Buddhist Ethics


~ Unknown

Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body or speech is likely to be harmful to one’s self or to others and thereby avoiding any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of a skilled mind. A mind that is skilful avoids actions that are likely to cause suffering or remorse.

Moral conduct for Buddhists differs according to whether it applies to the laity or to the Sangha or clergy. A lay Buddhist should cultivate good conduct by training in what are known as the “Five Precepts”. These are not like, say, the ten commandments, which, if broken, entail punishment by God. The five precepts are training rules, which, if one were to break any of them, one should be aware of the breech and examine how such a breech may be avoided in the future. The resultant of an action (often referred to as Karma) depends on the intention more than the action itself. It entails less feelings of guilt than its Judeo-Christian counterpart. Buddhism places a great emphasis on ‘mind’ and it is mental anguish such as remorse, anxiety, guilt etc. which is to be avoided in order to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind. The five precepts are:

1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.

2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended that it is for you.

3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature.

4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.

5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.

These are the basic precepts expected as a day to day training of any lay Buddhist. On special holy days, many Buddhists, especially those following the Theravada tradition, would observe three additional precepts with a strengthening of the third precept to be observing strict celibacy. The additional precepts are:

6) To abstain from taking food at inappropriate times. This would mean following the tradition of Theravadin monks and not eating from noon one day until sunrise the next.

7) To abstain from dancing, singing, music and entertainments as well as refraining from the use of perfumes, ornaments and other items used to adorn or beautify the person. Again, this and the next rule.

8) To undertake the training to abstain from using high or luxurious beds are rules regularly adopted by members of the Sangha and are followed by the layperson on special occasions.

Laypersons following the Mahayana tradition, who have taken a Bodhisattva vow, will also follow a strictly vegetarian diet. This is not so much an additional precept but a strengthening of the first precept; To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. The eating of meat would be considered a contribution to the taking of life, indirect though it may be.

The Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, are governed by 227 to 253 rules depending on the school or tradition for males or Bhikkhus and between 290 and 354 rules, depending on the school or tradition for females or Bhikkhunis. These rules, contained in the Vinaya or first collection of the Buddhist scriptures,, are divided into several groups, each entailing a penalty for their breech, depending on the seriousness of that breech. The first four rules for males and the first eight for females, known as Parajika or rules of defeat, entail expulsion from the Order immediately on their breech. The four applying to both sexes are: Sexual intercourse, killing a human being, stealing to the extent that it entails a gaol sentence and claiming miraculous or supernormal powers. Bhikkhunis’ additional rules relate to various physical contacts with males with one relating to concealing from the order the defeat or parajika of another. Before his passing, the Buddha instructed that permission was granted for the abandonment or adjustment of minor rules should prevailing conditions demand such a change. These rules apply to all Sangha members irrespective of their Buddhist tradition.

The interpretation of the rules, however differs between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. The Theravadins, especially those from Thailand, claim to observe these rules to the letter of the law, however, in many cases, the following is more in theory than in actual practice. The Mahayana Sangha interprets the rule not to take food at an inappropriate time as not meaning fasting from noon to sunrise but to refrain from eating between mealtimes. The fasting rule would be inappropriate, from a health angle, for the Sangha living in cold climates such as China, Korea and Japan. When one examines the reason that this rule was instituted initially, the conclusion may be reached that it is currently redundant. It was the practice in the Buddha’s time for the monks to go to the village with their bowls to collect food. To avoid disturbing the villagers more than necessary, the Buddha ordered his monks to make this visit once a day, in the early morning. This would allow the villagers to be free to conduct their day to day affairs without being disturbed by the monks requiring food. Today, of course, people bring food to the monasteries or prepare it on the premises so the original reason no longer applies. As many of you would be aware, in some Theravadin countries, the monks still go on their early morning alms round, but this is more a matter of maintaining a tradition than out of necessity. Also, a rule prohibiting the handling of gold and silver, in other words – money, is considered by the Mahayana Sangha a handicap were it to be observed strictly in today’s world. They interpret this rule as avoiding the accumulation of riches which leads to greed. Theravadin monks tend to split hairs on this rule as, although most will not touch coins, many carry credit cards and cheque books.

Let me now deal briefly with the Buddhist attitude to violence, war and peace. The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

*Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat.(Dp.15,5) and

* Hatreds never cease by hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law. (Dp.1,5)

The first precept refers to the training to abstain from harming living beings. Although history records conflicts involving the so-called Buddhist nations, these wars have been fought for economic or similar reasons. However, history does not record wars fought in the name of propagating Buddhism. Buddhism and, perhaps, Jainism are unique in this regard. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has never suggested armed conflict to overcome the persecution and cruelty perpetrated by the Communist Chinese occupation forces. He has always advocated a peaceful and non-violent solution. Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia has urged Cambodians to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and to unify to re-establish their nation. He has written:

The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion. Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world.

Going back to the early history of Buddhism, Emperor Asoka, who, after a bloody but successful military campaign, ruled over more than two thirds of the Indian subcontinent, suffered great remorse for the suffering that he had caused, banned the killing of animals and exhorted his subjects to lead kind and tolerant lives. He also promoted tolerance towards all religions which he supported financially. The prevalent religions of that time were the sramanas or wandering ascetics, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains. He recommended that all religions desist from self praise and condemnation of others. His pronouncements were written on rocks at the periphery of his kingdom and on pillars along the main roads and where pilgrims gathered. He also established many hospitals for both humans and animals. Some of his important rock edicts stated:

1. Asoka ordered that banyan trees and mango groves be planted, rest houses built and wells dug every half mile along the main roads.

