has removed all hindrances to the operation of this compassion, which now spontaneously produces bodily and vocal movements that cause the happiness and relieve the suffering of others.” This notion that certain Buddhists are blessed with, or have honed, an intuitive insight into what the best action is in any situation and act spontaneously out of great compassion appears through- out the Mahayana tradition, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Does this claim find empirical support from the histori- cal record? Readers may recall the recent sex scandals involving Buddhist teachers and the zealous nationalism displayed by Japanese Zen masters during the Second World War. These actions by ostensibly enlightened, or at least highly realized, Buddhists leave us to conclude that either they had not achieved “the abandonment of all selfish desires” and thereby “removed all hindrances,” and hence were not at all enlightened, or that Mahayana rhetoric of intuitively know- ing what to do in any situation is just that, rhetoric. This suggests that the tradition needs to engage in further reflection on how someone with compassionate inten- tions actually does—or in principle can— figure out what the best action might be, Reviews