Crossed Paths in the Dhamma?

| December 7, 2012 | 20 Comments

An apparent inconsistency lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings: his dhamma recommends we follow two paths at the same time, which lead to different destinations. On the one hand, we are to act ethically within the world, so as to build up a kammic bank account which will help us in attaining better rebirth. On the other hand, we are to become renunciants, foregoing the fruits of kammic action so as to escape the birth-rounds of saṃsāra.

The Buddha’s Path has three main limbs: wisdom (pañña), ethics (sīla), and concentration or meditation (samādhi). The ethical limb makes up three factors out of eight: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. So it makes up more than a third of the Buddha’s recommendation for practice. Further, ethics was always where he started when teaching beginners. Before meditation, before wisdom, ethical practice was primary. (Majjhima Nikāya 6, MN 27). However, it was also not the goal (MN 29): stopping with ethical practice could only hope to get one a better rebirth within saṃsāra, it could not get one to nibbāna itself. (MN 41).

It seems as though the Buddha recommends two distinct paths: an ethical path that does not lead to nibbāna, and a path of wisdom that leads to nibbāna. In order to pursue the latter path, we must somehow cross over to it from the former. The later, abhidhamma tradition termed these the “mundane” (lokiya) and “supramundane” (lokuttara) paths.*

This problem inherent in the Buddha dhamma, this distinction between the mundane and the supramundane, the worldly and the ultimate, had a long term impact upon the development of Buddhist philosophy. Arguably it culminated in Nāgārjuna’s doctrine of emptiness that permeated much of Mahāyāna thought.

The question for us contemporary practitioners, however, is whether this inconsistency can be reconciled; and if so, how.

The Way of Illusion

One simple method of reconciliation is to ditch the mundane path: to say that the supramundane is the only true path. That is, only the supramundane path aims at real wisdom, while the mundane path aims only at a species of illusion.

Following this approach, one might say that the very concepts used in the mundane path are faulty. There are no true persons to whom ethical values might apply. There are no true actions that are ethically meaningful. “Good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, are nothing more than arbitrary conventions we use in daily life. They are as problematic and illusory as our faulty notions of “I” and “mine”.

The true arahant, then, is “beyond good and evil”, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous phrase. He is a sort of “superman” who, seeing through the illusory nature of our conventional ethical schemes, is free to propose and indeed impose whatever ethical scheme he sees fit. He becomes almost a deified figure, living a life entirely at his whim, and teaching by a sort of divine command, values stemming directly from a vision of the Unconditioned.

A big problem with this interpretation, however, is that it all too easily leads to abuse. Anyone can set himself up as a guru or sage, and power corrupts.

Once a guru feels he (and it is almost always a “he”) has the doctrinal permission to make up his own ethical system as he goes along, particularly in the power-laden context of a guru/student relationship, the environment can get very bad, very quickly. Why should we expect otherwise, if the guru himself believes that conventional morality is a sham?

The Traditional Reconciliation

Fortunately this is not the method that the Buddha of the suttas actually used to reconcile the mundane and supramundane paths. For the Buddha, the mundane path was a real path, not an illusion, and it was to be pursued in pursuing the path to nibbana. The distinction between the humble practitioner making his or her way along the path, and the arahant at its conclusion, is not one of having overcome ethical conventions. Far from it.

As the Buddha says:

A bhikkhu who is an arahant … is incapable of transgression in nine cases. (1) He is incapable of intentionally depriving a living being of life; (2) he is incapable of taking by way of theft what is not given; (3) he is incapable of engaging in sexual intercourse; (4) he is incapable of deliberately speaking falsehood; (5) he is incapable of storing things up in order to enjoy sensual pleasures as he did in the past when a layman; (6) he is incapable of rejecting the Buddha; (7) he is incapable of rejecting the Dhamma; (8) he is incapable of rejecting the Saṅgha; (9) he is incapable of rejecting the training. (Aṅguttara Nikaya 9.7, pp. 1259-60 in the Bodhi translation).

This passage does not sanction any ethical variance between a newly ordained bhikkhu and a liberated arahant. Indeed, setting aside doctrines related to monasticism in particular, it does not sanction any ethical variance between layperson and arahant. Their paths are essentially the same, though the supramundane terminates earlier.

