Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Shih Chao Hwei
Professor – Hsuan Chuang University and Fu Jen University, Head of the Department of Religious Studies in Hsuan Chuang University, President of Hong Shi Buddhist Cultural and Educational Foundation, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Hsuan Chuang University in Taiwan
Greek, Roman and Judaic cultures are the origins of three major systems of Western ethical studies. Among them, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), is usually considered to be the first person to have set the foundation for the progress of Western philosophy. He started from experience and used analogies to establish his theory of knowledge. From his theory of knowledge, he developed his metaphysics, and revealed a noumenon (an original identity) that possessed the unique characteristics of truth, goodness and beauty. This is the basis, in his system, for the existence of our sensory-perception world. Thereafter, he applied his metaphysics theorem and principles to practical living. This became his study of ethics and the study of politics. This methodology has always influenced Western philosophical thinking, including the Christian Scholasticism of the middle Ages. Take for example, Thomas Aquinas, who was most representative in the study of ethics in theology, and had the greatest influence in later centuries. In his study of ethics, he used Aristotle’s philosophical methods and contents in supporting Christian belief. Based on the differences between rationality and faith, he divided ethics into natural ethics and supernatural ethics. In his opinion, the former may adopt Aristotle’s method of practical rationality, whilst the latter required faith, and yields kindness based on the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Writing on normative ethics, I have benefited a lot from Western ethical studies regarding the establishment of ideological systems and structures. However, Buddhism is more than merely ontology or metaphysics. It is based on its fundamental principle that developed from experience – dependent origination (s. pratītya-samutpāda, p. paticca-samuppāda). This is the principle that the Buddha realized through his practical experience of contemplation and discernment. It is based on this principle that I discuss and explain the various topics related to the study of ethics. Regarding specific books that discuss the contemporary study of Buddhist ethics, there are not any lengthy works in Chinese, although there have been some articles. In Japanese, there are The Daily Ethics of Early Buddhism and Sociological Thoughts of Early Buddhism by Nakamura Hajime, which discuss personal/individual ethics, and group ethics respectively. In terms of English materials, there is Buddhist Ethics by the Sri Lankan Venerable H. Saddhatissa. The special characteristic of these publications is that they are abundant in quoted materials, thus greatly assisting the search for first-hand materials. Nevertheless, the functioning aim of The Study of Buddhist Ethics is not an abundance of materials quoted and textual research, but the digestion of the materials, and the extraction of their essence, so as to present a complete, Buddhist ethical system.
In other words, my work here adopts an analytical, philosophical methodology and not textual research methods. There is more logical evidence than scriptural evidence, and there are more deductions than summaries. However, this does not mean that I do not regard the teachings and making summaries from materials as unimportant. Rather, my aim is to present features that are complementary to other approaches in my other writing. This allows my written works to supplement each other. Theoretically, we cannot neglect the history of Buddhist ethics if we wish to provide a complete explanation of the study of Buddhist normative ethics. For example, after the Buddha’s parinirvāïa, Mahākāśyapa and Pūrna, two of the foremost disciples of the Buddha, varied in their views regarding whether leeway should be given to certain precepts under special circumstances. Also, during the period of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the sūtras adopted a gentle yet mocking attitude towards the Śrāvaka elders’ system of sangha hierarchy, while at the same time harboring serious discrimination and prejudice toward women. In addition, during the Middle Mahāyāna Period, the ideology of the Tathāgatha-garbha gradually developed. It often tended trespass on to the theory of dependent origination. Moreover, in ancient China, Venerable Dao An (312-385) and Venerable Hui Yan (334-416) also stated differing views of the relationship between Buddhist religion and politics.
Without a thorough understanding of Buddhist history, we cannot easily understand the moral judgments and controversies of the fundamental theories mentioned above, and will therefore have difficulty mastering the complete picture of the ethical principles of the various schools. It will also be difficult to understand the internal thread of thinking and choices explained in this book regarding these controversies. However, if I include historical research as well as systematic analysis, then I must introduce the ideologies of the various schools, and repeatedly compare and list their similarities and dissimilarities, and then present reasons for choices of selections. In this way, the book’s categories and sections will become enormous, petty, and complicated. This could deter many people from reading the book. The adoption of both methods of research at the same time hinders a well-organized presentation of the complete outline and direction of the questions regarding Buddhist normative ethics. Thus, I have decided to adopt only a systematic analytical method in this book, and do not here consider the historical study of ethics.
