Western Buddhist Review

Not Just Another Book About Buddhist Ethics

On Mon, 21 October, 2013 - 18:16
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones
Subhadramati, Not About Being Good: a practical guide to buddhist ethics
Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, 2013, 156pp., £10.99 pback, also in ebook etc.

Review by Dhivan Thomas Jones

Subhadramati’s new book on Buddhist ethics is something new and very welcome. It is a resolutely practical book on Buddhist ethics, not just in the sense of being about practical matters, but in the sense of explaining how to practise Buddhist ethics. The aim of the book is not to explain the nature or scope or theory or history of Buddhist ethics, but to invite the reader to take on an active and effective ethical practice that will change his or her life. And it is not just a good read: the book includes reflections and meditative exercises linked to recordings available online. It is a personal study course in establishing a Buddhist ethical practice.

Because of the practical orientation of the book, a review of it should ideally engage with it in a practical way, and that is what I will try to do. However, as I am writing for the Western Buddhist Review, one or two more scholarly points might slip in. For instance, one notices that Subhadhramati is completely uninterested in a conception of ethics in terms of restraint, which has been the primary focus of ethical practice in the Buddhist tradition, exemplified in the rules (pāṭimokkha) for monks and nuns established by the Buddha himself. The significance of this shift is, I think, that Subhadramati has written a book on western Buddhist ethics, that is, on ethics for western Buddhists, who are concerned to establish Buddhist practice in terms of our actual contemporary conditions. Sangharakshita’s The Ten Pillars of Buddhism is another such work,[1] and Not About Being Good might be considered an ideal companion, or perhaps a prequel, to that book.[2]

Subhadramati’s style is writerly and personal. I know Subhadramati through an erstwhile participation in Wolf at the Door writing workshops, and her writing is engaged and assured. She has a natural ear for real-life stories, for what these tales tell us about the nature of life, and this book grows out of and flourishes in its stories. The first is Subhadramati’s own. She is at pains to distinguish Buddhist ethics from the those she imbibed during her pious Catholic childhood. This explains the book’s title, Not About Being Good: for Subhadramati, Buddhist ethics is not about being good, when ‘good’ means conforming to some given religious conception of the right way to behave. This does not, of course, mean that Buddhist ethics is about being bad. Instead, Buddhist ethics has a very different basis: it is about doing what is ‘skilful’ or kusala. A scholarly digression at this point: the Pāli kusala certainly means ‘skilful’, but at the same time the word might also be quite correctly translated as ‘wholesome’ or ‘good’.[3] So although Subhadramati is perfectly correct to say that Buddhist ethics means doing what is skilful, this does not necessarily mean we should not talk about doing what is good. Of course, her point is simply that Buddhist ethics is not based on the idea of the good as fixed or as an absolute, and if we have any inherited or subconscious idea of ethics as meaning that we should conform to some such absolute, then Buddhist ethics is not about being good in that kind of way.

So what is Buddhist ethics about? In her introduction, Subhadramati tells us that actions are skilful or unskilful according to the intention behind them. When our acts are expressions of generosity, love and wisdom, they are skilful, and when they are expressions of selfishness, ill-will and delusion, they are unskilful. In this way, Buddhist ethics means taking personal responsibility for our actions and the intentions behind those actions. How and why should we do this? In the first three chapters of her book, Subhadramati takes an unusual line of approach. She is reluctant to present the traditional Buddhist precepts too soon, for fear that a reader will mistake them for the rules and absolutes which she has eschewed. Chapter 1 discusses how taking responsibility for our actions brings personal integration and an increase in personal happiness. She recommends the practise of not blaming others and of keeping our word. In Chapter 2, she goes on to discuss how Buddhist ethics also involves an increasing empathy for others, resulting in an expansion of sensitivity and compassion. In Chapter 3, we encounter the Buddha and some stories of his ethical sensibility from the Buddhist scriptures. And only after another thorough discussion of religious conformism do we, in Chapter 4, meet the precepts.

