[Buddha-l] Levinas and Buddhism

Eric Nelson esnels at gmail.com
Sun May 29 12:01:56 MDT 2005

On 5/28/05, r.g.morrison <sgrmti at hotmail.com> wrote:
> > >From what I've read, tying to find some real 'core' to this thin 
> abstaction called 'religion' is a complete waste of time. 

Levinas, as a phenomenologist, tries to relate the abstract expression
"religion" back to a concrete phenomenon --  namely, dependence on the

>  If this be the case, then it is even more absurd to try and find 
>  some ethical core to what has no real existence!  As the 
>  Buddhist keep telling us, there is no essence to anything
> 'thing' - a 'thing' being a prajnapti, i.e. created in our 
> own-heads-only [sva"siromaatra]!  If there is a 'source' to this 
> thing called 'religion', then we have to look no further than the 
> human mind

Does impermanence and no-essential-self mean that there is no need for
ethics at all or can there be an ethics unafraid of transience? Can't
there be some sort of Buddhist ethics in the latter sense?

Levinas's question was how is ethics possible given Auschwitz? He
responded that the ethical is simply to welcome, respond to, care for
actual concrete others for their own sake--regardless of rewards and
punishments, of ideological, metaphysical, and theological claims and
constructs. This approach does not share some "essence" with Buddhism
but it does raise questions of affinities and differences on issues
such as phenomenological articulations of experience, suffering,
dependence, and infinite compassion for the sake of the other rather
than for some reward or punishment.

>  As for 'suffering' being important to the Buddhists,
>  well one place to begin is to find out just what is implied by
>  the term 'dukkha' [Pali] / 'du.hkha' [Sanskrit] as it is used in
>  Buddhism.  It includes basic 'suffering', but extends to include 
>  all forms of unawakened existence, which may very well 
> include all three Middle East 'religions' (which would imply that 
> whatever Buddhism is
> it is not of the same 'essence' as these Middle East religions)!
> Robert Morrison

If there are no essences, then there cannot be any different essences either.
I agree that actually existing "monotheisms" or "middle eastern
religions" (these refer to a multiplicity rather than an essence as
well) do seem fairly unethical and unawakened. But it can be useful to
point out alternative possibilities within these traditions, at least
it is for those of us who have to talk to monotheists on a daily
basis. And, in my opinion, Jewish dialogical thought is definitely a
bright spot and deserving of "comparative study."

Since this is the Buddha-l, and I am still perplexed by Richard's
comments about Buddhist ethics, what do people think about whether
there is such a thing as Buddhist ethics (as opposed to being purely
descriptive and/or causal?) and what does it consists of?
Best wishes, Eric

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