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A Mirror Is for ReflectionReview - A Mirror Is for Reflection
Understanding Buddhist Ethics
by Jake H. Davis (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Jun 19th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 25)

In the case of Buddhist ethics, inquiring minds may wonder how it is possible for a conceptual line of thought that is non-dualistic can aspire to the starting line of ethics. Is there not, for ethical discussion to begin, the need for a metaphysics that permits the distinction between right and wrong? Without the two poles of good and evil, can ethics arise at all?

If so, what kind of ethics would it be? Would goodness consist in full accomplishment of "right view" (what Thich Nhat Hahn has coined "Interbeing") or in degrees of individual accomplishment along the Eightfold Path? Can individuality have any real meaning within a system that understands all things as one, properly understood and can "degrees of accomplishment" have real meaning within a system that has no notion of soul? Perhaps ethics rests in karmic work to settle the debts of past lives and ensure escape from the cycles of rebirth? But if so, this opens a new Pandora's box of questions about what continues if soul is a delusion of wrong understanding.

There is no doubt that the metaphysical premises (no-self and interbeing) of the Buddhist system of thought raises thorny logical problems for the existence of an ethics, but many, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, himself, have refused to categorize Buddhism as a religion, but insist instead that Buddhism is nothing but a kind of secular ethics, a way of living a fully realized human life without the baggage of religious dogma. Can Buddhism, with its practical focus on wisdom and compassion, offer valuable resources for injecting new ethical insights into the old Abrahamic religions that seem so ethically faulty in their modern forms?

In Jake Davis' new volume, A Mirror is for Reflection, the paradox is awakened once again with a host of noted scholars in the field taking up the questions and logical problems that Buddhism poses for the thinking of ethics. The only slight disappointment of the volume is the amount of overlap in discussion of the central questions and paradoxes facing the would-be Buddhist ethicist, with few fresh insights about how to resolve the paradoxes, despite ever more fresh articulations, confirmations and repetitions of the problems entailed in arriving at an ethics at all, in the usual sense by which we understand ethics. However, in the end, does it really matter if we can resolve the paradoxes? At ground level, the questions raised by this system of thought and the way of living it invokes challenge one to rethink one's own economy of virtues, while ever returning to the foundational Buddhist values of nonviolence, compassion for all sentient beings, and wisdom even with regard to that compassion, illuminating that unwise giving can be as dangerous as not giving at all. The value of this rethinking never wanes, so this volume will prove to be a welcome read for the scholar of Buddhism and for any educated reader.

The paradox of Buddhist ethics, as any philosophical paradox, can humble people in their dangerous religious certainties and start them wondering afresh about the best way to live their lives during troubling times. Buddhist practitioners are also credited to provide strong exemplars in the world of people who practice what they preach (or rather, decline to preach) and who strive for modest, morally exemplary lives, grounded in kindness. After all, if there is no self, what point exists in acting self-servingly? For these reasons alone, Buddhist ethics constitutes a worthy contemplation. Thanks for this new volume that rethinks how that paradox arises and how it may be resolved, for that inquiry itself constitutes good works.


© 2018 Wendy C. Hamblet


Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), North Carolina A&T State University.


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