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1. Introduction 

Emptiness is the Buddhist concept that raises many debates and discussions among Western scholars. Especially, the Mahayana tradition has been emphasised on view of emptiness. Also, the doctrine of ethics is very important in Buddhism as the key approach leading to enlightenment. In fact, the most common criticism of Buddhist ethics is that emptiness terminates the concept of ethical action by literally emptying the world of meaning. To elaborate, while ethics categorizes wholesome and unwholesome with duality perception, emptiness has a different view with non-duality and insubstantiality of all things. However, understanding of emptiness and ethics, this is not a contradiction but two significant factors that help to cultivate wisdom and attain enlightenment. The following paragraphs will clarify the relationship of emptiness and ethics through the light of the Bodhisattva vows and precepts within the Mahayana tradition in detail.

2. Overview of emptiness and ethics in Buddhism 

According to Harvey (2013, p. 114), one of two main schools in Mahayana namely Madhyamaka was famous for Emptiness teaching that focuses on emptiness as the key concept. The meaning of emptiness has many misinterpretations and discussions for both scholars and Buddhist people. From the viewpoint of Nagarjuna, the most influential and extensively Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, emptiness describes all phenomena as a term of lacking independent and inherent existence (Garfield 1994, p. 219). Phenomena is emphasized the conditioned arising not only for the arising but also in their nature. Understanding emptiness is the comprehension for the true nature of reality. In the article of McRae (2003, p. 53), emptiness (sunyata) is identified as a doctrinal principle of Chan Buddhism itself. In Chan tradition, a sense of release, the realization of the universal sameness of all experiences, the acknowledgement of the basic emptiness of all things and especially the ability of the mind to clarify and understand all things are practices that orient the cultivation of enlightenment. 

Buddhism not only provides a system of ethics but also primarily concentrate on human conduct in the most sufficient meaning of the word. Actually, Buddhism faces with many problems because the approach and the use of words are not familiar with Western culture or modern world. Nevertheless, the application of teachings in Buddhism is practical for the purpose of ending suffering and sentient beings salvation. Within the Mahayana ethics, Leighton (2012, p. 41) shows that the foundational ground is Buddha-hood development and the Bodhisattva ideal. Ethics play a role as a connection between the monastic communities with the lay people. Especially, for Chan or Buddhism, the purpose is to engage with all sentient beings through social life and zen practices. From the research of Goodman (2014, p. 73), Mahayana ethics is a system that is full of precepts, values, virtues and moral model to guide followers an ethical life and achieve the happiness without suffering.

3. Emptiness and ethics in Bodhisattva vows and precepts

3.1 The meaning of Bodhisattva vows and precepts 

To begin with, Bodhisattva vows and precepts are acknowledged as the gate to authentic Zen practice. As explained in the book of Anderson (2016, p. 5), Bodhisattva vows and precepts propose a way to bring the calm and silence of meditative practice into active expression in everyday activities, a way for compassion to enter all parts of human lives. The vows and precepts are for those people who want to dedicate their lives to the freeing of all living beings from sufferings. However, the author also stresses that precepts are not only for moral or ethical orders but it is a map of the Buddha’s world. Following this map, people can find themselves as the Buddha. This statement raises an important concern for those who want to practice the Buddha’s teachings and find the inner Buddha. Most of people have a misinterpretation that vows or precepts can bring them merits but in Zen practices, emptiness is the core doctrine for followers to realize the ultimate truth.

In details, the sixteen great Bodhisattva precepts include three main groups such as Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts and Ten Grave Precepts (Hirakawa et al 1992, p. 147). The Three Refuges are the vows to take refuge for triple Treasures comprising of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Three Pure Precepts are vows to hold and maintain forms and ceremonies, to keep sustainability all good actions and to embrace and sustain all beings. Ten Grave Precepts point out to abstain from killing, stealing, misusing sexuality, lying, intoxicating mind or body, talking others’ mistakes, flattering self at the expense of others, being grasping of anything, holding ill will and disapproving the Triple Treasure. It can be seen that the Ten Grave Precepts encourage people to live ethically, maintain a clear mind, practice loving kindness and nonviolence for the purpose of not causing suffering to oneself or others. Generally, Bodhisattva vows and precepts cover all aspects of one individual’s life that they can not only be applied in spiritual approach but also in physical and mental life in order to bring the intensive benefits to protect living beings compassionately and thoughtfully.      

