1. Ethics examines and determines the criterion of moral
judgement, good and bad action, result, values, virtues, goal of human life, etc. An
attempt in this paper is made to analyze some Sautraantika ethical doctrines, as found in
the Suutras. It is analytical in the sense that it has critically and minutely analyzed
ethical concepts and practice.
2. There is a deep rooted misconception prevalent among
some modern scholars who consider Buddha's ethics as mere rerival of Vedic or Upanisadic
ethics as holds S. Radha Krishanan and followed by others. "The only metaphysics that
can judge Buddha's ethical descipline is the metaphysics under-lying the Upani.sads." An analysis of Suutra analytical ethics goes
contrary to this deep rooted misconception which has also been examined in this paper.
3. The Analytical Philosopher (vibhajjavaadin) Buddha
revolutionized the traditional metaphysical ethics and ritualistic conduct. The survey of
early Suutras reveals beyond doubt that he was stern against the contemporary
brabmanic as well as nonbrahamanic (Aajivika, Jainas) Philosophy of moral principles and
conduct. Sometime, an illusion is created by similarity of the terms such as Karma,
Dharma etc. The Buddha did use these terms such as Karma, paapa, pu.nya, maitri,
Karu.naa etc, but he radically changed their connotations. He did not coin new terms
or invented new the framework of existing language. Sometimes, the Buddha is criticizcd by
Brahmins as Akriyaavaadin (non-actionalist) for refuting all traditional ethical
concept and practice which clearly verify Buddha's critical attitude towards determinism (niyativada),
theism (iswaravaada), soulism (aatmavaada), asceticism, Purohitavaada
(Priestism), castism (jaativaada) etc. as false ethical concepts and practice.
4. The survey of Vedic literature brings into light that
some of the philosophers of the Vedas, particularly last chapter of Yajurveda suggest
a theory of detached Karma. The human virtues such as loving kindness (maitri), compassion
(Karu.naa), non-violence, justice, wisdom etc. are duly mentioned. Some of the
ancient Vedic seers were quite aware of importance of Karma and moral virtue which
were appraised by the Buddha himself. These ancient norms later on, were replaced by
fatalism, determinism, ritualism as evinced by 'Satapatha Braahma.na. "The sacrifice
is two fold with oblation men satisfy the Gods, with gift the human gods (Brahmins) when
qualified convey the worshipper to heavenly world."[Sat Brah. II. 22, 6 and
5. The moral values were long ago recognized by Indian
seers but the criterion of moral action was solely derived from scriptural or priestly
authority. The Buddha's revolution turned the head of Authoritarianism down to the feet of
Empricism, Pragmatism and Personal experience. It can be considered to be a Copernious
Revolution in the field of ethics.
6. Now, permit me to deal with fundamental principles of
Ethics found in the Suutras and followed by the later Sautrantikas. The present
author found following nine differential characteristics of the Suutra ethics:
a. Volition as the criterion of an ethical judgement.
b. Suprimacy of Karma.
c. Freedom of Will.
d. Human responsibility.
7. Volition as criterion of moral judgement: Volition (cetanaa)
was categorically taught by the Buddha as criterion of moral (Kusala) or immoral (Akusala)
action. He considered action (Karma) as the cause of diversities of the world
against the traditional view of god as the creator. There is no trace whatsoever of the
evidence of volition or cetanaa as the criterion of ethical judgement in Pre-Buddha
literature which lay stress on testimony or priestly authority as the criterion of moral
Ethically, there is slight difference between the
connotation of the terms 'volition' and 'will'. Volition (cetanaa) and will
(cetiyitvaa) signifies active aspect of volition.
8. There is an important puzzling question of ethics:
whether an intention or consequence (result) should be a criterion of moral judgement ?
Intuitionalists advocate intention, while Utititarianists take utility or consequence as
the criterion. The Buddha's inclusion of volition or will does not exclude consequence
also. Every good volition and will is invariably followed by happy feeling and vice versa.
This consequence appears in the form of happiness or unhappiness.
A good intention is an award in itself invariably linked
with happy feeling irrespective of consequence But, exhorts the Buddha, there is no escape
neither in caves nor in ocean from of results (phala) of action, Thus, we find
unique reconcilation of volitionalism and Utilitarianism in the Suutra Ethics.
9. Suprimacy of Action: The Buddha also offers the
throne of suprimacy to action (Karma) which is the creator of variety, diversities
and multiplisities of the world against the traditional view of the one single agent or
god, or supreme being as the creator. The author cannot resist the desire to put
forward Buddha's own word on this question:
"Owner of their own Karma, 0 young man, are living
beings heirs of their Karma, have karma as the wombs from which they spring, having
Karma as their refugee. Karma marks of living being, making them become depraved and
excellent" (kammassakaa maa.nava sattaa, kammadaayadaa, kammayoni, kammabandhu
kammapa.tisara.naa kamma.m satte vibhajati yadida.m hinappa.nitataaya.