2. He ordered the end to killing of any animal for use in the royal kitchens.
3. He ordered the provision of medical facilities for humans and beasts.
4. He commanded obedience to parents, generosity to priests and ascetics and frugality in spending.
5. All officers must work for the welfare of the poor and the aged.
6. He recorded his intention to promote the welfare of all beings in order to repay his debt to all beings.
7. He honours men of all faiths.

Not all Buddhists follow the non-violent path, however. A Buddhist monk, Phra Kittiwutthi of the Phra Chittipalwon College in Thailand, is noted for his extreme right-wing views. He said that it was not a breech of the first precept to kill communists. He said that if Thailand were in danger of a communist takeover, he would take up arms to protect Buddhism. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai peace activist, reports in his book, “Seeds of Peace” that Phra Kittiwutthi has since modified his stance by declaring “to kill communism or communist ideology is not a sin”. Sulak adds that the monk confessed that his nationalist feelings were more important than his Buddhist practice and that he would be willing to abandon his yellow robes to take up arms against communist invaders from Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. By doing so, he said, he would be preserving the monarchy, the nation and the Buddhist religion. In contrast to the views of Phra Kittiwutthi, Sulak Sivaraksa reports that the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is of the view that ‘preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people’s lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated towards peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.

In conclusion, I will briefly mention some other issues mentioned in the Syllabus.

The third precept on training in restraint of the senses includes sexuality. A Buddhist should be mindful of the possible effects on themselves and on others of improper sexual activity. This precept would include adultery because this also breeches the precept of not taking what does is not freely given. A relationship with someone who is committed to another is stealing. Similarly in cases of rape and child abuse, one is stealing the dignity and self respect of another. One is also the cause of mental pain, not to mention physical pain so one is causing harm to another living being. Therefore, such behaviour is breaking several precepts.

Marriage is not a sacrament in Buddhism as it is in other religions. Marriage is governed by civil law and a Buddhist is expected to observe the prevailing law in whatever country they live. In the Theravadin tradition, monks are prohibited by their Vinaya rules to encourage or perform a marriage ceremony. The rule states:

Should a Bhikkhu engage to act as a go-between for a man’s intentions to a woman or a woman’s intentions to a man, whether about marriage or paramourage, even for a temporary arrangement, this entails initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha.

In many Theravadin countries, the couple will, following their marriage in a civil ceremony, invite the monks to their home to perform a blessing ceremony. They will offer food and other requisites to the monks and invite their family and friends to participate. In the Mahayana tradition the same rule conveys an entirely different meaning. It reads:

Should a Bhikkshu, seek to establish a conducive situation by means of which a man and a woman engage in sexual misconduct, either by himself, by order, or by means of messages, and as a result of his activities the man and woman should meet, he has committed an offence.

This rule does not preclude marriage but, rather, deals with the monk assuming the role of a procurer for immoral purposes. In Western countries, following the Christian precedent, many Mahayana monks become registered marriage celebrants so that, if called upon, a marriage ceremony can be performed in the temple. Generally, in countries where the law allows, Buddhists accept de-facto relationships. Promiscuity would be frowned upon as sexual misconduct but an ongoing relationship between two people, either within or outside of marriage would be considered moral conduct. As one of the essential Buddhist teachings is that everything is impermanent and subject to change, the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship between a couple would be understood in this light, so divorce would not be considered improper.

As far as bioethical questions are concerned, it is mainly a matter of the attitude of the different traditions or schools of Buddhism. This is tied to the concept of rebirth and when it occurs. According to the Theravadin tradition, rebirth occurs immediately upon death. The body of the deceased is no longer considered as a part of the former being, so such things as autopsies, organ transplants etcetera are allowable. In fact, many Theravadins, especially in Malaysia, encourage the donation of human organs as being the highest form of giving. Often, especially at Vesak, the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, blood donations are performed in the temple grounds. The Mahayana, on the other hand, believes that there is an intermediate state between incarnations, known as Antarabhava. Most people following this tradition try to avoid touching or moving the body for, at least eight hours after death. This, of course, means that the organs would by then be useless for transfer to another human being.

The Buddhist work ethic and business and professional ethics would, ideally be closely tied to respect for the environment. It is well described in E.F.Schumacher’s book “Small is Beautiful”:

“While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is the Middle Way and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well being. The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and non-violence. From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfying results.”

Ken Jones in a paper called “Buddhism and Social Action” comments: “Schumacher outlines a ‘Buddhist economics’ in which production would be based on a middle range of material goods (and no more), and on the other a harmony with the natural environment and its resources.

The above principles suggest some kind of diverse and politically decentralised society, with co-operative management and ownership of productive wealth. It would be conceived on a human scale, whether in terms of size and complexity or organisation or of environmental planning, and would use modern technology selectively rather than being used by it in the service of selfish interests. In Schumacher’s words, ‘It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way, between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding Right Livelihood'”.

Despite the theory surrounding Buddhist business practice, greed still seems to be the order of the day in many Buddhist countries. In Thailand, a monk in the north, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo, has been leading a campaign against the environmental vandalism of the timber industry. Tree felling in Northern Thailand has caused erosion, flooding and has economically ruined small farmers. For his environmental efforts, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo has had death threats and was recently arrested. In Japan, another country where the majority of the population is Buddhist, the killing of whales and dolphins is still prevalent. Animals seem to find no place in the group culture of Japanese society.

As may be seen from the foregoing, Buddhist ethical principles are very noble and in an ideal world their practice would lead to peace and harmony but, unfortunately, as the Buddha has taught, people are motivated by greed hatred and delusion – even Buddhists.