The Bhaddāli Sutta (MN 65) compares the arahant to a well trained horse. What distinguishes the arahant from the lay follower is not that the former has somehow got beyond or seen through the mundane, ethical path. Rather he has been so fully trained in it that he no longer sees it as a list of rules to follow by rote, but rather as something that he knows how to perform naturally.

This distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how” is, I would argue, fundamental to the difference between the mundane and the supramundane paths in the Pali Canon. Following the mundane path is perforce following rules in a conceptual system: one knows that it is wrong to lie. One may not yet know how to stop doing so. It is as yet not fully integrated into one’s understanding and behavior, so one must bring the rule to mind again and again, conceptually.

It is like someone learning a language, who will do the conjugations and declensions one by one, laboriously, in order to speak a proper sentence. The supramundane path has been reached when one no longer needs to deal with the rules on a conceptual level, but instead knows how to use them naturally, speaking them with fluency.

A Contemporary Interpretation

The apparent inconsistency between mundane and supramundane paths runs deep in the dhamma. How are we to approach it as modern, secular practitioners? This conflict recalls the more familiar distinction between the ordinary and the scientific, which philosopher Wilfrid Sellars called the “manifest image” and the “scientific image”. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it,

Sellars characterizes the manifest image as “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world”, but it is, more broadly, the framework in terms of which we ordinarily observe and explain our world. The fundamental objects of the manifest image are persons and things. There is a particular emphasis on persons, which puts normativity and reason at center stage. …

Science, by postulating new kinds of basic entities (e.g., subatomic particles, fields, collapsing packets of probability waves), slowly constructs a new framework on this basis that claims to be a complete description and explanation of the world and its processes. The scientific image grows out of and is methodologically posterior to the manifest image, which provides the initial framework in which science is nurtured, but Sellars claims that “the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image.”

In other words, the “manifest image” of the world includes people, chairs, houses, and countries, and if you lie to me or steal my wallet, you have done me wrong. On the other hand the “scientific image” describes and explains all of this by reference to a deeper, underlying framework of objects and relations, which call into question the existence of our everyday world.

Reconciling these two “images” of reality is a problem even today, within a materialist context: a form of the Buddha’s inconsistency dogs us under a different guise. The Buddha’s problem with what he termed “nihilism”, or more accurately “materialism”, is that (ironically) like his own conception of the world-renouncing path, it seems oddly inconsistent with there being real persons to whom ethical norms might apply.

Science reinforces Buddhist concepts of object impermanence and the constructed nature of the self. Science is also unable to weigh or measure ethical values. This has lead some contemporary philosophers to claim that therefore such values are illusory. This is much the way that some Buddhists make the same claims with regard to the “ultimate truths” discovered on the supramundane path: they show ordinary concepts of moral value to be illusory.

But we do not need to follow this route, and indeed claiming that there are literally no persons, nor ethical values, risks opening the door to abuse, especially from within a complex system of psychological practice. It also opens the door to a broader form of ethical or even political carelessness that ill befits a system supposedly aimed towards promoting well being for all. So I would suggest instead we take onboard the Buddha’s own approach, founded on the realization that true well being only occurs in a fully ethical practice, where we have extinguished the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

To follow the path is first to learn that these claims are true. Over time it is also to learn how to put them into daily practice, to make them part of our natural behavioral and psychological repertoire.

Seen in that light, the apparent inconsistency between ethics (sīla) and wisdom (pañña) is reconcilable, and the paths merge into one: ethics is a fundamental part of the wisdom which we pursue through concentration (samādhi). Since in following a secular pathway, we know that there is no further life to win by building up karmic merit or demerit, there is no distinction between the paths to be made on that ground anyhow.

—————-

* The terms also appear in MN 117, but Bhikkhu Bodhi, following Bhikkhu Anālayo, believes they are a later interpolation, by an abhidhammic or proto-abhidhammic redactor. The Chinese Madhyamika Āgama version lacks the terms in question, and they and several other passages in the sutta appear out of place in the Canon.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (20)

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  1. mckenzievmd says:

    Interesting, thanks!

