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The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 3 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt

The Case for Buddhist Virtue

The first step in evaluating Buddhist ethics will be to understand the Buddhist worldview.

Ethical systems are always intimately tied to a worldview, but this is especially the case for Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching was in response to an ethical problem, the problem of suffering. Through much effort and insight, the Buddha was able to perceive reality as it really is; he saw the Four Marks of reality. The solution the Buddha offered was also ethical: the solution to suffering is to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the virtues of the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha often spoke in parables. In one famous parable, he explained that a man struck with a poison arrow does not demand that someone explain the origin of the arrow to him before it is removed by a physician with the antidote.[1] Here the Buddha is represented by the physician; humankind is represented by the warrior so unfortunately wounded. According to the Buddha, it is not so important why humanity is in this injured state, as the fact that the Buddha has provided a solution – a solution that is entirely ethical.  Early Buddhism was an orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. But, practice is always related to belief. There is a fundamental relationship between reality as it is (Dharma) and ethics. The Buddha himself explained this using another parable:

Just, oh Gotama, as one might wash hand with hand, or foot with foot, just even so, oh Gotama, is wisdom purified by uprightness, and uprightness is purified by wisdom. Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there.[2]

In this context, the Buddha is equating wisdom with insight into the true nature of existence (Dharma). Thus, according the Buddha, living a moral, upright life is necessarily tied to understanding the universe as it really is. That being the case, understanding Buddhist ontology will be the first step in understanding Buddhist ethics.

The Four Marks of Reality

The Buddha taught that there are four essential properties of reality. One early sutra records the Buddha’s teaching: “Whatever is phenomenal is impermanent. Whatever is phenomenal is suffering. Whatever is phenomenal is devoid of self. Nirvana is eternally tranquil.”[3] Reality is, at its most basic level, characterized by impermanence, suffering, the absence of self, and the existence of nirvana.


The Buddha taught that “all things are transitory [anitya].”[4] This is a straightforward point that is apparently confirmed by everyday experience: every material thing human beings encounter will, soon or later, pass out of existence. People will eventually die, so will flowers. Even mountains will eventually be brought down. Some of the early discourses draw out the implications of the Buddha’s idea, suggesting that everything that exists is changing moment by moment so that, as Heraclitus suggested, one can never step in to the same river twice.[5] Even

something as apparently static as a rock changes from moment to moment so that it is not identical to the rock that existed a moment before and will be different from the rock that will exist in the next moment. One way of understanding this point is to think of the Buddha as denying the existence of something like the Platonic forms, which are permanent and unchanging.

Another implication of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is that all conditioned things are ultimately contingent, the result of an endless series of other causes. Whatever arises, arises co-dependently with a multitude of other causes and will pass from existence sooner or later. One of the most famous illustrations of this concept is the Wheel Dharma which shows how each effect is dependent on a previous cause, which itself is dependent on another cause. Each effect also serves as the cause for the other effects.[6]


The second characteristic of reality is that “All created beings live in sorrow [duhkha].”[7] Usually, duhkha is translated as suffering. However, as many authors have pointed out, suffering is not an adequate translation. When the Buddha said that all things suffer, he did not mean that existence in the world would always be uncomfortable; rather, he meant that phenomelogical existence would always be conditioned by states of ignorance, greed, and hatred.[8] Reality that is conditioned is called “samsara.”[9] Because people exist within samsara, they are never able to have their desire for what is ultimate or eternal satisfied. They will always be disappointed with the temporary, fleeting happiness derived from the phenomenal world and are destined to be continually reborn so that suffering will never cease.[10]

The ideal sort of existence is an existence that is completely unconditioned, free from the vicious cycle of dependent co-arising resulting from ignorance, greed, and hatred. People suffer “because we take too seriously the useful fiction of the person.”[11] When a person is ignorant of reality as it is characterized in the Four Marks, then suffering arises as a natural result. Life based on the assumption that the world is permanent and that selves exist causes clinging to the cycle of samsara and thus there is rebirth.[12] To cease suffering is to cease being conditioned by external factors; this is nirvana. The doctrine of dukha teaches, simply, that the kind of existence that human beings experience is not the ideal. [13]