Six Points of Consideration in Using Buddhist Textual Materials….
How can we establish the ideological system of Buddhist ethics in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings and, at the same time, make it acceptable to Buddhists from all traditions? The fundamental resources in establishing the study of Buddhist ethics come from the sūtras and scriptures. Without the sūtras as the basis, even if the argument is very reasonable, it can only be considered a personal point of view, and, as such, how can it be proved to be in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings? Furthermore, among the Buddhist sūtras, there are sūtras of various schools such as the Śrāvakayāna, Mahāyāna, and sub schools of MahayanaMahāyāna, such as Vajrayāana. In addition, the various schools and sects in India and China tended to have diverse views on various matters. With such problems, how can we decide which to accept or reject? This immediately leads to an issue that cannot be avoided: the issue of the analysis and classifications of teachings. Take Venerable H. Saddhatissa of Sri Lanka, for example. When he wrote Buddhist Ethics, he only selected and acknowledged materials from the Āgama Sūtra, which was the fundamental scripture of the Śrāvaka. One reason for restricting himself to this selection is no doubt related to the southern tradition’s idea that the Mahāyāna was not taught by the Buddha. His approach is to adopt the teaching that is the most commonly recognized, and is the common denominator, underlying the three major traditions of Buddhism in the world (Chinese, Pali, and Tibetan language traditions). However, the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism (especially the teachings in the Early Mahāyāna sūtras, the Madhyamika and Mind-only Schools) also link the truth of dependent origination of early Buddhism, and have been widely spread in India, China, and surrounding neighboring countries for a long time. It has outstanding philosophies, and many great masters have developed from this tradition. Could its scriptures be not weighed equal to the Āgama Sūtra? Could these scriptures not be included in the scope of scriptural evidence?
However, if we wish to include these teachings in the scope of scriptural evidence, how can we use the Mahāyāna sūtras as scriptural evidence to convince everyone that this is a study of Buddhist ethics that is acceptable to both the southern and northern traditions, and not merely a study of Mahāyāna Buddhist ethics? To establish the teachings of Mahāyāna, some of the Indian Mahāyāna ùāstra masters used the legends and stories from the Iron Bar Compilation (鐵圍山) to prove that the Mahāyāna sūtras were taught by Buddha. However, there is little or no material evidence for these proofs. We can only say that they are beliefs or legends. Some of these points would not be convincing to the Śrāvaka scholars. Thus, why should I repeat the old stories? After much consideration, when I started writing The Study of Buddhist Ethics, I decided to include the Mahāyāna teachings in the Buddhist ethics system. The reasons come from considerations of two perspectives:
01. From practical experiences in propagating the dharma and benefiting others, I deeply feel the greatness of the Mahāyāna bodhisattvas’ aspirations, the majestic atmosphere that develops from Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the boundless comfort it brings to suffering sentient beings. These are the scopes of mind with which those Śrāvakas, who are renowned for having only aimed for self-liberation, could not compare. I sincerely believe that for Mahāyāna Buddhism to have become popular in ancient India there must have been deep reflection and reviews among the Buddhist disciples within the sangha orders, and the public’s vast wishes and hopes for Buddhism. I am also a part of the ‘bodhisattva spiritual foundation’, and therefore I can not bear to see the glorious works and enthusiastic vows and practices of bodhisattvas be placed outside the study of Buddhist ethics.
02. Contemplating the internal logic of the teachings and theories, we can see that from the development of Śrāvaka Buddhism to Mahāyāna Buddhism, there has been a consistent thread of thoughts linking them. They are not two theories that are completely disconnected. I do not wish to discuss the question of whether Mahāyāna was taught by the Buddha, in the study of Buddhist ethics, as this would divert us to a lot of tangential questions on textual research. At the same time, it would be impossible to satisfy everyone, i.e., to enable both parties to agree to a common agenda of discussion questions. However, through long contemplation and consideration, and repeated investigation and authentication, I have strong confidence that I can, without using the scriptural evidence exclusively from the Mahāyāna sūtras, hold onto the consistent thread of logic directly, and make a clear presentation of the unique ethical ideology of Mahāyāna.