    I might toss in a bit of skepticism in the form of asking whether the arahant who is incapable of sin–uh, I mean transgression; still carrying that Catholic vocabulary around with me– is still recognizable as a human being? It seems to me that the struggle to recognize and follow sound ethical precepts is an intrinsic feature of the ordinary human experience, and it’s hard to imagine an ordinary human transcending that struggle. From a scientific point of view, something more than just training of our brains would have to happen, some fundamental change in how they work.

    A big part of the appeal of Buddhist practice to me is the perceived improvements in my attitude and behavior I experience when engaging in it. But the notion of reaching a state in which I cannot act any way other than “skillfully” doesn’t have a believable ring to it for me.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Excellent point, Brennen, and one I didn’t deal with in this post. Another, similar question has to do with the claim that arahants cannot backslide in their understanding of the dhamma. I always wonder what would happen if an arahant became senile and so started forgetting or misconceiving dhammic principles. Or are we supposed to believe that that is impossible?

      One option for the ‘true believer’ is just to bite the bullet: any supposed “arahant” who becomes senile and in that senility acts badly, rejects the Buddha, etc., was in fact not an arahant to begin with. But that seems ad hoc.

      I think it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with an unreasonably idealized sort of claim here. But even so, I think we can take the general approach as decent: the distinction is one of knowing the ethical principles by rote (“knowing that”) as versus knowing them in the bones (“knowing how”). No guarantees, even at the latter level, but that’s what we’re aiming at, anyhow.

  2. leebert leebert says:

    I think a common sense view is simple enough, that negative karmic outcomes are to be avoided. But since all dharmas are created equal, I’ve always seen these as a continuum, where good or evil are recognizable for the degree of commensurate suffering that ensues from any given action. Perhaps finding a shared vernacular that supports that continuum seems fleeting.

    The scope of this understanding quickly broadens; for instance, the historical Buddha defended reincarnation as a good way to fortify a person’s ethical commitment, citing a “safe bet” doctrine. What point is there for going with the safe bet, if ethical commitments didn’t have a counterpart in negative consequences? A direct connection between unethical behavior and suffering is drawn here. For a Westerner it’s simple enough to say that the Golden Rule is universal.

    So far so good, then.

    Now Buddhism is supposed to ameliorate the framed dialectic of naive materialism versus naive eternalism. Does the safe bet doctrine undermine this? No, not really.

    So let’s say an advanced practitioner develops a trans-ethical awareness, but they are so attuned as to also not generate new karmas of consequence (i.e. negative results, suffering). To abate negative karmic return they still have to abide by karmic-neutral ethics. If a smidgeon of negative karma is tantamount to a spoonful of salt in the Ganges, then a lot of positive karma will purify (desalinate) the stream. Ameliorating one’s karmic presence doesn’t mean abandoning a worldly imprint (that’s another form of nihilism in pursuit of perpetualism, which is a waaaay distorted dharma), it means having the presence of mind to ensure that suffering is ameliorated by one’s actions.

    The upshot is that the system doesn’t suggest a materialist relativism (solipsist nihilism) any more than its ethical mandates invite piety or sanctimony (yet more self-reifying forms).

    So the “safe bet” doctrine doesn’t sanction naive perpetualism, and it sure as hell doesn’t sanction fighting for the front pews (much less boinking in the back of the bus). And awakening doesn’t sanction rank sensualism or using one’s station to pursue the pleasure principle.

    So the Buddhist system isn’t any different from any other societal ethical system: A nuanced view is the most adaptable, and causes the least harm. An overbearing pedagogy of pedantic martinettes vying for status is a problem of authoritarian social structures, not of nuanced ethics. That Buddhism suffers from those kind of interpretations shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s a human enterprise after all, and a very big, and very old, tent.

  3. cunda cunda says:

    Regarding the apparent contradiction between accruing karmic merit and nirvana, you might be interested in checking out Steven Collins’ ‘Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities’.
    http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item1154486/?site_locale=en_GB

    Collins’ tries to show the sense in which nirvana is just one of Buddhism’s many solutions to the problem of suffering (or ‘felicities’, eg. seeking rebirth in higher realms etc.), although it also occupies the ultimate position in a hierarchy of such felicities.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, cunda. I’ll put it on the list!

