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A Theravada Buddhist contribution to universal ethics

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Santucci, James A.








Ethics is a subject that is taking on increased importance in various areas of human activity, especially with new challenges in the biological sciences, business, commerce, and trade. Like many fields of inquiry, the principles are clearly defined, but it is in the details that disagreements abound. This paper focuses on ethical action in Theravada Buddhism. To do so requires a definition of ethics and morals on the one hand, and ethic and moral on the other. It also requires a discussion of the difference, if any, between moral actions and other normative actions, such as law, rituals, customs, and etiquette. When applied to Theravada Buddhism, we find that some linguistic difficulty exists regarding a translation of ethical actions into the Pali or Sanskrit languages. Although terms exist, they are not informative in defining the range of actions that we expect such actions to encompass. In this regard, certain axiomatic statements are introduced that serve as a basis of moral action regardless of culture. The Theravada Buddhist response to these axioms, especially when discussing those actions reflecting sila, indicate a goal-oriented and utilitarian approach that conforms more closely to the concept of karma than to the Western notion of ethics. Why this is so requires an understanding of Vedic culture, the source of Indian attitudes regarding karma.

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