This article maps out three broad approaches to understanding the relationship between ethical behavior and meditation in examples of classical Buddhist literature. It then traces these approaches to the contemporary period, where they are echoed in modern articulations of meditation and mindfulness. I refer to these approaches as constructivist, deconstructivist, and innateist, or alternatively, making, unmaking, and discovering Buddhahood. The constructivist approach suggests that one cultivates and reinforces the qualities and virtues of a Buddha through meditation, along with abandoning those contrary to it. Meditation is also used to help fashion and reinforce a distinctively Buddhist lifeworld. The second approach is the deconstructivist move prominent in some Mahāyāna literature. In this attitude, the fundamental insight of emptiness (śūnyatā), the idea that nothing has independent, permanent, or enduring self-existence (svabhāva), supersedes all else, and meditation is not about cultivating virtues, but about deconstructing fixed concepts, reifications, and views. The third paradigm is the “innateist” model, which asserts that all qualities of the Buddha are already present in everyone; therefore, there is no need to cultivate them. Several contemporary approaches to Buddhist and Buddhist-derived meditation practice reflect these approaches as well as the tensions between them. These include meditation practices influenced by debates on the status of mental and emotional states in cognitive science, others influenced by a combination of Zen innateism and Romanticism, and innovative reinterpretations of the relationship between meditation and ethics by contemporary teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh.
Buddhist traditions have crafted a dizzying array of meditative practices over many centuries and across several distinct cultures. Virtually all of them have explicit or implicit connections to Buddhist understandings of “right behavior,” and Buddhist scriptures and commentary often reiterate the intimacy and mutual dependence of meditation and ethical conduct (śīla). However, the way this connection is understood is not entirely consistent across different traditions. Perhaps the most obvious relationship between these two complicated realms is that morality is considered preparatory to meditation. Proper meditation cannot be achieved if one is plagued by guilt and remorse; therefore, one must have one’s moral house in order before attempting to embark on a serious contemplative practice. A number of textual resources suggest this sequential approach, and it is undoubtedly a central pillar of traditional understanding. However, I aim to map out three other ways of construing the relationship between ethics and meditation, which I refer to as the constructivist, deconstructivist, and innateist approaches or, alternatively, making, unmaking, and discovering Buddhahood. John Dunne (2015) initially proposed the distinction between constructivist and innateist meditation; I aim to further develop and refine these concepts while adding the intermediate term, deconstructivist.
The constructivist approach suggests that one cultivates the qualities and virtues of a Buddha not only before but also through meditation, along with abandoning those that are contrary to pursuing awakening. Another aspect of the constructivist approach is that it uses meditation to help fashion and reinforce a lifeworld—a broad way of interpreting and inhabiting the world, in this case, a distinctively Buddhist lifeworld. The second approach to the relationship between ethics and meditation is the deconstructivist stance, which is prominent in some Mahāyāna literature. In this attitude, the fundamental insight into emptiness (śūnyatā), the idea that nothing has independent, permanent, or enduring self-existence (svabhāva), supersedes all else, and meditation becomes a matter not of cultivating virtues but of deconstructing fixed concepts, reifications, and substantialist views. The third approach is the “innateist” perspective, asserting that all qualities of the Buddha—including moral virtues—are already present in everyone, and therefore, there is no need to cultivate them. Meditation becomes a matter of uncovering this pre-existing, innate Buddha-nature.
I want to examine these three general tendencies in Buddhist meditation traditions, each of which configures the relationship of meditation to ethics in particular ways; then I consider a few ways these approaches carry over into contemporary Buddhist and Buddhist-derived meditation and mindfulness practices. These three ways of imagining the relationship between meditation and ethics are not necessarily exclusive; they overlap to some extent, and there may be elements of all three in some approaches. They are also not comprehensive—across the many centuries of Buddhist traditions inhabiting different cultural spheres, there may well be more than these three attitudes. I primarily focus on these because they are prominent in Buddhist meditation literature and relevant to contemporary meditation and mindfulness practices.