Pancasila and Catholic Moral Teaching: Moral Principles as Expression of Spiritual Experiences in Theravada Buddhism and Christianity

By Manuel Dy, Jr.

Manuel Dy, Jr. is professor of Philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the same university and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila. He has been a Research Scholar in the International Asian Studies Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and has served as Secretary to the Asian Association of Catholic Philosophers. A frequent speaker at International Conferences on Oriental and Contemporary Philosophies, Moral Education and Ethics, he has been published widely in philosophical journals both in the Philippines and abroad.

Maurice Nyunt Wai, Pancasila and Catholic Moral Teaching: Moral Principles as Expression of Spiritual Experience in Theravada Buddhism and Christianity (Roma, Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 2002), 334 pp.

Is indicated in the title, the aim of this book, originally a dissertation, is to compare the ethical doctrines of Theravada Buddhism and Catholicism with the view of laying the basis for interreligious dialogue. It attempts to prove that there are common values in the ethics of the two religions that can foster dialogue between Buddhists and Catholics. The subtitle further asserts that these moral principles are expressions of spiritual experience, and that for both religions morality and spirituality are one in the experience of conversion, thus implying that the dialogue between them is not so much in words, the doctrinal and intellectual side of religious life, as in deeds, the witnessing of the values in “the context of an analytical and friendly critical assessment of traditional thought, practice, and life in society” (p. 8). The Pancasila (Five Precepts), although not the whole of Buddhist ethics, is chosen for comparison with Catholic morality because it serves as the moral foundation for the Buddhist laity and constitutes the ladder with five steps that lead to Meditation, and then to Wisdom, as found in the Eightfold Path of the Buddha.

The Five Precepts are: 1) Not to take the life of any living being;     2) Not to take what is not given; 3) Abstaining from sexual misconduct; 4) Abstaining from wrong speech; and 5) Abstaining from intoxicants. After doing a preliminary understanding of Pancasila as the foundation of moral perfection, the author devotes a chapter to each sila divided into three parts: part I gives an exposition of the sila; part II deals with the corresponding Christian precept or virtue, and part III evaluates and compares the two with a view to interreligious dialogue.

Reading the Preliminary Understandings of Pancasila As The Foundation of Moral Perfection, the reader discovers at once that there is more to the five precepts than just the ordinary norms of any society. Sila is part (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood) of the Eightfold Path, and is or should be one of the ten Paramitas or Perfections or Buddhist virtues. As part of the Eightfold Path, silais interrelated with the samadhi or meditation part, the emotive, mystical aspect (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration), and the panna or wisdom part (Right View and Right Intention) of the Eightfold Path. This goes to show that the Pancasila are never ends in themselves but means towards the Path of Nirvana or release from suffering.  As such, they should be perfected to become virtues or paramitas. As one of the ten paramita (the others being Generosity, Renunciation or Nonattachment, Wisdom or Knowledge, Vigour or Effort or Energy, Patience or Tolerance or Forbearance, Truthfulness, Determination or Resolution or Perseverance, Loving-kindness and Equanimity), sila “should not only be free from taints of craving, pride or wrong views but founded on Great Compassion and Wisdom which is skill-in seeking merit” (p. 25). This preliminary section ends with the other complex meanings of sila: as cetana or intentionality, not in the phenomenological sense but as “the total posture of the personality, both cognitive and affective,” as cetasika or mental concomitant, and as restraint and nontransgression, the aspect of sila concerned with monks and religious. 

Although difficult reading, this preliminary section is important to situate the spirituality of the Pancasila, and for what follows, each sila will be studied in its relationships to the Buddhist virtues and compared with Catholic morality.

On the First Sila as an Expression of Loving Kindness

This chapter deals with the first sila, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from killing living creatures” and the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.”

 In the first part, the author painstakingly presents the Buddhist respect for life, which extends to all living beings and not only humans, first in the context of the Laws of Karma, with its twelve kinds, and the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Contrary to the misconception of Karma as a determination, karma shows the freedom of human beings to determine their own destiny or next rebirth. The Doctrine of Dependent Origination explains how Karma originates and works, ultimately pointing to ignorance as the root cause of suffering. Respect for life is an expression of loving-kindness towards all forms of life, because “in one’s innumerable past lives, the law of averages dictates that most beings one comes across, however one may dislike them now, have at one time been a close relative or friend” (p. 41). Because of the law of Karma, being a natural law inherent in the nature of things, there is no need for a creator of the world. What follows is the Buddhist equivalent to the origin of humanity and the fall. With this account, the value of human life is seen in the rarity to obtain a human rebirth and in the marvelous opportunity for spiritual development. But what value is there to human life if Buddhism holds the Doctrine of No-soul? Here, the author explains exhaustively the Anatta Doctrine and the Buddhist conception of the individual personality. The last two sections deal with the concept of Loving-kindness, as the foundation of the entire system of Buddhist ethics expressed in the annihilation of hatred, creating a brotherly spirit and sympathetic feeling, and as meditation. Abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are clearly a violation of Loving-kindness. 

