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.