In the EBTs, there seems to be a relatively clear distinction between false and true, bad and good, wrong and right.
Children are often said to think in terms of “black and white,” while adults are often said to think in terms of “gray area.”
Thus, some seem to draw the conclusion that the EBT perspective is “too black and white,” and seem to stop just short of saying that it is “childish and naive,” perhaps on account of it being a religious text that is revered and valued by many.
What are your thoughts on this distinction made in the EBT’s and the perception of this distinction as being “too black-and-white, but reality is all gray area” and thus the distinction is “not practical or realistic”?
Greetings SeriousFun and thank you for your question
I think it is very good that there are such distinctions, it is much better than the alternative of them being absent.
If highly esteemed sages were giving too much loose space, people would keep having excuses “Buddha said it is OK to be so and so” and it would just perpetuate their wrong habits and conduct. But with such strong distinctions, if they believe in the text, they can check and try to analyse in their light if they’re on the path, or straying from the path.
Just take a look how deeply writings like christian bible influence how people who follow it think and act later on. Same with the suttas for buddhists. One quote from bible, which is perfect example of loose guideline being abused later by the masses:
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
People use it now in discussions against veganism as excuse to enslave and kill animals for food, because God said it is OK to subdue the earth. Even thou the other place in bible say “thou shall not kill” . So it is very importaint for great sages like the Buddha and even respected monks and nuns to be very careful to say what is right and what is wrong and be specific and definite about it. Even if it would create some impression of being too black and white, it is much better than the alternative in this context. Because a lot of people look for excuses in grey areas. It is much better if grey areas arise from careful consideration and interpretation of specific guidelines, because it at least makes people think, and not just repeat “the great sage said it is OK to do that”.
So it is very importaint that suttas give us clear guidelines and high moral standard about what is good, true and right.
Same goes for the monks and nuns. People also expect that they give us very high standards of virtue without much space for doubts when we are straying away from following the path properly. Of course there is always place for forgiveness and understanding of our faults, but it doesn’t change the ideal we aspire towards.
On the other hand, I think buddhist suttas are still very much open to interpretation and so there is a lot of space for grey areas in there, check this text by Bhante Sujato for further and more authorative explanation:
the true meaning of a spiritual text emerges from context and experience, not from etymology.
Notice your own response to the text: what is inspiring, what is boring, what is dubious. Your responses belong to you, not the text.
Beware of the mind that wants to criticize the text. Even though I myself believe in the importance of text-critical studies, this is after many years of study and reflection. It takes time to get a sense for these things. Have compassion for the text. Read it kindly, as if you were listening to a beloved friend. It was composed in an oral tradition in a far off time and place. It is a miracle that it exists at all, and we should not be put off if some of the modes of expression are alien to us.
Perhaps a bigger problem is the desire to literalize or insist on a particular reading. The Suttas have a word for this: idasaccabhinivesa —the insistence that “this alone is the truth”. Any text is open to different readings and emphases. It is easy enough to find cases where modern teachers or traditional schools teach things that differ from the Suttas. It is not so easy, but far more valuable, to understand why these changes came to be made, and to understand what aspect of Dhamma is at stake.
If you are in doubt, remember the poised attitude that the Suttas themselves speak of: “Neither accepting nor rejecting, I will inquire about the meaning…”. In Buddhism, we are not expected to believe literally every detail of the scriptures; but if we read them with a fault-finding mind, we will never really get it.
Whatever aspect of Dhamma—whether meditation, philosophy, ethics, or inspiring stories—there’s nothing like the real thing. Take the text, and live it. Try it out and see what it does in your life. Meditate on it. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve never been let down. Whatever faults I have, they’re all because of my failing to live up to the Dhamma, not because of the Dhamma itself.
I’m sure others will have more answers and some suttas references, but I hope this quote is a good start.
In MN 117 the Buddha described explicitly what wrong view Is:
“And what is wrong view? ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no contemplatives or brahmans who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.’ This is wrong view.”
Mundane right view, which is avoided in western Buddhist practice, is the opposite to this, being the view of kamma and its results.