The second part presents the Fifth Commandment “Thou shall not kill” in five sections.  The first deals with the respect for life as the primary precept of the natural law. The second narrates the origin of human life as a gift from God. The third speaks of the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person.  The fourth section discusses the core of the Church’s teaching, namely unconditional love. Here the author presents a brief history of the condemnation of abortion. What is interesting is that suicide and euthanasia are not treated at all in this part, unlike in the part on Buddhism. Then he enumerates the possible exceptions to the Fifth Commandment, including capital punishment, which he backs up with biblical sources. With regards to capital punishment, what is unfortunate is that he has only a one-sentence paragraph that is not even a condemnation but a mere suggestion of removing the death penalty: “In our day, the Church urges that the sanctity of life can be best respected and protected by other less final forms or bloodless means of punishment” (p. 77). The last section deals with love and mysticism, in particular St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.

The third part compares the views of Buddhism and Catholicism with regards to respect for human life. The author readily admits to the difficulty of a genuine dialogue between the two “because of the very different assumptions that Buddhist and Christians bring to their ethics of life. The main difference is that Christians believe in God the Creator and the human soul whereas Buddhists deny the existence of an independent, permanent self and refuse to rely on a transcendent creating and redeeming God” (p. 81). Nevertheless, he notes the following similarities:

  1. Both religions admit to divine elements in the human being and the potentiality for salvation.
  2. The cause of the fall of human beings for both is their pride and greed.
  3. Both accept the value of human life, although for different reasons: for Christians, because the human being is a gift of God, created in His image and likeness, while for Buddhists because the human state is “more favorable than any other to the attainment of Enlightenment” (p. 83).
  4. Both deny the Greek notion of body-soul or mind-matter theory. Christians believe in the existence of the soul as the spiritual principle of the human life but not in the dualistic sense. Buddhists believe in the Name-Form theory, the Form being the body with its senses and the Name being the individuality proper which includes the senses in the act of cognition (feeling of sensation, perception, emotional reactions, and consciousness). The author takes pains to elaborate on the no-self theory of Buddhism to avoid the misconception that Buddhists are nihilists.
  5. Both understand the precept “Do Not Kill” in the broader sense of respect and preservation of life, although Christians raise animals for food while Buddhist adhere to the protection of animals to the extent of not killing them for eating.
  6. For both, “love is the heart of their ethics of life,” (p. 88) although Buddhists understand love as no dependent attachment to a person or object but an unlimited self-giving compassion to all creatures that live.
  7. In both traditions, we can find mystical and prophetic experiences and ideals, testifying to the common pattern in the journey of love.

On the Second Sila as an Expression of Generosity and Renunciation

This chapter deals with the second sila namely, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from taking what is not given,” and the equivalent commandments, the seventh, “You shall not steal,” and the tenth, ”You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.”

The first part begins with a rather comprehensive list of the different ways of taking what is not given, from the different ways of direct stealing to the various ways of indirect stealing and to actions analogous to stealing, that may be willful destruction or careless taking or using. Prohibiting offense against other people’s property, material or immaterial, encourages Right Livelihood, the fifth element in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood is livelihood that “causes no harm to others” (p. 97). Livelihood affects the natural environment, and so the author goes into the relationship between morality and the natural environment. People, their quality of living, and nature are interdependent. Consumerism, which is centered on the cultivation of desire, is blamed for the wanton deterioration of nature. There is need then for the positive development of giving with generosity, dana. With examples from the Buddha, dana is elaborated as an outward manifestation of concern for the welfare of others (metta), practiced in the sharing of merit and rejoicing in the merit of others, through the different kinds of generosity according to the motivation, the recipient, and what is given.  Generosity of course cannot be perfected without its twin aspect, renunciation. Renunciation is also emancipation, from the cycle of existences (samsara) and from sense-desire (kama) of pleasant objects and mental defilement of greed, with the former being the result of the latter. Desire eventually leads to craving understood as grasping or attachment, which is the cause of suffering (the second noble truth of the Buddha). With examples from the Buddha, renunciation is elaborated in terms of what is relinquished.  Generosity with renunciation and sila (morality) lead to meditation (bhavana); all three must be practiced to reach nirvana. Thus, this section ends with the necessity of renunciation before and during the time of mediation.