Cuulakammavibhaagasutta, M.V.P. 14/511/176)
He categorically gave highest importance to Karma in
following words. "Because of karma the world and people are continued. Just as a
wheels of cart are bound with an axil, similarly all being are bound with and controlled
Kammanaa vattaati loko, kammanaa vattati pajjaa,
Kammanaa nibandhanaa sattaa, rathasaa.niva yaayataa [Sn. 61]
10. The Buddha declared his unprecedented discovery about
four kinds of karma (cattaari imaani, bhikkhave, kammaani mayaa sayam abhi~n~naaya
sacchikatvaa paveditani) as follows:
Four kind of karma, 0 bbikkhus, I have realised by my own
wisdom and then made known to the world. What are four? They are black karma having black
result, white karma having white result, black-and-white karmas having back-and-white
results and neither black not white karmas having neither black-nor-white result and
leading to cessation of karma [Ang, catukka 21/233/314].
The karmas are also divided into bodily action (kaayakarma),
verbal action (vaaci-karma) and mental action (maanasa karma).
11. Freedom of Will: Freedom of will is another
fundamental principles of the Suutra ethics. It is the free will or power of choice
to perform good and bad deeds, which make ethics possible. In the case where there is no
free will or actions are determined, then no question of moral teachings is applicable.
The Buddha strongly laid stress on freedom of will and refuted all kinds of determinism (niyativaada).
The Buddha analyzed three kinds of determinism which lead to non-actionalism (akriyavaada)
or annihilation (ucchedavaada) of all morality. They are the:
a. Prior-action determinism (Puurvakarmak.rataniyativaada);
b. Godly determinism (I'svarak.rtaniyativaada) and
c. Non-causalism (ahetukayvaada).
Prior-action determinism is a pre-Buddhist ethical
viewpoint claiming that our every present action good or bad is determined by the actions
of previous life. Second one advocates that all our actions good or bad are determined by
God, and third one proclaimes non-causal or accidentalism leading to non-actionallism
which is also a fatal blow to all ethical norms These views cut off the very root of
ethics which is grounded on Freedom of Will. The Buddha vehemently refutes all these kinds
of determinism. The Buddha exhorts "If one essentially believes in determinism then
the resolution that I should not do this and I should do this, I should not perform this
act, will not take place when they loose the mindfulness (sati) about what is
appropriate and what is not, then they will fall into the reasonlessness or into the net
of defeat (niggaha)," [Ang. Tik. 61]. It is another evidence of
Buddha's demarcation from traditional determinism and clearly reveals his revolutionary
attitude onwards the orthodox false ethical views.
12. Other kinds of non-actionalism (akriyavaada)
was propogated by some six contemporary ethical philosophers: Ajitakesakambi (materialism,
ucchedavaada). Puurana Kaassapa (moral scepticism), Pakudha Kaaccaayana (eternalism, akriyavaada),
Nigan.tha Nathaputta (prior-karma determinism) and Sa~njaya Bela.t.thi (scepticism). The
Buddha vehemently refuted all kindso f nonactionalism, scepticism and determinism and
taught the law of karma and its results in such an analytical way that was not
13. An analysis of karma as criterion of ethical
judgement in Kaalaamasutta of A"nguttara-Nikaaya brings forward following
a. Approved by your own experience, correct causal
relation and correct logical judgement;
b. To be sceptical about any authority , testimony,
majority, shopistry etc. That means no blind faith in traditionalism and orthodoxism.
c. The deed in order to be righteous must be meritorious.
d. Such a deed is praised by the wise.
e. Such a deed if performed in full, conduces to
benefit and happiness to himself, to others and to both.
14. Human responsibility: The Buddha also turned
the head of divine responsibility to the feet of human responsibility. He exhorted:
"You are the master of your self, there is no any
other master. By proper training of your (mind), you obtain the difficult master (Nibbaana)
[Attanaa hi attano naatho, ko hi naatho paro si.maa, attaana va sudantena, naatha
You have to see your own good and bad deeds not of others
(na paresa.m vilomaani, na perasa.m kataakata.m attanaava avakkheyya, kataani akataani
No body-else either god, deities, ghosts, other people,
society or any other agent or agency is responsible for one's deed but the doer himself.
Even the Buddha is only the teacher who showed the path but you are the one who has to
tread on it (tumhehi kicca.m aatappa.m akkhaataaro tathaagataa). Such a doctrine of
self-help and self-dependence is seldom to be met with in pre-Buddhist ethics.
