A few questions - morality and knowledge

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A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby Coyote » Mon Sep 19, 2011 9:01 pm

I'll just jump right in: If anyone knows of any relevant threads or on-line resources then please point me towards them.

I understand that Buddhists follow a set of morals laid down by the Buddha, but I am interested in knowing exactly where they come from and what the basis of morality in Buddhism is.
Is morality a set of universal laws, like the laws of nature, that were just discovered by the Buddha? If so, is there any value in trying to understand where morality comes from, or why morality is the way it is - why some things are bad and others are good? For example, if good things are good because they correspond to values that exist outside of the human mind, or if they are good because it benefits humanity and for no other reason? I am interesting in learning what exactly is the foundation for morality in Buddhism in terms of ontology.(I hope that means what I think it does).

How does Buddhism understand epistemology? For example: how can we know that what the Buddha teaches is correct or is not? Do you have to put complete faith in Buddha and trust that what he teaches is correct? As with morality, where does such a standard of evaluating truth come from and what is it's ontological foundation.

If everything is impermanent, then why does Buddhism teach that the Dhamma is eternal and always the same? And what about Nirvana - is that not permanent? If everything really is impermanent, they is that not a permanent truth? Will the Buddhas teaching one day change or break down?

I hope what I have written makes sense. I'm sure my questions have been asked many times but please take that time to help me out.

Kind regards
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby daverupa » Mon Sep 19, 2011 10:07 pm

Comments below.

Coyote wrote:I understand that Buddhists follow a set of morals laid down by the Buddha, but I am interested in knowing exactly where they come from and what the basis of morality in Buddhism is.
Is morality a set of universal laws, like the laws of nature, that were just discovered by the Buddha? If so, is there any value in trying to understand where morality comes from, or why morality is the way it is - why some things are bad and others are good? For example, if good things are good because they correspond to values that exist outside of the human mind, or if they are good because it benefits humanity and for no other reason? I am interesting in learning what exactly is the foundation for morality in Buddhism in terms of ontology.(I hope that means what I think it does).


Ethics in Buddhism is usually conveyed as a function of intention (kamma). This may help you enunciate specific questions and concerns.

In addition, there is the idea that morality is an essential foundation for meditation (a view held in common by other renouncers contemporaneous with the Buddha). The Noble Eightfold Path can be broken up into three sections, one of which is morality (sila) - Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. Sila is considered a core necessity and is often explored alongside the brahmaviharas.

One is also encouraged to consider that what is disagreeable to oneself is disagreeable to another, and thereby refrain. This is a negative formulation of the Golden Rule - don't do unto others if one would have others not do unto oneself.

As to the ontological underpinnings, I am of the opinion that there is no ontological foundation to the Dhamma. It is epistemology, phenomenology, and ethics, if we must classify it according to Western categories at all. Others have differing views on this point.

Coyote wrote:How does Buddhism understand epistemology? For example: how can we know that what the Buddha teaches is correct or is not? Do you have to put complete faith in Buddha and trust that what he teaches is correct? As with morality, where does such a standard of evaluating truth come from and what is it's ontological foundation.


You are encouraged to test things and see for yourself. There are two logical bases in Buddhism: experience and inference. The "correctness" is in direct relation to the ability of the Dhamma to attenuate and ultimately eliminate dukkha (suffering; the general unsatisfactoriness of experience). This is something that happens within your experience, and cannot be 'shown' apart from practice. The first step is usually to explore Right View.

And again, ontological foundations are wholly absent, which is okay because they are wholly unnecessary. Others may disagree.

Coyote wrote:If everything is impermanent, then why does Buddhism teach that the Dhamma is eternal and always the same? And what about Nirvana - is that not permanent? If everything really is impermanent, they is that not a permanent truth? Will the Buddhas teaching one day change or break down?


The idea that "the Dhamma is eternal and always the same" is something I've never heard before. The Dhamma has causes and conditions (cf. the Buddha), and therefore cannot be permanent or unchanging.

The fact of impermanence is a "permanent fact", but this will only cause a problem if you inappropriately reify such a statement.

