Facing death from a safe distance: saṃvega and moral psychology

Journal of Buddhist Ethics 23:83-128 (2016)
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Abstract

Saṃvega is a morally motivating state of shock that -- according to Buddhaghosa -- should be evoked by meditating on death. What kind of mental state it is exactly, and how it is morally motivating is unclear, however. This article presents a theory of saṃvega -- what it is and how it works -- based on recent insights in psychology. According to dual process theories there are two kinds of mental processes organized in two" systems" : the experiential, automatic system 1, and the rational, controlled system 2. In normal circumstances, system 1 does not believe in its own mortality. Saṃvega occurs when system 1 suddenly realizes that the "subjective self" will inevitably die (while system 2 is already disposed to affirm the subject's mortality). This results in a state of shock that is morally motivating under certain conditions. Saṃvega increases mortality salience and produces insight in suffering, and in combination with a strengthened sense of loving-kindness or empathic concern both mortality salience and insight in suffering produce moral motivation.

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Lajos L. Brons
Lakeland University

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