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Basic Buddhism

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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera


Chapter 8 - Buddhist Morality and Practice

Buddhist Ethics

Man-made moral laws and customs do not form Buddhist Ethics.

The world today is in a state of turmoil; valuable ethics are being upturned. The forces of materialistic skepticism have turned their dissecting blades on the traditional concepts of what are considered humane qualities. Yet, any person who has a concern for culture and civilization will concern himself with practical, ethical issues. For ethics has to do with human conduct. It is concerned with our relationship with ourselves and with our fellow-men.

The need for ethics arises from the fact that man is not perfect by nature; he has to train himself to be good. Thus morality becomes the most important aspect of living.

Buddhist ethics are not arbitrary standards invented by man for his own utilitarian purpose. Nor are they arbitrarily imposed from without. Man-made laws and social customs do not form the basis of Buddhist ethics. For example, the styles of dress that are suitable for one climate, period or civilization may be considered indecent in another; but this is entirely a matter of social custom and does not in any way involve ethical considerations. Yet the artificialities of social conventions are continually confused with ethical principles that are valid and unchanging.

Buddhist ethics finds its foundation not on the changing social customs but rather on the unchanging laws of nature. Buddhist ethical values are intrinsically a part of nature, and the unchanging law of cause and effect (kamma). The simple fact that Buddhist ethics are rooted in natural law makes its principles both useful and acceptable to the modern world. The fact that the Buddhist ethical code was formulated over 2,500 years ago does not detract from its timeless character.

Morality in Buddhism is essentially practical in that it is only a means leading to the final goal of ultimate happiness. On the Buddhist path to Emancipation, each individual is considered responsible for his own fortunes and misfortunes. Each individual is expected to work his own deliverance by his understanding and effort. Buddhist salvation is the result of one's own moral development and can neither be imposed nor granted to one by some external agent. The Buddha's mission was to enlighten men as to the nature of existence and to advise them how best to act for their own happiness and for the benefit of others. Consequently, Buddhist ethics are not founded on any commandments which men are compelled to follow. The Buddha advised men on the conditions which were most wholesome and conducive to long term benefit for self and others. Rather than addressing sinners with such words as 'shameful', 'wicked', 'wretched', 'unworthy', and 'blasphemous' He would merely say, 'You are unwise in acting in such a way since this will bring sorrow upon yourselves and others.'

The theory of Buddhist ethics finds its practical expression in the various precepts. These precepts or disciplines are nothing but general guides to show the direction in which the Buddhist ought to turn to on his way to final salvation. Although many of these precepts are expressed in a negative form, we must not think that Buddhist morality, consists of abstaining from evil without the complement of doing good.

The morality found in all the precepts can be summarized in three simple principles?'To avoid evil; to do good, to purify the mind.' This is the advice given by all the Buddhas. --(Dhammapada, 183)

In Buddhism, the distinction between what is good and what is bad is very simple: all actions that have their roots in greed, hatred, and delusion that spring from selfishness foster the harmful delusion of selfhood. These action are demeritorious or unskillful or bad. They are called Akusala Kamma. All those actions which are rooted in the virtues of generosity, love and wisdom, are meritorious --   Kusala Kamma. The criteria of good and bad apply whether the actions are of thought, word or deed.

Buddhist ethics are based on intention or volition

'Kamma is volition,' says the Buddha. Action themselves are considered as neither good nor bad but 'only the intention and thought makes them so.' Yet Buddhist ethics does not maintain that a person may commit what are conventionally regarded as 'sins' provided that he does so with the best of intentions. Had this been its position, Buddhism would have confined itself to questions of psychology and left the uninteresting task of drawing up lists of ethical rules and framing codes of conducts to less emancipated teachings. The connection between thoughts and deeds, between mental and material action is an extension of thought. It is not possible to commit murder with a good heart because taking of life is simply the outward expression of a state of mind dominated by hate or greed. Deeds are condensations of thoughts just as rain is a condensation of vapor. Deeds proclaim from the rooftops of action only what has already been committed in the silent and secret chambers of the heart.

A person who commits an immoral act thereby declares that he is not free from unwholesome states of mind. Also, a person who has a purified and radiant mind, who has a mind empty of all defiled thoughts and feelings, is incapable of committing immoral actions.

Buddhist ethics also recognizes the objectivity of moral value. In other words, the kammic consequences of actions occur in accordance with natural kammic law, regardless of the attitude of the individual or regardless of social attitudes toward the act. For example, drunkenness has kammic consequences; it is evil since it promotes one's own unhappiness as well as the unhappiness of others. The kammic effects of drunkenness exist despite what the drunkard or his society may think about the habit of drinking. The prevailing opinions and attitudes do not in the least detract from the fact that drunkenness is objectively evil. The consequences -- psychological, social, and kammic -- make actions moral or immoral, regardless of the mental attitudes of those judging the act. Thus while ethical relativism is recognized, it is not considered as undermining the objectivity of values.


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