I imagine that a scholarly book on Buddhist ethics would have started out with a presentation of the precepts, but it seemed to me a very good idea in a practical book on Buddhist ethics to work up to the precepts in this way. It is almost inconceivable that a reader could reach this point and then wrongly suppose that the precepts are rules or injunctions. As Subhadramati writes, they are principles of skilful action, to be voluntarily undertaken. She goes on to discuss each of the precepts – the list covers both the five precepts (the traditional pañcasīla) and the ten precepts (the traditional dasakusalapatha) undertaken by Order members in the Triratna movement – individually and in detail. A highlight, in my opinion, were the discussions of the four speech precepts. The combination of clarity of expression, use of poetry, sharing of personal experience and anecdotal illustration, opened up these training principles very beautifully.

It becomes clear that Subhadramati really is not in the business of telling the reader what to do or think, but instead of inspiring them to ethical excellence. But this does have some consquences. She nowhere discusses, or even mentions, the big ethical questions – abortion, euthanasia, war – which books on ethics usually address.[4] She gives no indication what a Buddhist ethical position might be on prostitution, say, or embryo experimentation, or the inequities of global capitalism. However, this completely non-directive approach, combined with the scrupulous avoidance of ethical absolutes, unfortunately makes Buddhist ethics sound rather subjective, meaning, that there is no objective right and wrong, just our own ethical judgements. I would say Buddhist ethics is considerably more objective than that. I also had a couple of more specific doubts about Subhadramati’s approach.

Firstly, it is clear from various references (p.34, p.102) in the book that Subhadramati is a vegetarian, but she does not in fact discuss how this practice follows from the first precept. A non-vegetarian reader might remain unsure what Buddhist ethics says about eating meat. Subhadramati confuses things a little by writing (p.39) that eating meat would go against her spiritual values, so that she would refuse meat even when offered it by a host who was unaware of her vegetarianism. My understanding of this matter is that there is nothing wrong with eating meat per se but that a Buddhist undertakes not to harm living beings. For this reason the Buddha himself was not vegetarian but did not accept meat that he knew or suspected had been prepared especially for him. I think the vegetarian cause would have been helped by a clearer account of the relation of the first precept to a meat-free diet. Secondly, her discussion of the third precept, abstaining from sexual misconduct, was free of moralising but also of any specific guidance. Instead, Subhadramati encourages the cultivation of contentment and self-love. For me, and I do not suppose I am alone, I have often had to work out how to best handle sexual desire within the experience of falling in love. It is not at all a matter of cultivating contentment but instead of balancing restraint with reflection, communication and clarification of ethical principles. Some discussion of this would have not been amiss.

While most books on Buddhist ethics might end at this point, this one goes on to discuss how to effectively deepen one’s ethical practice. Chapter 5 places the practice of Buddhist ethics in the larger context of committing oneself to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. Chapter 6 explores the very important topic of confession and forgiveness, of what to do when one acts unskilfully. Although the practice of Buddhist ethics is essentially a matter of taking personal responsibility, it is greatly helped by practising with others. The experience of hrī or ‘remorse’ (scholarly digression: it would be more exactly translated ‘shame’) for our misdeeds is positive, and leads to confession to our spiritual friends, to making amends, and to forgiveness. Chapter 7 emphasizes the possibility of beauty in ethics, as expressed through the positive precepts which are such a distinctive feature of Triratna Buddhism.

Up to this point, Not About Being Good is entirely practical, and Subhadramati constantly illustrates her points with stories from her own life and from the experience of men and women she has met in her Buddhist teaching career. However, in Chapter 8 there is a change of tone. Subhadramati now offers a larger, religious or metaphysical context for the practice of Buddhist ethics, in terms of the distinction of karma-niyama and dharma-niyama, a distinction that has been the topic of recent papers by Sangharakshita and Subhuti.[5] Subhadramati describes how the effort on the part of the individual to practise Buddhist ethics leads not only to a transcending of one’s own self-clinging, but also to the experience of the Buddha reaching down, as it were, to lift one up, so that one’s will becomes blended with a more general will to work for the liberation of all beings. In this way, practising ethics within a self-transcending ideal leads beyond ethics, to selfless work for the benefit of all beings.