Therefore, I will follow the same style in using scriptural evidence from the texts of sūtras, as the source of thoughts for the whole study of Buddhist ethics. In addition, I will be using the law of dependent origination (s. pratītya-samutpāda), which is most commonly acknowledged by the various schools of Buddhism as the fundamental scriptural evidence (found in the Āgama sutras). Not only is it the fundamental formula among all the Buddhist theories, it also does not rely on faith or speculation. It is a truth that everyone can experience personally in life. In addition, with dependent origination as the premise, detailed logical evidence, from simple to profound can be deduced. A very small quantity of scriptural evidence to establish and elaborate on the ideological system of Buddhist ethics is referred. In addition, there are six good reasons for adopting the law of dependent origination as the principle piece of scriptural evidence, and not to cite a lot of texts from the sūtras:
01. As mentioned above, all perspectives of the study of Buddhist ethics, either directly or indirectly, are related to the fundamental principle of dependent origination. Or, more precisely, dependent origination is the fundamental principle of all the teachings of the Buddha. Thus, by setting the foundation with dependent origination, the ethical ideologies of the three levels of spiritual practices – namely, the human-heaven vehicle, the Śrāvaka vehicle, and the Bodhisattva vehicle – are developed from simple to profound; from a narrow scope to a wide scope. In addition, principles of various levels of the ethical norms are also deduced.
02. If we form a conclusion based only on scriptural evidence, the effectiveness of this noble teaching may only be applicable to Buddhists. To non-Buddhists, it is not convincing. On the contrary, by using the law of dependent origination as the fundamental premise, as long as some explanations are given, one can personally experience the direct experience in life. It does not require the development of faith and speculation. Detailed deductions developed from this law can encourage non-Buddhists to participate in making judgments and comments on whether the various Buddhist’s ethical views are appropriate.
03. As the sūtras are the compiled works of the Buddha’s disciples after his parinirvana, the contents have incorporated their adaptation to the time, place and audience (and the listener or recorder) when the teaching was given. In some cases, there may even appear contents that are contradictory to the fundamental aspirations of Buddhism. I.e., the most confused one is, Buddhism advocates the fundamental aspiration of ‘equality among sentient beings;’ however, there are numerous texts in the sūtras that show discrimination and suppression of women. If we regard every word in the sūtras as scriptural evidence without discretion, problematic situations – such as, teaching not in accordance to the audiences’ receptive level or spiritual capacities; conservatism, feudalism, and remembering the texts without understanding the principles; and having class ideology that is out of date (or a timid mind when confronting unjust circumstances) – may develop.2 Such issues will arise when we look into further and deeper details and more explanations are needed. This will prevent this work from being precise, smooth, and clear in its flow and coherency.
04. There is an abundance of records in the sūtras for us to study and analyze. However, regarding Buddhism’s views on topics related to fundamental ethics or applied ethics; we can set aside these texts when writing the fundamental study of ethics. Examples of topics related to fundamental ethics include benefiting oneself, benefiting others; wholesomeness, unwholesomeness; offence, punishment; intuition of wholesome ability, free will, etc. Topics related to applied ethics include: family, marriage, homosexuality, suicide, euthanasia, abortion, war, capital punishment, etc.).
05. There are many new ethical topics in modern society that arise due to the development of new technologies, for example, nuclear energy, organ transplantation, genetic engineering, human cloning, etc. We cannot expect to obtain answers to these questions directly from the sūtras. However, detailed ideological systems that developed from logical evidence can help us to learn by analogy, and think carefully about Buddhism’s views on these ethical topics. The flexibility of logical evidence can supplement the inadequacy of the ‘scriptural evidence’.
06. Could the scriptural evidence for the study of Buddhist ethics be obtained directly from all of the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna scriptures? In addition, could Chinese Buddhism’s ideology of ‘non-sentient beings possessing Buddha nature, and grass and plants attaining Buddhahood’, be included in the ideological system/structure of the study of Buddhist ethics? How convincing will this philosophy be to followers of other schools? There are indeed difficulties in deciding whether or not to take onboard or to leave certain teachings. On the other hand, since the law of dependent origination is the common divisor among all of the teachings of the Three Vehicles, by using logical evidence developed from the law of dependent origination, we can prove the Śrāvaka and Mahāyāna’s ethical views concurrently. Hence, we can also avoid the worry of being unable to obtain a common consensus from the practitioners among all the Three Vehicles.