Using the Old Testament, the encyclicals, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the second part begins with a discussion of the Catholic view of property as a gift and stewardship from God, and the right to private property as inherent to the nature of the human being, albeit limited by its social dimension. The seventh commandment of “You shall not steal” is interpreted in the positive sense of respecting the rights and property of others as one of the expressions of respect for human dignity. With respect for human dignity as the basis, various offenses against the seventh commandment are enumerated, ranging from manipulation of price of goods, violation of contracts, tax evasion, work poorly done, to totalitarianism and neocolonialism or the domination and exploitation of developing countries by powerful nations. Even racial, sexual, educational, or economic discrimination is included. Following this is a section on justified expropriation or appropriation, and another section on occult compensation. The seventh commandment also includes the respect for the integrity of creation, and so our dominion over inanimate and other living beings is not absolute but limited by concern for the quality of the life of the neighbor including the next generation. Unnecessary cruelty or death to animals is also considered a theft of the creation’s riches.

If the seventh commandment forbids acts of stealing, the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods,” forbids not only the external taking of the neighbor’s goods but also the interior disposition, the thoughts, desires, and will to possess something that belongs to somebody else. The tenth commandment covers the intentions of the heart, such as greed and desire to amass earthly goods without limit, avarice, envy, and consumerism and waste. 

The second part then delves into the Christian virtue of generosity, the foremost expression of love of neighbor, which is an offshoot of a realization of God’s love for us. The model of Christian giving is none other than Christ who exemplifies the love of the most Holy Trinity, who gave all of Himself in the Cross, and continues to give of Himself in the Eucharist.  Following Christ demands the spirit of detachment from temporal goods. The second part ends with a beautiful explication of the meaning of emptiness for Christians, using the prayer for generosity of St. Ignatius, the early Christian hymn about Christ in Philippians 2:5-11, comparing this with the servant song of Deutero-Isaiah, and the Ascent of Mount Carmel of St. John of the Cross.

The third part delves into the differences and similarities of the second sila and the seventh and tenth commandments.  At the start, the difference between them is that “the Buddhist precept has the structure of a vow whereas the Christian precept has the structure of a command”(p. 143). While both precepts give not only the negative aspects but the positive virtues of generosity and renunciation, with love as the guiding principle, the Buddha, in encouraging the carrying out of charitable works, “does not go to the extent of identifying himself with the poor as Jesus did” (p. 144).  Also, “for Buddhism, humans are not seen as set over nonhuman nature as ‘stewards,’ but as neighbors to other, less intelligent, sentient beings” (p. 150). As for the mystical path, the Christian way is a following of Christ in love, whereas for the Buddhist, it is to obtain wisdom through Insight Meditation. For the similarities, the author first discusses the Brahma-vihara, the life in the Buddhist monastery, essential to the practice of the second silaperfectly, and finds the same elements of Loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha) in the spiritual life described by St. John of the Cross. The similarities would then be as follows:

  1. Both traditions speak of generosity and renunciation as counterparts.
  2. In the spiritual life, both traditions balance involvement and detachment. “While equally loving them all, we must be equally detached from them, for equal love can only be understood in the light of equal forgetfulness” (p. 147).
  3. Detachment (“holy indifference” for St. Ignatius of Loyola) for both traditions does not mean rejecting the world but involves taking care of the natural world. Thus, both traditions are against consumerism.
  4. The extreme paradox of emptiness and fullness of the Buddha is equivalent to the kenosis—self-emptying—and pleroma—fullness of God—of Christ.

On the Third Sila as an Expression of Contentment and Self-control

This chapter deals with the third sila, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from wrong conduct in sexual pleasure,” and the equivalent sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” and the ninth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”

In the first part, the author at once corrects the narrow interpretation of this silaas “abstaining from sexual wrong conduct” or as “abstaining from all unchastity, and not to lead astray the wives, daughters, or wards of any one.”  The third silaconcerns refraining from the misuse of the body and the bodily sensations, and thus includes artificial stimulation of the appetite for food as much as adultery or incest.  So the author goes into a brief but complicated presentation of Buddhist cosmo-biology; the four classes of paramanu or atoms; the five aggregates that compose a human being; the ten armies of Mara the Tempter with kama, sensuous pleasures, as one of them; and the two groups of kamavatthukama or attachment to one’s property, business, family, friends, position, honor, luxuries, etc. andkilesakama or craving for sensual objects, before treating the Buddhist view of sexuality. A number of prohibitions are enumerated in the section on sexuality before the author presents the Buddhist view of sexuality, emphasizing at the outset that for the Buddhist, the sensuous world is not evil in itself. “The sex of the body of a human being is a matter of karmic effect, and sexual desire is a carnal appetite as natural in its proper sphere as the appetite for food.  It is mind-and-body (nama-rupa) which is the origin of suffering and the same mind-and-body which leads to the cessation of suffering”(p. 162). Sexuality is a feeling that is impermanent and conditioned, and suffering ensues due to our lustful activity. “To overcome one’s lust it is necessary to perceive the conditioned origin of feelings, their diversity, their outcome, their cessation, and the way to their cessation” (p. 163). Pleasure likewise is transient and usually selfish. The Buddha, however, followed and taught the Middle way, between the two extremes of self-mortification and the life of pleasure.