No Self

The third and most controversial of the Four Marks is the doctrine of no-self. The Buddha taught that “all states are without self [anatman].”[14] In affirming this doctrine, the Buddha was denying that composite entities, like rocks, people, and animals, exist in the commonsense way they are normally understood to exist. Instead, objects and people only exist as collections of parts, aggregates of other, more basic elements.[15]  Persons, in particular, are composed of five

parts called the skandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. As the Buddha taught, “The body is composed of the five skandhas, and produced from five elements. It is all empty and without soul.”[16] However, the Buddha emphasized the importance of composite objects as they relate to themselves and to other objects. This tension in Buddhist discourse has resulted in a distinction between the conventional and ultimate existence of an object. A Buddhist might refer to an individual as a single, distinct person that exists through time; however, he does this only as a convention of language and not in reference to the person’s ultimate, ontological condition.[17]

“The Discourse of the Not-Self Characteristic” from the Pali Canon provides an excellent record of the Buddha’s argument against a persisting self. Within this narrative, the Buddha answers questions from five of his disciples. The Buddha explained that each of the five skandhas cannot be identified as the self. Each of the skandhas are subject to change, inconstant, and give rise to suffering. At the end of the analysis of each skandha the Buddha asks, “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”[18] The disciples responded, “No, lord.” In response to this the Buddha gave his approval. The discourse concludes with an explanation of how to achieve freedom from the suffering arising through the skandhas:

Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’[19]

The argument the Buddha makes here has at least two presuppositions: there is not an I that stands behinds the skandhas–the skandhas are all a person is–and if there were an ultimate self, it would be permanent.[20] From those two assumptions, he proves that since the skandhas are impermanent and cannot be identified with the self, then there is no ultimate self. The perception that a person possesses a substantive identity that endures over time is incorrect.

Instead of “substance-selves,” the Buddha argues that people are “process-selves” that exist only momentarily and only “in a dependent sense.”[21] The “self” is dynamic so that a new self arises and departs each moment.[22] However, there is a causal connection between these moments, so there is a loose relationship between past, present, and future “selves” in a single collection of parts. This conclusion should be understood as a middle way between the sort of egoism taught in other Indian schools of thought and a complete denial of the existence of self in any sense.[23] Clearly, the Buddha wanted avoid the sort of clinging that results from egoism, but he also acknowledges that there is at least a conventional self even if there is no ultimate self. Sideritis sums up the matter: “The Buddhist view of non-self says that a person just consists in the occurrence of a complex causal series of impermanent, impersonal skandhas.[24] “The person who lives at 9 a.m. this morning is the result of the person who lived at 7 a.m.”[25]



The final mark of reality is nirvana and it the most difficult of the Four Marks. The term nirvana literally means “‘extinguishing,” and in its broadest sense nirvana is the extinction of samsara: “This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion cessation, Nibbana.”[26] Nirvana is the cure for what ails humanity.[27] However, it is not merely the proper goal of all conditioned beings, it also the ultimate reality in Buddhism: “‘Nibbana is supreme,’ say the Buddhas.”[28] So in addition to being the foundation of reality, it is also the soteriological goal of Buddhism.

Buddhist doctrine teaches that the solution to suffering is the attainment of nirvana: “It signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion, the forces which power saṃsāra.”[29]As the soteriological goal, there are two elements: “the Nibbana-element with residue left and the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[30][31] The element with “residue left” refers to the kind of nirvana that was available to arahants[32] that still exist in their composite form. The Buddha described the arahant in this condition as a person who has

The holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element with residue left.[33]

