Essay: Winter Tricycle: "The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world"

I stopped off for the midday meal and picked up the Winter Tricycle. Found: “A More Enlightened Way of Being: The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world” A nice bit of scholarship from Seth Segall ( a clinician, professor and Zen priest) that can be found at It’s worth a read for at least its interesting survey of Buddhist and Aristotelian ethics.

Unfortunately, it seems one needs to purchase the Winter issue or have a Tricycle subscription to get the entire essay (as of this evening it now opens fully via the link). If I can get a PDF copy of or link to the full essay, I’ll post it.

Note: The Winter issue is worth buying just to have Bhante Brahmali’s Letter to the Editors re: Shayne Clark’s " Rules for Pregnant Nuns and Married Monks ” (Summer 2016). Clark provides a weakish reply following Bhante’s letter.


We’re members of the animal kingdom, and as such we have biologically rooted capacities… Our cultures and traditions then mold these proclivities… final moral judgments reflect the complex interplay of these biological and social factors with our personal faculties… we’ve cobbled these together as best we can into our own personal system…

This passage exemplifies a naturalized epistemological approach, one which doesn’t require the speculative positing of metaphysical truths (an illegitimate pursuit, according to the average empiricist).

For example, the death of insects and such: this was a concern that laypeople & other religious wanderers had, and it was only in response to them that the Buddha set up the Vassa. Contemporary ethics from Iron Age India to the modern West are neither inherently, nor necessarily, aligned with the Dhamma, even if they can be accommodated.

Does the Buddhist ethical tradition have something important and unique to add to this mélange?

Why assume that the Buddhist ethical tradition in any way transcends that melange? AN 3.66 discusses ethics without any metaphysics at all (the Kalamas are hanging out at AN 3.65), and there’s simply no reason to address metaphysical issues unless one’s interlocutor will not let go of them.

The answer to “why bother?” is that Buddhism contains a number of significant ethical ideas that still retain their usefulness even after severance from the framework of rebirth.

The whole of the Dhamma doesn’t require rebirth in any way. Materialism, Idealism, Rationalism, p-Eternalism, all such metaphysics are unnecessary to assert. I fail to see why e.g. Iron Age India is taken as having a premium access to metaphysical/ethical truth.

We still have all the biological, cultural, and rational considerations that shaped our everyday moral intuitions before we became Buddhists.

…and afterwards…


SN 55.7 is similar (at this link).


[quote=“Anagarika, post:1, topic:3811”]

Many spiritual seekers—especially in the West, where rebirth has never been widely believed—don’t become Buddhists because they want to end the cycle of rebirth; they’re motivated by some other inner disquiet. As an experiment, take a moment now to check out your own motivation. When was the last time you caught yourself thinking, “I’d really like to end rebirth?”[/quote]

Many in the West are interested or believe in ‘rebirth’. My impression is the sutta teachings of ‘rebirth’ relating to ‘good & bad kamma’ (as distinct from the Noble Eightfold Path) are not for the purpose of ending rebirth . Instead, they are for promoting a good rebirth. Therefore, many in both the West & East believe in rebirth, not for ending rebirth, but for aspiring for a better or another rebirth.

The Buddha, having left his father’s palace never to return, encouraged withdrawal from the agora (the marketplace) and the polis (the “city,” the hub of political life). As a consequence, Buddhism has remarkably little to say about fairness and justice. …The Buddha preached a gospel of personal virtue rather than one of collective political participation and social action, and although he treated persons from all castes equably and abjured violence, he never advocated the abolition of the caste system or the disbanding of armies.

The writer here seems to be caught up in a contradiction, in that he seems to diminish a faith-based & ‘rules’ approach but then criticises the Buddha for not making rules about government & armies.

For me, the Buddha offered more than enough to promote social & government responsibility in those that heed/ed his teachings.

The Buddha did actually abolish caste within his own monastic community & it was not the Buddha’s role to abolish armies. Has any individual in history abolished armies?

The modern project of constructing a more socially oriented Buddhism requires our importing Western ideas of fairness, liberty, and justice—ideas forged in the American and French revolutions, the Paris Commune, and the abolitionist and suffragette movements—into a religious tradition that, more often than not, historically supported and was supported by the ruling elites of the countries in which it flourished.

The rhetoric of the French Revolution of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (which resulted in an ISIS dictatorship of ruling elites fond of using guillotines) is not at all alien to the Buddha’s teachings.

