Amod Lele on Śāntideva and the impact of metaphysics on ethics

In an article available open access online (thanks for this altruistic move, Amod!), Amod recently discussed a challenging topic, namely whether there is a link between metaphysical issues and ethics in Buddhist philosophy. More precisely, he focused on Śāntideva’s* Bodhicāryāvatāra (henceforth BCĀ) and analysed its metaphysical chapters (chapter nine, and, to a less extent, chapter six).

In order to achieve his more general purpose, Amod needs to convince two groups of target readers: On the one hand there are the ones who think that there is no metaphysics at all in Buddhist texts. On the other hand, there are the ones who think that there is nothing like ethical thought in Buddhist texts, which only contain norms of good behaviour.

Amod dedicates to the first group the first pages of his essay, which discuss the common idea that according to the Buddha one should avoid investigating about metaphysics, because escaping from dukkha is much more urgent. The common reference in this context is the passage in which the Buddha says that trying to solve metaphysical riddles instead of focusing on the escape from dukkha is as if a wounded man would refute to get cured until one explained him who shot the arrow, what his clan was and so on (MN 1.431). Amod’s counterclaim is that this may well hold true until the arrow has not been removed, whereas as soon as it is off, it may well be useful to know who shot it —at least in order to prevent him from procuring further harm.

The concerns of the second group of readers are addressed thereafter, pp. 255ff., by means of the example of Śāntideva who, according to Amod, consistently built his ethical theories on the basis of his metaphysical ones:

I offer the suggestion that metaphysical arguments like Śāntideva’s are among the most fruitful resources for Buddhist normative ethics. […] (p. 256) Those difficult parts contain Śāntideva’s own reasoning for his ethical claims, his arguments. […] Śāntideva logically deduces much of his ethics from this metaphysics. (p. 259) It is a move from fact to value, from is to ought. (p. 260)

(Moreover, Amod claims that Śāntideva is not alone in this attempt: pp. 256–257 elaborate on the parallel offered by Candrakīrti and by Āryadeva.)

What are these moves “from is to ought”? Amod aptly summarises them as follows:

Each one [of this moves, EF] describes a way in which ordinary people make a mistake about the nature of reality, and this mistake in turn leads them to act in inappropriate ways. We ordinary people think that there is independent agency, and as a result we get angry; we think that human bodies have existence as wholes, which allows us to be lustful; we think that there is a self, so we act out of self-interest; and we think there is substantial existence, and therefore feel attachment. (p. 259–260)

Let me now analyse at least one of such moves. In the case of anger, Śāntideva writes:

Even when my bile and so on make great suffering, I have no anger. So why is there anger at sentient beings? They too are angry with a cause.
(BCĀ 6.22, Amod’s translation)

The point is that when unconscious entities, like our stomach, cause us sufferings, we do not get angry, since we know that they cause us suffering for a good reason and not out of desire to harm us. Thus, the doctrine of dependent causation (and of absence of free will, a topic investigated upon by Amod in his previous work and on his blog) offers the theorethical premises for the ethical stance of avoiding anger. I hope I am allowed to add that one might see the whole enterprise, accordingly, as a form of ethical intellectualism since, as with Socrates, the idea is that once you know righty, you will also behave rightly.

Let me now come to my usual role of pūrvapakṣiṇī and present an objection: Could not it be the case that Śāntideva’s main focus was the right behaviour of monks (the one which could have helped on the bodhisattva’s path) and that the metaphysical parts are subsidiary to it? The organisation of the BCĀ would indirectly support this claim, since it is primarily a textbook targeted at monks and teaching them how to behave. One could imagine that, e.g., claims such as “human bodies are nothing but sums of pieces of (unattractive) flesh” originate out of the concern to help monks in their chastity vows, rather than out of a primarily metaphysical stance. Similarly, the visualisation exercises during which monks are taught to visualise attractive women as if they were corpses do not aim —IMHO— at establishing the metaphysical truth that female bodies are not alive, but rather at strenghtening the monks’ ability to resist lust (in some sense, Amod hints at this possibility when he speaks of a “meditative form” of the argument, pp. 265–66).

