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Orthopraxy

AsiaBuddhism

Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not interested in right action, as action itself is tied up in the ignorance and desire that Buddhism is intended to overcome. At least with respect to its ultimate aims, Buddhism is primarily interested in realizing the emptiness (shunyata) of action (as well as all other things, especially the self), and thus achieving enlightenment (nirvana). As Buddhists find themselves faced with a world that demands decisions in the midst of this quest for enlightenment, however, they have found it useful and appropriate to comment on what would constitute right practice in such a context. The most prominent example of this is found in the Eightfold Path for achieving enlightenment, as laid out in Gautama Buddha's (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.E.) first sermon. This path consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Samyutta-nikaya, 420). From this account, at least two things become clear: The first is that Buddhism is not entirely antinomian—it is quite possible to follow the wrong path; the second is that, while right beliefs play an important role in Buddhist practice, greater emphasis is placed on right practice. At least at the origins of Buddhism, enlightenment was possible only when one's practices were consistent with the Eightfold Path.

Following the death of Gautama Buddha, however, Buddhism ceased to have any centralized religious authority and thus found it difficult to maintain any consistency with respect to its interpretation of the Buddha's message. It is notable that the early Buddhists held councils to determine right belief and practice, but—as evidenced by the various accounts of different schools—they proved less than effective at achieving any substantive degree of consistency. Rather, as Buddhism was interpreted by different persons in increasingly different contexts (in Tibet, China, and Japan), this diversity only compounded. Indeed, such diversity of practice is often considered a virtue: according to the doctrine of upaya-kaushalya (skillful means), the Buddhist message is not seen as something static but rather something to be altered in such a way as to be effectively communicated to its intended audience. Thus, at least in theory, the diversity of forms that Buddhist practices can take is potentially limitless. These differences should not be overstated, because there is still an underlying consistency to Buddhism that affirms prevalence of illusion and the need for enlightenment; however, the practices that are pursued as a means to that end vary remarkably among the various schools of Buddhism.

Aside from the Eightfold Path, Buddhist orthopraxy is also exemplified in rituals and monastic orders. Rituals of one form or another are practiced by all Buddhists—monks and nuns, as well as laypersons—and pertain to actions whose merit can be applied toward achieving nirvana or a better position in the next reincarnation. This includes not only engaging in virtuous behavior and avoiding vicious behavior, but also participating in ceremonies, acts of devotion, and other symbolic acts. Significantly, whereas ritual is seen as secondary to meditation in most Buddhist traditions, it is given equal status and prominence in Tibetan Buddhism for the attainment of enlightenment. Monastic orders, in turn, offer a more disciplined approach, including an increased enforcement of orthopraxy in order to assist in aligning one's actions with the path to enlightenment (as the path is understood by that particular monastery). These practices differ from monastery to monastery, but they generally follow from the doctrinal commitments of each monastery. Like their monastic practices, Buddhist practices in general also vary markedly from context to context; what holds true in Buddhism across the board, however, is that these practices—whatever they are—are always designed to bring local Buddhists ever closer to nirvana.

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