It is interesting to note that Buddhism does not regard marriage as sacred but a secular contract of partnership, and that polygamy is tolerated though not preferred over monogamy. Although monastic celibacy is given high regard, marriage is not degraded for those who cannot commit themselves to the right form of celibacy.  The right form of celibacy is one whose sexuality has been accepted and integrated but chooses to use the energy and time that would have been spent for sexual activity for the sake of the spiritual.

How does one overcome the craving for sensual objects? The Buddha gave three methods: for defilements of transgression by virtue; for obsessive defilements by concentration; for the latent ones by wisdom. The last two sections of the first part deal with the latter two methods: Mindfulness (Sati) and Insight Meditation Path (Vipassana and Magga). The last section mentions the two kinds of bhavana or meditation: one to develop concentration of mind to reach one-pointedness and tranquility, and the other the Buddhist path of  Deliverance or Vipassana Bhavana. It is in the latter that the author specifies the different stages of contemplation.

The second part begins with a brief history of what is considered adultery from ancient Israel to Christ’s teaching and the Church’s.  The tradition of the Church understands the sixth commandment to include the whole of human sexuality. The author then presents the theology of the body according to John Paul II. Human beings are persons, beings created by God with intellect and will in His image, with bodies. The human body is the expression of the human person, the means of communion with another person. Before the Fall, the bodies of Adam and Eve were integrated with their faculties of thinking and choosing, and thus their sensuality and sentiment as bodily expressions of love were under the dominance of their minds and will. But after the Fall, when seduced by the devil, they wanted to “be like God” but ”without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.” Therefore, our bodies are not subject anymore to our minds and wills and no longer expressing our own persons, they are not a reflection of God. Christ’s supreme sacrifice on the Cross accomplished the “redemption of the body” and His resurrection gave us hope of the resurrection of our own bodies.  Based on this theology of the human body, the author then presents the Catholic teaching on sexuality. The image of God refers to both male and female, in perfect equality as human persons, commanded and blessed to exercise their sexuality to procreate. The prophets often used marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Yahweh and His people, and the author of the Song of Songs praises human love with its sensuality. Sexuality therefore is not bad if used as God intended. Christ taught that the bond of marriage should not be broken and condemned a wrong desire for sex. St. Paul urged the right use of sexuality because the misuse of sex can affect the community of believers. For him, the body is to be used to praise God and becomes sinful only when it becomes one’s ultimate value and concern. The Church continues to teach this meaning of sexuality, as the expression of total giving of persons in love. After this presentation, the author further elaborates on sexuality as the language of intimacy and the expression of love. As the language of intimacy different from animal communication, sexuality must transcend mere biological needs and find its true meaning, and this is love. As the expression of marital love, sexuality brings joy and pleasure to the spouses but goes beyond to bring a new human person into being, intensifying the union of the two and ordering it towards maturation and perfecting through children.  “To make this meaning fully one’s own, one has to learn what that meaning is. The desire to do so, so as to be able to fully express this word of love, is grounded in the institution of marriage”(p. 186).

As for the ninth commandment, the author first gives the Catholic definition of concupiscence, which the commandment forbids, as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason.“ The precept “prohibits not only adultery but also sexual desire for a woman, married or not, if she is not one’s own wife,” because the word ‘hmd’ (covet) “refers to the desire that comes from seeing something beautiful” (p. 186). This commandment then forbids the mental offense against chastity, while the sixth commandment forbids the physical offense against chastity. The heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, is emphasized as the seat of morality, “for every sin first occurs in the mind before it is externalized” (p.188). However, what is prohibited is not sexual desire per se but the desire for the wife of one’s neighbor and other impure thoughts.  Also, true love as desire is to be distinguished from sensual desire, for true love as desire is rooted in the dignity of the person who wants to be useful as a person, which is not the same as being an object for use.  In the positive sense, the two commandments call for the virtue of chastity for all persons, lay or clergy. Chastity is defined by the Catechism as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.”  This integration is made possible by the virtue of love. Perfect chastity is not identified with the state of celibacy. Here the author discusses celibacy and sexuality. Genuine celibacy does not mean viewing sexuality as worthless, nor does it entail abstention from companionship altogether. For celibacy to be mastered and become fruitful, love of agape is necessary, and this is a lifelong task that has two aspects: a preparation and readying of oneself for the sharing in God’s creative activity and a sacrifice of a value for the sake of a greater good to come. It is worth quoting the words of the author that concludes this section on celibacy and sexuality:

Human sexuality is a gift of God. It permeates every dimension of our being. Therefore chaste living does not mean the repression of sexuality but the rechanneling of these energies, first of all in the pursuit of God with a passion characteristic of the saints, and secondly in service of others in a way that is progressively freed from selfish interest (p. 192).

This second part ends with a discussion of the relationship between the struggle to be chaste and the search for God. To achieve chastity and integrity, we need the union of mind and heart with the Risen Lord and this is gained in a life of prayer, the highest form of which is contemplative meditation.

The third part now compares the Buddhist and Catholic views on sexuality and marriage. The big difference lies in the sacredness of marriage for the Christian, which the Buddhist considers only as a secular contract of partnership. Except for this, the two traditions have the following similarities:

  1. Both religions view the precept in its wider significance beyond abstaining from unlawful sexual intercourse.
  2. Both traditions emphasize the importance of right individual intention, the mind or thought for the Buddha, the heart for Christ.
  3. Both religions present the positive side of the precept to uphold society, and not just a prohibitive, punitive power. Good conduct for the Buddha is not just adherence to the rules but an expression of nonattachment, friendliness, and wisdom. The Christian virtue of chastity is not just avoidance of unchastity but grounded in love.
  4. The body for both traditions, although having negative evaluations, is good. Both traditions then follow the middle path between extreme self-mortification and self-gratification.
  5. “Whether the concept of marriage is God-centered or person-centered, the greatness of the matrimonial union with love and fidelity is held in high esteem in both traditions” (p.200).
  6. Celibacy is highly esteemed by both traditions. Celibacy for both is grounded in love, a gentle compassionate heart for the Buddha and agape for the Christian.
  7. Both traditions emphasize mindfulness in the use of our senses and sexuality, with the help of meditation for the Buddhist and prayer for the Christian.

On the Fourth Sila as an Expression of Truthfulness

This chapter deals with the fourth sila, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from false speech, and the equivalent eight commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

 The first part begins with the importance of the fourth sila in the search for spiritual perfection. The author then enumerates the coverage of this precept concerning abstention from falsehood (that even includes vulgar talk) under three categories: direct falsehood, indirect falsehood, and the breaking of promises. The foundation of this precept is none other than truth itself, which is Dhamma(Dharma in Sanskrit). Dhamma can mean the Doctrine or the teaching of Buddha; the Law or justice, right conduct; the cause, the condition, the element of existence; the effect, the phenomena, the result, the consequence; and the Ultimate Reality.  From here the author explains the Four Noble Truths: 1) The nature of suffering, dukkha, which can be analyzed into three kinds, as pain, as change, and as conditions. 2) The origin of suffering is craving, tanha, literally meaning thirst, which has three types: craving for the objects of the senses, craving for existence, and craving for nonexistence. Craving crystallizes into grasping or attachment, which are of four kinds: attachment to the objects of sense desire, attachment to views, attachment to precepts and vows, attachment to the doctrine of the self. The determinative factor here is the mind, and thus ignorance becomes the root cause of suffering. 3) The cessation of suffering,nirodha, comes with the eradication of craving, the root cause of which is ignorance, leading to nirvana.  Here the author tries to bring out the different kinds of nirvana (as an event, the content of an experience, and the state or condition enjoyed by Buddhas and the arhats after death), the two types (nirvana with a remainder and nirvana without a remainder or after death with no rebirth), and the nature of nirvana itself which can only be described negatively. 4) The Way,magga, leading to the cessation of suffering is the noble eightfold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right collectedness. The positive virtue of the fourth sila, whose foundation is the truth, is none other than truthfulness. The perfection of truthfulness can be attained by practicing always saying the truth and restraining from false speech, which are of four kinds: 1) restraint from telling lies, 2) restraint from backbiting and slander, 3) restraint from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious, and abusive language, and 4) restraint from useless chatter and gossip.  The conditions for each of these are also given. The author ends this part with a discussion of truth and wisdom. The Buddha taught two kinds of truth: conventional truth or “the truth which agrees with what has been named by people,” and ultimate truth or “that which not only has been named by people but which really exists in its ultimate sense” (p. 219).  It is the latter that is the object of wisdom. Nirvana is such an ultimate truth that has three attributes: devoid of all distractions; devoid of consciousness, mental concomitant and matter; and devoid of craving. “The peace of nirvana is aspired for only when it is pondered after overcoming the craving by wisdom” (p.220).

