The Growth and Vicissitudes of Buddhist Ethics
Michael Jerryson, Ph.D.
The two oldest academic disciplines devoted to the study of ethics and morality are philosophy and religion. Although scholars of religion have examined ethics for quite some time, the majority of their work draws from Abrahamic religions. To address this lacuna in Buddhist Studies, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics was formed in 1994. Modeling its ethical focus, the founding editors decided to make the journal a free online publication. Since its launch, the editors solicit a wide variety of subjects that includes human rights, vinaya (Buddhist scriptures on monastic traditions) and jurisprudence, and medical ethics.
In 2015 two of the journal’s editorial members, Daniel Cozort and James Mark Shields, expanded the project by taking on roles as editors for the Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics. In tandem with their decision, the four-member editorial committee decided to start a Buddhist Ethics Conference. Selected scholars who published in the journal, the edited volume, or who were well known for their contributions on the subject matter were invited to attend. In the early summer of 2016, the inaugural Buddhist Ethics conference was held at Dickinson College. Two dozen faculty participated in the three day conference, looking at the themes of violence, the environment, and ideal society. But what became incredibly important was not simply the themes, but the format of the conference.
The conference committee took care to balance regional specializations, time periods, disciplinary approaches, gender diversity, and faculty status. They also decided to veer away from the formulaic model for most academic conferences. There was no book or special journal issue paired with the conference. The participants did not deliver papers, but instead met in collective and groups, discussing and debating the issues. These decisions produce a very diverse and incredibly collegial gathering. It was decided that the conference would meet bi-annually. The second conference was held at University of Southern California in the summer of 2018. The themes for this second conference were on class, race, and resistance (focusing on Buddhist concepts of correct speech). The format was similar to the first conference, but with 34 faculty this time.
With such widespread specializations and expertise, there was once again rich discussions and debates. However, a very strong divide persisted throughout the first and second conference. One division argued about the need for explicit normative stances in discussing Buddhist Ethics; the contrasting side pushed for more descriptive stances for Buddhist Ethics. What became apparent in the many discussions and debates between these two sides were two central questions: what are the parameters for the study of Buddhist Ethics and who is a Buddhist? Scholars in favor of more robust forms of normativity considered the inquiry into social issues, such as race, gender, and class, not Buddhist issues, but rather sociological inquiries. They pointed to the traditional method and means of Buddhist scholarship over the last hundred years that mirrored the practices of monastic traditions; namely, the exegesis and philosophical inquiry into Buddhist scriptures and doctrine. Some scholars in this cadre also argued that people engaged in acts such as violence were not Buddhist due to the nature of their actions. Contrasting these views were scholars in favor of a more descriptive style and advocated for greater attention to social issues. These scholars argued that the role of academic scholars is not to judge or determine who is a Buddhist, but instead to learn about the lives and practices of those people who identify as Buddhist.
Due to the collegial atmosphere, group-based work, and active use of civil discourse, scholars at both ends of the ideological divide exhibited growth. The pedagogical structure reinforced the importance of dialogue, listening, and sharing viewpoints. This model of exchange serves as a helpful reminder of what we stand to lose as we invest more time in online communication. No longer discussing different ethical viewpoints with our neighbors, we now turn to social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook groups, which attract like-minded participants. The art of dialogue and compromise becomes irrelevant in such environments; in its place growths the mistaken view that one’s ethical views are communally shared and correct. Perhaps the Buddhist Ethic Conference offers more than simply insight into Buddhist Ethics, but healthy ways for us to maintain our investment in a pluralistic and civil society.