On the basis of this text and others, there are several conclusions that can be made about nirvana in this life. First, the Buddha takes it as self-evidently true that nirvana is the appropriate goal in light of impermanence, no self, and suffering. Second, it is clear that the arahant lives without ignorance concerning the way things really are. He lives in light of the fact that all is impermanent, there is no ultimate self, and that all conditioned states are full of suffering. He exists in contrast to the unenlightened who still suffer from greed, hatred, and ignorance. Whereas the unenlightened might despair over his home being destroyed in a flood, the arhant recognizes that the home destroyed is not his and that clinging to material possessions only results in more suffering. He is able to face such disaster with steadfastness and a kind of aloofness, not because he is apathetic, but because he views the disaster as if it happened to someone else far away. He feels concern that such destruction results in more suffering, but he is not overwhelmed and he does not experience it as a personal disaster.[34]

Some might object that this kind of existence would create a lack of empathy for others or even an unhealthy lack of concern for one’s self. The Buddha himself is said to have been living in a place called Atuma when “two people were killed, being struck by lightning, but the Buddha, who was seated under a tree close by, did not hear a sound.”[35] However, Buddhists argue apathy is not the result of attaining nirvana. Instead, it is the realization of what is actually important: the destruction of suffering which arises out of ignorance. The Buddha himself is the greatest example of a person who achieved nirvana in this life, and though he seemed aloof in the example of the lightning strike, he nevertheless reacted appropriately. Even though he was passive in this incident, there are other examples of the Buddha taking an active role in bringing about the cessation of suffering, the greatest example of course being his commitment to teach the dharma. So, Buddhists argue, while an arahant might have behavior that seems apathetic to the ignorant, his behavior is nevertheless justified in light of the dharma. They are illuminated so that they act appropriately in light of all the facts. The arhanant becomes liberated from selfishness and an unfounded concern for his own well-being to the freedom of experiencing “delight and enjoyment at whatever happens in the present moment.”[36] Only through this sort of liberation is one able to have peace.

The Buddha further taught that nirvana with remainder was not the ultimate goal of life. Nirvana without remainder, nirvana after this life, was the desired destination. The Buddha describes this element of nirvana: “Here a bhikkhu is an arahant. . . completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[37]

This aspect of nirvana is notoriously different to articulate. One of the reasons for this is that the concepts and definitions derived from conditioned reality do not apply to nirvana which is unconditioned. The Buddha illustrated this point in a conversation he had with a disciple named Vacchagotta. Vachhagotta asked whether an arahat would exist after death. In response, the Buddha asked Vachha whether, once a fire was extinguished, it made sense to ask, “to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?”[38] The answer, of course, is that the question does not apply. In the same way, concluded the Buddha, the question of whether an arahat exists after death does not apply. In the Udāna, the Buddha gives his most complete teachings on nirvana.[39]At the end of his first teaching on the subject he says

There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.[40]

The point is that the question of existence beyond the conditioned does not fall into easy to understand categories. Nirvana is both not static and not dynamic The arahat does not exist but he also does not cease to exist.  This is not a contradiction of logic, as some naïve interpreters have understood it to be. Strictly speaking, the Buddha does not teach something like “A and not A.” Such a claim would violate the law of non-contradiction. What he actually suggests is “Not A and not B,” while offering distinctions between what is, apparently, not distinct.[41] The Buddha is expressing that nirvana is not comprehensible while trapped in samsara and conditioned by ignorance. To achieve nirvana is to transcend conventional ways of understanding the world; it is to understand the world as it really is, without conditions. The extinguishing that takes place in nirvana is not the destruction of an individual; the individual never really existed anyway.

Instead, it is the extinction of all conditioned states. The illusion of self is destroyed.



Intimately related to the Four Marks is the law of karma since “in the moral order, Dharma is manifest in the law of Karma.”[42]  Karma is the mechanism that allows present actions to have effects on future states of affairs.  In this way, karma is like the law of cause and effect.  Gowan suggests that karma “is an impersonal feature of the causal relationships in the world, and there is no prospect of deviation from the causal effects of kamma on the grounds of mercy.”[43] According to Keown, “Karma is not a system of rewards and punishments meted out by God, but a kind of natural law akin to law of gravity.”[44]  Karma is a moral arithmetic. Certain actions have certain effects.  Karmic actions are like a seed that will ripen into a specific fruit.[45] The Buddha explained it this way:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draw the carriage. All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.[46]

