It is not especially controversial to say that ethics is a branch of philosophy. I’ve occasionally heard people dispute that claim, but mostly on the grounds that ethics extends beyond philosophy per se, to narrative and the like; few would say that ethical reflection is in general not a philosophical activity. Likewise it is not controversial at all to say that Buddhism began in India, or that Buddhism played a central role in the development of Indian philosphy.
So why is there so little overlap between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics”?
The quotation marks are there because there was and is plenty of overlap between what Indian philosophy actually was and is, and what Buddhist ethics were and are. But there is strikingly little overlap between the disciplines, between “the study of Indian philosophy” and “the study of Buddhist ethics” as we now understand the two. This is even though both have grown into large and relatively flourishing fields of inquiry (insofar as any humanities field can said to be flourishing in the age of the career-focused corporate academy).
Most visibly, each of these fields has its own journal, the Journal of Indian Philosophy (JIP) and the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (JBE) – but precious few articles in JBE cite JIP, or vice versa. “Buddhist ethics” reads Pali and Theravāda texts as much as anything Sanskrit or Mahāyāna; “Indian philosophy” focuses almost exclusively on thinkers composing in Sanskrit, most of whom are considered Mahāyāna. (I am not actually sure whether Dignāga and Dharmakīrti – key Buddhist thinkers in “Indian philosophy” – are Mahāyāna thinkers, and that fact may itself tell you something. Identifying a Buddhist thinker as Mahāyāna or not can be of great ethical importance – how much does the thinker foreground altruism? – but with respect to Dignāga and Dharmakīrti I have yet to see the question even asked. Somebody must have written about it, but I haven’t seen it in anything I’ve read on them.) And few seem to have observed just how weird this state of affairs is – that “Buddhist ethics” and “Indian philosophy” proceed more or less in isolation from each other even though a great deal of Buddhist ethics is Indian philosophy, and vice versa.
So how did this all come about? The Journal of Indian Philosophy was founded in 1970 by B.K. Matilal, who proclaimed, in reaction against Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s mystical approach, that “The field of our contributions will be bound by the limits of rational inquiry; we will avoid questions that lie in the fields of theology and mystical experience.” There is nothing in this phrase that should exclude ethics, but it set a tone of aiming for respectability in the analytical tradition, where theoretical questions of epistemology and philosophy of language were always treated as the core of the discipline, especially in 1970 before the arrival of John Rawls. This approach found a comfortable home in European universities, long accustomed to philological inquiries that felt no need to articulate any practical upshot. As a result, the approach has continued to be prominent in the study of Indian philosophy, leading to the dire current situtation where a Dan Arnold can look with deep interest and respect at the epistemological chapters of Candrakīrti’s Catuḥśatakaṭīkā but dismiss the ethical chapters as “more psychological than philosophical” because they are “working on the reader’s affect“. Because we all know none of that girly emotion stuff could have anything to do with philosophy.
Authors in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, on the other hand, have often been motivated by prevalent contemporary concerns, especially political ones. It is their variety of work that has been taken up as a second-order object of study by Christopher Gowans and David Chapman, and led Chapman to make the provocative claims that it is not really Buddhist. “Buddhist ethics” as a field has been most prominent in the USA, the centre for Engaged Buddhism – and so it is no coincidence that “Buddhist ethics” takes a primarily Engaged perspective. So in JBE’s tag cloud we find human rights, economics, war and the environment taking prominent places, but no reference to dukkha/suffering, anger, or karma. These authors are often religionists, and can sometimes wind up doing ethics studies: studying the given norms of particular groups of people without saying anything about the reasons or logic underlying those norms, and portray themselves as doing ethics. As a result I think a lot of work in “Buddhist ethics” doesn’t go very deep into reasons, and especially doesn’t explore metaphysics, in a way that is very much to its detriment. (I’ve noted before how I think it is a neglect of metaphysics that led Damien Keown to throw up his hands in despair and say there was no such thing as Buddhist normative ethics.)
The discrepancy between the two schools is particularly visible in the study of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra. The ninth chapter of this text deals with technical metaphysical questions from a Madhyamaka perspective; the other chapters contain exhortations and arguments about how one should live. The text views itself as a unity – chapter nine begins by saying the rest of the work is there for the sake of the wisdom (prajñā) it addresses. But at least until recently, it has been quite rare to find scholarly works that treat it as such. Rather, one either takes the “Indian philosophy” approach and takes chapter IX in isolation, or takes the “Buddhist ethics” approach and ignores chapter IX entirely. I tried to remedy this gap in my 2015 article, and was very pleasantly surprised to hear from JBE that it was their most viewed article since the journal began collecting statistics. Perhaps I am not the only one who has realized the wall between “Indian philosophy” and “Buddhist ethics” needs to come down.