Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Buddhist Ethics - Introduction


This is the third edition of Venerable Hammalawa Saddhatissa’s Buddhist Ethics. For more than a quarter of a century, those in search of an introduction to Buddhist moral thought have turned and returned to this little volume, but, like other examples of the genre of introductions, it also presents particular challenges for its readers.

These challenges stem, in part, from the very reason that we take up any introductory book: we want to explore a subject about which we know little. Our lack of knowledge also means that we are relatively unprepared to understand what we encounter because we lack familiarity with the requisite vocabulary, concepts, and contexts of thought. Ven. Saddhatissa anticipated such expectations and difficulties in his book by including in it a remarkable range of information on Buddhist history, thought, and practice as background for understanding the fundamental issues of Buddhist ethics. He also collected and quoted extensively from the Pali canon, the scriptures of the Theravāda tradition, which allow readers their own access to the sources that inform his presentation. He presented all of this as commonly Buddhist, saying that his emphasis was “on the ethical concepts accepted by all the schools of Buddhism” (p. ix). Since the original appearance of Ven. Saddhatissa’s book, advances in knowledge about the historical diversity of the Buddhist traditions across Asia—and now Europe and the Americas—may make this claim to representativeness seem exaggerated, but this does not take away from the book’s inherent value as an introduction.

Adequate and comprehensive acknowledgment of the diversity of Buddhist thought and practice would not only be impossible in an introduction, but inappropriate. Indeed, for someone new to a subject, the lack of familiarity with Buddhist terms and the concepts they express, with the texts and traditions of understanding that they are drawn from, can make understanding of even the most basic material about a single school of thought elusive. In using any introductory book, we inevitably encounter a cycle of expectation and frustration. We want to know more, but we find that we can’t learn all that we sense is before us because we don’t already know enough. Readers and authors naturally have opposing reactions to this cycle, given their respective vantage points of purpose and understanding. A reader wants ready access to information and insight. An author, in contrast, may find it counterproductive to try to minimize the challenges of the material, preferring to trust that the rewards of an introductory work can be in inverse proportion to its rigors. The author must be responsible to the integrity of the material he or she wishes to introduce, even while acknowledging the valid expectations of readers. There is probably no happy medium in this regard, no standard that will satisfy the desires of all, but readers can negotiate the inevitable challenges of the unfamiliar by keeping in mind the contexts of thought in which the choices and responsibilities of a particular introduction gain cogency.

Authors usually try to identify such contexts of thought for their readers with words of preparation and purpose in a preface. This third edition of Buddhist Ethics, however, is a posthumous work, Ven. Saddhatissa having passed away in 1990. We cannot know whether Ven. Saddhatissa would have said something different from what he wrote in his preface to the second edition. That preface is included in this third edition and readers who turn to it will quickly see that Ven. Saddhatissa offered this book to us with some urgency, seeing in the world around him a profound need for social reform and moral regeneration.

This perception of urgency gives cogency to Buddhist Ethics and helps us, for example, to appreciate Ven. Saddhatissa’s inclusion of a chapter about the layman’s relation to the state as opposed to a more meta-ethical discussion about, say, the foundations of moral knowledge that the more philosophically inclined might have preferred. A sense of urgency about the moral state of the world in fact animated much of Ven. Saddhatissa’s lifework, which was devoted to the career of a dhammadūta, “a messenger of Truth” or “messenger of Dhamma.” He was born in Sri Lanka in 1914 and took novice ordination as a Buddhist monk in 1926. After his education at monastic and secular colleges in Sri Lanka, he went to India in the forties to engage in missionary work sponsored by the Mahbodhi Society. From the start of his mature career, however, he combined his labors as a dhammadūta with more academic interests, and his first book was a grammar of the Pali language written in Hindi. While in India, Ven. Saddhatissa was associated with and advised Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s movement for social justice for the Dalit (former “untouchable”) communities, a movement which culminated in the mass conversions of a half million people to Buddhism in 1956.

In 1957, he was invited by the Mahābodhi Society to go to the London Buddhist Vihāra, which had been founded earlier in the century by Anāgarika Dharmapāla but which had declined in public activity during the Second World War. Ven. Saddhatissa was to spend the rest of his life in Europe, again combining the life of a Buddhist monk with the life of an academic in a modern university. In addition to his duties as incumbent of the London Buddhist Vihāra, he taught regularly at the School of Oriental and African Studies and he was a diligent and regular laborer in its library. He received a doctorate in 1963 from the University of Edinburgh for his critical edition of a medieval Pali handbook for Buddhist laypeople, the Upāsakajanālaṅkāra, which was subsequently published by the Pali Text Society in 1965.

Buddhist Ethics clearly reflects Ven. Saddhatissa’s academic interests and abilities, but it also reflects his identity as a dhammadūta. I think we can see something of Ven. Saddhatissa’s understanding of himself as a dhammadūta in the book itself, and it is worth pausing to consider what he has to say. One example of his self-presentation is characteristically indirect. Ven. Saddhatissa closed an account of a dialogue between the Buddha and an ascetic named Kassapa by noting that, for the Buddha, any “discussion which would lead to useful results would be better begun with points of agreement of the debaters than with their differences” and “that these hopeful beginnings would deal with things accepted by all shades of reputable opinion as definitely ‘good’ or definitely ‘evil’; in other words, the starting points should be moral values” (p. 92).

