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Buddhist Bioethics


According to Buddhism, this process continues for an individual because he or ... Buddhism ... In Buddhism there seems to be a key toward understanding which ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Buddhist Bioethics

Buddhist Bioethics
  • Soraj Hongladarom
  • Department of Philosophy
  • Chulalongkorn University

Outline of Talk
  • The role of culture and religion in bioethics
  • Buddhist viewpoints on a number of issues
  • Life and death
  • Genetic modification of organisms
  • Global justice

Bioethics and Culture
  • This will be the main topic for my other talk.
  • However, one should start with consideration of
    the issue, since bioethics concerns questions of
    value, which are naturally related with how
    cultures shape attitudes and value judgments of a

  • Buddhism is the main religion of the people in
    many countries in SE Asia, China, Japan, Korea,
    Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
  • The main goal of the Buddhist is to become
    liberated from the cycle of samsara, the process
    of becoming born, dying and being born again.
  • According to Buddhism, this process continues for
    an individual because he or she does not see the
    truth as it is in itselfthat things do not have
    inherent existence and look as they are only
    because one is attached to certain false views.

  • Liberation is possible when the individual sees
    through this illusion and acknowledges the truth
    as it really is. Thus he or she is freed from
    defilements, i.e., mental traits such as greed,
    anger and delusion, that result from ego
    formation, and it is this ego formation that
    compels the individual to go through the process
    over and over.

  • The state of being liberated is called nirvana.
    Literally the word is being extinguished.
  • The entire corpus of the Buddhist teaching can be
    summed up as follows
  • Do what is good.
  • Avoid what is evil.
  • Practice so that the mind is clear.

Buddhism and Ethics
  • Naturally Buddhism has a lot to say about ethics.
  • The first two teachings alluded to above deal
    directly with ethics.
  • However, it is always contentious to judge what
    kind of action is good or bad, and this is
    especially the case in the contemporary world
    where advances in science and technology have
    complicated the picture tremendously.

Buddhist Ethics
  • In Buddhism there seems to be a key toward
    understanding which action is right or virtuous,
    or the oppositeone needs to discern what kind of
    consequences that action will bring.
  • Hence it appears that Buddhist ethics is a kind
    of consequentialism. This is understandable since
    what is valuable is judged as whether it will
    bring about the main result, nirvana, or not.

Buddhist Ethics
  • Even so, however, one still needs to find ones
    way, especially with regards to questions in
    ethics of science and technology, because
    actually it is not the actions themselves that
    will bring about the Main Goal rather it is the
    quality of the mind of the one who is making the
    decision that is at issue.

Buddhist Ethics
  • Thus there is no necessary conflict between
    Buddhist ethics and the secular brand of ethics
    popular in the West nowadays.
  • One still needs reasoning and deliberation among
    members of ones groups and communities to find
    out the optimal course of action in these issues.
    One cannot just take a passage from the Canon and
    pronounce that this is what Buddhism says
    regarding issues such as GMOs or abortion or

Specific Issues Life and Death
  • Be that as it may, Buddhism can also give general
    guidelines to the specific ethical issues that
    are being debated today.
  • Lets start with the issues of life and death,
    especially cloning and death criteria for
    transplantation purposes.

  • My colleague Somparn Promta has written a number
    of works dealing with the Buddhist attitude
    toward cloning of mammals.
  • His idea is that Buddhism does not have an
    objection in principle to either therapeutic or
    reproductive cloning, the reason being that these
    are the technologies that facilitate giving birth
    and hence are unobjectionable.

  • According to him, the moral objections to cloning
    do not hold their ground in Buddhism because they
    hold false presuppositions.
  • For example, the objection that cloning is wrong
    because it means humans are playing God is not
    accepted because in Buddhism there is no God.
    (Actually there are gods, but they are not given
    much respect.)

Reproductive Cloning
  • According to Somparn, Buddhism has little against
    reproductive cloning, since it is aimed at
    producing a human being, not killing it.
  • However, when the process involves a lot of
    killing (as when many embryos have to be
    destroyed), the process can become objectionable.

Therapeutic Cloning
  • The case for therapeutic cloning is a little
    different. Here intentional killing of embryos
    are involved.
  • But Somparn has the idea of distinguishing the
    individual and the social aspect of Buddhist
    ethics. An action may be wrong according to the
    first regard, but may be acceptable according to
    the second.

  • At present Thai law does not allow free abortion.
    Abortion can only be performed when the mother
    has been raped and keeping the baby would fatally
    harm the mother.
  • There have been calls for expanding the
    restriction so that the mental health of the
    mother is included too.

  • The rather severe injunction against abortion
    presumably comes from the Buddhist belief in the
    sanctity of life and its prohibition of killing
    in general.
  • A result is that there are more than hundreds of
    thousand of cases of illegal abortions each year,
    and reports of mothers abandoning or killing
    their babies have become commonplace in the media.

End of Life
  • Buddhism pays special attention to death and
  • As for the question of death criteria, Buddhism
    in general holds that someone is dead when he or
    she stops breathing.
  • So the brain-death criterion is something new for
    the Buddhist to think about.

Brain Death
  • The key question is whether the consciousness
    (vijnana) has left the body for good or not.
  • This can be translated as whether the death of
    the brain is reversible or not.
  • More problem ensues when the criterion becomes
    the death of higher brain, not the whole of the
  • In that case, has consciousness gone from the
    body for good?

Organ Transplantation
  • Is selling ones own bodily parts objectionable
    according to Buddhism?
  • There are stories of bodhisattvas (those who are
    intent on becoming the Buddha and to help
    sentient beings) intentionally giving their flesh
    to a hungry lioness who has to feed her cubs but
    is to weak to hunt.

Genetic Modification of Organism
  • One of basic arguments against GMO is that it
    violates the course of nature.
  • But according to Buddhism nothing is unnatural,
    and in fact the Canon has stories about magicians
    transforming life forms into many strange shapes,
    and there was nothing particularly wrong about
    such action.
  • So it can be inferred that Buddhism has nothing
    in principle against genetic modification of

  • What could be wrong, on the other hand, is that
    in many instances producing GMOs is motivated not
    through altruistic attitude to help mankind, but
    to gain profit and power over food producers.
  • Thus the motive becomes greed rather than
    altruism, and as such the action becomes
  • Perhaps this can be rectified if the developers
    of GM technologies and the traditional food
    producers and consumers deliberate together
    without one side being disadvantaged as to the
    real benefits and the course of action society
    should take on this issue.

Global Justice
  • Many contentious issues surrounding GMOs involve
    the lack of balance in power between the large
    multinational corporations and the poor farmers
    in developing countries.
  • This brings in the topic of global justice How
    can global justice be assured in the case of
    production, distribution and utilization of GM
    technology worldwide? And what can Buddhism
    contribute to this?

Socially Engaged Buddhism
  • Recently a growing number of Buddhists have come
    to see that the way the religion is being
    practiced in their own societies contributed
    little to social activism because it paid too
    much emphasis on individual liberation and
    esoteric rituals. So they formed themselves and
    tried to introduce another way of practicing that
    could lead directly to concrete changes in

Social Engaged Buddhism and Global Justice
  • So it is conceivable that this kind of Buddhism
    might contribute quite a lot to the quest for
    global justice.
  • First of all, the GMO issue has become one of
    global justice because it is much involved with
    equality (or lack thereof) among the nations of
    the world.

  • Buddhism can contribute significantly to the
    global debate on bioethics.
  • Its most significant contribution can be found in
    the teaching that it is the quality of the mind
    that is crucial to the question whether the
    action is ethical valuable or not.
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