Built on Emptiness: Śūnyatā as a Basis for Mahāyāna Ethics, With References to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra


  • Greg Mileski Boston College




In a 1968 conference, Luis O. Gomez acknowledged that the Buddhist conception of emptiness (śūnyatā) presents a challenge to the Western tradition of philosophical ethics and has given rise to charges of nihilism, even in Buddhism’s ancient setting. However, Gomez argues, that, far from leading adherents to an ethical nihilism, these doctrines provide a unique lens through which to see the motivations of Buddhist ethics. Beginning with the essay that followed from his presentation and continuing with the works of other Buddhist ethicists (Stephen A. Evans, Barbara A. Clayton, Jay Garfield, Stephen E. Harris, for instance), this paper analyzes and illustrates the ways that śūnyatā shapes a Mahāyāna Buddhist systematic ethic. After examining the ontological grounding which these conceptions illustrate, this paper then asks toward what kind of ethical issues are adherents oriented and what kinds of ethical responses are compelled. Finally, this paper addresses the ways that śūnyatā provides a basis for prioritizing ethical responses when conflicts are apparent. While several of the writers analyzed point out that developing such a systemic understanding of Buddhist ethics has not been a priority for the tradition, this paper agrees with those who assert that doing so is helpful less for the tradition itself and more for the cross-cultural conversations that facilitated by a shared vocabulary. Such common ground allows for a constructive cross- cultural comparison that may lead to better understandings of the ways that ethical systems are derived and operative.