Approaches to Buddhist Bioethics

Buddhist ethical perspectives, unlike some Western views, seldom characterize morality in absolute terms. For Buddhists, ethical behavior is a necessary component of successful adherence to the Dharma rather than an end in itself. Once enlightenment is attained, dualities expressed in ethical problems cease to exist. Action is judged not against an absolute moral standard (such as the Ten Commandments), but rather on the basis of its relative merit in leading toward or away from enlightenment. From an enlightened perspective, actions can no longer be characterized as moral or immoral. Rather, action (karma) has a neutral value, transcending moral distinctions. As such, ethics are important to the spiritual practice of human beings, but they have no larger significance.

Historically, Buddhist monastics and lay people have expressed ethical concern for the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Yet Buddhists differ in their approaches to bioethical dilemmas. In part, competing bioethical interpretations arise from Theravada and Mahayana distinctions. Further, as Buddhism has traveled across Asia and other parts of the world, diverse indigenous cultural traditions have informed Buddhist notions of morality. The divergent views of Buddhist practitioners and scholars of Buddhism add another dimension to understanding Buddhist bioethics. Finally, interpretive concerns arise when contemporary bioethical problems are evaluated using Buddhist texts composed centuries before the advent of current biomedical technologies. Despite these complexities, concepts such as nonharm (ahimsa) in Theravada and compassion (karuna) in Mahayana—though they do not posit an explicit bioethics— offer a way to measure the morality of bioethical issues.

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