Last, Amod’s article contains many other interesting points (e.g., the interpretation of Śāntideva’s four ethical arguments as a sequence from Buddhism to Mahāyāna and Mādhyamaka), so be sure you don’t miss it!

More in general: What do you think of the links between metaphysics and ethics in Indian (Buddhist) thought?

*Amod discusses his stance on the identity of “Śāntideva” at p. 261.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

15 Replies to “Amod Lele on Śāntideva and the impact of metaphysics on ethics”

  1. Please do look at this book, Amod, which might interest you, by a former student of mine.

    Warren Todd 2013 The Ethics of Sankara and Santideva: A Selfless Response to an Illusory World. Aldershot: Ashgate

    The Dalai Lama was kind enough to write a nice foreword.

    • Thanks, Ram. I’m interested: does Todd claim that Sankara urges selflessness in the sense of altruism, as Santideva does? Hacker and Halbfass would claim that is a modern misinterpretation from Vivekananda (and perhaps ultimately Schopenhauer). I’d be intrigued to find a refutation of those claims.

  2. Thank you very much for this post, Elisa!

    First (smaller) comment: I wouldn’t describe the BCA as a textbook aimed primarily at monks. I’ve heard others made that claim but I don’t see it. I think some parts of it are aimed at convincing householders to be monks; other than those, there’s nothing a householder couldn’t follow. There aren’t any instructions on participating in the life of a monastery (the way there are in the Śikṣā Samuccaya).

    The bigger question has to do with the relationship between metaphysics and right behaviour. There, I think the question is what “subsidiary” means. The metaphysics of the BCA have explicitly stated ethical consequences in a way that is much less clear in the metaphysics of Dignāga, say. But I don’t think the metaphysical claims are mere upāya except in the sense that for a Mādhyamika all language (and all behaviour!) is upāya. BCA IX.1 does say that the entire collection is there for the purpose of prajñā. And Śāntideva does demarcate metaphorical from literal speech – he says one should act as if one is a newly married bride, but no such iva attaches to most of the metaphysical claims.

    • Amod,

      nothing to be thankful about. By the way, this seems to me a very meaningful way to use our blog.

      I derived the interpretation of the BCĀ as a textbook for monks from the professor with whom I read it at the beginning of my BA (i.e., I might have misunderstood, etc.). He used this argument in order to explain to us, from instance, misogynist statements: the text was meant for monks and they had to be drawn away from women. I am surprised by your claim that there is nothing of the BCĀ which cannot apply to a layperson.

      • Well, I should clarify: I think those passages do imply the superiority of monkhood, but that praise is aimed at both audiences. (I’ve always found it odd when people insist “this is a text for monks, that is a text for householders”, beyond texts that obviously specify such a context, like vinaya. I sometimes get the feeling that that separation is made by people who want to think “oh good, this is just for monks, it doesn’t apply to me.” What they don’t seem to get is that those texts are arguing that they too would do best to become monks.)

        Notice also that the misogynistic statements themselves occur in the context of the praise of isolation, isolation from anybody, including any other monks – within a text which in general gives its highest praise to compassion for other sentient beings. So they can’t be read as the final form of the path.

        In general, I think those passages are best read as a condemnation of sexual lust, and that does apply to householders too. Buddhist texts do not in practice discuss the foulness of men’s bodies in the way they do for women’s, but I don’t think the logic of the texts implies any reason they couldn’t. If the gender of the passages were swapped for a heterosexual female audience, I think their intent would largely stand.