The American and French revolutions did not abolish ruling elites or slavery. In fact, they merely resulted in a change of ruling elites. These were just political slogans to fool the masses, similar to ‘Communism’ or ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ or ‘Free Syrian Army’ or ‘Save Aleppo’.

Possibly the greatest advances in Western democracy & social justice only occurred after the enormous lesson of death & destruction of the Second World War.

The example of the Lord Buddha is far more democratic & secular than the American, French or Bolshevik revolutions. The Buddha said: “I only point the way; you must walk the way”.

Returning to the first precept, our moral opposition to killing probably reflects a multiplicity of factors: a natural revulsion against the spilling of blood, an empathy for others’ pain, rational calculations about fairness and advantage, hopes that others will not kill us or our loved ones, fears of shame, retribution, and punishment…

This the Buddha already mentioned in SN 55.7 (at this link) 2,600 years ago.

Does the Buddhist ethical tradition have something important and unique to add to this mélange? Critics like the writer and blogger David Chapman suggest that most convert Buddhists simply bypass traditional Buddhist ethics altogether, pouring their preexisting liberal secular humanist ethics into newer bottles bearing, somewhat disingenuously, a “Buddhist” label. The question one might ask is, why bother with Buddhist ethics at all?

In my experience, Buddhist ethics are the most superior ethics. More than merely the five precepts but the whole scope of ethical teaching given by the Lord Buddha (such as in DN 31; AN 4.55; etc). I am confident that both the ‘natural-intuitive’ & ‘Western’ ethics are not sufficient to serve as a foundation for both clear seeing & liberation. We need the Buddha’s assistance so much here.


Ahh, secularists. Never let a fact get the way of a good ideology. About a quarter of people in the US and Europe believe in reincarnation.

Nordic_Psychology_erlhar06.pdf (54.9 KB)

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Interesting article, Bhante.

It’s notable that the author actually had some understanding of other faiths:

Since Buddhism does not posit an imperishable soul, it does not espouse reincarnation as such, but rather the transfer at death of karmic energy from one form to another. While Christianity’s understanding differs in a number of significant ways from that of Hinduism and Buddhism, what is common to all three is a recognition that liberation (salvation) is preceded by purification of some kind. Christians in the Catholic tradition have called it purgatory.

This contrast between the Hindu/Buddhist view and some Western ideas is also of interest:

But among North Americans and western Europeans, reincarnation is often given a very different spin: it represents new and positive opportunity. It’s not a burden but a comfort positively associated with new possibilities for self-fulfillment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is a reflection of our modern “buffet” approach to life—the more variety and diversity I can have, the tastier and more interesting this “meal” will be! So the prospect of being able to come back to the table of life without limit is a positive one.

For me, the description of “understanding” does not apply, unless “faiths” refers to ‘folk religions’.

I have not read anything in the EBTs about (impersonal) ‘karmic energy transferred at death’. This sounds more like something Buddhaghosa would propose. Instead, the EBTs seem to explicitly state a ‘being’, ‘person’, ‘man’ or ‘woman’ is reborn.

What would be the point, i.e., moral efficacy, of believing in ‘karma & rebirth’ if there was no personal responsibility, personal reward & personal punishment involved? Would good karma be done purely out of altruism for the next set of five aggregates inheriting impersonal karmic energy?

As for ‘purgatory’, it does not seem to exist in the ECTs.

[quote=“mikenz66, post:5, topic:3811”]
But among North Americans and western Europeans, reincarnation is often given a very different spin: it represents new and positive opportunity. It’s not a burden but a comfort positively associated with new possibilities for self-fulfillment.[/quote]

As I wrote in my previous post, the above is exactly my impression of ‘rebirth’ in the EBTs.

Regards :palm_tree:

And, ascetics and Brahmans so respected reciprocate with compassion in six ways: by restraining you from wrongdoing, guiding you to good actions, thinking compassionately, telling you what you ought to know, clarifying what you already know and :tada: showing you the path to heaven :fireworks:.

DN 31

About this a wise man considers thus: ‘If there is another world, then on the dissolution of the body, after death, this good person will reappear in a happy destination, even in the heavenly world. Now whether or not the word of those good recluses and brahmins is true, let me assume that there is no other world: still this good person is here and now praised by the wise as a virtuous person, one with right view who holds the doctrine of affirmation. And on the other hand, if there is another world, then this good person has made a :golf: lucky throw :golf: on both counts: since he is praised by the wise here and now, and since on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will reappear in a happy destination :trophy:, even in the heavenly world :trophy:. He has rightly accepted and undertaken this incontrovertible teaching in such a way that it extends to both sides and excludes the unwholesome alternative.’

