For many years, I have been part of a Buddhist studies group that meets twice monthly in a Theravada temple. We have read and discussed many Suttas in the Pali canon, including the long and mid-length discourses and the Dhammapada. Last year, the group decided to venture out from Buddhist Scriptural texts and to read instead Professor Peter Harvey's book, "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics." We approached the book, in essentially the same way that we approached the Suttas: we read the text, or portions of it, aloud in class and then discussed what we read. We skipped around among the chapters rather than taking them in order. Our group has now completed its reading of Harvey.
Harvey uses the term `ethics' to describe three related issues: 1. thought on the bases and justification of moral guidelines and on the meaning of moral terms; 2.specific moral guidelines (applied ethics); 3 how people actually behave (descriptive ethics). (p. 2) Harvey in fact covers all three issues in his study, giving his work substantial breadth. To avoid confusion, it is important to keep the three uses of the term `ethics' in mind in approaching the book.
The first three chapters of the book are the broadest and most interesting. In the first chapter, Harvey develops "The Shared Foundations of Buddhist Ethics". He offers an introduction to basic Buddhist teachings as they apply to ethics and he offers an insightful comparison of Buddhist approaches to ethics with the Aristotelian, utilitarian, and Kantian approaches of the West. In the second chapter, "Key Buddhist Values", Harvey explains the five precepts, the importance of lovingkindness and compassion and other key teachings that inform Buddhist understandings of ethical behavior. In the third chapter, Harvey discusses Mahayana Buddhism and compares and contrasts it with the Theravada school. He emphasizes throughout his book the diverse character of Buddhism, with different schools, and teachers within each school, having somewhat differing approaches to questions of ethics. If nothing else, Harvey's book shows the complexity of ethical questions, both in and outside of Buddhism, and the many ways these questions have been approached.
The remaining seven chapters of the book treat in considerable detail of broad but specific ethical questions. These include Buddhist attitudes towards the natural world, economic ethics, war and peace, suicide and euthanasia, abortion and contraception, sexual equality, and homosexuality.
In each chapter, Harvey follows the same basic approach.He begins with a definition of the question and proceeds to consider the manner in which the question is addressed in Buddhist Scriptures and other Buddhist texts. He then discusses how various Buddhist countries have, over time, in fact addressed, interpreted, or modified the Scriptural teachings. He comments upon various current approaches to the question. And each chapter ends with a useful summation or conclusion.
I found Harvey made great effort to be rigorous and fair and to avoid the temptation to have his presentation of historical Buddhist teaching viewed through a contemporary prism. In our study group's consideration of the text, we had the liveliest discussions on those chapters which remain highly unsettled and which provoke disagreement: the chapters dealing with abortion and with sexual equality. Commendably, Harvey allows historical Buddhist texts to speak for themselves without overly-interpreting them in a way many people today would find more appealing. Harvey's chapter on war and peace also resulted in an interesting discussion in our group. Harvey explores whether Buddhist teachings allow for the waging of what is known as a "just war." He then discusses the ways that some Buddhist societies have, at different times, rationalized the waging of war and the oppression of minority groups by reading protection for the claimed enemies outside of the scope of the Buddhist texts. It is a candid picture and all-too-familiar for students in the West.
For all its virtues, Harvey's book had difficulties in the way we approached it in the study group. Harvey writes clearly and carefully, but highly academically. His book is dry, almost lifeless in places. In the long weeks we spent with it, our group had difficulty keeping in focus and following the continuity of the book. At times, the book seemed more like an encyclopedia or a legal hornbook than as a record of a living Buddhism. Harvey's book emphasizes the difficulty and diversity of ethical thought and seems to lead to what in other contexts Buddhist teachings might describe as a profusion of views. The book pays insufficient attention to meditation rather than simply argument as a source of ethical understanding. Most of these comments are basically another way of saying that this form of academic study is not as useful as a study of the Suttas for an understanding of Buddhism. Harvey's book should not be faulted too heavily for that. But I do think it would have worked better in a college classroom or in private reading than in a Sutta studies class.
Harvey does quote several times a key text from the Dhammapada (verse 163) which is itself an excellent introduction to Buddhist ethical thought:
"Not to do any evil,
To cultivate what is wholesome,
To purify one's mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddhas."
Readers wishing a detailed consideration of Buddhist approaches to ethical questions will benefit from Harvey's book.