In the second part, the author interprets the eighth commandment first in the light of the Hebrew understanding of lying, as a “spiritual distortion which does violence to man’s true being, to his communal relations, and to his standing with God,” who is truth Himself and who remains faithful to His covenant. Jesus confirms and perfects this precept by including swearing and St. Paul emphasizes truthfulness as “the correct means for building relationships among persons, and the indispensable condition for living together and being ‘members of one another’” (p. 222). As truth is not only something that we speak but also what we do and live, the author then presents a brief history of man’s search for truth from the Greek philosophers (Heraclitus, Parmenides, the Sophists, Plato, and Aristotle), then to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and to the modern philosophers (Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marx, the pragmatists, and the analytic philosophers). The presentation is rather sketchy and inadequate, and Heidegger should come after Marx.  Using the scriptures, the Catechism and John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, the author then presents the Christian’s understanding of truth. God is truth and we are therefore called to live, tell, do, and follow the truth, that is the word, law, and will of God incarnated in Christ and now continually revealed by the church under the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The next section then talks of the virtue of truthfulness, the “disposition by which one is, first, as absolutely open as possible to the truth; second, prepared to follow out in action the known truth unconditionally; and third, ready to share it with one’s fellowmen as something which is, at least in principle, due to them” (p. 232). This demands courage to seek out the truth, to face up to the truth in oneself. Truthfulness in conduct requires a person to act and live in conformity with his thoughts and words, and truthfulness in words requires the harmony of his words with his thoughts and knowledge, for this is a demand of justice, reverence and love for the other. “Truthful living requires both honesty and discretion, for our right to the communication of truth is not unconditional, nor are we bound to reveal particular truths to those who have no right to know them,” as in cases of private information, professional and confidential secrets (p. 233). The author then gives examples of violations against truthfulness, such as perjury, calumny, detraction, rash judgment, bragging, flattery, servility, or sycophancy.  Martyrdom is the highest form of the virtue of truthfulness. This part concludes with the liberating truth that is Jesus, touching on the inseparability of truth and freedom, especially on political matters, and the inseparability of divine truth, the Spirit of truth, and love, “because Love and Truth are two attributes of one and the same reality, of God” (p. 235).

In the third part, the author, after mentioning the similarity of both traditions with regards to lying—that it not only harms others but also goes against the value of seeking the truth, which is Dhamma for Buddhism and God for Christianity—presents the possibility and condition of dialogue between Buddhists and Christians. The author clarifies the saying of the Buddha of suspending judgment in matters of theory and revelation, that the “Buddha here does not reject completely the validity of divine revelation or other sources of knowledge,” but rather asserting that such a source of knowledge can be either true or false. Thus, there is possibility of dialogue but on condition that the partners in dialogue do not claim to have the monopoly of truth and are open to more light.  But in quoting John Paul II in his Veritatis Splendor and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the author to my mind presents a difficulty in such dialogue and a difference between the two religions. This is because the church “is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is ‘the way, the truth and the life’” (p. 238). The fundamental difference between Christianity and Buddhism is “that in Christianity ‘God becomes a Man [Jesus]’ and in Buddhism ‘Man becomes a God [the Buddha]’” (p.243). The Dhamma as the cosmic law of causation spoken by the Buddha is not identified with the Buddha or Buddhahood because this would lead to a metaphysics, which the Buddha rejected, and because there are many buddhas. As for the similarities, the author points to the following:

  1. Both religions forbid lying because it undermines community living and goes against the value of seeking the truth, necessary for the spiritual development of the person.
  2. Truthfulness for both traditions is witnessing to the truth exemplified by the bodhisattva for the Buddhist and by Jesus for the Christian.
  3. Truth, Dhamma for Buddhism and the Word for Christianity, is the driving principle in the universe.
  4. For both religions, the Truth is also the Way we should act, even at the risk of one’s life.
  5. For both traditions, the Truth liberates.

On the Fifth Sila as an Expression of Mindfulness or Awareness

This chapter deals with the fifth sila, “I undertake the rule of training to refrain from distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the occasion for carelessness,” and the Christian virtue of temperance or self-control. The fifth sila does not have an equivalent commandment or law.