MN 60

My point was that the author did realise that Buddhism does not posit an enduring soul.

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About a quarter of people in the US and Europe believe in reincarnation.

Yes, it’s interesting. I am a devoted refuge-taking, precept-taking, path following, sutta contemplating Buddhist, and yet I do not believe in any strong form of rebirth. And yet my wife, a Catholic, strongly believes in reincarnation in opposition to the credal doctrines of her church.

Nice! When I taught a retreat in Germany a few years back, the question came up. We had close to forty participants, all of whom were Europeans or Americans, with only one Asian, a Thai lady. I asked for a show of hands as to who thought there may well be such a thing as rebirth. Everyone put up their hands: except the Thai lady!

These things are complicated. People aren’t just instantiations of a cultural/religious template. This is why I get annoyed by the whole secular Buddhist thing, where they just blithely assume that rebirth is not relevant in the West, but is blindly believed by traditional Buddhists.

In Sydney, I spent a lot of time with traditional Buddhists, especially the Sri Lankans, and the questioning about rebirth was hardly any different from what you find in non-traditional Buddhists. Most of them were highly educated and intelligent, and they were looking for evidence and facts, not just traditional beliefs.

Ajahn Brahm told me a story of a visit he got from some rabbis many years ago. One of them said, “You know, we believe in reincarnation, too.” Another broke in, “No, we don’t.” It’s almost as if religious people are, you know, people.

  1. For my part, I don’t blithely assume it isn’t relevant, I take evidence that it’s unnecessary and use it to avoid asserting or denying it. What irks me is when…

  2. …traditional Buddhists suggest (the same way some Xians et al will) that the absence of rebirth is the absence of a fully Buddhist morality. From the article:

The underlying conceptual scheme tying these resources together is simple and clear: our thoughts and actions can be deemed either “skillful” or “unskillful” depending on whether they assist or hinder better conditions for the future, especially for future rebirth or, ideally, an awakening that brings release from the wheel of rebirth entirely.

SN 56.11 describes dukkha this way:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

No talk of rebirth; it isn’t needed. Clinging is the problem.

I dislike using AN 3.65 so much; nevertheless:

“The first assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is another world, and if there is the fruit and result of good and bad deeds, it is possible that with the breakup of the body, after death, I will be reborn in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’

“The second assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is no other world, and there is no fruit and result of good and bad deeds, still right here, in this very life, I maintain myself in happiness, without enmity and ill will, free of trouble.

“The third assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil comes to one who does evil. Then, when I have no evil intentions toward anyone, how can suffering afflict me, since I do no evil deed?’

“The fourth assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil does not come to one who does evil. Then right here I see myself purified in both respects.’

Two sets of assurances. Is rebirth the case or not? Doesn’t matter. Is kamma the case or not? Doesn’t matter. Not in the West, not in the non-West.



But clinging-grasping leads to birth therefore birth or re-birth seems to be a problem.

Dhp 153. Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking the builder of this house. Repeated birth is indeed suffering!

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I don’t want to get into a bunfight over this, but I would agree that belief or otherwise in rebirth doesn’t necessarily affect how you practice Buddhist morality. The stats back this up, too: moral conduct has little to do with belief in an afterlife in general. I’m not aware of research specifically into Buddhism on this, but research in Christian areas shows that in questions of morality usually regarded as central to them—abortion, teen pregnancy, drug use, and so on—there is a strong positive correlation between immorality and religious belief. That is to say, the more religious you are, the crueler and more immoral you are. Whether this is a causal relationship, or whether both are due to other effects like poverty and education is hard to say.

However, as we know, morality is only part of the Buddhist path. To practice the path as a whole, the context of rebirth certainly does make a difference, and is placed by the Buddha at the heart of central teachings. Whether someone believes in rebirth or not, obviously they can still practice and see the results of that practice. But that doesn’t mean it can be just dismissed as irrelevant.

As Deeele pointed out, the very quote that you use in fact places rebirth at the core of the problem. Jāti, while conventionally translated as “birth”, almost always means “rebirth”.


I think our typical focus on our views and beliefs needs to be tempered by a broader understanding of the nature of the Buddhist path. My claim is that we generally take our own views too seriously and those of the Buddha not seriously enough.

Although most practising Buddhists will have some understanding that our views and beliefs are conditioned, I think it is rarely acknowledged how deep this conditioning goes. The Buddhist outlook of non-self necessitates that we, including our views, are nothing but the product of ever changeable external and internal conditions. Our views, solid and convincing as they may seem, are entirely dependent on our interaction with the world.