Thus, according the Buddha, karma has at least two important aspects. First, it is objective. It operates according to predefined, constant values. If one performs action X, it will have result Y. However, there is no set way that consequences are dispensed.[47] The consequences of a particular action may appear immediately, in the next life, or even several lives from now.[48] Second, while the law of karma cannot be changed to suit one’s needs, it can be used to bring about desired consequences. The Buddha makes this clear when he says that by performing actions with “pure thought,” one will, as a matter of fact, be rewarded with happiness. The Dali Lama states this rather explicitly: “To suppose that karma is some sort of independent energy which predestines the course of our lives is incorrect. Who creates karma? We ourselves. What we think, say, do, desire, and omit creates karma.”[49] Therefore, as Harvey states, “Good actions are thus encouraged because, through their goodness, they lead to pleasant, uplifting effects for the doer.”[50] Karma is the rudder that allows one to steer from suffering to liberation in nirvana.

Karma is typically understood as having a moral dimension. There are differing interpretations regarding just how karma is related to morality. There are proponents for understanding karma as a deontological moral law, although this view is not widely held.[51] There are others who suggest that karma is a means to a desired end, nirvana. Another option is to understand karma as rewarding actions that are good in themselves. Keown has proposed that at this point Buddhism faces its own version the Euthyphro dilemma:  Is an action good because it generates good karmic results or does an action produce good karmic results because it is good? If actions generate karma because they are good in themselves, like the virtues of Aristotle, then Buddhist ethics might be a kind of virtue ethic. If an action is good because it generates the desired consequence, then Buddhism is more similar to utilitarianism.[52] Which of these interpretations is most likely will be discussed later in this chapter.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Marks represent that which is most fundamental to Buddhism, the Dharma.[53] When the Buddha received enlightenment, it is these Four Marks that he perceived. From these marks, he assembled his Four Noble Truths: (1) suffering arises, (2) the origin of suffering is desire, (3) suffering ceases when desire ceases, and (4) the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to bring desire to an end.[54] Many have pointed out that the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are like a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription. In the first two truths, Buddha gives his diagnosis. In the third he provides the cure. In the fourth he gives a prescription.

The prescription suggested by the Buddha is the most critical part of his Four Noble Truths for ethics. One might rephrase the fourth truth like this: ethical practice is the way to reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path consists of eight criteria for reaching nirvana: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. One might further clarify the purpose of the Path as having the purpose of helping those who practice it to understand reality as it really is: “The principal cause that allows us to overcome our cyclic existence [samsara] and the basic misunderstanding that underlies it is familiarizing ourselves with the dependently existing nature of things.”105 The way to escape suffering is to act appropriately in light of the true nature of reality (impermanence, not-self, and [55]suffering) both practically and intellectually. This moves one closer to achieving nirvana.  According to the Buddha, it is the Eightfold Path that “opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind.”[56]

Therefore, the Fourth Noble Truth should be understood as defining the goal of Buddhism: to extinguish the conception of self, to remove the clinging to this world that causes samsara in order to achieve liberation. Karmic merit, accumulated through adherence to the Eightfold Noble Path, is instrumental in achieving the liberation, nirvana, that the Buddha saw as the solution.[57] Indeed, all of Buddhist thought and practice is designed to aid in the obtaining of nirvana. It is because nirvana is described as the goal that it is sometimes as seen the telos and meaning of Buddhism. As Keown argues, “Nirvana is the perfection of these virtues [listed in the Eightfold Path].”[58] However, others are more reserved in ascribing a telos to Buddhism. For example, Siderits argues that “there is no one whose life either has or lacks meaning. There is just the life.”[59]

This Fourth Noble Truth reveals how ethics is related to ontology in Buddhism. The way a person ought to live is determined by the certain desired outcomes; in this sense, Buddhist ethics is teleological. Ethical practice in Buddhism is at least partially motivated out of soteriological goals. Harvey points out that “from the perspective of the Four Noble Truths, ethics is not for its own sake, but is an essential ingredient on the path to the final goal.”[60] Keown agrees and says that “It is the purpose of the Eightfold Path to bring about the transition from saṃsāra to nirvana.”[61] The question that remains for a virtue view of Buddhism is whether Buddhism is merely teleological. Is the Eightfold Path merely a means to an end or is it good in itself? Is Buddhism a utilitarian or a virtue ethic?