The Process of Developing Logical Proofs – From the Study of Ethics to the Study of Precepts….
Based on the six points mentioned above, the phrase ‘dependent origination’ is the key phrase for this whole book. Through the elaboration and analysis of this key phrase, I will develop a chain of logical evidence. When I was writing The Study of Buddhist Ethics, with the exception of the beginning paragraph of chapter two, where I extracted the definition of dependent origination from the Āgama Sutra, I avoided quoting texts from sūtras in other parts of the book. The whole book is linked by detailed logical deductions from the principle of dependent origination. After defining dependent origination and dismissing other theories, I started the discussion on the main theme, and analyzed the six ethical values of dependent origination, i.e., the six personal characteristics of followers who uphold the principle of dependent origination. In addition, from the law of cause and effect and the principle of protecting life, two theories that sometimes seem to contradict each other superficially, we can find their internal logical consistency dialectically by understanding cause and effect, which is subject to dependent origination, and which is endlessly and flexibly constructive. Finally, we can directly point out three fundamental theories of protecting life: the empathetic practice of putting oneself in others’ shoes; the interdependence of all dependently-originated phenomena, and the pervasiveness of ultimate truth throughout all dependently-originated existents. All of these can be deduced from the teachings of dependent origination.
Even the study of precepts in Buddhism can be included in this system. We can investigate and master the theory of dependent origination, and deduce the aspiration to protect life among its many complicated clauses and precepts. However, where should we place the vinaya, the monastic ethical norms, in the ideological system of the study of Buddhist ethics? A brief analysis has been given in my book, The Contemporary Annotations of Vinaya. Whether it is the dharma or vinaya, instruction or precepts, all are derive from the principle of dependent origination. This is also the fundamental principle of the various levels of theories in this book, be it the fundamental principle, the middle principle, or even the different levels of reasoning underlying the major and minor precepts. Because the fundamental principle of Buddhism is dependent origination, I have used the law of dependent origination as the starting point in analyzing the governance system of the sangha order. In my book, The Contemporary Annotations of Vinaya, I commented that the sangha order adopts a democratic, consensus-based governance system, without a singular authority or Pope-like figure as its centralized authority. The structure of an autocratic church is obviously not in accordance with the fundamental principle of the law of dependent origination. Dependent origination means the combinations of many causes and conditions, which lead to different results. Thus, although relying on personal opinion in making decisions could be more efficient, as there is no mutual agitation that comes from various causes and conditions, the possibility of committing mistakes is also relatively high.
This is definitely not the system that a follower of the law of dependent origination wishes to see. Hence, since the establishment of Buddhism, there has not been a nation-wide or international Buddhist church. There has also never been a highest leader like the Pope. Even the Buddha regards himself as a member among the sangha order and encourages the sangha members to discuss matters democratically according to meeting procedures (karman).3 After we deduce the development of thought and behavior from the principle of dependent origination, we will come to the aspiration to protect life. At this point, we can link the study of ethics with the study of precepts. The study of precepts is nothing other than a study in the substantiation of the values of protecting life. Lay-ethical norms developed from the spirit of protecting life, with the five precepts (s. pañca śīla) as its core. Although there are hundreds of ethical norms for the monastic members, they are, in principle, nothing other than the extension of this spirit of caring for life. The difference between the precepts taken by the renounced and lay members does not lie in the number of rules that they observe. The difference is that the five lay precepts posit no killing as the first item, whereas the bhikkhus’ and bhikkhunis’ precepts respectively regard abstention from sexual conduct as the most important precept.
My view is that this is not because the two types of spiritual community members differ in their ethical values of protecting life. The reason is that promoting the aspiration to protect life requires the sangha members to prolong the righteous teachings. Thus, the fundamental principle of the formulation of precepts is to ensure the prolongation of Buddhist practice. To ensure the prolongation of the practice, the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis need to detach from sexual desires that obstruct the practice of the path to liberation. In this way the Ten Benefits can be realized, and the aim of prolonging the dharma can be achieved. As long as the Buddhist teachings can continue, the aspiration to protect life will be maintained without deterioration. The theory of protecting life is founded on the law of dependent origination. It is not a command from heaven or a thought that is bestowed by God. It arises from each individual’s self-awareness of putting oneself in others’ shoes and sharing the feeling of others, as well as from the intellectual understanding of the interdependence of dependently originated phenomena and the impartiality in the nature of dependent origination. When this understanding is implemented in the norms of precepts, it is obvious that the norms should not violate the three principles of putting oneself in others’ shoes, interdependence, and impartiality.
