The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics

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Daniel Cozort, James Mark Shields
Oxford Handbooks
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     712 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics, edited by Daniel Cozort and James Mark Shields, is the first major academic handbook for the emerging sub-field of Buddhist ethics. It encompasses 31 essays by 29 academic scholars, many of whom are leading experts in their fields. The articles span a wide collection of topics including specific Buddhist traditions, basic concepts of Indian Buddhism, intellectual and social movements, and issues in applied ethics.

The collection is divided into five sections. The first, “Foundations,” contains three essays: a thorough introduction to karma in Indian Buddhism by Peter Harvey, a piece by Justin Whitaker and Douglas Smith on the role of ethics (śīla), meditation (bhāvanā), and wisdom (prajñā) in Buddhist soteriological and philosophical thought; and a piece on the bodhisattva precepts by Paul Groener. The essays are commendable, but I found the omission of a chapter on the Four Noble Truths, or at least on the first truth of suffering (duḥkha) disappointing in a handbook on Buddhist Ethics.

The second section, entitled “Ethics and Buddhist Traditions,” includes some of the strongest pieces in the collection. Charles Prebish provides a thorough summary of monastic discipline (vinaya) in the Indian tradition. Bronwyn Finnegan analyzes tensions between normative commitment and the Madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā) and provides a treatment of the 8th century Indian Buddhist monk Śāntideva’s argument that the realization of selflessness (anātman) entails altruistic impartiality. One of my favorite pieces in the section is Barbra Clayton’s “The Changing Way of the Bodhisattva,” in which she contrasts treatments of the bodhisattva path as presented in the early Ugraparipṛcchā-sūtra (Questions of Ugra, c1st century CE) to that of the 8th century Indian monk scholar Śāntideva in his two bodhisattva manuals: the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Entrance to the Way of Awakening) and the Śikṣāsamuccaya (Training Manual). Clayton demonstrates how the Ugraemphasis on the bodhisattva path as an “elite goal” to be pursued by the noble few makes way for the more accessible conception of bodhisattvahood developed by Śāntideva in which altruism replaces pursuit of excellence as the bodhisattva’s motivation. The chapter concludes with a treatment of contemporary Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön’s recent commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, in which the emphasis shifts again, this time to bodhisattva training as a means for social engagement to lessen present suffering. The essay illustrates a consistent strength of the collection in its emphasis on both the early conceptual foundations of Buddhist moral thought, as well as contemporary Buddhist applications of the textual tradition. The section includes twelve pieces in total, from topics as diverse as single sutras (Gene Reeves on the Lotus Sutra), literary genre (Martin Adams on Theravada Sutra, Jataka, and Avadana), anthological research on a geographic area (Juliana Essen on contemporary Thailand), and others, leaving the organizational principle of the section somewhat unclear.

Section 3, titled “Comparative Perspectives,” is comprised of three works which engage philosophically with some aspect of the Buddhist tradition. Emily McRae offers a well-written and insightful introduction to the brahmavihāras (Four Boundless Qualities) of love (mettā), compassion (karuṇa), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekka), as well as the afflictions (keśas) which cause suffering. The essay draws attention to the centrality of moral development in Buddhist ethical texts, as well as its emphasis on training accurate perception of salient moral details, which McRae contrasts to the dominant Western focus on the criteria of right action. The section also includes Sīlavādin Meynard Vasen’s “Buddhist Ethics Compared to Western Ethics” and Dan Arnold’s consideration of the tension between metaphysical reductionism and normativity in Indian Buddhism, in his “Buddhist Reductionism and the Logical Space of Reasons.”

The fourth section, titled “Buddhism and Society,” contains chapters on engaged Buddhism by the leading scholars in this field, Sallie King (writing on Engaged Buddhism and Asia) and Christopher Queen (writing on Western Engaged Buddhism). There are also articles on Buddhism and fairness (Peter Harvey), environmental ethics (Stephanie Kaza), Buddhist attitudes towards war (Michael Jerryson), and Buddhist economics (by co-editor James Mark Shields).

The final section, entitled “Contemporary Issues,” is comprised of 7 chapters on applied ethics, including two (“Human Rights” and “Euthanasia”) contributed by Damien Keown. There are selections on animal rights (Paul Waldau), attitudes towards women in Buddhism (Alice Collett), abortion (Michael Barnhart), and Suicide (Martin Kovan). Generally, the essays skillfully balance treatments of relevant evidence from Buddhist (usually Indian) textual traditions, with some application of concepts and distinctions from contemporary Western applied ethics. I found Amy Paris Langenberg’s piece on Buddhism and sexuality particularly interesting, in which she carefully details the various forms of sexual expression which develop alongside Buddhist prohibitions on monastic sexual activity.

The most disappointing element in the collection is the small number of chapters focused on contributions made by classical or contemporary Buddhist thinkers to the area of philosophical normative theory (aside from applied ethics, which is well represented) and philosophical approaches to the study of virtue. Buddhist contributions to the philosophical study of well-being, such as their analysis of the impoverishment of pleasure and their critique of desire, are mostly neglected, as are Buddhist arguments for the irrationality of anger. McRae’s essay engages in conceptual analysis on one important category of Buddhist virtue/emotion (the Brahmavihāras) but the collection lacks in-depth philosophical treatment of the Mahayana perfections (pāramitās), or of mainstream and Mahayana accounts of virtuous forms of attention such as mindfulness (sati/smṛti) and introspection (saṃprajanya). There is little attention given to consequentialist elements of Buddhist thought (treated briefly by Vasen), which have played an important role in stimulating contemporary philosophical engagement with Buddhist sources. Ultimately, no collection can do everything, and the editors have included strong pieces on topics within the field of normative ethics—mainly comprising the short “Comparative Perspectives” section and supplemented by Finnegan’s article. Despite this, the volume falls short in building the case for the importance of Buddhist moral thought as an object of study by historians of philosophy, or as a resource for contemporary philosophical theorizing. Nevertheless, for the reasons I have articulated throughout this review, the collection is of immense value for any scholar interested in Buddhist moral thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Harris is on the Faculty at the Institute of Philosophy at Leiden University.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Cozort is Professor of Religion at Dickinson College. He is the author of Unique Tenets of the Middle Way Consequence School (Snow Lion Publications, 2013) and Highest Yoga Tantra (Snow Lion Publications, 2005).

James Mark Shields is Associate Professor of Comparative Humanities and Asian Thought at Bucknell University. His publications include Against Harmony: Progressive and Radical Buddhism in Modern Japan (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Critical Buddhism: Engaging with Modern Japanese Buddhist Thought (Ashgate, 2011).


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