“To recognize this principle is to hold right view of the mundane kind. This view at once excludes the multiple forms of wrong view with which it is incompatible. As it affirms that our actions have an influence on our destiny continuing into future lives, it opposes the nihilistic view which regards this life as our only existence and holds that consciousness terminates with death. As it grounds the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, in an objective universal principle, it opposes the ethical subjectivism which asserts that good and evil are only postulations of personal opinion or means to social control. As it affirms that people can choose their actions freely, within limits set by their conditions, it opposes the “hard deterministic” line that our choices are always made subject to necessitation, and hence that free volition is unreal and moral responsibility untenable.
Some of the implications of the Buddha’s teaching on the right view of kamma and its fruits run counter to popular trends in present-day thought, and it is helpful to make these differences explicit. The teaching on right view makes it known that good and bad, right and wrong, transcend conventional opinions about what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. An entire society may be predicated upon a confusion of correct moral values, and even though everyone within that society may applaud one particular kind of action as right and condemn another kind as wrong, this does not make them validly right and wrong. For the Buddha moral standards are objective and invariable. While the moral character of deeds is doubtlessly conditioned by the circumstances under which they are performed, there are objective criteria of morality against which any action, or any comprehensive moral code, can be evaluated. This objective standard of morality is integral to the Dhamma, the cosmic law of truth and righteousness. Its transpersonal ground of validation is the fact that deeds, as expressions of the volitions that engender them, produce consequences for the agent, and that the correlations between deeds and their consequences are intrinsic to the volitions themselves. There is no divine judge standing above the cosmic process who assigns rewards and punishments. Nevertheless, the deeds themselves, through their inherent moral or immoral nature, generate the appropriate results.”—-Bikkhu Bodhi
Not speaking Pali is a definite disadvantage here… So I do the best that I can under these constraints. When speaking in terms of Kamma as in Paul1s quote above, there are results/Kamam of actions that are objective and unchanging.
However, in the action of choices, beliefs and judgements that each of us makes in daily life, my understanding is that there is no absolute “right” and “wrong” in Buddhist thought.
For those of us on the path, right and wrong are actually applied in the context of the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering. If one aims to be liberated from suffering then certain actions can be seen as skillful, wholesome or beneficial to moving in the direction of the goal.
If one is absolutely uninterested in the goal of diminishing suffering and attaining liberation, then this categorisation of values is not valid to those persons. Any number of belief systems can be, and have been, applied to socially derived moral codes.
As such, those on the 8 fold path and those who have achieved some degree of ‘seeing things the way they are’, would identify actions in terms of being in-line with their own beliefs (knowledge), or not. (Conditioned by the Buddhas teaching, up until the point of seeing for oneself)
In short, these ‘judgements’ of right and wrong, are wholly subjective, and I personally find them unhelpful. It is more accurate to see judgements arising as a conditioned process.
As such, using terms such as skillful means, wholesome or beneficial thoughts and actions, are more useful, because they have the conditionality built into them - front and centre, and make it more difficult to misidentify the conditioned with the permanent and objective.
Given that we all live in samsara, it is useful to see how this conditionality of judgement operates both in the normal ‘mundane’ world and how it operates when examining the conditioned and unconditioned realms of the Buddhas teaching.
Apologies - I’m not a good sutta scholar - I can never remember where in the texts the Buddha said what… so I’m off to hunt up some suttas about this
Perhaps this can be understood in terms of the three feelings, four kinds of deeds and the ending of all deeds(Nibbana).
There are no ‘beings’ who doesn’t tremble in the face of painful experiences.
Four kinds of deeds;
Mendicants, I declare these four kinds of deeds, having realized them with my own insight. What four?
There are dark deeds with dark results;
bright deeds with bright results;
dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results; and
neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.
And what are neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds? Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. These are called neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds.
Note that there are the 2 distinct levels to consider not just one. The level of Kamma (which is only evident through awakening) 》permanent unchangeable truth, as Lankaputra above has provided references for, and secondly truth as perceived in Samsara, which is what most people have access to. IMHO they can’t usefully be dealt with in the same way.
It differs depending on the perspective of the individual. Some view ‘truth’ to be stable and others that it is impermanent. If one believes there is no permanent Truth (on the level of samsara), then there can be no permanent right and wrong. If one does believe in a permanent truth then there is the possibility of an absolute right or wrong. I’m not sure if this is in line with what The Buddha said though.
