Original Volume Editors’ Section Introduction
Phra Rājavaramuni’s essay represents an interpretation of Theravada Buddhist ethics by a noted Thai monk-scholar. Although Rājavaramuni (recently elevated in monastic rank to Thepwethi) has held administrative positions within the monastic order, he is regarded in Thailand primarily as a scholar of text and doctrine. His highly esteemed dictionary of Buddhist terms and interpretation of Buddhist thought (Buddhadhamma) place him in a rank with Vajirañāõavarorosa, the greatest of the Thai monastic reformers in the modern period.
We begin with Rājavaramuni for several reasons. His exposition of the tradition serves as a point of reference for several of the other chapters. Rājavaramuni’s perspective in this volume is unique in that he writes from within the tradition, from the standpoint of his own view as a Buddhist monk thoroughly grounded in the texts of Theravāda Buddhism.
The essay, therefore, provides both a unique normative view and a very useful collection of canonical references for those interested in exploring the topic of Buddhist ethics within the Theravāda texts themselves.
Finally, the author sets the two foci of the volume—wealth and poverty, and individual perfection and the social good—within the broad context of Buddhist ethics as a whole. Rājavaramuni, then, begins this study by addressing a general problem in the field of religious ethics: the relationship between the soteriological (individual perfection) and moral (social good) dimensions of a religious tradition, but he does so as a Buddhist monk interpreting a particular problem within the social–ethical dimensions of the tradition.
Rejecting the stereotypical view of Buddhism as a world-denying monasticism, Rājavaramuni argues that the tradition has consistently affirmed a balanced, middle-way view of interdependence between individual perfection and the social good, monk and laity. He stresses the importance of the categories of reciprocity and friendship within the Buddhist community as a whole and contends that the classical admonition of “taking oneself for a refuge” necessarily means “becoming dependable” within society. In the context of the monastic life the monk does not simply work toward his own salvation (nibbāna), but function as teacher and moral exemplar within the broader community.
Accordingly, Rājavaramuni argues that the roles of monk and laity are distinct but interrelated. Both live and act in terms of a single, unified “system of Buddhist ethics,” which Rājavaramuni describes in terms of principles or ideals (dhamma) and rules (vinaya). Both draw on aspects of the moral life (pre-magga) coupled with specific categories or stages in a developmental path (magga). Rājavaramuni’s discussion of pre-magga and magga aspects of the moral life reflects his concern for the polarity of individual perfection and the social good. Thus, in general terms Rājavaramuni analyzes the moral life around social interaction (“association with good people”) on the one hand and the development of mental awareness (“systematic attention and reflection”) on the other.
Likewise, the path of moral and spiritual development includes training rules (sikkhā), which build character and stipulate appropriate reactions, but which also promote mental awareness and insight. The distinction between lay and monastic ethics is as much a matter of context as it is of specific content. Thus, lay ethics emphasizes generosity (dāna)—the laity have material goods to give—whereas the monk has a responsibility to gain the wisdom (adhipaññā) associated with mental training (adhicitta) in order to fulfill his responsibilities as teacher and moral exemplar.
Consistent with this view of Buddhist ethics, Rājavaramuni argues that Buddhism takes a middle-way stance toward wealth. That one accumulates wealth is less of a moral problem than how one acquires and uses it. Furthermore, given the principle of mutual reciprocity at the heart of Buddhism’s Middle Way, the person of wealth has the natural responsibility to be generous or to redistribute it. On the practical level generosity means lay support of the monastery; spiritually it expresses an attitude of non-grasping or unselfishness which leads to compassionate, generous, other-regarding attitudes and actions.
The system of Buddhist ethics, in short, integrates the highest good of the individual with the welfare of society, connects the mental development and exemplary character of the individual devotee with virtuous and harmonious social existence. Put in Buddhist terms, Rājavaramuni integrates the Four Sublime States of Mind (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity) and the Four Bases of Social Harmony (charity, beneficial speech, acts of service, and impartiality).