Nibbana (nirvana) is considered a special case: although it is neither dukkha nor impermanent (anicca) it is still characterized by anatta.

:heart:
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby Modus.Ponens » Mon Sep 19, 2011 10:58 pm

I would like to add a few thoughts.

Buddhist ethics are different from our western values in the sense that the precepts are, in some cases, not about not hurting the others, but about not doing something that is unwholesome. For example, the 5th precept is to abstain from taking alchohol and intoxicants. There is also a precept to refrain from hearing music on days of uposatha. These rules are different from our western values of not hurting the others. By not drinking we are keeping our minds wholesome and therefore apropriate for meditation. The purpouse of ethics is to cultivate concentration, which in turn leads to wisdom. It so happens that what is considered a bad action in our western values, is also unwholesome, so buddhist ethics include basic western values.

Now why are things that are wholesome are good karma and conductive to nibbana? I think that's like asking why positive electric charges atract negative charges. It's just as it is. We can't have a reason for everything. Some things are axiomatic.
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby Nicro » Tue Sep 20, 2011 12:49 am

Modus.Ponens wrote:I would like to add a few thoughts.

Buddhist ethics are different from our western values in the sense that the precepts are, in some cases, not about not hurting the others, but about not doing something that is unwholesome. For example, the 5th precept is to abstain from taking alchohol and intoxicants. There is also a precept to refrain from hearing music on days of uposatha. These rules are different from our western values of not hurting the others. By not drinking we are keeping our minds wholesome and therefore apropriate for meditation. The purpouse of ethics is to cultivate concentration, which in turn leads to wisdom. It so happens that what is considered a bad action in our western values, is also unwholesome, so buddhist ethics include basic western values.

Now why are things that are wholesome are good karma and conductive to nibbana? I think that's like asking why positive electric charges atract negative charges. It's just as it is. We can't have a reason for everything. Some things are axiomatic.


Going off this, the precepts are meant for yourself first. To protect your own mind. By not engaging in unskillful things you don't pervert your mind. And as for Kamma, its just a law of nature low Modus said^^. Think of all the materialistic laws there are, such as physics which dictate how things happen materially. Kamma is just a law that applies to actions.
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Tue Sep 20, 2011 3:55 am

Whether a Buddha arises in the world or not, it remains a fact that all conditions are impermanent and unsatisfactory. Whether a Buddha arises in the world or not, it remains a fact that craving is the cause of suffering. If no Buddha arises in the world, no one knows the right path leading to the cessation of suffering and the realisation of nibbāna. When a Buddha awakens to the truth, he points out a path that was lost and unknown to gods and mankind. The Buddhadhamma is the teaching that points out that path.

Teaching on morality is the basic path — the foundation on which concentration and wisdom can develop. Without the profound teaching of the Buddha on insight meditation, the Noble Path leading to nibbāna cannot be found. Morality, generosity, reverence, etc., lead only to the celestial realms and the happy course of existence, avoiding hell and other realms of intense suffering. Without the higher teachings on insight, no one can find the right path to nibbāna — not even Brahma gods or ascetics like Ālāra and Udaka who gained very deep concentration.

All conditioned things are impermanent and unsatisfactory (Dhammapada v 277-278). Nibbāna is unconditioned so is not impermanent. However, it is also without self. All phenomena, both unconditioned and conditioned phenomena, are without self: “Sabbe dhammā anattā'ti.” (Dhammapada v 279)

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to associate with the foolish even on many occasions is of no benefit.’

‘One should associate with the wise and listen to their teaching;
one who does will become noble-minded,
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‘The splendid royal chariots, once so beautiful, grow old and decay,
but the teaching of the wise is ageless and never changes,
this is what the wise talk about among themselves.’

‘The sky is very far from the earth, and the earth is very far from the heavens,
but farther apart than these are the teaching of the wise and the teaching of the foolish.’
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby Coyote » Tue Sep 20, 2011 3:24 pm

Thank you all for the replies. They have been helpful and informative.

daverupa wrote:The idea that "the Dhamma is eternal and always the same" is something I've never heard before. The Dhamma has causes and conditions (cf. the Buddha), and therefore cannot be permanent or unchanging.