3.2 Emptiness and ethics contributes to establish a temperance or restraint to avoid all evils through Bodhisattva vows and precepts

Bodhisattva path points out the way for lay people to develop the borderlines of one’s own suffering that is different from the way of handling suffering from the consideration of suffering as in the early Buddhism. To clarify, the suffering recognized here is expanded not only from one’s own side but also from a variety of multiple perspectives of other sentient beings. In detail, most people follow the uniqueness of Bodhisattva path as the way to create good karma and motivation of the enlightenment process (bodhicitta) (Harvey 2000, p. 136). Remarkably, the desire for enlightenment is the basic step for a bodhisattva that is a repeat and continuous experience. It is worth to notice that the Bodhisattva path highlights the necessary understanding of others’ suffering. Based on this, the Bodhisattva assists to promote sympathy, compassion and wisdom to have right actions as Buddhism ethics concentrates on the outcomes of actions for suffering of all beings (Valez de Cea 2004, p. 140).  

In Chinese Buddhism, emptiness is the inherent Buddha nature of reality and individual beings. The Bodhisattva approach creates an opportunity to pursue salvific goals as the way to discover the true reality  (Adamek 2005, p. 149). In this article, the author analyses that in the understanding of enlightenment within Chan Buddhism, it is clearly to see that everything and nothing is merit. On the contrary, in Mahayana tradition, merit is often promoted to encourage Bodhisattva vows and precepts development and application. In the Platform Sutra, no distinction between good and evil is mentioned to describe the non-duality. Several Chan schools investigate this problematic issue in order to put more attention on the recognition of intrinsic Buddha nature and claimed that practices including practices for gaining merit were a form of delusion. In fact, Bodhisattva vows and precepts are conducted to help the followers practicing as the way to help all beings ending sufferings. This path keeps people to avoid all evils with wholesome practices not for gaining merit but for the finding of inner Buddha nature, it is called emptiness, as there are no differences among human beings. Bodhisattva path assists people to keep the mind calming that is fulfilled of compassion, generosity and wholesome states. These factors are very helpful on the way to attain the enlightenment.

Moreover, ethics in Buddhism with the cope of moral concern through Bodhisattva precepts is a good approach to stay away unwholesome thoughts and unskilful action. In fact, as Yeh (2006, p. 100) asserts that precepts are valuable as a starting point to build up a strong ethical and moral background that illustrates intensive care for other beings with a deep moral consideration. For example, precepts such as the avoidance of killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxicants that tends to cloud the mind are worth daily practices of harmony to stop conflicting and unwholesome states arising. 

3.3 Compassion as the fundamental foundation of Bodhisattva vows and precepts to cultivate the wisdom of emptiness and ethics 

Compassion is the key value of Mahayana tradition, especially in Chan/Zen Buddhism. Clearly, compassion has been emphasised as the strong motivation of the Bodhisattva path. Despite it is also indicated in early Buddhism and Theravada, compassion seems to be applied in social life more commonly and practically in Mahayana traditions. To be more specific, in the book to research the Bodhisattva path of Wright (2009, p. 15), the author explains the six perfections in a Bodhisattva path including generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, meditation and wisdom are conducted through practitioners who follow Bodhisattva path for the purpose of cultivating good conduct and seeking enlightenment. On one hand, good conduct is the main aim of Buddhist ethics to direct a person to comply with ethical rules and morality in order that Bodhisattva path can assist a practitioner to accumulate good character for the salvation of other sentient beings. On the other hand, the way to find enlightenment to recognize the true inner Buddha-hood and emptiness is not easy for most of people. In deep, there is in need of valuable tool and path to boost up the mind and wisdom to reach the state of emptiness. Especially, Bodhisattva vows and precepts create a specific path to ensure good opportunities for emptiness to arise.

Moreover, compassion is a fundamental value to assist a Bodhisattva to achieve these main goals. The typical example is the first perfection namely generosity or giving that helps to gain more merits, deal with karma and expect a better rebirth. Significantly, compassion is a basic platform to enhance the first perfection. As Martin (2004, p. 8) defines a bodhisattva is one who with full of love and compassion that has attained a recognition of bodhichitta (a mental state to achieve full enlightenment on the purpose of benefits to all living beings. In other words, bodhichitta is the practice of kindness and compassion. Interestingly, the author also indicates that when a bodhisattva engages in the training to commit with vows and precepts, it is not only simply meditation on compassion but also an engagement in real actions such as giving and other ethical disciplines to the sentient beings’ benefit. Look at the Brahma’s Net sutra in the Chinese tradition, Bodhisattva precepts have put the foundation of an ethical way of living and the necessary ground to a compassionate life for many Buddhists in East Asia.