15. Emphasis on self help ethical principles apparently
indicates following important points:
a. Futility of prayers and oblation.
b. It is a natural method.
c. Self effort in mental Enoblement.
d. Counter action vice with virtue.
16. The Buddha found Vedic prayers to gods, for
prosperity, for help, for removal of evil (durit) and to bring good with various
sacrificial rites related with them as ineffective and useless. One has to rely on his own
effect to achieve an end. Buddha's last word to his discipline "be a light to your
self and roam about relying on yourself " remains a very significant in the history
of ethics which considers human endeavour as the guiding principles of all moral conduct
Prayers and oblations do not yield much result but certainly human efforts do. The Buddha
exhorted that just "as a stone thrown into the water can never be made a float by
wishing and praying even so an evil person who had died could not be made to enter heaven
by the wishful thinking and praying of other people. Despite such wishing and praying he
would definitely enter the world of mistery. The Buddha further said: "there are
these five things, Gahapati, which are desirable result hard to get in the world. What
five? They are longevity, lovely complexion, happiness, honour, and rebirth in the
heavenly world. One should neither pray nor merely dream of them. But instead he should
endeavour to fulfil the causes which will produce them for him."
It is a fact undeniable that human being depend in some
way or other on each other's mutual aid, co-operation, loving, kindness (mettaa),
compassion (karu.naa). etc. are natural phenomena of evolution but one has to seek help
from his own efforts. The enlightened teachers only teach the method to achieve the
ethical perfection but the efforts are necessarily made by the disciples themselves.
17. The Dharma is considered in the suutras
as natural law of conditional origination (pra.tityasamutpaada) which all the time
remain uncontradicted, objective, unalterable truth, whether Buddha teaches it or does not
teach it. The Buddha also emphasized on the continuation of mental improvement in
I do not recommend a standstill in meritorious acts, 0
Bhikkhus, let alone lessening of doing so. I do favour the development of meritorious deed
but neither its ceasing nor its lessening.
18. The other differential characteristic of the suutra
ethics can be summarized as below:
Humanistic: It is universally applicable to all human
beings irrespective of their caste, creed, sex, nationality etc..
19. Practical: Everyone of its concepts and practice is
grounded on practical experience. It can be practiced in all times and places.
20. Psychological: The Buddha's ethical teaching were
based on sharp and abtruset analysis of mind (citta) and its functioning (cettasika);
their wholesome (kusala) and unwholesome (akusala) mental states, are deeply
analyzed. Such a psychological ethics is not found in pre-sutra literature.
21 Anti-passimistic: It is another important feature, of
Sautrantika ethics which contradict the present understanding of Buddhistic ethics as
passimistic in the beginning and optimistic in the end. The study of Suutras reveals that
the Buddha does speak about Dukkha in the world but not that "everything is Dukkha by
nature" (Saa"mkhya concept) as he spoke about happy states in this very world
and heavenly happy states too. There are happy and unhappy states in this very life-time.
The Saa"mkhya element of pessimism entered into the interpretation of Dukkha in
Buddhism which caused the mistake of considering Buddhistic ethics as passimistic in the
beginning and optimistic in the end. As a matter of fact, it is not passimistic neither in
the beginning nor in the end. The practice of ethical laws brings about happiness in the
beginning, middle and in the end. (aadi kalyaana.m, majje kalyaana.m
22. Therapeutical: The Buddha is called a doctor (Bhaisajayaguru)
because like a doctor, he taught the nature of ailment (dukkha), its causes (samudaya),
its treatment (nirodha) and method of treatment (marga). The diagnosis of
various kinds of emotional afflictions (Kilasas), perceptual illusions (Vipallasas),
kinds of personality (Carita), analysis of negative immoral forces (aku'sala)
and their treatment through opposite moral forces and DhyanaVipassana, definitely
proves Suutra ethics to be psychotherapentical.
The Suutra ethics can be called an anti-dote, Therapy or
Reality; Therapy which has realistic anti-dote for all mental disturbances or neurotic
symptoms which are faced by all human beings in the course of critical periods. The Suutra
ethics not only cures by the method of concentration (dhyana), insight (vipassanaa)
various kinds of practical meditations, it also provides sure ground for preventive
medicine by developing mental moral forces. The further evolution of ethical principles of
sutra ethics, psychologically and logically analyzed and debated by later Sautrantikas in Kathaavathu,
Abhidharmako'sabhaa'sya. Pramaanasamuccaya and Pramaa.navaritika are left
aside for future exploration.
This short summary of some of the
differential characteristics of ethical philosophy found in the Suutras prove that the
Buddha launched an ethical revolution to counteract the traditional false ethical
concepts and practice and showed mankind a correct ethical method leading to Liberation.
Sincere thanks to Phra Somnuek Saksree for retyping of this article.