  3. I think that in the Abhidhamma tradition, at least, the connection is quite clear. Ethics are derivative of metaphysics, but particularly from the concept of causation (which of course is a metaphysical concept) and the psycho-physical dhammas. Intentionality produces special types of causal effects in law-like ways. The fundamental causal nexus of kamma and dukkha, craving and suffering, is the true causal forces at work in conditioned existence. And so just as any physical event, no matter how particular, can be described in terms of the laws of physics, so can all “intentional events” be described in terms of kamma. Given the soteriological goals of Buddhist practice (ending conditioned existence), one can give one analysis in which actions that move one towards the end (cause) are “right” and those do not “cause” this end are wrong. This introduces, however, a complication that makes Buddhist ethics quite unlike Western ethical systems like care ethics, deontology, or utilitarianism. That is because there are efforts that may directly contribute to the soteriological goals of Buddhist practice, and those that only indirectly contribute in that they create puñña. Hence there are codes of behavior for monastics and for laypeople. Then there is the paradoxical conclusion that in actuality the goal is not caused at all, that is, not a product of kammic action itself. However, within the tradition the idea is that as one truly comes to understand these metaphysical truths one gains moral insights and understands what actions are right and which are wrong. For example, through practice one can become aware and then rid oneself of the akusala cetasikà or unskilled (wrong) mental states. These akusala cetasikà are causal precursors of actions that result in immoral kamma (akusala kamma), and so if they are eliminated then the effects are prevented. Eventually, one ceases to become a causal force at all, and this is the goal. So whatever causes one to not be a cause then is “right.” It may be the propensity of the Abhidhammikas to analysis that makes the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical connections so apparent, but the character of the ethics is, if you take it seriously, really a bit bewildering in its complexity.

    • I think that’s about right, Jarrod. I find the connection more clearly expressed in Śāntideva than the abhidhamma, but I think it’s there in the latter as well.

  4. Jarrod, I think it may be that there is a difference between how the Abdhidharma developed through the Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam, and how the Abhidhamma was read in the Therāvāda tradition, most importantly by Buddhaghosa. In him, there is an absence of a metaphysics that is not accidental. See Maria Heim 2014 The Forerunner of All Things, New York: OUP

  5. One thing I appreciated about the article is Amod’s attention to four instances of where Śāntideva uses metaphysical premises to draw ethical conclusions (or at least appears to be doing this). I think this is particularly helpful since so much attention has been focused on the not-self > altruism argument in chapter eight, with the arguments about anger in the patience chapter as a distant second. I agree with Amod that it’s important to begin to think about how the text as a whole interweaves metaphysics and ethics.

    I’m going to reaffirm a bit something close to Elisa’s worry as well, however—although this really is a worry rather than a claim. Part of the purpose of each of the arguments (or “arguments”) Amod references is to enact psychological transformation: this has to be the case since the text as a whole is a manual for how to develop the virtuous qualities of the bodhisattva. This doesn’t mean any of these arguments doesn’t also express a view Śāntideva is committed to, or that we shouldn’t take any of them seriously as an argument. But do we have a reason to rule out the possibility that sometimes he is simply interested in the psychological transformation and uninterested in providing a good argument? The apparently misogynist passages in the meditation chapter should be taken this way—as exercises to help eliminate lust, rather than accurate descriptions of women’s bodies. So (we can at least ask) why not something similar with the arguments Amod (and I etc.) focus on?

    One response I’ll mention now is that some of these instances are powerful arguments that are well worth consideration, even if not ultimately convincing.

    • I somehow missed this post earlier, Stephen. I would probably say: is Śāntideva more interested in psychological transformation than in good argument? Yes. But it seems clear to me he cares about both – especially given the size and detail of chapter IX, which has always been viewed as an integral part of the text.

      In that respect I think he’s just the inverse of, say, Dignāga and Dharmakīrti – who clearly care about good argument more than about psychological transformation, but are still interested in and committed to the transformation.

      And regarding the misogynistic passages: I’m not going to say they’re just meditation aids. I suspect he thinks women’s bodies actually are that foul – but he could say the same about men’s. Indeed, he does say it about men’s bodies, especially the intended reader’s own body, back in chapter V. (V.61: “why do you guard this festering contraption made of filth?”)

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