I'm probably not using the word "Dhamma" properly then. So, by "permanent" the Buddha means that it has independent origination - that it is not caused by or contingent on any other thing? If so, that makes a lot more sense, because I was mistaking "permanence" for consistency. Would it be correct to say some things can be consistent and dependable - for example the Dhamma and Kamma because they always behave in the same way ? But if they are dependent on other things could the "system" not break down?

daverupa wrote: Nibbana (nirvana) is considered a special case: although it is neither dukkha nor impermanent (anicca) it is still characterized by anatta


Is this because Nibbana is not a thing but the absence of something? Any more info on this would be appreciated.

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Teaching on morality is the basic path — the foundation on which concentration and wisdom can develop. Without the profound teaching of the Buddha on insight meditation, the Noble Path leading to nibbāna cannot be found. Morality, generosity, reverence, etc., lead only to the celestial realms and the happy course of existence, avoiding hell and other realms of intense suffering. Without the higher teachings on insight, no one can find the right path to nibbāna — not even Brahma gods or ascetics like Ālāra and Udaka who gained very deep concentration.


Is right morality conducive to insight because it helps with detachment and allows one to have the time + space, in this life or the next, to focus on realising Nibbana?
I don't mean to cause offense, I am sure this is a common objection raised here by newbies, but is it not rather selfish motivation if the only imperative for moral behavior is its positive or negative effect on the individual? I suppose that is not much different from the threat of hell or heaven.

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:All conditioned things are impermanent and unsatisfactory (Dhammapada v 277-278). Nibbāna is unconditioned so is not impermanent. However, it is also without self. All phenomena, both unconditioned and conditioned phenomena, are without self: “Sabbe dhammā anattā'ti.” (Dhammapada v 279)


I think it would help if I had an explanation of what exactly is meant by "conditioned" things. Are these things that are not co-dependent on other things? How exactly can something be "unconditioned"?

Thanks for all the help,

Coyote
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby daverupa » Wed Sep 21, 2011 2:42 pm

It is the case that:

sabbe sankhara anicca
sabbe sankhara dukkha
sabbe dhamma anatta

Sabbe means "all, every", and of course anicca means "impermanent". This first line is what is causing confusion for you, but altogether the three lines, when understood, will answer your questions about anicca as well as nibbana.

So understanding these three lines will at first hinge on understanding the term "sankhara", since "sabbe" and "anicca" are relatively straightforward. To that end, you will benefit by carefully reading this.

:heart:
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: A few questions - morality and knowledge

Postby nameless » Sat Oct 22, 2011 9:40 am

"Is right morality conducive to insight because it helps with detachment and allows one to have the time + space, in this life or the next, to focus on realising Nibbana?

I don't mean to cause offense, I am sure this is a common objection raised here by newbies, but is it not rather selfish motivation if the only imperative for moral behavior is its positive or negative effect on the individual? I suppose that is not much different from the threat of hell or heaven."

The observance of sila leads to harmony at several levels — social, psychological, kammic, and contemplative. At the social level the principles of sila help to establish harmonious interpersonal relations, welding the mass of differently constituted members of society with their own private interests and goals into a cohesive social order in which conflict, if not utterly eliminated, is at least reduced. At the psychological level sila brings harmony to the mind, protection from the inner split caused by guilt and remorse over moral transgressions. At the kammic level the observance of sila ensures harmony with the cosmic law of kamma, hence favorable results in the course of future movement through the round of repeated birth and death. And at the fourth level, the contemplative, sila helps establish the preliminary purification of mind to be completed, in a deeper and more thorough way, by the methodical development of serenity and insight.
from here

It might be worthwhile considering why there is an objection to morals based on selfish motivation. It is probably better to be selfish and moral rather than selfish and immoral. A lot of morality also appears noble on the surface but is driven by selfish undercurrents, such as being helpful in order to be liked, doing the 'right thing' because doing otherwise will come at a social cost etc.

Besides, just because you get to benefit from being moral doesn't necessarily mean you are being moral solely for the purpose of benefit.

Hope this helped!
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