It’s worthwhile digesting the consequences of that. Given the right conditions, it means that any Bernie Sanders supporter can metamorphose into a Donald Trump supporter. It means that any climate activist can turn into a climate sceptic. It means that any atheist can turn into a creationist, and that any secular Buddhist can turn into a fundamentalist Muslim. And of course the reverse is equally possible in all these cases. There are really no limits on what changes in view are possible. Our views are supported by a house of cards. The clearer we see this, the less seriously we take our views. And if we take our views less seriously, we need something else to take their place. This is where the right view of Buddhism comes in.

A crucial point here is that the right view of Buddhism is not a dogma or metaphysical speculation. The Buddha claims to have awakened to the truth. As Buddhist we are compelled to take this seriously, for if we don’t, the idea of being a Buddhist becomes meaningless. The Buddha’s awakening experience was his insight into the nature of existence, an important aspect of which is samsāric existence with its potentially endless sequence of birth and deaths. This is attested throughout the suttas. A vivid description can be found in such places as MN4:

Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives. This was the first true knowledge attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who abides diligent, ardent, and resolute.

Or in the introduction to pārājika 1:

In this way I recollected many past lives with their characteristics and particulars. This was the first true insight attained by me in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was dispelled and understanding arose, darkness was dispelled and light arose, as happens to one who remains heedful, energetic, and diligent. This, brahmin, was my first breaking out, like a chick from an eggshell.

Both of these similes are also used for the final awakening experience.

So rejecting rebirth is equivalent to rejecting the Buddha’s awakening. The Buddha made it perfectly clear that he had realised the truth of rebirth, and as Buddhists we cannot just dismiss this as wrong. Confidence in the teachings of the Buddha implies that we need to hear the Buddha out, listen to his message carefully, and reflect on it at length. We owe it to him, at the very least, to take his claims seriously. That to me is the right attitude. If in the end we decide that we have reject rebirth, then so be it. But we may then also have to accept that we are not really Buddhists.


Well said, Bhante. :anjal:

I like this. If their view was ISIS works for the US government (which is why the evacuation of ISIS & their supporters from Aleppo is being called a ‘humanitarianism’ crisis by the Western govts mass media) , a fundamentalist Buddhist can turn into a secular Muslim similar to Bashar el-Assad.

Inspiring. :seedling:


Well, honestly, I don’t think we can know that much for certain about what the Buddha’s awakening consisted in. We have various texts, which seem to date from the time of the Buddha and which have an overall circumstantial and narrative coherence that suggests many of them originated at about the same time, and within the circle of the Buddha’s followers. But it is hard to discern which of them record the Buddha’s own words fully accurately, and which of them are only the fallible recollections of hearers later reporting what they thought the Buddha said. Those recollections will be colored by the personal limitations of the hearers, as well as their own preconceptions about the world.

More importantly, even when words are recorded accurately, we can’t know for sure what sense the Buddha intended to give to those words, when he was speaking figuratively and when literally, and why the Buddha was giving a teaching consisting of those very words to any specific hearers who reported it later. Some of what we have, then, might amount to no more than instructive fairy tales the Buddha presented to help guide people he regarded as having childlike minds. I think the suttas present us with a complex literary and detective story, and understanding what the Teacher was actually up to and really trying to communicate requires a long process of creative and probing reading, as well as experience with the practice. Even then, we might not be able to get it entirely.

But it is also important to distinguish what the Buddha’s awakening actually consisted in, from what the Buddha, or others, might have thought it consisted it. The Buddha’s views were just as much conditioned as anyone else’s. We don’t need to assume the Buddha was omniscient or incapable of error, even after his final liberation. But if we have faith in the reality of that final liberation, we do have to conclude that any such errors or lack of knowledge were not of a nature to cause him further suffering.

My understanding of the nature of the goal is captured by the formula, “This is peace, this is exquisite — the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana.” The person who has achieved that state has “laid down the burden” and “utterly destroyed the fetters of existence.” It is all about what states of mind we can succeed in bringing to an end, not what positive states of belief we acquire.

I don’t see any reason to think that the attainment of such a liberated state, and the ability to teach the path to its attainment, would require any comprehensive understanding of the entire nature of existence, or a view into the future and past of other living beings as they move in and out of the various “mansions” of the universe . Indeed, these things strike me as quite irrelevant, and the aspiration to achieve this kind of “superknowledge” is more likely to be a cause of suffering than to be part of the path to ending it.

