Elevate Difference

Destroying Mara Forever: Buddhist Ethics Essays in Honor of Damien Keown

Destroying Mara Forever is by no means a leisurely read. Reading this collection of rigorously researched essays, I found myself personally engaged with the questions raised by these great scholars and I am grateful to have had such rich food for thought. The collection honors the work of Damien Keown, now retired Professor of Buddhist Ethics at London’s Goldsmith College. Keown’s body of work has significantly shaped the field of Buddhist studies and has greatly advanced its progress into the twenty-first century.

Applying traditional Buddhist ethical principles and the arguments found in myriad texts both ancient and contemporary, the essays explore issues central to our lives today. Contributor Ian Harris states that “[traditional Buddhism] is incapable, without modification, of responding to the present environmental crisis” and as I think this collection superbly demonstrates it is not just the environmental crisis that traditional Buddhism must evolve to address, but most of today’s pressing issues. In this volume, Buddhism is called upon to take a stance on contemporary issues like capital punishment, the environment, valuation of physical appearance, consumerism, technology, and war.

My attraction to Buddhist philosophy is largely due to the principle of compassion at the heart of Buddha’s teachings, and it was with great interest that I turned to "Buddhist Perspectives on Crime and Punishment." In this essay, author Peter Harvey examines the history of torture and the death penalty in Buddhist societies and what early Buddhist texts have to say on this controversial matter.

In this and other essays, debate arises from the finer points of translation and in many cases, from individual scholars applying interpretation to more elusive words. For instance: did the renowned Indian Buddhist emperor Aśoka apply the death penalty? Some translations indicate he may have tolerated it, though there is also evidence that he was the “first [known] ruler in history recorded to have abolished the death penalty.”

Careful and critical examination of the multiple sides of an issue is consistent throughout this collection. Some fundamental precepts become obsolete as argued in one of the most thought-provoking essays, "In Search of a Green Dharma: Philosophical Issues in Buddhist Environmental Ethics." Christopher Ives examines the arguments of the great Buddhist thinkers, from Keown to Gary Snyder on topics including interdependence, responsibility, identification with nature, intrinsic value, equality, animal rights, and the sacredness of nature as they relate to the current environmental crisis.

We see how examining contemporary environmental issues through a lens of traditional Buddhist doctrine can quickly create absolutes and even hold the wrong parties responsible. For example the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda "conveys that nothing has a soul or unchanging essence" and therefore we are all interdependent parts of a single greater self. Zen teacher Joan Halifax calls this the greater "ecological self". To follow this line of thinking, Ian Harris says "then the black rhino depends on the hydrogen bomb, the rainforest on the waste dump."

The essays collected in Destroying Mara Forever do not shy away from questioning the relevance of foundational doctrine to answer today's greatest ethical dilemmas, and do so in pointed and respectful debate that leads one to continue that questioning and apply it to other issues.

Written by: Matsya Siosal, February 7th 2010