How could these three principles be implemented among people and shape the special characteristics of the followers of the law of dependent origination? In my earlier writings, I have mentioned the ethical values of a follower of the law of dependent origination and the special characteristics that they form:
To develop a mind that is neither self-deprecating nor arrogant
To have a mind that shows gratitude for others
To have loving kindness and compassion for sentient beings
To have a democratic aspiration
To have sense of equanimity
To have the spirit of science
These are characteristics that a person who has profound realization of the wisdom of dependent origination would naturally portray. Vinaya, which is the system of complete and subtle norms of conducts for the sangha members, also connotes the aim of molding personal character. In other words, if a person regards him or herself as a precept-holder, but the personal characteristics that he or she presents are the opposite, such as autocratic, arrogant, cruel, having strong self-centeredness, being unable to put oneself in others’ positions, or has a strong differentiation of inferiority and superiority, then, he or she must have interpreted the contents of the precepts wrongly.4 The ideological system of Buddhist ethics and the study of precepts include the logical deduction of the law of dependent origination, as well as the significance of contemporary dialogues about the questions of conservative dogmatism and the pride of class ideology. The core content of this book is founded on the contents of my works written earlier in Chinese. Beyond that, this book gives a more complete introduction to this system of thought.
The Selection of Scriptural Evidence – Confronting the Special Traditional Views and Thoughts of Vajrayana….
Regarding the establishment of the ideological system of Buddhist ethics, should it include the teachings of Vajrayana in the structure too? My view is that the general Buddhist ethics ideology is common to both exoteric as well as esoteric sects. Regarding ethics that are not common to both sects, such as the extreme devotion to the authority of one’s teachers, and the practice of utilizing desire in the highest yoga tantras, they are obviously not found among the fundamental ideologies of exoteric Buddhist ethics. It is not that I want to exclude them. It is because I have not yet found ways to rationally incorporate them into the current ideological structure/system of Buddhist ethics. For example, in his work, The Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tab. lam rim chen mo) by the vajrayāna and Middle Way (s. mādhyamaka) philosopher Tsong Khapa, based on a work by Atisha, he classified the practices into three paths: that of small scope, the medium scope, and the great scope. Venerable Tai Xu (1890-1947) and Venerable Yin Shun (1905-2005) have also followed this sequence and renamed them respectively as ‘the Teachings of the Five Vehicles, Teachings of the Three Vehicles, and the Distinctive Teachings of the Great Vehicle’. However, as the scriptural evidence of the Vajrayana has strong distinctive characteristics that are uncommon to the other schools of Buddhism, I have decided not to deal with them as general ethics questions at this time.
Furthermore, I have also put aside unique beliefs of Chinese Buddhism, such as the one that says that grass and plants possess Buddha nature. This is because there are serious faults in the deductive process producing this saying.5 It is similarly difficult to gain common consensus on the matter from the southern tradition, Tibetan tradition and even other schools of Chinese Buddhism. Placing this argument into the ethics discussion structure will only lead to more controversies and confusion. In addition, from my point of view, even in the most advanced contemporary studies of ecology In Depth Study of Ecology, it is not at all necessary to set its foundation on the theory of ‘grass and plants possess Buddha nature’. The principle of interdependency and equality of dharma nature in the law of dependent origination is enough to prove the study. Using the examination of the law of dependent origination, I have raised some questions and responded to the views of the In Depth Study of Ecology.6
Once a student asked, “Why not use the theory of appearance of karmic seeds of the Mind-only School to explain the thought of karma and retribution?” The answer is the same. Although the set of explanations of the Mind-only School belongs to orthodox Buddhism, and has presented detailed and strong scriptural evidence, and also logical evidence in the dialectic process, would this evidence convince the followers of other schools? This is another big topic of discussion. My opinions regarding it are stated in my Chinese-language article The Early Ideology of Consciousness-only.7 This is also not because I am more sympathetic to Middle Way philosophy. As one can see in my book, The Study of Buddhist Ethics, I have mentioned more on the law of dependent origination and less on the nature of emptiness. If we limit ourselves to the view of a particular school, then we can only identify our study as the study of Middle Way Ethics, the study of Mind-only Ethics, etc. It cannot be generalized as a general study of Buddhist Ethics.