It can be argued that compassion is the source of good dharma to help practitioners cope with difficult time and act ethically to any situations. From the viewpoint of Shih Heng-ching (1991, p. 13), the power of compassion can enable a person to do what they cannot imagine. Additionally, if one person fails to nurture compassion, it is really difficult to accomplish precepts and perfect the other five perfections. This component is required for a bodhisattva to perfect oneself and reach the liberation goal of emptiness in phenomena. There is a case that a person follows very strictly according to precepts to ensure the status of being ethical. However, there is lack of inner compassion such as good attitude and deep thinking to other being’s happiness. The outcomes will not be as expectation while practicing precepts.

Overall, the attainment of emptiness and ethical practices requires the development of compassion such as positive attitudes towards others as well as the observance of harmony and peace. It has to be careful aware the intention behind actions when practicing a great compassion. As a result, it is good to enhance the insight development with emptiness understanding.     

3.4 Bodhisattva is an ideal way with a specific project of saving others that requires the acknowledgment of emptiness and ethics 

 The Bodhisattva vows and precepts are designed as an ethical framework for people to follow. Especially, the six perfections of Bodhisattva contribute as main factors to help people practice appropriately. Within these perfections, the practice of material giving and social concerns are key values for those who practice Bodhisattva precepts. Technically, from the view of Buddhism, it does not enforce the law of morality but in fact ethical conducts and disciplines are considered as a natural demonstration of an awakened mind with the recognition of emptiness (Leighton 2012, p. 67).  Furthermore, the Bodhisattva approach helps to strengthen the faith and beliefs, compassion and freedom from three poisonous roots comprising of greed, hatred and delusion. Remarkably, traditional religious practices like rituals and refugee ceremonies are very popular in Chan/Zen Buddhism to express the motivation for mindfulness practices and the dedication to the Buddha. In additions, the role of three jewels including the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is put at the top priority for the followers. All these mentioned facts means to increase internal values to enhance ethical actions and the acknowledgment among Buddhist community in the Bodhisattva path.

Regarding to the commitment of saving all beings, the meaning of this aim is to be helpful and ethical actions to any beings in a case of contact. In other words, it is the responsibility to every sentient being. More importantly, in the research of Macy (1991, p. 27), both early Buddhism and Mahayana focus on the interrelationship of all beings. While in the early Buddhism the purpose is to liberate oneself from suffering, Mahayana tradition especially, Chan/Zen Buddhism tries to attain the liberation of all beings besides mindfulness practices. However, the two things that is extremely significant including the practical element and renunciation. For practical element, Pagel (1995, p. 140) argues that these purposes are so imaginative that hard to be implemented. Even though the doctrines of Mahayana are meditative, universal salvation and the insight of emptiness that are highly abstract, precepts of Bodhisattva are required to be conducted in daily life. Therefore, people can choose to practice the Bodhisattva vows and precepts with closet relationships before considering to a wider scope of mind. For renunciation, within the practice of Bodhisattva path, it is important to develop loving kindness toward others without attachment because it will help people to become stronger to develop a stable state of mind and loving attitude (Anderson 2016, p. 70). Once a person is free from attachment, it is possible to take a better care for others with the fulfilled energy and letting go of the conditions of suffering.

4. Conclusion 

In conclusion, this paper has explored the overall contribution of emptiness and ethics as two necessary factors without contradiction in the respects of Bodhisattva vows and precepts. The research starts with first exploring the principles emptiness and ethics in Buddhism and the meaning of Bodhisattva vows and precepts. The section found that emptiness and ethics contributes to establish a restraint to avoid evils through Bodhisattva path and precepts. The motivations are to develop the borderlines of one’s own suffering and the scope of moral concerns. The next section of this paper explored that compassion is a foundation of Bodhisattva vows and precepts to cultivate the wisdom of emptiness and ethics. And found that the project of saving others is the main point such as the six perfections in Bodhisattva path considered as a basic ethical framework and a commitment to responsible for all beings that requires the acknowledgement of emptiness and ethics. Hence, emptiness and ethics are two factors that both contributes to Bodhisattva vows and precepts for a practitioners or follower who want to find the way of liberation.


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