Regarding your question below, my skills and knowledge of the EBT’s aren’t sufficient to give a reliable opinion.
Perhaps it would be better to ask an expert, Ajahn @brahmali or Ajahn @sujato if they are available
"As it (mundane right view) affirms that people can choose their actions freely, within limits set by their conditions”—Bikkhu Bodhi
The very relevant point Viveka raises is in fact included in BB’s statement, and personal choice depending on level of practice is a feature of the path as a whole, as the Buddha stressed direct personal experience:
“Now, monks, as regards that recognition of the presence or absence of these things within him, are these matters to be perceived by faith, by persuasion, by inclination, by rational speculation, by delight in views and theories?"
“No, indeed, Lord.”
“Are not these matters to be perceived by the eye of wisdom?”
"Indeed, Lord.”—-SN 35.152
As Viveka suggests, that direct personal experience involves including conventional reality (samsara, conditioned experience) in the practice without being drawn into it.
“The astute and virtuous
shine like a burning flame. They pick up riches as bees roaming round pick up pollen.-”–DN 31
In Western ethics, I think the general idea is to look at some situation, weigh up all the factors, and figure out, using some preferred ethical theory, if something is either right or wrong. The academics usually focus on extreme situations or difficult dilemmas.
I suppose in Buddhism, certain actions, e.g. violating the five precepts, if done intentionally, always come with bad kamma. However, that brings up the question as to what happens if someone violates a precept for a good intention, e.g. lying to prevent Nazis from finding people hiding in the basement etc.
Well, the suttas, e.g. AN4.237, recognize that some actions can have both dark and bright kamma.
And what are dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results? It’s when someone makes both hurtful and pleasing choices by way of body, speech, and mind. These are called dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results.
I suppose in the lay life, sometimes there may be situations where all choices have some mix of both bright and dark kamma, e.g. one may have dependents to support, the economy may be bad, and the range of job options available to one may not be ideal. I suppose then one does one’s best to choose a job that is as close to right livelihood as possible (or retrain while doing it) even if it is not spotless (rather than not work and not support one’s dependents). The ordinary human world tends to be very much a mix of bright and dark kamma.
Or to construct one of these extreme ethical dilemmas, suppose one is an obstetrician. I think this can be right livelihood if one avoids performing abortions etc. Ectopic pregnancies are a bit of a grey area though (the woman will die if it is not terminated). If one works in a big city hospital, then it’s probably quite feasible to let other doctors do such operations. However, hypothetically, if such a doctor happens to find themselves by chance near a hospital in a fairly remote area, no other doctor is around, and a woman urgently needs such an operation? Then there’s no really choice with only bright kamma available. One option is to let the woman and foetus die. The other option is to perform the operation, which will result in the death of the foetus. I think in this situation there are only least worse choices (maximizing bright and minimizing dark kamma). I think sometimes the lay life can be like this.
I think the issue of bad vs good or right vs wrong cannot be dealt with meaningfully without referring to the issue of uncertainty. Strangely enough, those who claim uncertainty in relation to right and wrong seem to be quite certain of themselves. On the contrary, those who are more aware of what uncertainty really means would see no virtue in adding confusion to uncertainty by claiming that there is no right and wrong.
The issue of innocence and guilt are not any less dynamic, and it raises the question whether Buddhists are more innocent or more guilty than the average worldling. The following by Ven Nanavira Thera in his discussion of Kafka’s trail can be relevant:
‘“Yes”, said the Law-Court Attendant, “these are the accused men, all of them are accused of guilt.” “Indeed!” said K. “Then they’re colleagues of mine.”’ (pp. 73-4) And this charge of guilt, clearly enough, can only be brought against those who are guilty of guilt, and not against those who do not feel the guilt of existing. But who is it that feels the guilt of existing? Only he who, in an act of reflexion , begins to be aware of his existence and to see that it is inherently unjustifiable. He understands (obscurely, no doubt, at first) that, when he is challenged to give an account of himself, he is unable to do so. But who is it that challenges him to give an account of himself? In The Trial it is the mysterious and partly corrupt hierarchical Court; in reality it is he himself in his act of reflexion (which also is hierarchically ordered). The Trial , then, represents the criminal case that a man brings against himself when he asks himself ‘Why do I exist?’ But the common run of people do not ask themselves this question; they are quite content in their simple way to take things for granted and not to distress themselves with unanswerable questions—questions, indeed, that they are scarcely capable of asking.