This exemplary sense that productive beginnings are best sought on common ground was apparently adopted by Ven. Saddhatissa in his role as a dhammadūta. This may be surprising to some, since an orientation towards common ground is not usually associated with a “missionary,” the ordinary translation of the word dhammadūta into English. Throughout his life, Ven. Saddhatissa upturned such unreflective stereotypes. For example, in the course of a lecture introducing meditation, Ven. Saddhatissa commented:

[W]e sometimes pay excessive attention to such labels as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism but none or very little to the teachings which they impart. Therein lies the root of the trouble. We should not pay excessive attention to labels. We should accept that those teachings are for all humanity. The great teachers came into the world to improve it. . . . I stress that the basic desire of the great teachers was to make a better world and that they had no interest at all in labels. Anyone can avail themselves of their teachings and so, for example, meditation on universal love, on higher thoughts and on breathing, all can be used by all human beings and not solely by Buddhists. These meditation practices make possible control over the mind and the overcoming of aggression, confusion, selfishness and evil desires. All these enemies can be overcome and one can cultivate, on the other hand, compassion and universal love, friendliness, generosity and positive qualities in general.

A similar orientation towards an initial and productive common ground is evident in Buddhist Ethics, as can be seen in Ven. Saddhatissa’s own words in the preface to the second edition. They make it clear that the reader’s sensitive alertness to a global ethic which is conducive to “the elevation of humanity” provides the most important context of thought against which Buddhist Ethics should be read. It goes without saying that an orientation to common ground is not blindness to difference. Common ground instead provides the very rationale for careful attention to different viewpoints because they are about issues that we already care about. Beginning on common ground encourages us to endure the momentary awkwardness of speaking with new terms, to explore in a searching way unfamiliar categories of thought, and to appreciate, in imagination and in action, relatively novel practices for the improvement of character.

When I keep this orientation to common ground in view, I am mindful that Ven. Saddhatissa would have been disappointed if readers of Buddhist Ethics finished his book with only a sense of knowing more about Buddhist thought, and not also an awareness of knowing more about themselves and their moral embeddedness in the world.

Such general observations, when specified further, can aid readers thinking about how to get the most out of this book. For example, in the first chapter, “Definitions and Historical Background,” Ven. Saddhatissa reviews a number of discussions of ethics from the history of Western philosophy, ending with allusions to an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica by Abraham Wolf. Conventional habits of reading may incline one to hurry past Ven. Saddhatissa’s use of this entry, somewhat incongruously mentioned alongside Plato and Aristotle, but to do so would be to miss one of the keys that Ven. Saddhatissa gives to the structure of his book, and thus to miss a broader context of thought that he asks us to keep in mind as we read.

Ven. Saddhatissa takes from Abraham Wolf a ready-at-hand list of “the main problems of ethics.” These are: 1) questions about what is the highest good of human conduct; 2) the origin or source of moral knowledge; 3) sanctions of moral conduct; and 4) the motives that prompt right behavior (p. 3). Just as rapidly as he introduces this list, Ven. Saddhatissa rearranges its order, and in the process subtly and with little comment adjusts the contents of some of the list’s members: “The present consideration will be made under four main headings: 1) origin and source of knowledge of the highest; 2) the sanctions of moral conduct: the Three Refuges; the Precepts; 3) moral principles as possessing value in view of a standard or ideal; 4) the ultimate aim which may serve as the ultimate standard. . .” (p.4).

Keeping these headings in view helps us keep the many details of each chapter in perspective. The expectations of an introductory text require Ven. Saddhatissa to present various kinds of relevant information, all essential as background for understanding, but they unfortunately can also sometimes obscure the economy of presentation. It is incumbent on us, his readers who are in need of this background information, to remind ourselves repeatedly of the bigger picture that gives his presentation force. One way we can do this is by keeping these four headings in mind, but it will be easier to do this if these four headings are correlated with the seven chapters that form the bulk of the book:

(1) The origin and source of knowledge of the highest is discussed in chapter 2. It is a crucial account of the nature and career of the Buddha, which can be usefully enhanced by the historical material introduced at the end of chapter 1.

(2) The sanctions of moral conduct are covered in chapters 3 and 4, which treat the Three Refuges and the precepts. The inclusion of the Three Refuges as a moral sanction, something that makes particular courses of action like the five precepts valid, is very distinctive and one of the most compelling aspects of Ven. Saddhatissa’s presentation. It is worth emphasizing that Ven. Saddhatissa presents the Refuges in connection to a consideration about what dictates ethical choice, and not as a reaction to the Buddha as a source of knowledge of the highest. I am sure that I am not alone among Ven. Saddhatissa’s readers to have found it fruitful to reflect on what is entailed in discerning a moral sanction in one’s relationship to the Three Gems rather than in an abstract principle comparable to Kant’s categorical imperative, in which only actions that can be willed as universal should be sanctioned as moral. I have also found it productive to consider the similarity in Saddhatissa’s appreciation of human freedom, which he sees represented in the Three Refuges, and the appreciation of freedom as the sine qua non of moral thought in the modern West.