If the texts contained any actual arguments for rebirth, or serious forms of evidence for rebirth, that would be something to take into account. But no such arguments are actually presented. Instead the texts only seem to present us with various individuals who share a conviction that rebirth of some kind is real.

I prefer to believe that the Buddha was an ordinary, mortal human being, with a finite mind and finite cognitive capacities, who achieved an extraordinary level of mental purification and relinquishment leading to the cessation of suffering. After achieving this state, the Buddha attempted to describe its experienced character as best he could, and teach others how to attain the same state. It seems to me much more important to pay attention to what the Buddha taught about how to achieve release or liberation than any views he might or might not have held about the fundamental nature of the universe. Nor does it seem plausible that a finite human being could ever know the fundamental nature of the universe in any complete way.

The subsequent Buddhist tradition has been bedeviled by a Faustian impulse - philosophers and siddhas of all ages driven by an intense cravings for cognitive attainments and powers, and for the possession of answers to all of their many metaphysical questions. But these cravings are themselves a major source of suffering. The path that I understand is all about relinquishment, not attainment. So I have worked on the assumption that if I were ever fortunate enough to achieve the full liberation of nibbana, I probably wouldn’t know any more than I do now about why there is a universe, why it works the way it does, or even what is the ultimate ground of my own mind and its possible states - including the liberated state. I would just be in the liberated state, which need not include a full and complete understanding of the nature of the state one is in.

Probably the greatest source of human suffering is the grief we feel over our ongoing loss of our past states of being, and the anguish over our own impending mortality, an anguish which is grounded in the brute animal craving to survive and continue. I view the goal as one of liberating myself from this grief and painful craving for future existence, not attempting to gratify the craving by convincing myself that I will survive beyond my mortal limits.


With all due respect, bhante Brahmali,

whenever I hear or read someone declare from a position of authority, that someone else who is earnestly grappling with the Dhamma might not “really” be a Buddhist, a (deeply conditioned) latent tendency for aversion creeps into my mind.

With regard to the difficult topic of rebirth, many grossly or subtly different attitudes have evolved long before Buddhism came into contact with so-called critical western modernity. Ch’an, Dzogchen and other traditions have rephrased the relationship between saṃsāra and nibbāna and have come to construct dependent origination in a sometimes more abstract or figurative perspective.

If being “really” a Buddhist should mean an orthodox Theravadin, than, by that very definition, 90% of the world’s Buddhists might be otherwise declared. But this would seem a rather unwholesome attitude. I personally think that the Dhamma is greater than that.

Depriving a fellow traveller on the path of the epithet of being a real Buddhist feels like a verbally and mentally harsh act. In the end, all views are wrong or preliminary views. The unconditioned lies beyond views.

On these wonderful pages of SC and Discourse, people come together from many walks of the spiritual life, some monastics, some Theravadin lay followers, some from other traditions who want to inform and enrich their practice by studying the EBTs, some critical scholars and even some agnostic seekers.

As long as a person sincerely takes refuge, I think he or she should be regarded “really” a Buddhist, even if we personally think that they might not walk in the centre of the path.

(I am very sorry, if on the surface I somewhat overreact to your post)

With metta


One may pick and choose certain aspects of Buddhism to their liking, and may not believe in rebirth. However, if one ‘rejects’ the core teaching , one certainly can’t call oneself a Buddhist, just as one wouldn’t call oneself a Christian if one does not believe in the Trinity. So, to me there’re is no such a thing as [quote=“dhammachatta, post:17, topic:3811”]
Depriving a fellow traveller on the path of the epithet of being a real Buddhist feels like a verbally and mentally harsh act.

I agree. However, for me, the key matter is how ‘core teachings’ are interpreted or understood. Possibly it is the interpretation of various Pali teachings that lead to them being rejected by some people where as an alternative interpretation would result in those teachings being accepted by those same people.


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Rather than [quote=“Vann, post:18, topic:3811”]
one certainly can’t call oneself a Buddhist, just as one wouldn’t call oneself a Christian if one does not believe in the Trinity
my point was more in the lines of Roman Catholics stating that Protestants are not “really” Christians at all, and vice versa, which had been going on for centuries and which was also, at least in part, based on literal vs. figurative interpretation of doctrinal concepts.

Furthermore the diversity within and between the Buddhist traditions has historically been, and is to this date, much greater than that within the Christian tradition.

My main tenet is that we unenlightened beings should treat other people’s approach to the Dhamma with respect and compassion and our own with humility and non-reification.