Example of Contradictory Scriptural Evidence: Committing Suicide….
It is very important to present the Buddhist ethics ideological system with an obvious thread of thought. If one has no philosophical scholastic training as such, even if one has read many sūtras and texts, one may not be able to master the overall ideology of the study of Buddhist ethics. When confronting some controversial issues, it is very easy ‘to list one item but miss ten thousands of others’ and make the mistake of using a partial view to represent the whole. When reviewing textual information in Buddhism, be it the early scripture of the Āgamas and Vinaya, or the Great Vehicle sūtras that appear later, the views of a particular ethical question sometimes contradict one another. At this time, if there is no education or training in the study of Buddhist ethics, how should one choose among them? For example, a series of suicide incidents happened in Taiwan some time ago. The rate of suicide successively increased. Thereafter, a mass of media reporters came and interviewed me. I was also invited to public forums to talk about Buddhism’s perspective on committing suicide.
Is committing suicide in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha? Or does it violate Buddhism’s ethical norm? From the viewpoint of precepts, the answer is very obvious. Both the renounced and lay followers are strictly prohibited from killing. The precepts for the renounced members regarded killing human beings as one of the four serious prohibitions. The offender should be expelled from the sangha order. The first rule of the five lay precepts is also no killing. There seems to be no room for negotiating this point, as committing suicide is also a form of killing, and furthermore is a form of killing human beings! However, if we try to identify a standard answer from the Buddhist scriptures, two parties with extreme views may appear. One will be the party that has the view that committing suicide is not an offence. The other party will feel that committing suicide is necessarily an offence. This is because, among the information in the sūtras and vinaya, there was evidence that the Buddha admonished the act of committing suicide. On the other hand, there were also cases in which the Buddha did not appear to object.
For example, according to the records in Samyuktagāma,8 due to the practice of contemplation of impurity, many bhikkhus detested their own bodies and committed suicide. Some did not dare to kill themselves but requested other bhikkhus to help them kill themselves. Around the same time, Migalandika was disturbed by Mara and developed improper views. He thought that helping others to die was an act of loving kindness and compassion. He thus killed sixty people consecutively. After the incident, the Buddha admonished him sternly and this became the causes and conditions for the Buddha to preach the practice of mindfulness of breathing (s. ānāpānasmrti) as well as formulating the precept of no killing.9 From this episode we can see that it is obvious that the Buddha did not agree with this act of committing suicide.
However, in the Āgama Sūtra, there are also many cases of suicide that the Buddha did not object to, or had even agreed with. We need to contemplate this. For example, Chandaka (p. Channa) was seriously ill. He did not want to continue living while suffering. He also did not want to accept the advice and persuasion of Shariputra (s. Śāriputra, p. Sariputta) and the other elder monks. His dialogue with Shariputra shows that he had realized thoroughly the truth of impermanence and selflessness.10 Hence, Mahakaushtila (s. Mahākauśthila, p. Mahakotthita) proved that Chandaka had attained the state of no suffering of birth, old age, sickness, death, worry, sorrow, distress and pain. All suffering has ceased.11 After Chandaka committed suicide, Shariputra went to seek advice from the Buddha. The Buddha replied, “Shariputra, I would not say that he has committed a great offence. If one who can let go of this life and is not going to have future rebirth, I would not say that one has committed a serious offence.”12 No only did the Buddha not admonish Chandaka’s suicide, he even declared that Chandaka had attained final nirvana (the first record).
