What are Buddhist Ethics?

Sangharakshita founder of the Triratna Buddhist Community talking about ethics.

Ethics is the starting point of any meaningful spiritual development. The central idea of Buddhist ethics is that of karma, the principle according to which willed actions have consequences that depend on the state of mind in which they are committed. Actions performed on the basis of negative volitions, such as anger, aversion, greed and spiritual ignorance, will at some point have a negative effect on the person committing them – and other people with whom that person comes into contact – causing suffering to all concerned. Conversely, actions performed on the basis of positive mental states, such as love, compassion and generosity, have a positive effect, resulting in states of happiness for the doer and others.

This has important implications. What it means, first and foremost, is that ethics is not dictated to us from outside by some kind of higher authority. There is no creator God in Buddhism, no external agency to punish us if we transgress; we are responsible for our own happiness and our own suffering. It also means that we can learn to be more ethical – Buddhism uses the term “skilful” to denote actions performed on the basis of wholesome states of mind, and “unskilful” for the opposite – and develop our capacity for ethics right up to the point of eliminating unskilfulness altogether. Positive mental states give rise to happiness, which in turn naturally gives rise to more positive mental states: a “virtuous circle” which results in ever happier and ever more skilful states of mind – with absolutely no limit.

A Buddha is incapable of acting unethically. The Enlightened mind is totally free of hatred, anger, greed and confusion. The natural expression of such a mind is compassionate action, and it is a mind that we too can cultivate. But we can’t just spontaneously do this, which is why Buddhism suggests certain training principles, all of which are based on love.

The five ethical precepts practised by Buddhists are principles that emulate the spontaneous behavior of an Enlightened being and are based in a deep sense of interconnectedness and love.

The five precepts

To help us act skilfully in the hurly-burly of everyday life we need some simple guidelines we can carry constantly in our mind. The simplest and most general set of ethical guidelines in Buddhism are the Five Precepts. These are guides to how an Enlightened being would behave, which we can follow in order to act as if we were an Enlightened being, and therefore to develop our own potential for Enlightenment.

The Five Precepts express a set of fundamental spiritual principles: kindness, generosity, contentment, integrity, and awareness. Obviously they are not ‘commandments’, and it is important that we don’t take them on as though they were imposed on us from outside. We need to think for ourselves about the principles involved, and to decide whether we agree that they express our own deep values. In doing this it might help to think about what it would be like to aim for the opposite – cruelty, stinginess, craving, dishonesty, and escapism. It is possible that someone might take one of these as a guiding value, but it is very difficult to see how such a person could be a Buddhist! In fact the principles behind the Five Precepts are so basic to any sort of spiritual life that they probably seem self-evident. Accepting these principles as reflecting our own deep values is fundamental to becoming a Buddhist.

Each of the Five Precepts has a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ form. The negative forms advise us what not to do – they set alarm bells ringing when we are about to do or say something unskilful. The positive forms express the general principles we should be aiming for, and are the more general and important of the two sets.

The five precepts, which we usually chant together in a language called Pali, are translated as follows into English:

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.
4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

The positive counterparts are stated as follows:

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

think before you speakWe won’t get it right all the time. But that is the point of training principles – we can practise and improve our “skill” in ethics. Buddhism maintains that it is possible to perfect one’s ethics, something which makes it a profoundly hopeful spiritual path.

To know what these precepts are getting at takes a basic understanding and experience of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. Ethics is one of the subjects covered in our 4-week Introduction to Buddhism course. It is also the first part of what is known as the Threefold Path, which is Ethics, Meditation, and Wisdom.

Related Links

More information about the Triratna Buddhist Community: www.thebuddhistcentre.com
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Food of Bodhisattvas:
Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat

From Tricycle Blog
Posted by Sam Mowe on Mar 8th 2011

food-bodhisattvas-buddhist-teachings-abstaining-meatDue to Buddhist teachings on nonviolence and compassion, people often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians. Indeed, many Tricycle readers cried foul after we ran a recipe in the Winter 2010 issue that listed chicken as an ingredient. One letter to the editor said, “I feel this [recipe] is as disturbing in your magazine as it would be if it had been published in Vegetarian Times. Please no more chicken recipes.” We printed a short response saying that while we respect vegetarianism, the fact is that many Buddhists eat meat. (Note: personally when I say I “respect” vegetarianism, I mean it in the “hold in high esteem” sense of the word, not like “I respect your right to eat whatever you like.” Also, a fun fact: when it comes to dietary restrictions the Tricycle staff is a motley crew.)

Of course, the fact that many Buddhists choose to eat meat does not mean that it is an enlightened thing to do. We are killing sentient beings for food, after all. In a previous blog post (“The Meat Question“) I tried to create a space for people to talk about the issue of meat eating without losing their heads (it didn’t work: one of the first commenters wrote “Is there an ethical way to rape a woman? How about an ethical way to murder a child?”… not exactly an inviting way to start a dialogue).

In an effort to continue exploring this important question, let’s take a look at an excerpt I came across recently in Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, an impassioned Buddhist critique of eating meat from the famed Tibetan wanderer and pilgrim, Shabkar (1781-1851). The following comes from the second text in Food of Bodhisattvas, entitled The Nectar of Immortality. In it he raises two compelling questions: 1) If every sentient has been our mother, how can we eat their flesh? and 2) How can bodhichitta [the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings] be developed if we are craving meat?

meat-webIt is said that if we eat evil food, if we consume the flesh and blood of beings who were once our mother or our father, we will, in a future life, take birth in the hell of Screaming, which, of the eighteen, is one of the hot hells. To the extent that we once consumed their flesh, so now red-hot clubs of iron will be forced into our mouths, burning our vital organs and emerging from our lower parts. We will have the experience of endless pain. And even when we are born again in this world, for five hundred lives we will take birth in monstrous and devouring forms. We will become demons, ogres, and executioners. It is said too that we will be born countless times among the outcasts, as butchers, fisherman, and dyers, or as carnivorous beasts thirsting for blood: lions, tigers, leopards, bears, venomous snakes, wolves, foxes, cats, eagles, and hawks. It is clear therefore that, for the gaining of high rebirth in divine or human form, and thus from progress on the path to freedom, the eating of meat constitutes a major obstacle.

Most especially, we have been taught that the primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta. Bodhichitta in turn arises from the roots of compassion and is the final consummation of the skillful means of the six paramitas. It is stated in the tantra The Perfect Enlightenment of Bhagavan Vairochana: “The primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta, which arises from the roots of compassion and is the fulfillment of the entire scope of skillful means.” It is therefore said that one of the greatest obstacles to the birth of bodhichitta in our minds is our craving for meat. For if great compassion has not arisen in our minds, the foundation of bodhichitta is not firm. And if bodhichitta is not firm, we may well claim a hundred times that we are of the Mahayana, but the truth is that we are not; we are not Bodhisattvas of the great vehicle. From this it should be understood that the inability to eliminate the desire for meat is an impediment to the attainment of omniscience. For this reason, all those who practice the Dharma—and indeed everyone—should strive, to the best of their ability, to forsake this evil food, the flesh of their parents.

Whether or not you agree with him, Shabkar is an impressive figure. He’s all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it would have been to be a vegetarian in Tibet more than 150 years ago.

Image: “meat or death II” from the photostream of procsilas



Buddhism, vegetarianism, and the ethics of intention

smile pigOne of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.

When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala). More…