Amod Lele recently asked whether there is an emic Buddhist morality or whether this is only a Yavanayāna invention
(i.e., an invention of contemporary Western-trained Buddhists). The question is in itself interesting, but the discussion it triggered is even more, since Jayarava (who blogs here) added the problem of the possible inconsistency of the doctrine of karman if one denies the continuity of the self. That there is a problem cannot be denied: Why should we care about the karman our actions accumulate, if it is not going to affect “us”?
Now, I am tempted to answer that we should care, just like we should care for global warming, although it is not going to affect us. We should start thinking altruistically about future human beings and their well-being. Similarly, if I were a 5th c. Buddhist, I would want to avoid accumulating bad karman, since this would lead to bad consequences, although not for me (since I do not exist). Incidentally, one might add that I do not care for the consequences of global warming on future generations just because I am deluded and think of them a substantial selves very much different from my self. Once I realise that there is no continuity in what I consider to be my self, I will probably cease seeing the discontinuity as so sharf. Jayarava replied to the above point by saying that this would not motivate anyone to be moral —in fact, global warning does not seem to motivate most people to act for the benefit of other people in the future. I agree that it does not motivate normal (i.e., deluded) people, who only act for the sake of their non-existent self, but I think that it could motivate people who have undertaken the Buddhist path and are becoming aware of the reality of anātmatā. I agree with Jayarava that normal people will need to think of karman as something regarding themselves and that in this sense there are two parallel narratives in Buddhist texts (one about anātmatā and one about morality—which presupposes an enduring self). However, as someone who methodologically tries to make as much sense as possible of the texts she reads, I feel compelled to try to find a possible way to avoid the contradiction —and the global warning parallel comes to my mind as a suitable one.
However, another commenter, Jim Wilton, takes a different line of defense, namely, he says that the idea of a permanent self as a support for the continuity of karman is a sort of a merciful lie, needed for us, deluded people, although its falsity is clear to the Bodhisattva who utters it. Jayarava replies that he does not want a patronalising Bodhisattva treat him like a child. This is an interesting (and appealing —at least to me) reaction. Thus, I wonder:
Does the doctrine of upāyakaśalya imply or at least justify merciful lies?