I just finished attending the first international conference of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) at the new campus of the Mahachulalongkornrajavidlaya University in Wang Noi, some 50 kilometers north of Bangkok last weekend. The conference was a huge one and there were more than 1,000 people attending the plenary lectures on Saturday. On Sunday the number was a bit smaller because there were more technical papers in several parallel sessions.
For those who might be new to Thai universities, there are two universities whose names are really similar. My own university is Chulalongkorn University. It was set up in 1917 as a memorial to King Chulalongkorn and functioned as a place for training new generations of civil servants to work for the government. It has largely remained true to its functions, but now most graduates seem to opt for career in the private sector rather than in the government. Mahachulalongkorn (for short), on the other hand, is a “monks’ university” and actually it was set up some decades before Chulalongkorn. In fact it has just been given the status of a “university” only a few years ago; before that it did not have an official status as a university under the law, as it was only part of the temple where it belonged. So the main difference between the two universities is that Chulalongkorn is a “secular” university focusing on research and education. Mahachula, on the other hand, has traditionally focused its attention to educating monks in the Buddhist tradition. Another thing is that Chula is very rich compared to Mahachula because it gets a large proportion of government budget and it could generate a lot of income from its land which lies in the middle of Bangkok. Mahachula, on the other hand, has to struggle to find government budget and it has to rely more on donations from private individuals.
But my post here is more on what has happened during the IABU conference. The theme of the conference is “Buddhist Ethics,” and in fact a number of well known scholars in the field came to the conference, such as Damien Keown, Jose Cabezon, Pinit Ratanakul, Somparn Promta, and others. The keynote lecture was given by Asanga Tilakaratne from Sri Lanka, who is also well known for his work in Buddhist philosophy.
Asanga’s paper is on “Foundation of Buddhist Ethics”, and from what I heard he said that the foundation lied in the distinction the Buddha made between “what follows the reality” and “what follows the (social) convention.” The former, according to Asanga, does not change as a result of human preferences or conventions. The latter, on the other hand, does change. Hence ethics based on the former is permanent. The injunction against killing, for example, is based on the first principle and does not change. The injunction based on social convention, on the other hand, can well be adapted to circumstances, such as the requirement for monks to take off their sandals when they enter a building or not to make noises when they are eating.
Asanga’s point for general ethics is that there are perhaps two levels of ethics, one being permanent and the other more adaptable. However, he did not give tell us exactly how to distinguish between the two. Presumably he assumed that this is already well known. People know, for example, that killing is a serious offense and depends on the basic reality than taking off one’s shoes. Asanga supported this interpretation by emphasizing the role of the “knowledgeable person” (viññujana) in making ethical judgments. For Buddhism, ethical judgment should be performed by those who are skillful. There are no hard and fast rules, but it is acknowledged that those who are “in the know” should know how best to behave in any circumstances. This makes Buddhist ethics much like the Aristotelian virtue ethics.
After Asanga’s lecture there was a panel discussion on the topic by Somparn Promta, Jose Cabezon, Damien Keown and Asanga Tilakaratne himself. The panel was moderated by Khammai Dhammasangani from Oxford University. The issue that the panellists argued against each other was on the contextual nature of Buddhist ethics. It seemed that Asanga does not want to say that Buddhist ethics was contextual through and through, because when a judgment is based on nature (not on convention) it should be objective. However, Cabezon disputed this point, saying that a basic tenet of Buddhist was on interdependence of all things, and this should include ethical judgments also. To me this merely shows the flexibility of Buddhist ethics and it is entirely possible for “knowledgeable people” (for those who joined the panel were all well respected and internationally recognized scholars) to disagree among themselves. This has been the case since the Buddha’s time.