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.

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