      But yes, nibbāna is only the ultimate of a long list of ways one can have a better life; many of them, of course, involve one or another rebirth into a supernatural realm of being. The problem with all of them, which is the basic problem of dukkha, is that they are all temporary, until nibbāna. (Modulo the problems raised above by mckenzievmd!)

  4. Candol says:

    “An apparent inconsistency lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings: his dhamma recommends we follow two paths at the same time, which lead to different destinations. On the one hand, we are to act ethically within the world, so as to build up a kammic bank account which will help us in attaining better rebirth. On the other hand, we are to become renunciants, foregoing the fruits of kammic action so as to escape the birth-rounds of saṃsāra.”

    I don’t see any inconsistency in what you are calling two paths. I think you’ve misunderstood the teaching. Firstly i would say we are not advised to follow an ethical path in order to gain anything so much as we should follow it in order to avoid adding negatively to whatever it is we’ve supposedly accrued. As you might have noticed the ethics is not what to do but what not to do. Its all about avoiding doing things with negative karmic effects.

    Secondly, becoming a renunciant does not mean one foregoes the fruits of karmic action. Certainly its not how the monastics understand it. Within a day of being at a monastery one nun was telling how her currently illness that felt like poisoning might be due to her having killed some cockroache by poisoning previously. (To my satisfaction, when i discussed this speculation with her later, she agreed that people tend to talk about karma in this manner rather too frequently.) One cannot avoid karmic effects until one reaches Enlightenment and its a sure bet that many, if not most monastics never do.

    So for those who never reach enlightenment, at least they can look forward to a better rebirth – supposing they subscribe to the theory of rebirth and karma.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      As you might have noticed the ethics is not what to do but what not to do.

      Well, yes and no. In the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta, for example, the Buddha recommends both positive and negative actions. E.g.:

      “Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”

      “Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.”

      One cannot avoid karmic effects until one reaches Enlightenment and its a sure bet that many, if not most monastics never do.

      Right. But that’s the aim.

      • Candol says:

        Yes, i realised my first point wasn’t too well made. But i do’nt see that there is a contradiction nevertheless. One tries to live ethically and then if one does happen to achieve enlightenment, there will be no karmic remainder. One’s job is done. But should you fail to achieve the main goal, (because you didn’t try hard enough or you died suddenly) then at least you’ve improved your rebirth chances than had you not tried at all.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, I agree that the word “contradiction” may be too strong. I don’t think it has to be interpreted as a literal contradiction, but it does at least suggest a contradiction.

          And I think that’s what it looked like from within the tradition as well, since we do get distinctions-of-path (mundane, supramundane), and distinctions-of-truth (conventional, ultimate) in later elaborations.

  5. I agree with your diagnosis of the problem: there are inconsistent paths in traditional Buddhism. However, your sketch of a solution seems inadequate even as a sketch, because it does not address the central questions of ethics – What justifies acting ethically? What motivates ethical action? And how do we make ethical decisions? The traditional ‘crossed paths’ at least offer their own answers to these questions. Nirvana is taken to justify ethical action, the desire for karmic rewards motivates it, and the precepts and monastic rules guide ethical decisions. None of these appeals are adequate today, but we can’t just drop them and have nothing in their place. If you do that, the only moral guidance left becomes that of conventions and preferences, when ethics requires universality and challenge from beyond our current assumptions.

    I also object greatly to your treatment of the Middle Way, which is the obvious teaching that does bridge the gap between the two ‘crossed paths’. The Middle Way can offer ongoing challenge, universality, and the basis of moral guidance whilst avoiding metaphysical assumptions. Instead, you completely ignore the moral aspect of the Middle Way here, and falsely identify nihilism only with materialism. Moral nihilism is the appeal only to preference and convention, as illustrated by the Buddha’s time in the palace, and materialism is just one metaphysical view that might be used to support that nihilism. We also don’t need to believe in “real persons to whom ethical norms might apply” to comprehend a unified moral path, but rather to let go of such metaphysical assumptions. All we need to engage with moral practice is an acknowledgement and considered shaping of moral experience, not any beliefs about its reality or unreality.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello Robert,

      You’re right that I did not touch on the justification for ethical principles in this post. But in my prior post re. Secular Humanism I did mention that for the Buddha psychology trumped ethics: one behaved ethically as a route towards promoting well-being. I would put that forward as a tentative, at least partial solution to the justification problem. One cannot have true well-being insofar as one is behaving unethically.