Translator’s note: Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha’s carte blanche for following one’s own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One’s own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one’s feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one’s understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one’s beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends. According to Iti 16-17, these are, respectively, the most important internal and external factors for attaining the goal of the practice.
Analysis of qualities= wisdom, discernment, insight
" And what is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen? There are mental qualities that are skillful & unskillful, blameworthy & blameless, gross & refined, siding with darkness & with light. To foster appropriate attention to them: This is the food for the arising of unarisen analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of analysis of qualities… once it has arisen."—SN 46.51
In the suttas the equivalent level to be aspired to by lay western practitioners is monks/nuns ‘in training’ who have achieved stream entry. For example:
“With regard to internal factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like appropriate attention as doing so much for a monk in training,”—Iti 16-17
How can reality itself change on the basis of what people believe?
Just because a being disbelieves or believes something, that doesn’t change whether reality isn’t or is a certain way, no?
Which part are you referring to? Just the previous sentence or the whole paragraph?
But I think that even in such a case, the lying itself would lead exclusively to dark outcomes - but the intentions might be mixed: the intention based on misunderstanding (lying will lead to a good outcome for this other person, even though the Buddha said in other places that no good outcome can result from a bad kamma - that would be impossible - AN book of 1 or 2’s) is likely to lead to exclusively dark outcomes whereas compassion and concern for the well-being of the person seems to lead exclusively to bright outcomes.
I.e. I don’t think the lying itself led to a mix of bad and good outcomes - I think it led only to exclusively dark outcomes (in line with your comment about the precepts).
One could argue that “no livelihood” does not necessarily fit the Buddha’s definition of “right livelihood” - so “no livelihood” doesn’t seem to be the correct alternative to “wrong livelihood,” - “right livelihood” does.
This seems to be a false/misleading claim. One could refuse to kill the fetus - a choice which seems to lead exclusively to bright outcomes. Contrary to pop culture portrayal of morally difficult situations (moral dilemmas), there seems to no situation under which “there’s no really choice with only bright kamma available” - it seems more likely that it is a reflection of individuals who are themselves confused and unable to discern what the course of action leading to bright kamma are.
In this particular case, refusing to perform the abortion (“One option is to let the woman and foetus die”) seems to lead to bright kamma due to development of restraint against killing the fetus - whereas an ordinary worldling seems to perceive it to lead to a mix of dark and bright kamma (“one let another being die” is a way of framing it to make one who is blameless seem at fault for something that they are actually blameless about), or even as leading to dark outcomes exclusively. But then again, the ordinary worldling disagree with the Buddha on a vast number of other issues as well. Popularity of view doesn’t seem correlated with truth.
One distinction that I think is important for people to draw when discussing these issues is:
is this one’s view of what the case is?
is this one’s view of what the Buddha’s view of what the case is?
Too often, people seem to drawn conclusions based on their own direct personal experience in the same line or section as a discussion of the Buddha’s perspective, so it becomes difficult to distinguish if the claim is regarding one’s own view or that of the Buddha.
I think I learned that the following three things could turn out in two ways, to be false or true:
I think that while the Buddha emphasized experiential understanding, I don’t think that he emphasized experience - i.e. a false experience could be considered worse than a true concept or true practice.
People can often “learn things from experience” that are actually false.
This could often be said about many practical, “street-smart,” “street-wise,” “experienced” people who somehow draw false conclusions that go contrary to the Dhamma-Vinaya even after years and years of experience. I myself have remember having drawn false conclusions based on my own past experiences - so learning from experience alone doesn’t exactly seem to be foolproof. Perhaps this is where checking with experiential understanding (wisdom) those who have developed more wisdom than oneself could be more helpful than simply learning from one’s own experience.