In the first part, the author talks of the importance and reason for this precept, which forbids the taking not only of distilled and fermented intoxicants such as liquor, alcohol, wine, and beer but also Indian hemp, opium, marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs.  The violation of this precept brings occasion for carelessness and “often leads a person to the violation of other precepts” (p. 246).  The author enumerates the evil of liquors and drugs: waste of money, increase of quarrels, susceptibility to disease, earning of an evil reputation, shameless exposure of body, and weakening of intellect.  Then he brings out the spiritual purpose of this precept, “to act as an aid to ‘right mindfulness’” (p. 250).  Unlike the other precepts the violation of which is reprehensible by nature, the violation of this precept is only reprehensible by precept because sometimes a small amount of alcohol or drugs is permissible for medicinal purposes. The practice of mindfulness is not reserved for meditation alone but should also bear on every moment of our life. We should be watchful in food, work, behavior, and in the nature of life. The author then discusses the notion of ahara, which means food, nutriment, support. “On this simple word is hinged practically the entire teaching of the Buddha, particularly his specific doctrines of the process of becoming, rebirth without a soul, dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths and so on … because all that lives subsists on food” (p. 253). There are four types of sustenance: material food, physical contact, volition, and consciousness. Underlying all these is craving: craving the origin, craving the producer, and craving the source. Ahara therefore is also synonymous with causal condition and can be nutriment for the five hindrances (sensual desire, ill-will, tiredness and sleepiness, excitement and depression, and doubt) as well as for the seven elements of insight-wisdom (mindfulness, investigation of what is true, energy, zest, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity). Ahara is also used as a help to obtain what is desirable, dear, and charming but hard to win in the world, such as listening and questioning as aids to gaining wisdom. After ahara, the author tackles in detail the two kinds of meditation: tranquility meditation and insight meditation.  In tranquility meditation, a table of 40 objects of meditation and their corresponding personality types and levels of absorption (jhana) is given, followed by a list of six factors and various miracles associated with the fourth jhana. In the insight meditation, the author describes its process and factors (faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom), and differentiates it from tranquility meditation by its important results, namely insight and wisdom.  To arrive at these, the meditator undergoes four levels of jhana, each level having a distinct type of happiness (happiness of seclusion, happiness of concentration, happiness of equanimity, and happiness of purity of mindfulness) but still in the realm of conditioned phenomena. “Only if the meditator transcends this realm can he or she experience the ultimate happiness, the happiness of real peace, the happiness of Nirvana” (p. 263).

In the second part, the author begins his presentation of the Christian virtue of temperance or self-control by citing its importance as one of the four cardinal virtues. The virtue of temperance “disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine”(p. 266). There is nothing wrong in drinking in moderation or taking drugs as medicine. What is wrong is the excessive abuse of it that leads to addiction and codependency on the part of the spouse or someone living with the addict. Addiction harms the human body, affects the correct use of the intellect and will of the human person who is the image of God. The author is quick to quote the Pontifical Council to dig into the roots of the widespread drug dependency of current society, namely consumerism and unemployment. “Drug consumption is merely a deceptive answer to the lack of positive meaning of life” (p. 267). The author then enumerates the common characteristics of addiction and codependency (preoccupation, ritualization, compulsive behavior, and despair) and mentions the Twelve-Step Program for recovery by the authors of the book O Blessed Night who see these steps in the spiritual night of St. John of the Cross. A separate section is devoted to alcoholism, describing its psychological and social damages, already known by the writer of the Proverbs, and citing St. Thomas’ view on drinking wine. For St. Thomas, drunkenness is a sin but drinking wine as such is not unlawful as long as taken in moderation. Nevertheless, addicts are persons who need healing and, therefore, the Christian attitude towards them should be of loving concern.

Using biblical passages and St. Thomas, the author then discusses the cardinal virtue of temperance. Temperance has to do with moderating our sensual appetites as rational creatures gifted with a body that should reflect the image of God. Gluttony is thus a sin, a capital sin because it generates other vices that hinder spiritual growth and goes against charity and justice in the world where many people are dying of hunger. The next two sections deal with the relationship of contemplation and self-control, and with mystical wisdom. Contemplative prayer is “the state of perfect union with God through love,” and requires the deprivation of the appetite, which St. John of the Cross calls “dark night of the soul.” This emptying of oneself is a life-long task that also requires fidelity to prayer. Yet it is contemplation that moves one to self-control. Mystical wisdom is the knowledge and love of Christ, the manifestation of God’s Wisdom, crucified and risen from the dead. This wisdom is hidden from the senses, excludes discursive reflection and meditation, and can only be received and experienced with love, for God is both wisdom and love.

