A Nirvana that Is Burning in Hell: Pain and Flourishing in Mahayana Buddhist Moral Thought

Sophia 57 (2):337-347 (2018)
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This essay analyzes the provocative image of the bodhisattva, the saint of the Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition, descending into the hell realms to work for the benefit of its denizens. Inspired in part by recent attempts to naturalize Buddhist ethics, I argue that taking this ‘mythological’ image seriously, as expressing philosophical insights, helps us better understand the shape of Mahayana value theory. In particular, it expresses a controversial philosophical thesis: the claim that no amount of physical pain can disrupt the flourishing of a fully virtuous person. I reconstruct two related elements of early Buddhist psychology that help us understand this Mahayana position: the distinction between hedonic sensation and virtuous or nonvirtous mental states ; and the claim that humans are massively deluded as to what constitutes well-being. Doing so also lets me emphasize the continuity between early Buddhist and Mahayana traditions in their views on well-being and flourishing.

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Stephen E. Harris
Leiden University


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