The Ethical Foundations of Buddhist Cognitive Models
Presentations of Greed and Fear in the Theravāda Abhidhamma
Keywords:Buddhist ethics, Theravāda Abhidhamma, ethics in the Abhidhamma, fear and greed in Theravāda Buddhism
While issues related to greed and fear are ubiquitous in everyday life, they become particularly evident in crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, when societal responses are frequently based on either fear of the disease or craving for the reestablishment of pre-pandemic “normal” life. In this context, a question can be posed whether it is possible to approach and understand these phenomena in other ways, and consequently respond in a different manner. In search for alternative approaches to the problem of human greed and fear, this article investigates their conceptualisations from the perspective of the Theravāda Abhidhamma, an important formulation of ancient Indian Buddhist philosophy. The Abhidhamma analyses and expounds the processes of cognition, using a multivalent and complex structure, comprised of interrelated and interdependent components (dhamma), which are involved in the ever-changing flow of mental and physical phenomena. This article proposes that the entirety of the structural cognitive model of the Abhidhamma is founded on, and permeated by ethics. The components involved in cognitive processes are classified in three ways, as ethical, unethical, or indeterminate; greed and fear are presented as components of unethical mental states, which in turn may lead to actions that are harmful to oneself and society. This Abhidhammic analysis of cognition provides a model, in which a different conceptualisation of greed and fear is presented; it identifies those components and conditions for cognition which allow for an ethical (kusala) stance and consequently ethical actions. The article thus propounds that the knowledge of cognitive models of ancient India can be relevant to the search for new approaches to contemporary ethical challenges, and may contribute to a different understanding of, and responses to, greed and fear.
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