  In the third part, the author points to the following similarities between the fifth sila and the virtue of temperance:

  1. In both traditions, refraining from intoxicants applies also to drugs.
  2. Both religions emphasize the way of moderation in the taking of food and drinks.
  3. There is a spiritual purpose behind the precept and the virtue, the need to be watchful in order to achieve insight wisdom for the Buddhist, mystical wisdom for the Christian.
  4. In being watchful, both religions warn of the temptation of the devil, Marafor the Buddhist.

But after these similarities, the author highlights the Eucharistic celebration to draw Christian parallels to the Buddhist notions of ahara (food and nutrients),cetiya (a place of religious sanctity), and loka-dhatu (universe) with its five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space.

General Conclusion

Here the author summarizes the similarities of each of the five sila and the Catholic equivalent commandment(s) or virtue. The unity of their ethical traditions, the similarities in their teaching of universal love and service to the suffering masses, in promoting social justice and ecological harmony, are all expressions of spiritual experience.  But after noting all of these, the author devotes a section on the inter-religious dialogue in the light of the Eightfold Path, more specifically in the light of sila (ethical path), which involves the dialogue of life and action;samadhi (intellectual path), which entails the dialogue of intellectual exchange; and panna (mystical path) which is the dialogue of spiritual experience.  All three are interrelated, and all three must be included for a full and authentic dialogue to occur.  In the last section, the author provides guidelines for full authentic dialogue: the prerequisites for interreligious dialogue such as honesty, openness, and profound loyalty to one’s own tradition mentioned by Raimundo Panikkar and the eight guidelines of Seichi Yagi. He proceeds to list the obstacles to interreligious dialogue mentioned by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The last section discusses the issue of dialogue amid differences, whether the ultimate goal of both traditions is a single reality or different realities. If the ultimate goal is identical, then the pluralist position is upheld, which is rejected by the church, for then it would not make sense of the missionary spirit of the church. On the other hand, if the ultimate goal is different realities, then the question arises on how and why a good Buddhist can be saved. The answer to the question lies in the universal presence of the Spirit in all cultures and religions but still not separated from and can only find fullness in Christ and His church. The author does not give a definite answer to the issue, though he seems to be inclined to the latter position. He provides an example of dialogue between Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama. He concludes by the need for inter-religious dialogue not to establish a syncretistic religion but for mutual understanding of each other’s religion and deepening of one’s own faith that should move from simple sharing of spiritual experience to social action for a just society. “While having full and loyal commitment to their own faith, if Christians could find Insight from the Bo Tree and Buddhists could find Wisdom from the Cross, the future of humanity would be brighter and the face of the earth would be greener” (p. 307).

Some Comments

This is certainly a comprehensive, well-researched comparative study of the Pancasila and Catholic moral teaching that I would highly recommend for those interested in full authentic interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Buddhists. The author clearly sees this need in his own country, Burma. Since this is originally a doctoral dissertation, and if I imagine myself in the panel of examiners, I would not hesitate to make the following comments:

  1. The typographical and grammatical errors are numerous.
  2. Contrary to what is stated in the Glossary, that Pali and Sanskrit words are used very sparingly in the study, the reader can easily get lost in the frequent use of Pali and Sanskrit terms. The Glossary is not a help because it contains only terms used frequently in the dissertation.
  3. The philosophical parts of the Catholic moral teachings can be improved.
  4. Although St. Ignatius of Loyola is mentioned, there is a noticeable lack of Jesuit theologians who may have “alternative” views on the question of concupiscence like Karl Rahner, S.J., on truth like Bernard Lonergan, S.J.  The mysticism of Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., in his Hymn of the Universe can confirm the author’s treatment of the Eucharistic celebration as loka-dhatu,the creation of a new universe.
  5. Although the Buddha rejected metaphysical speculations, the first Noble Truth that existence is dukkha, suffering, is a metaphysical statement.  Just how similar with and how different is the Christian attitude towards suffering from the Buddhist’s? Here the philosopher Max Scheler, on whom John Paul II wrote his thesis, in his essay “The Meaning of Suffering,” can provide rich insights.
  6. The author emphasizes the moral principles of both religions as expression of spiritual experience. Is spiritual experience the same as religious experience? The question is important because Buddhism does not recognize a God who created everything and who incarnated Himself in Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
  7. If the Church holds on to its mission of evangelization, what truly is interreligious dialogue?

I commend the author for writing this work, for seeking mutual understanding between Buddhists and Catholics, and self-understanding of Catholics and Buddhists alike. In self-understanding, the difference is the same.