Furthermore, DN 1 details many “wrong views” which are “partially true” because they are based on experiences that far greater than what the average person might have, but are still not reliable nor complete (one can remember being born in the Brahma realm in the previous lifetime, but not before that, thus they conclude that the Brahma is the first being and creator of all beings - simply because they couldn’t remember their experiences prior to that lifetime).
Thus, concepts, practices, and experiences all seem like they could turn out false or true. None of the three seem inherently bad/good, false/true, etc.
A fetus may develop from an embryo, which may develop from a blastocyst, which may develop from a zygote, which may develop from a fertilized egg.
Is this perhaps a Dependent Origination example of how a particular form may come into being? And with form and the other khandhas a life comes to be, correct?
In an ectopic pregnancy, a fertilized egg attaches to a fallopian tube wall or other surface that is outside of the uterus. A life cannot develop in that circumstance, but a woman will die. For a doctor to turn away a woman in this situation could be considered malpractice, and killing.
Yes, there is always the choice of non-action. If one does nothing, one cannot (at least actively) break any precepts. However, there are a few possible objections to that sort of reasoning.
Firstly, non-action in itself can IMO break precepts, e.g. if I notice there’s a problem with someone’s car brakes (leaking brake fluid or whatever), I say nothing to the person, they go off driving and then get killed when their brakes fail. That seems to be a violation of the first precept.
Another question is whether the obstetrician in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is actually committing a killing. There are really only two possible outcomes. In one, both foetus and mother die. In the other, just the foetus dies. The obstetrician’s actions do not cause a death that would not otherwise have occurred, and additionally another life (the mother’s) is saved.
Trolley problems are a common academic way of posing ethical conundrums. If I were to pose the above as a trolley problem, it might be where a trolley with two people strapped in is hurtling down a hill on some railway tracks, and the route it is currently going to take will leave both dead. However, I’m standing next to a lever which can reroute the trolley to another track where only one person will die. Should I pull the lever? Generally, people would say yes. There are all kinds of variants but that seems similar enough to the case ectopic pregnancy (though that’s a lot less passive). So I suppose I’m wondering if my car brake example and an obstetrician refusing to operate are not actually that dissimilar?
Thirdly, something else I’d throw into the mix is that are a number of suttas, e.g. SN55.7, where a form of the golden rule, basically treat others as you would like them to treat you, is used as a rationale for the precepts. This sutta goes through all the precepts, e.g. for the first:
It’s when a noble disciple reflects: ‘I want to live and don’t want to die; I want to be happy and recoil from pain. Since this is so, if someone were to take my life, I wouldn’t like that. But others also want to live and don’t want to die; they want to be happy and recoil from pain. So if I were to take the life of someone else, they wouldn’t like that either. The thing that is disliked by me is also disliked by others. Since I dislike this thing, how can I inflict it on someone else?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up killing living creatures themselves. And they encourage others to give up killing living creatures, praising the giving up of killing living creatures. So their bodily behavior is purified in three points.
In your example where you say non-action by the obstetrician is bright kamma, that principle does appear to break down. I suspect most women in those circumstances would prefer the obstetrician to act and not have to die. I suppose this is where there’s a tension between the precepts being viewed as universally invariant moral attributes of actions and being seen as a manifestation of the golden rule.
Technically, this is not correct. AFAIK, a foetus does not exist, cannot develop, in an ectopic pregnancy; the conditions necessary for a fertilized egg to develop that way are not present. Nor is transplantation of the fertilized eggs or collection of cells medically possible at this time (though recently made a requirement in law in some US states, with the alternative for physicians being murder or some kind of unlawful killing charges).
For killing to occur, or even “a death”, doesn’t a life have to be ended? Let’s be careful in this. This is an issue heavily charged with emotions, politics, and religious beliefs (some of which depend on the idea of a soul - which as I understand is not compatible with the Four Noble Truths).
Rebirth and transmigration is not (re)incarnation. Life does not incarnate; it occurs conditionally. We do not say precepts are violated if conditions for the necessary factors do not exist; we do not say for example that celibacy destroys life even if its maintenance prevents procreation. (Although my long deceased grandmother, eager for many great grandchildren, might have disagreed!)