Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics, By Gunapala Dharmasiri

Reviewed by Bruno Gujer

Philosophy East & West
V. 38 (October 1988)
pp. 439-440

Copyright 1988 by University of Hawaii Press


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There are many introductory texts on Buddhist philosophy but none known to this reviewer that manages to convey both the essence and complexity of this way of thinking with such matter-of-course directness. The immediacy of this little volume is striking. In contrast to Western scholars who tend to introduce Buddhism to their readers as an essentially alien system of thought, Professor Dharmasiri, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, conveys an understanding of it that we can discover and verify within ourselves. He achieves this result by a rigorous paring down of his subject matter to its fundamental principles and by introducing the reader to this basic core in the form of a judicious selection of quotes from Buddhist scriptures. That is, he bypasses the historical development of Buddhism and the various doctrinal schools that it produced, alluding even to the distinction between Theravaada, Mahaayaana, and Tantric Buddhism only as they happen to arise in the context of a given topic.

    The book begins with a general introduction to Buddhist epistemology and cosmology; it then proceeds logically to a discussion of motivation and karmic causality, expands on the consequences for social behavior and polity, and culminates in a discussion of the Bodhisattva ideal, the nature of evil, and the various conceptions of Nirvana. The Western reader unfamiliar with Buddhism will find his comfortable assumptions and intellectual conventions challenged time and again by a system of thought that aims at transcending all categorization, most fundamentally the distinction between "I" and "not I." And the expert will marvel at the ease with which this didactic feat is accomplished.

    The argument flows naturally from the selected texts. Moral thought and action do not arise from the individual's soul: there is no such thing as a "self." Neither is morality just the consequence of social conditioning. Rather, human thought and ac-

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tion, good or bad, follow the causal logic of accumulated karma; that is, it is experiential and existential. The teaching and example of the Buddha may lead a being to understand the sa^msaaric cycle of rebirths and strive to escape it. To attain wisdom and to exercise compassion is the way to Nirvaa.na. But excessive compassion may produce undue attachment, and the single-minded pursuit of wisdom a callous indifference.  Therefore, it is essential to maintain a balance between these two fundamental elements of a moral life. Evil is not something to be fought--that would only mean setting up one illusion against another--but rather to be neutralized through awareness. The highest aspiration is the extinction of self; the greatest task to lead others to do likewise.

    These precepts are presented to the reader not as an abstract construct of ideas, but as easily verifiable ground rules for a happy life. Dharmasiri makes no secret of his intention to win converts to the Buddhist perception of reality. In his introduction and in a lecture added as an appendix, he blames the spread of Western civilization and its materialistic ethic for most of the ills of today's world and advocates a return to the simple teachings of the Buddha as a remedy. From the beginning he stresses the anti-authoritarian nature of Buddhist thought and its insistence on correspondence with fact as the principal criterion of truth. According to Dharmasiri, Buddhist morality grows from a proper understanding of nature, achieved through meditation, for "morality is the nature of nature." In the great chain of beings, the ideal example for any one being in acting towards any other is the mother, in her care for her one and only son. Only in following this ethic, affirms Dharmasiri, can man survive, for "morality is only a system of rules that has gradually evolved for the safeguarding of the species in the evolutionary process."

    Despite its implicit missionary purpose, however, the book remains scholarly and didactic throughout. It thus represents a most valuable source of information as well as an inspiration for the student engaged in a cross-cultural search for truth. With thorough editing this little volume could become a standard introduction to Buddhism for Western students.