ethics as a path: kantian dimensions of early buddhist ethics as a path: kantian dimensions of early


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    Justin Sloan Whitaker MA

    Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

    Goldsmiths 2017

    University of London


    I hereby declare that this PhD thesis entitled “ETHICS AS A PATH: KANTIAN

    DIMENSIONS OF EARLY BUDDHIST ETHICS” was carried out by me for the

    degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies under the guidance and

    supervision of Prof. Damien Keown, Goldsmiths, University of London. The

    interpretations put forth are based on my reading and understanding of the original

    texts and they are not published anywhere in the form of books, monographs, or

    articles. All material from other sources has been properly and fully acknowledged

    at the respective place in the text according to Modern Language Association rules

    for citation.

    Justin Whitaker

    26 August 2015


    This thesis could not have been possible without the extensive help, occasional

    prodding, and constant encouragement of countless individuals. Foremost gratitude

    must be given to my supervisor, Damien Keown, for his bodhisattva-like show of

    patience, kindness, and invigorating conversation throughout this long process. He

    has been a regular supplier of the latest research and a helpful guide whenever my

    thoughts and research have gone astray. It has been a thorough honour to work with


    I would like to give thanks also to Paul Williams and Rupert Gethin who saw

    me through my MA and beyond, each continuing to check in on me and provide

    much needed support since my time as a student with them. Richard Gombrich

    provided exceptional tuition in Pāli and was kind enough to invite me to Oxford for

    a lecture at Balliol College before himself, Lance Cousins, and a number of other

    well-regarded scholars, an evening I will never forget. Alan Sponberg from the

    University of Montana deserves special mention as the spark who ignited the whole

    academic flame I have been burning for the last decade (perhaps not the most apt

    metaphor for a scholar of Buddhism).

    I must also thank many good friends who have seen me along the way,

    providing stimulating conversations, most often about topics other than academics,

    putting up with long silences and absences as well as requests to read over a draft or

    two. They have been the sustenance that has kept me sane and happy through all of

    this. And lastly I must thank my parents, Patrick and Veronica, who have never

    wavered in their support.

    Justin Whitaker

  • 1


    In recent decades Buddhist scholars have begun serious exploration into the

    theoretical dimensions of Buddhist ethics. However, due to the diversity of moral

    proclamations found in traditional texts and commentaries, it has been difficult to

    formulate a widely acceptable theory of Buddhist ethics. Working with the textual

    analyses of the Buddhist Pāli Canon and recent scholars of Buddhism, I present

    arguments for viewing early Buddhist ethics as broadly Kantian (deontological) in nature.

    The methodology follows that of previous authors in Buddhist ethics and in Comparative

    Religious Ethics with a focus on philosophical ethics and historical and textual studies.

    In constructing a framework of Buddhist ethics, this work draws from the ancient

    sources, primarily the Buddhist Pāli Canon, as well as the philological and historical

    work of previous Buddhist commentators and scholars. A similar construction of the

    ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is based primarily on the recent writings on both

    the philosophy and life of Kant, and for source material critical English editions of Kant's

    primary works. The uniqueness of this work is found in the discussion of Buddhist ethics

    in the context of its theories of human nature and cosmology and secondarily in its

    revaluation of Kantian thought as a legitimate interlocutor for scholars of Buddhist ethics.

    This Kantian perspective, when combined with the insights gained from virtue ethics and

    consequentialist perspectives, provides a fuller understanding of Buddhist ethics. The

    findings suggest that Buddhist ethics may claim not only many of the same strengths, but

    also suffer the same weaknesses, as Kantian deontological moral theory.

  • 2


    Preface 3

    1 Introduction, Methodology, and Literature Review 5

    2 Kant and Deontology 50

    3 Early Buddhism and its Ethics 91

    4 Suffering and Heteronomy: Assessing our Condition 128

    5 Cosmology: Mapping the Path 169

    6 Virtue and the Summum Bonum 200

    7 Conclusion 207

    Abbreviations 208

    Works Cited 209

  • 3


    Buddhism, originating in current-day India approximately 2500 years ago, has

    spread across the world, adapting to numerous cultural, political, and linguistic contexts

    as it has done so. Throughout that time, each new adaptation was mixed with a certain

    degree of conservatism: certain ancient texts and figures were appealed to to justify

    changes. This is part of what makes Buddhism a unitary religious tradition, or, better, a

    family of traditions. This thesis does not and cannot account for the ethical concepts

    developed and employed by the various Buddhist traditions throughout history. It does,

    however, focus on materials thought to be traceable to the historical Buddha, the Pāli


    All Pāli Canon translations are my own unless otherwise noted. The Pāli Canon

    used was that of the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana CD published by the Vipassana Research

    Institute, available online at Foreign terms except names

    and titles are italicised. Certain Buddhist words such as karma and dharma/Dharma have

    entered into the English language and thus are not italicised. The Buddhist terms used

    herein are Pāli unless otherwise stated and will be rendered either exactly as used in the

    particular text or in their singular stem-form (and with an added ‘s’ if plural). When terms

    are drawn from the Brahmanic context or are of particular relevance to Mahāyāna

    thought, the Sanskrit equivalent will be given, e.g. the ultimate self (Skt.: ātman, Pāli:


    For Kant’s work I rely on the numerous English language translations of his work,

    noting particular German or Latin terms only when a simple translation might lose certain

    important aspects of the original term’s meaning. Kant regularly used emphasis in his

    works, which have been variously replicated with either italics, bold font, or the use of

    angle brackets: , depending on the translator(s). I have preserved these as they are

  • 4

    found in the English translations given in the bibliography. Further, for the major works

    frequently used here, I give the Academy edition page number, but not the volume,

    whereas for less used works I use a full Academy edition citation (e.g. Ak 7: 381).

  • 5

    1 Introduction, Methodology, and Literature Review

    Is Buddhist ethics Kantian?1 At first glance, this question may seem strange;

    Buddhism arose nearly 2500 years ago in present-day India while Immanuel Kant (1724

    – 1804) was a German (Prussian) philosopher writing in the late eighteenth century. On

    the other hand, it is a question that deserves to be asked now for several reasons. Both the

    Buddha and Kant put forth teachings meant to be universal in character, addressing the

    roots of human nature and the problems faced by humanity.2 In the last century or so

    Buddhism has become a global religion as Buddhists have immigrated to Western

    countries as labourers, pioneers, missionaries, refugees and more. Similarly, Buddhism

    has attracted millions of converts in the West. Furthermore, it has been well argued that

    aspects of human reason are universal enough to allow for fruitful comparisons of

    philosophies, separated by great spans in space and time, thus giving rise to the

    subdiscipline of Comparative Religious Ethics (Green Religious Reason; Hindery

    Comparative Ethics; Little and Twiss Comparative Religious Ethics).3

    Buddhism offers the range of moral guidance, rules, goals and ideals that can be

    assembled into a system of ethics. Damien Keown states, ‘Buddhism is a response to

    1 Here we use ‘ethics’ and ‘morals/morality’ interchangeably. Early Buddhist languages (we deal primarily

    with Pāli here) do not have a word corresponding directly to either of these English terms. Kant primarily

    used Sitten (customs) and Sittlichkeit (ethical life, morality) to discuss ethics. It is from context that one

    must decide whether he is discussing Sittlichkeit in terms of customary mores or genuine morality

    (Moralität, rarely used) grounded in autonomy. Cf. (