Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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The strongest motivation for accepting the doctrine of rebirth was to support the notion that people are accountable for their actions to the very end of their lives; the doctrine thus plays a central role in Buddhist ethical theory. It was noted in the preceding section that the Buddhist view of the person was described as a middle path between two equally untenable extremes. In the realm of conduct also, the Buddhists described theirs as a middle path or a moderate position that avoided extreme views of human conduct. In order to understand the various positions against which the Buddhists defined their views on appropriate conduct, it should be borne in mind that the central question being asked by the Buddha and his contemporaries was how to achieve contentment. The strategies recommended by different thinkers were closely related to their views of life after death. Those who held that a person has only one life tended to argue that one’s life should be spent in the pursuit of as much pleasure as is possible without bringing pain and injury to oneself. Restraint in the pursuit of pleasure was seen as necessary only to the extent that excessive indulgence might shorten one’s life and decrease one’s opportunities for future pleasure seeking.
Philosophers who accepted the doctrine of rebirth, on the other hand, tended to argue that the only kind of happiness worth pursuing was lasting freedom from the pains and turmoil of life; this could be won only by bringing rebirth to an end. After death, they said, all living beings are eventually reborn in a form of life determined by the accumulated effects of deeds done in previous lives. Although some forms of life might be very pleasant and offer a temporary reward for previous good actions, every form of life involves some amount of pain and suffering, even if it is only an anxiety that one’s present peace and happiness will eventually come to an end and be replaced by more direct forms of physical and mental pain. Therefore, the only hope of any lasting freedom from the pains of existence is to remove oneself from the cycle of birth and death altogether. Exactly how this was to be achieved was a matter of much controversy, but some drastic methods involved undergoing extreme forms of austerity and even self-inflicted pain. The Buddhist middle path, therefore, was one that avoided two extremes: one extreme was the self-indulgence of those who denied life after death altogether, and the other was the self-torture recommended by some ascetics as the only way to gain freedom.
Buddhist philosophers tended to agree that a person’s mentality at any given moment is either virtuous, vicious or neutral. This means that all of one’s mental characteristics in a given moment have the same orientation, which is either towards a state of happiness, the natural consequence of virtue, or towards a state of discontent, the natural consequence of vice. The principal virtues that were said to cooperate in a healthy mentality were correct understanding, which manifested itself as a sense of shame, and a sense of decency, usually interpreted as respect for oneself and respect for others. Thus if one has the virtue of having a sense of shame, then while that sense of shame is functioning, one will also have the virtues of being generous, free of malice and open-minded; having these virtues makes one likely to behave in ways that conduce to the health of oneself and others. If, on the other hand, one has the vice of being shameless, then one will also have the vices of being deluded and agitated and therefore prone to behave in ways likely to bring harm to oneself and others. While virtuous and vicious mental qualities cannot be present in the same mentality at the same moment, it could very well be that a person vacillates between virtuous and vicious frames of mind. Indeed, this is said to be the condition of the vast majority of living beings (see Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of §3; Virtues and vices).
Despite a tendency to agree on these basic matters, Buddhist philosophers disagreed with one another over several other questions. There was, for example, controversy over whether people could arrive at stages of attainment from which they could never backslide. Some argued that once people gained certain insights into reality, then they could no longer be deluded in the ways that result in acting on self-centred motivations. Others argued that, even if backsliding might be unlikely for some people, it is in principle always possible, and therefore a person can never afford to be complacent. Another controversy arose over whether a vicious person could be fully aware of a virtuous person’s virtues, some Buddhists holding the view that only a virtuous person can recognize that another person is also virtuous. Yet another matter of controversy had to do with whether the merit of being virtuous could be transferred to others. Some argued that each person is strictly accountable for their own actions and that no one can escape the ill effects of their intentionally harmful actions. Others claimed that merit can be transferred to others, enabling them to experience levels of happiness that they could never have deserved on the merit of their own actions. Closely tied to this controversy was the question mentioned above, concerning whether some beings fall into such states of depravity that they can no longer even aspire to be good. Those philosophers who accepted that beings could become depraved to this extent but denied that merit can be transferred had to conclude that some beings would never attain nirvāṇa (see Nirvāṇa). Other philosophers, for whom the prospect of eternal suffering in the cycle of birth seemed unjust, favoured the doctrine that merit could be transferred, thus enabling these thoroughly depraved beings to undergo the change of mentality necessary to begin leading a life of virtue.
Hayes, Richard P.. Ethics. Buddhist philosophy, Indian, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/overview/buddhist-philosophy-indian/v-1/sections/ethics-7.
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