There was another disciple, Vakkali.13 He wished to see the Buddha for the last time before committing suicide. The Buddha preached to him personally. First of all the Buddha asked Vakkali if he had realized the truth of the five aggregates, impermanence, suffering and emptiness. Vakkali answered each question and showed no doubt to the truths. Hence, the Buddha agreed to his request to commit suicide, and said, “If you have no greed for your body, no attachment to desires, you will die peacefully. Your future life will also be peaceful.” After Vakkali committed suicide the Buddha also announced that he had attained final nirvana. There was another case in the Āgama Sūtra where Mara tried to stop a bhikkhu from committing suicide but the Buddha accepted his suicide. Godhika14 committed suicide after he attained a temporary liberation of mind. He had six times fallen away from the practice (the state of temporary liberation of mind), and he did not want to fall away again. Hence, he decided to commit suicide. In fact, before Godhika committed suicide, Mara the Evil One (Papiya Mara),who was afraid that Godhika’s committing suicide might help him transcend from the control of the Mara, already had persuaded the Buddha to stop Godhika from committing suicide. However, with his profound contemplation, the Buddha understood the great causes and conditions of Godhika, knowing that he would soon attained arahathood. Hence, not only did the Buddha not stop him, but he also foretold his attainment. After the incident, the Buddha led the sangha members to see his remains, and proved that Godhika had already attained nirvana. Some people who, from a Buddhist perspective, agree to the legalization of euthanasia, usually use these examples in the Āgama Sūtras as the scriptural evidence.
Obviously, talking about scriptural evidence, even among the early scriptures that are commonly recognized by all schools, there are two totally different answers to the question of committing suicide. Which one is right? At this moment, without systematic analysis of the study of Buddhist ethics, it is difficult to find the main thread of thought. A situation where one quotes one’s favorite evidence, and one proclaims one’s own reasons will arise. On the contrary, with training in the study of Buddhist ethics, we can penetrate the principle that is not being contradicted by the two records. I have analyzed this in my Chinese-language book, Even Tired the Bird Continues to Fly While in the Blue Sky as follows: To the same incident of committing suicide, some were being admonished, while others were being accepted. The reason lies in whether the person was at the ordinary state or noble state of practice. An ordinary person still possesses inherent self-love. One has ignorance and a strong wish to live. This cannot be overcome just by rationale alone. Thus, committing suicide under circumstances as such will lead to a lot of side effects. The noble ones have ended their self-attachment. They are not disturbed by self-love. Thus, to them, dying is in fact the ending of the cycle of life and death. There is no next life – they will not reap another rebirth. There will be no future life existences. Since ending the cycle of life and death is a matter that will sooner or later come to the noble ones, his/her committing suicide is just making this ending comes earlier, and it is an ultimate ending. It will not lead to the side effect of ‘developing the habitual tendency of committing suicide in the future’.15
Examples of Scriptural evidence that are Not In Accordance with Audiences’ Spiritual Capacities….
No matter how good scriptural evidence is, if it does not suit the capacity of the listeners, the result may end up deviating seriously from the fundamental aspirations of Buddhism. For example, in the “Prajna Chapter 2” of the Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch by Master Hui Neng, there is a verse:“A true practitioner of the Path, Sees not the mistakes of others; If I find fault with others, I am actually at fault. – When others are at fault, I should not commit fault, When I am at fault, it is a fault; By getting rid of the mind of fault-finding, Defilements can be dashed and ceased.”Some Buddhists have the opinion that this teaching means that a real practitioner should not look at other’s faults. As long as one eliminates the argumentative and faultfinding mind within oneself, one can end defilements. In my opinion, the Sixth Patriarch Master’s teaching is a good antidote for one who likes to find others’ faults but never see the faults of oneself. However, if not used appropriately, it can be a poison to the human world. In the traditional Chinese societies (including the Buddhist community), it is pervaded with this self-protective atmosphere of not differentiating right from wrong, hypocritical indifference, and refusing to see others’ faults. My experience from the Buddha’s teachings is that, all practices do not deviate from the middle path of dependent origination. The practice of the middle path, in concrete terms, is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path regards Right Understanding as the guide. This is subdivided into the mundane (worldly) and the supra-mundane (trans-worldly) right understandings Firstly, the mundane right understanding includes four points: The right understanding of the existence of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness; the right understanding of the existence of karma and retribution; the right understanding of the existence of past lives and future lives; and the right understanding of the existence of the ordinary and the noble. Seeing this account, if we cannot differentiate wholesomeness and unwholesomeness, how can we avoid committing unwholesome karma and reaping the suffering retribution? Since we can differentiate wholesomeness and unwholesomeness, then, how can we not see others’ wholesomeness and unwholesomeness? Second is the supra-mundane right understanding. They are: the Four Noble Truths and the law of dependent origination. That is, the right understanding of impermanence and selflessness.