[1] See the Majjhima Nikaya.

[2] “Sonadanda Sutta,” in Dialogues of the Buddha , trans. T. W. Dīghanikāya, Rhys Davids, and Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids. Sacred books of the Buddhists (London: Luzac,1956.), 157.

[3] Ekottara-agama               

[4] Magandiya Sutta, in In the Buddha’s Words, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Somerville: Wisdom, 2005), 205.

[5] 56  David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy  (University of Hawaii, 1984), 36.

[6] Tich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching (New York, Random House, 1999),  229.

[7] Magandiya Sutta, 206.

[8] 59  Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London, Routledge, 2000), 42.

[9] 60  Ibid., 51.

[10] Kalupahana, Buddhist,  37.

[11] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 76.

[12] 63  H. Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethic: Essence of Buddhism (New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 21.

[13] 64  Some, like Tich Naht Hahn , have suggested that second mark of existence is nirvana. In a sense, nirvana

and duhkha are, as Hahn suggests, two sides of the same coin. Nirvana is the state of being without duhkha and dukha is existence in anything but nirvana.

[14] Magandiya Sutta ,206.

[15] 66  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.

[16] “The Skandhas and the Chain of Causation,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 89.

[17] Siderits, Philosophy, 56.

[18] 69  Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

[19] Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.

[20] Siderits, Buddhism,  39.

[21] 72  Christopher W Gowans, Philosophy of the Buddha. (London: Routledge, 2003), 23.

[22] 73  Winston L King,. In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics (LaSalle: Open Court, 1964), 15.

[23] 74  Kalupahana, Buddhism, 39.

[24] 75  Siderits, Buddhism, 69.

[25] 76  Gunapala Dharmasiri, Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics (Antioch: Golden Leaves, 1989), 13.

[26] Bodhi Ñāṇamoli, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima NikAya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995), 540.

[27] Gowans, Philosophy, 135.

[28] 79

Buddhavagga: The Buddha, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita

[29] 80 Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 49.

[30] 81  The Nibbana Element, trans. John D. Ireland,

[31] x.irel.html#iti-043

[32] An arahant is a person who has achieved nirvana.

[33] The Nibbana Element.

[34] Gowans, Philosophy,  144.

[35] Kalupahana , Buddhism, 76.

[36] Gowans, Philosophy, 142.

[37] The Nibbana Element,

[38] The Middle Length Discourses, 593.

[39] Gowans, Philopshy,148.

[40] Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland,

[41] Although, the Buddha is not really offering distinctions. He is pointing to the fact that distinctions made on the basis of conventional reality are not valid. In reality, the categories of “existence” and “non-existence” just do not apply.

[42] Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) Kindle Edition, location 294.

[43] 93 Gowans, Philosophy, 105.

[44] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 308-19.

[45] Dale Stuart Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 53.

[46] “Wisdom of the Buddha,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 98.

[47] Lynken Ghose, “Karma and the Possibility of Rebirth: An Ethical Analysis of the Doctrine of Karma in Buddhism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 286.

[48] Dharmasiri, Fundamentals, 37.

[49] Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 186.

[50] 100 Harvey, Introduction, 28.

[51] 101  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 23.

[52] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 652-63.

[53] 103  Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 7.

[54] 104 Ibid., 41-46.

[55] Sonam Rinchen, Ruth Sonam, Nāgārjuna, and Tsoṅ-kha-pa Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising : An Oral Teaching (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 27.

[56] “The Sermon on the Four Noble Truths,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 88.

[57] 107 Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 47.

[58] Keown, Nature, 107.

[59] 109  Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

[60] Harvey, Introduction, 41.

[61] Keown, Nature, 107.


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