Buddhist ethics here merges with the larger aim of Buddhist practice – not so much to benefit oneself as all beings. But I wonder how we can reconcile this language of self-transcendence with the idea that ethics means taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and intentions. Subhadramati tries to do so with some analogies. When one loves someone, one is willing to do what they want; there is a blending of one’s own will with someone else’s, and an overcoming of one’s own ego for the sake of another. Subhadramati also describes how Sangharakshita resolved to do whatever his spiritual teacher, Jagdish Kashyap, told him, so as to overcome his limited ego. She goes on to describe how athletes are inspired to do better than they know by the enthusiasm of the crowd. She takes such ordinary examples of the transcending of the individual will to point us to the possibility of our blending our wills with the Buddha’s, being inspired by an altruistic motivating force that is beyond the self. But how can we distinguish these examples from more sinister examples of group psychology? The crowds at the Nuremberg rallies, for instance, were inspired to give up their individual wills and put themselves behind Hitler’s Nazi party. Similarly, many people were inspired to go and loot shops in London in 2011 by the enthusiasm of the crowd. Obviously, Subhadramati is not advocating group psychology. As she has made clear, Buddhist ethics involves personal responsibility for our actions and intentions. But if this is the case, then Buddhists are always personally responsible for their decision to give themselves up to a self-transcending ideal. I would guess, for instance, that Sangharakshita decided to stay in Kalimpong and work for the good of Buddhism not only because Jagdish Kashyap told him to do so, but also because he, Sangharakshita, judged that this was the right thing to do. More generally, no one should literally give up their ego to blend their will with a higher force, as this could lead to ethical disaster. Subhadramati does acknowledge the metaphorical nature of her language, but underplays in this chapter, I think, how ethical awareness always involves a personal responsibility for our actions. This is a fact about ethics.

Of course Subhadramati stresses personal responsibility in earlier chapters of her book, so am I not casting doubt on the main thrust of her approach, only on the particular religious language she uses in Chapter 8. I notice that in this chapter there are no illustrative stories from personal experience, suggesting that what Subhadramati is describing here is more theoretical than the rest of the book. Perhaps each reader will have to try to make sense of how the practice of ethics leads over into bodhisattva activity. What Subhadramati writes certainly inspires us to try. She ends this chapter, and her book, by returning to a poem by Ted Hughes, ‘New Foal’, about a foal learning to be a horse, practising being a horse, allowing the essence of horse-ness to fill him. Likewise, practising ethics, we ‘become more and more truly human’ (p.144), and this very humanity is infused by the unfolding of a vast inner potential which is enlightenment or Buddhahood. This is rather mysterious and poetic, but that of course is the point. Subhadramati’s very practical book ends quite appropriately with the acknowledgement that Buddhist ethics are part of a process of spiritual development that will transform us in ways that we cannot foretell.

Dhivan Thomas Jones is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review

[1] Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Glasgow, 1989.

[2] There are some existing books on Buddhist ethics, which are more scholarly: H. Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1970; Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics, Palgrave, 1992, 2nd ed. 2001; Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[3] See Lance Cousins, ‘Good or Skilful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, vol.3 (1996), pp.136–64 (available online); summarised in Peter Harvey, op. cit., pp.42–3.

[4] For Buddhist approaches to the big questions, see for instance: Peter Harvery, op. cit.; Damian Keown, Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[5] See especially ‘Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma’, 2010, and ‘A Supra-Personal Force’, 2012. But also see my paper which points out that niyama does not mean what it is said to mean in these articles: ‘The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature: an Assessment of Modern Western Interpretations of Theravāda Buddhist Doctrine’, in Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 19 (2012) pp.546–82, online at http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/. My paper does not comment on the points being made, only the language in which they are expressed.

Log in or register to take part in this conversation