      Re. nihilism, I suppose it’s true that there might be other forms of it referred to by the Buddha’s use of the term, but I think the main one (and the one most relevant to this audience, at any rate) is materialism.

  6. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    I should have noticed that Mark has a nice article on the same topic from last April: “This World or the Other”: The Contradiction at the Heart of Buddhist Tradition. Mark is dealing with part of the Sutta Nipata that focuses on a this-worldly interpretation of the dhamma.

  7. LordranBound says:

    Doug,

    Thank you for this article! it addresses an itch that’s been bothering me for some time. I don’t know if it quite scratches the itch, though. Coming from a Catholic background, I used to run into inconsistencies fairly often – Why did Jesus call Peter cruel names? Why did he schrivle the tree? Why did he wait for his mother to tell him to help the wedding party and even seem to push back? These are all ‘easily’ explained with Catholic theology with statements like “He was teaching peter a lesson”, “The tree does not have a soul”, “It wasn’t really time for him to reveal himself”. Obviously, there are many more contradictions that are harder to justify, and more theological arguments for my above childhood objections, but my point is this: it seems like you’re trying really hard to explain away a contradiction. Why not just say that there’s a contradiction and offer an alternative? The alternative can then be weighed and discarded, or perhaps given more exploration.

    I would offer this alternative: The supermundane path is contrary to the mundane path. However, it is very doubtful that one who walks the supermundane path long enough and faithfully enough would violate any of the ethics of the mundane path. That is to say, after walking the supermundane path long enough, one notices that the mundane path is really just a thin lane on the supermundane path. But even if that isn’t the case, I believe that there is a third alternative which seems to have the most integrtity to me: truly escaping dukka is unethical. The noble truths are all still true, but to apply them is not necessarily the most ethical way to behave. One who does is most likely far, far more ethical than one who does not. And to go further, one who applies them completely would probably be more ethical than one who applies the ‘truth’ I’m about to propose: that the most ethical way to behave is to free yourself of only the suffering that is born out of selfishness. I’ve always wondered why compassion isn’t considered suffering. Empathy and sympathy are a form of suffering, yet should we rid ourselves of those?

    Of course, the problem then becomes, figuring out which suffering is selfish and which is not. And that seems like a rats nest of more suffering and more unethical-ness. However, to gloss over a contradiction or try to explain it away makes me more likely to turn away from the whole message rather than believe in the apology. I’m a black and white thinker, and that is almost certainly a fault. But it seems to serve me well in rooting out bad logic, or at least incomplete logic, and so I cling to it most likely to my own detriment.

    LordranBound

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Lodran,

      it seems like you’re trying really hard to explain away a contradiction. Why not just say that there’s a contradiction and offer an alternative?

      Well, I’m kind of trying to do several things. I’m trying to say first how I think the Buddha of the suttas got round the contradiction, and second how contemporary practitioners should try to do so. There is an element of stress (perhaps not quite outright contradiction, but stress, like in the examples you provided from the Bible) that won’t go away unless we essentially collapse one path into the other. Insofar as we want a path that is truly ‘world renouncing’, the path of ethics will not be entirely operative. Insofar as we want a path that is truly focused on ethics, the path of renunciation will not be entirely operative.

      … the problem then becomes, figuring out which suffering is selfish and which is not.

      I think this is part of what the path is all about, and why it is a gradual undertaking. Suffering is due to clinging, identifying oneself with things that are false or fleeting. If we can relax around the notion of ‘self’, of who we are, we may be able to have a truly genuine compassion which is not based in suffering.

  8. mckenzievmd says:

    As one of those awful people who believe there is no morality inherent in the universe per se but only standards people invent and adhere to for a variety of biological and social reasons, perhaps the problem here is that there is no reconciliation possible or even necessary. For most of us “in the world,” being nice and compassionate is more likely to reduce our own suffering and create the conditions for practice (including the social conditions, since practice is more difficult if one is engaged in frequent conflict with others). But for those to whom the monastic way is available, essentially ignoring others may be more successful then going out of one’s way to help them. The path one takes depends on the landscape one is travelling through.

