- Rational Foundations of the
- Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu
It is a well-known fact that in
Buddhism the Buddha is believed as the trainer in moral habit or morality [M. I.
111; MLS, I. 22, n. 1] and the adviser or instructor in the way to nibbaana:
[M. III. 4, 6; M. I. 16] to follow or not to follow the path laid down by
him is up to oneself [Tumhehi kiccam aatappam, akkhataaro tathaagataa duppa~n~nassa. (Dhp.
276)]. The Buddha, therefore, considers Buddhist followers as those who become heirs of
His dhamma, not His heirs of material things (aamisa) [MLS, I. 16; It.
p. 101]. That is to say an agent has to bring about his liberation on his own moral
reason. Once the path is pointed out, the task of the teacher is over. In order to achieve
this path (magga), the agent is required to be very rational and intelligent to
take responsibility. The Buddhist literature shows that the Buddhas doctrine (dhamma/dharma)
is for the rational or intelligent and not for the irrational or unintelligent [Pa~n~naavantassaa
yam dhammo naayam dhammo duppa~n~naassa (M. I. 22)] or to be realized individually by
intelligent agent [Dhammo
paccattam veditabbo vi~n~nuuhi. (A. II.
56)]. The Buddha teaches his ethics (dhamma) on a system of his own devising beaten
out by reasoning and based on investigation [M. I. 69]. For attainment of moral
perfection, the Buddha encourages his followers to examine and investigate morally before
accepting what is said or taught, even his own teaching [M. I. 317ff]. The
Discourse to the Kaalaamas (Kaalaama Sutta) [A. I. 189ff] is the excellent
example of this rational spirit of Buddhist ethics or moral training. In this discourse,
the community of learned people known as Kesaputtiyaa Kaalaamaa is confused as to the
mutual contradiction of moral advice given by different sages, who visit them before the
coming of the Buddha: "How can we determine what is really good (kusala) and
really bad (akusala) when divergent teachers assert diverse points of view on these
matters?" The Buddha encourages this community of rational and learned people to
question moral teachings or views presented to them and, therefore, not to accept any
moral codes on the following ten grounds: (1) Vedic authority (anussava), (2)
tradition (paramparaa), (3) hearsay or report (itikiraa), (4) textual
authority (pi.takasampadaa), (5) apparent agreebility of the view (sama o no
garu), (6) authority of the holder of the view (takkahetu), (7) logicality of
the view (nayahetu), (8) the fact that the view is an accepted standpoint (aakaaraparivitakka),
(9) inadequate reflection on reasons (bhabbaruupataa), and (10) the fact that the
view agrees with ones own (di.t.thinijjhaanakkhanti).
The rejection of these ten grounds is to set moral
reasoning on the basis of moral epistemology. These rational criteria of morality, as
rational foundations of Buddhist ethics, are laid down to help the ethical agent to
determine what is really right or wrong in accordance with his own reason. The Buddha
further teaches them that the justification of morality is only possible when the
consideration of the result of its application conduces to moral benefit, and vice versa:
Kaalaamaa, if you know of yourselves that these non-greed,
non-hatred and wisdom are profitable, blameless and praised by the wise or when performed
and undertaken conduce to advantage and happiness, then, Kaalaamaa, having undertaken them
and abide them . . .
Kaalaamaa, if you know of yourselves that these greed,
malice and delusion are unprofitable and blame-worthy and condemned by the wise or when
performed and undertaken conduce to disadvantage, unhappiness, then, Kaalaamaa, not having
undertaken them and not to abide them [A. I. 189f.].
This statement is not only a proclamation of freedom of
thinking with regard to philosophical point of view by the rational agent but also an
autonomous criterion as to moral questions or reasoning by the moral agent. The rationally
moral agent should not be subject to moral authorities in the sense as mentioned above but
to make his own system of judgement on moral reasoning: what is right and wrong in
accordance with its consequences on himself as well as on others. Here the two grounds,
which should be considered by the rational agent, are his intention or motive (cetanaa)
and the consequences (vipaaka) resulted from his intentional action (kamma).
Of the former is good will or bad will while of the latter is the happiness (sukka)
or unhappiness (dukkha) produced by the course of conduct that he performs. The
latter is believed as the result (vipaaka) of the former. Without intention, no
action would be possible. The good consequence is the result of cultivation of kusala whereas
the bad result of akusala. That is to say, in judging what is good or bad, right or
wrong, one has to consider the actual or possible consequences affected to the agent
himself and to others as well, in relation to the agents intention (cetanaa).
In this connection, Jayatilleke has convincingly argued in the following words:
If we interpret the Kaalaama Sutta as saying that
one should not accept the statements of anyone on authorities nor seriously consider the
views of others in order to test their veracity but rely entirely on ones own
expericence in the quest and discovery of truth, then this would be contradictory to the
concept of saddhaa in the Paali Nikaaya. But if, on the other hand, we interpret
the Kaalaama Sutta as saying that while we should not accept the statements of
anyone as true on the grounds of authority, we should test the consequences of statements
in the light of our own knowledge and experience in order to verify whether they are true
or false, it would be an attitude, which is compatible with saddhaa as understood
in at least one stratum of Paali canonical thought.
Another instance, which clarifies Buddhist criterion of
morally philosophical inquiry, is found in the V ma"msaka Sutta of the Majjhimanikaaya
[M. I. 317-20]. According to this discourse, the Buddha allows his followers to
make inquiry seriously about his nature of enlightenment. He appears to encourage them:
"An investigating monk, who can read the thoughts of another, should examine the
Tathaagata to determine whether he is perfectly enlightened or not." [M. I.
317: Viima"msakena bhikkhunaa parassa cetopariyam tathaagate samanesanaa
kaatabhaa, sammaasambuddhio vaa no vaa iti vi~n~naa.naayaati]. In the same spirit, the
investigation should be carried out as to the teaching of the Buddha itself. At the end of
this process, it is said, the inquirer acquires what Buddhism calls rational
belief (aakaaravatii saddhaa) in the Buddha and his teachings.
References to Pali Texts and their translations are to the
standard Pali Text Society editions.
A. A"nguttara-Nikaaya, I-V, ed. R.
Morris, E. Hardy, C. A. F. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1885-1900)
Dhp. Dhammapada, ed. K. R. Norman and
O. von Hinuber. (London: PTS, 1931)
M. Majjhimanikaaya, I-IV, ed.
V. Trenckner, R. Chalmers, Mrs. Rhys Davids. (London: PTS, 1888-1902)
MLS. Middle Length Sayings (PTS translation
of the Majjhima Nikaaya)
It. Itivuttaka, ed. E. Windisch. (London:
PTS. Pali Text Society.