Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
Chapter 8 -
Buddhist Morality and Practice
Man-made moral laws and customs do
not form Buddhist Ethics.
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
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
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.
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.
are based on intention or volition
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.
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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