Searching for a Mahāyāna Social Ethic

Journal of Religious Ethics 24 (2):351 - 375 (1996)
Mahāyāna ethics has a threefold emphasis: avoiding all evil, cultivating good, and saving all beings. Most Western studies of Buddhist ethics have used Pali and Sanskrit sources to examine the first two components, which are based on monastic codes for avoiding wrong doing and attain- ing virtue. Among the few studies of the third category, which includes Buddhist social ethics, East Asian Mahāyāna materials have been sadly lacking despite the Mahāyāna rhetoric about saving all beings. To correct this deficiency, this paper analyzes an early lay Mahayana text, the Updsaka Precept Sūtra. The Upāsaka differs from earlier Buddhism and from many other Mahāyāna texts in two ways: it gives supremacy to com- passionate action in society rather than monastic spiritual attainment, and it asserts that helping others out of compassion is the highest practice and best way to attain enlightenment.
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