(3) The heading of “moral principles as possessing value in view of a standard or ideal” organizes well the material in chapters 5, 6, and 7. A striking statement made by Ven. Saddhatissa in chapter 5 shows his integrative concerns in these chapters: “Whatever the position assigned to the laity, whether in the Buddha’s day or whether visualized to cover the centuries, the statement of the Four Noble Truths must, in the last instance, determine the role which the layman should assume and play in the Buddhist life” (p. 89). Ven. Saddhatissa’s long interest in the normative character of the Buddhist lay life is everywhere in evidence in these chapters, and his focus on issues of family life is especially noteworthy. Of course, this reflects Ven. Saddhatissa’s general orientation to common ground, but, as we shall see in a moment, his interest in lay life reflects his total understanding of the Buddhist life on its own terms.

(4) Finally, “the ultimate aim which may serve as the ultimate standard” is taken up in the last chapter about Nirvāṇa, the realization of enlightenment itself. In addition to an account about the nature of Nirvāṇa, one will also find discussions of material appropriate to Abraham Wolf ’s fourth heading. Chapter 8 surveys Buddhist teachings on some crucial aspects of Buddhist moral psychology connected with motivation, both as that which prompts right conduct and that which inhibits right conduct.

Ven. Saddhatissa gave two reasons for the changes he made to Abraham Wolf ’s list of the main problems in ethics (these reasons call attention to two changes made by Ven. Saddhatissa, but careful attention to the list will reveal a number of other significant changes as well). The first has to do with the conception of “the highest” as a state “which lies beyond good and evil.” The second change is more crucial for our understanding of the book as a whole, for it represents a key organizing principle in the book: Buddhist practice is crucially integrated into one whole, and a failure to appreciate this integration is inevitably a source of misunderstanding and distortion. Indeed, the last sentence of Buddhist Ethics is a ringing affirmation of this practical integration seen as an intent of the Buddha himself: The Buddha’s teaching “began with the most elementary of the moralities, and proceeded without a break to the realization of the ultimate goal: the realization of Nibbāna with the realization of the Four Noble Truths” (p. 149; emphasis added). In this respect, Ven. Saddhatissa is quite at odds with many other modern interpreters of Buddhist practice, who tend to see a sharp divide between the practices of virtuoso monks and everyone else.

Without trying to adjudicate between these two accounts of practice in the Buddhist community, let me simply say that Ven. Saddhatissa’s perspective has abundant support in Buddhist literature. One of the most famous verses in the Dhammapada goes:

Refraining from what is detrimental,
The attainment of what is wholesome,
The purification of one’s mind:
This is the instruction of Awakened Ones.

What is clear from this verse is that the moral life is intimately connected with the mental cultivation associated with Buddhist meditation. This association is twofold. First, the moral life is a preliminary to the proper practice of mental discipline and progress in meditation is not possible without the stability that morality lends to human life. Secondly, and conversely, meditation enhances the practice of morality, extending and perfecting it. One of the most interesting passages in Buddhist Ethics, and a point where Ven. Saddhatissa is deeply in tune with the religious heritage of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, is the long account in chapter 4 about how meditations on mettā, loving kindness, are integral to the keeping of the first precept not to do harm to others.

The location of the moral life in a larger Buddhist life—a life which includes meditation and aspires to the attainment of wisdom—is an insight that allows Ven. Saddhatissa to affirm that “Buddhism can be said to provide the complete ethical study” (p. 4) and leads to the creative tension at the heart of this book. That Ven. Saddhatissa was probably aware of this tension is indicated by the different subtitles which were given to the two previous editions. The first edition appeared in 1970 with the full title Buddhist Ethics: The Essence of Buddhism, while the second edition appeared in 1987 entitled Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. The latter title suggests the crucial role that the moral life plays in the larger program of character development and realization taught by the Buddha and summarized in the schema of the Noble Eightfold Path. Some might, erroneously, take this to mean that morality is a mere preliminary stage in the higher life, which those who advance on the Path somehow leave behind. It must be admitted, of course, that in some respects this is true, as with the eradication of the anger inherent in human life, so crucial to perfection of morality through meditation and the attainment of wisdom and compassion. But in other respects, such an impression is profoundly wrong, and Ven. Saddhatissa communicated the constancy of morality in the total Buddhist life with his original subtitle that ethics is the essence of Buddhism: the moral life is not transcended in enlightenment, only perfected.

To respect this creative tension, to keep both poles in play as key to the cogency of Ven. Saddhatissa’s presentation, this new edition appears without a subtitle.

Charles Hallisey
Cambridge, Massachusetts
December, 1996


How to cite this document:
© Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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