With these two right understandings as the guide, we can further develop the mundane and supramundane right thoughts. Firstly, when making the mundane right thought, one should contemplate as such: A’s bad deed is in fact evil. To feel unmoved towards evil does not mean that we have good cultivation; just that, perhaps, we are in fact apathetic. This may be due to a lack of right understanding in discriminating wholesome and unwholesome deeds. It may also arise from cowardice in our personal characters, and being afraid of confronting circumstances directly. No matter what, these two types of attitudes (lack of understanding in differentiating or the sentiment of being too afraid to confront issues), will not help us to develop pure practice qualities. This is because it is not in accordance with the principle of the Four Right Eliminations (Four Right Efforts)17 – unable to make ourselves end the evil that has already arisen and prevent the evil that has not yet arisen from arising. Secondly, when performing the supramundane right thought, one should think as such: ‘A’s evil deed is real evil. I detest it a lot. Although I do not dare to say that I hate evil like an enemy, at least, as a person who is diligent in practicing the Four Right Endings and as a practitioner, I should also detest evil in the same way that I dislike sickness, tumors, and thorns; and urgently wish that the evil could be eliminated quickly.
However, we should also remember that ‘all actions are impermanent’. Do not fall into the trap of viewing the action as permanent or everlasting and always labeling ‘A’ as ‘evil’. This is because there is also a possibility that ‘A’ could correct his or her mistakes and practice wholesomeness. Thus, we should not have prejudice and enmity towards ‘A’ after the incident and should not think that since he or she had once been evil, he or she will be evil for the whole life. We should have to try to create opportunities for ‘A’ to change himself or herself for better and practice good acts. The approach could be vigorous or tough, but the intention must be kind and compassionate. This is why although the bodhisattvas may be very kind and gentle to sentient beings, at certain times, they may also display fierceness and stern faces to subdue the evil mind and habits of sentient beings. In addition, we should also remember that all phenomena are selfless. Do not fall into the trap of self-centered views. This is because when one falls into false self-view, when confronting ‘A’, what one is concerned with will no more be, ‘how can I help ‘A’ to abstain from evil and do good? Or, how can I prevent ‘A’ from harming others?’ One will be thinking, ‘would ‘A’s evil affect me? How should I treat ‘A’ so that I can avoid his evil deeds or even gain benefits from him?’ We prefer to clean the snow in front of our own house. Why should we worry about the frost on others’ roofs? With such attitudes, one will naturally feel unmoved when seeing others doing evil. However, if the matter concerns us or affects our benefit, we may try to please the person, become an accomplice, act in collusion or use his evil to do even more severe evil deeds. In summary, these are thoughts that develop from the self, in the hope that we can avoid evil from A, or gain benefits out of it.
Thus, the important point in practicing the Buddha’s path is not merely “to see not the faults of the world” but to eliminate our view of permanence and false self-view. From the stand point of impermanence and non-inherent self, for the sake of distinguishing right and wrong and to have compassion for sentient beings, being able to see the mistakes of the world is still of great significance. The Sixth Patriarch said, “When others are at fault, I should not commit fault, we should share the feelings of others like our own and be compassionate.” This exalted, pure, kind and compassionate virtue is founded on the ability of distinguishing right and wrong. Otherwise, without knowing what others are doing, whether it is right or wrong, how can we ensure that we are not at fault? And, how can we get rid of our habit of faultfinding and eliminate our defilements? Thus, it would be good if we can change one word in the Sixth Patriarch’s verse of “a true practitioner of the Path sees not the faults of the others” to “a true practitioner of the Path does not censure the faults of the others”. Do not censure means not to be too particular on the faults that others have done to us. We should not have the mind to revenge. We should be broadminded like the Chinese saying that one may sail in the stomach of the prime minister. This aspiration can be developed with the Mahāyāna’s sentiment where the bodhisattvas do not abandon the suffering of sentient beings. To prevent the other party from reaping the retribution of suffering, and to prevent the other party from harming other sentient beings, we certainly should think of ways to stop evil acts. The above ideas are in fact not suitable to be put across by using scriptural evidence only. One needs to use logical evidence to carefully examine the sūtras (the Chinese also regard The Sixth Patriarch’s Sūtra as a sūtra) so as to avoid the incompatibility between teaching and acceptance capacity, which may lead to another case of wrong interpretation of the sūtras.