[Buddha-l] Re: Karma and ethics [was: angels]

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Fri May 27 20:34:01 MDT 2005

On Fri, 2005-05-27 at 21:06 -0400, Bernie Simon wrote:

> I think my most recent read, Karma Chagme's Mountain Dharma, sets out 
> the traditional view on page 176:
> "It is taught if you take a vow and break, it is better than not having 
> taken it at all, in the sense that samsara will have an end for you.

This is a position I have seen expressed in quite a few Buddhist texts.
Thanks for the reference to yet another, Bernie. 

The position stated here makes quite a lot of sense on both the
psychological and the social level. On the psychological level, as I
have already said, failure to adhere to a vow brings with it a heavier
burden of failure. Smoking a cigarette is always injurious to one's
health, but smoking a cigarette on the afternoon of January 1, just a
few hours after one has made a resolve not to smoke, is not only
unhealthy but feels like a defeat. Self-esteem takes a dive. The payload
of dukkha is rich indeed.

Vows, by their nature, tend to be public acts. Something like a monastic
vow, as it is explained by Vasubandhu, is a kind of promise to the
public to behave in an exemplary manner. When on takes a vow, then one
is seen, whether one likes it or not, as a person whose behavior is to
be emulated. So if one behaves contrary to one's vows, then one is
setting a lower standard for the public and is thereby letting them
down. To use the smoking example, I would claim that it is more serious
for a teacher or a monk to smoke cigarettes than for someone whose job
description is not to be a role model for the rest of society. (Several
years ago, I recall reading an article written by a fellow who actually
gave up Buddhism and quit meditating when he discovered that his
Buddhist meditation teacher was a smoker. That is a bit of an extreme
reaction, sort of like refusing to take medicine when one finds out the
pharmacist doesn't meet one's expectations, but it is not an unusual
reaction. One could argue, if one believes that giving up meditation and
being driven from Buddhism is not ideal, that the meditation teacher's
smoking harmed not only the teacher but the student.)

Smoking is not the best example, of course, because it does not involve
monastic vows. The potential harm involved in breaking monastic vows is
considerably more serious. When a monk, who is regarded as a paradigm of
virtue, embezzles money or tells lies, he is sending a message to people
that embezzling money or telling lies is somehow compatible with being
virtuous. He is impairing the glue that holds society together. The
consequences for everyone are much more severe when a person who is
expected to be exemplary misbehaves than when, say, a child or an
ordinary person misbehaves. This is the thinking behind the Confucian
principle of the rectification of names, on which so much of East Asian
reflection on good conduct is based, and I think it is also the thinking
(though stated in different language) behind Indian and Tibetan views of
the karma of vows.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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