Guardians of the World

| January 11, 2018 | 3 Comments

Two emotional states play a key ethical role in early Buddhism. We’ll look at these states that the Buddha called “the guardians of the world”, and discuss how awareness of them can help our practice and our life.

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Doug Smith

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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

Comments (3)

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Although I was vaguely aware of the “guardians,” I didn’t pay much attention to them – I guess I’m one of those modern types put off by translations involving “shame”and “dread,” or maybe I had come across the Lokapala Sutta which warns that without the guardians “the world would be immersed in promiscuity, like rams with goats, roosters with pigs, or dogs with jackals” (though if I did, I quickly dismissed it, and only found it again today). So, thanks Doug for showing me that there is an important & useful concept here.

    As you suggest,the guardians point to the two essential features of moral judgement: Recognizing the effect of my actions on others (ottappa), and on myself (hiri). This may not be uniquely Buddhist, but seems to me to be quite characteristic of Gotama’s approach to ethics. Remembering earlier discussions here, is this virtue ethics, consequentialism, both, or neither? And doesn’t this connect directly with Gotama’s notion of karma? I accumulate karma because I am morally affected by, shaped by, the moral choices I make & actions toward others I take. I think Gotama’s ethics are really more systematic than we sometimes appreciate, and the guardians may well be one of the ligaments holding the system together.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I think that’s right, Michael. His ethics was at a deep level psychologically based, on notions of compassion, hatred, hiri, and ottappa. As to what kind of ethics this could be identified with, those turn on where the fundamental ground of ethics lies: does it lie with virtues, consequences, laws, etc.? I don’t think the Buddha really cared that much about the fundamental ground of ethics, so his exposition (or at least the exposition left to us) discusses these issues from multiple perspectives. That said, the ultimate aim of his ethical system was awakening, which in a sense transcended ethics in the ordinary sense while not contradicting it.

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