The Dhammapada and Virtue Ethics

Author: Christopher Ives (Stonehill College)

The most widely read Buddhist text is, in all likelihood, the Dhammapada, a collection of verses attributed to the historical Buddha, which includes a widely quoted statement:

Refraining from all that is detrimental,
attaining what is wholesome,
purifying one’s mind:
this is the instruction of Awakened Ones.[i]

By “detrimental” Buddha is referring to mental states that cause suffering, whereas the “wholesome” are the opposite mental states, the cultivation of which conduce to liberation from suffering. The Dhammapada is replete with lists of these mental states, the most prominent of which are the “three poisons,” ignorance, greed, and ill will, and their opposites, wisdom, generosity and loving-kindness. The Dhammapada also treats the “five hindrances” and the “ten fetters,” as well as the “five faculties” and the “seven factors of enlightenment.” In effect, these mental states are vices and virtues.

Similar to Aristotle’s virtue ethic, the Buddha advocates repetition of wholesome actions (in the case of the three poisons, meditating, giving, and extending loving-kindness) as the way to cultivate wholesome mental states and, by extension, flourishing.

Should a person do some good,
let him do it again and again.
Let him form a desire toward it.
A happiness is the accumulation of good.[ii]

Cognizant of this core orientation in the moral psychology of Buddhism, Damien Keown claims that “Buddhist ethics is aretaic: it rests upon the cultivation of personal virtue in the expectation that as spiritual capacity expands towards the goal of enlightenment ethical choices will become clear and unproblematic.”[iii] This assertion has been challenged by other scholars, who have raised issues about squaring the goal of happiness (eudaimonia) in Aristotelian virtue ethics with such Buddhist goals as nirvana and enlightenment, or have argued that Buddhist ethics are more akin to utilitarianism.

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Recommended Translations
Secondary Sources
Compare/Contrast With

 
Recommended translations:

The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha. 2000. Translated by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. Oxford: Oxford UP.
The translation most used by Buddhologists.

The Dhammapada. 1987. Translated and edited by John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana. Oxford: Oxford UP.
The above translation followed by a detailed commentary.

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Secondary Sources:

Keown, Damien. 1992. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. New York: St. Martin’s Press. An overview of Buddhist ethics in relation to utilitarianism and Aristotle’s virtue ethic, with an argument that Buddhism is closer to the latter.

Goodman, Charles. 2009. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation & Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An argument for character consequentialism that criticizes Keown’s stance.

Fink, Charles K. 2013. “The Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20 (2013), 668-70. A contribution to the debate about whether Buddhist ethics is primarily a virtue ethic or a form of character consequentialism.

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Compare/Contrast with:

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Footnotes:

[i] Carter, John Ross, and Palihawadana, Mahinda, trs. The Dhammapada (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 34; partially adapted here.

[ii] Ibid., 23.

[iii] Damien Keown, The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 2.

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