    I think Buddhist ethics are quite pragmatic in that they tend to avoid a lot of rigid arbitrary conventions and stick with the basics of having compassion for others and not harming them. Not very controversial ideas in any spiritual, or even secular, tradition.
    But as Doug points out, though with a different intent, the ethics in and of themselves aren’t really the point. Behaving ethically is ultimately better for the individual doing so, either for karmic reasons (whether you take that literally or metaphorically) or because bad behavior reinforces the illusion of self and just leads to more suffering. A spiritual tradition isn’t going to get far without some sort of code of ethics, but perhaps that’s more of a temporary practical necessity for the Buddha than a core issue?

    In any case, I suspect a perfect consistency isn’t going to achievable in any set of ideas generated by human beings, who have varied, often conflicting, and constantly shifting needs and priorities. The renunciation of the world and compassionate behavior towards others both serve certain needs depending on the context, so while they may be incompatible at some level, human beings have a great gift for holding incompatible ideas simultaneously without distress. 🙂

  9. ChrisM says:

    Assuming the ‘goal’ of Dharma practice is Awakening and also assuming the issue is approached with Secular Buddhist limitations – no rebirth, devas, Buddha’s omniscience, etc. – then this seems a non-issue. Especially since there seem to be so few arahants around to help settle the matter for the rest of us. If there were, and they were not playing coy, self-effacing games, a quick history of their progress along their paths would be enough.

    For the imperfect present, it is hard to say that my journey along this path will be easier if I ignore the Precepts in my daily actions and consider the Eightfold Path unworthy of my time. I foresee no immediate point when, in order to get any further, I will need to decide whether the above practices are now redundant. Until I do, to fret about them and their ‘inconsistencies’ is merely – and tragically! – delaying the removal of the poisoned arrow in my side.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Good point, and generally speaking I agree with you. This shouldn’t be real issue for practice within Secular Buddhism. Though I could see a certain kind of person who might wonder what the ethical strictures were all about since the point was to get beyond them, within this lifetime. As I say, I think that would be a misconstrual of the basic teaching: one never actually gets beyond the ethical teachings. One simply learns to integrate them better within one’s behavior and practice.

  10. Brc says:

    In other words, the difference between those of us who are not arahants and those of us who are is that those of us who aren’t arahants have to live ethically despite our taints (asavas), while those of us who are arahants can and do live ethically because the taints have been removed.

    The only difference between the mundane and the supramundane for those of us who are not arahants is that trying to live ethically in a mundane sense may or may not provide spiritual advantage, while trying to live ethically in a supramundane sense definitely provides spiritual advantage (and living unethically in a supramundane sense is known to lead to spiritual disadvantage).

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Brc,

      Thanks for that. I think you’re going in the right direction. I’d prefer to pitch it slightly differently: those of us who aren’t arahants will live ethically because we understand conceptually (and of course to a certain extent viscerally) that it is the right thing to do. Arahants would live ethically solely from the visceral standpoint. IOW a perfected person (were such a person to be possible) would live ethically by nature rather than by conceptual reasoning.

      I think for the Buddha’s path, living ethically, even in a mundane sense, provides spiritual advantage: it makes life psychologically easier for ourselves and others. To take an example, it may seem advantageous for someone to steal, but having stolen, that person will have to deal with remorse, and the person from whom the item was stolen will probably feel anger. These are both examples of psychological (or spiritual) disadvantage to mundane unethical behavior. Mundane ethical behavior, of course, will enjoy the converse advantages of non-remorse and non-anger.

      • Brc says:

        Hi Doug.

        An arahant is someone who has overcome the taints (asavas) – i.e. has undone all the baggage that causes the rest of us to act unskillfully at times. I suppose you can say that such a person lives ethically from the visceral standpoint (as a result of having overcome the taints), while the rest of us live ethically from the conceptual standpoint (as a result of not having overcome the taints).

        There are times when living ethically in a mundane sense can also be spiritually beneficial. It’s just not always so.

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