The Buddhist perspective of lay morality
by Dr. (Mrs) Bodhippriya Subhadra Siriwardena, M. A. PhD (London)
Extracts from a talk given on the Sanghamitta day celebrations at the London Buddhist
The Buddhist perspective of lay morality is a vast subject spread throughout the
teachings of the Buddha. Currently many people seem to be very much alive to the
subject of morality in general, perhaps because morality is fast slipping away
from the thinking and behaviour of too many human beings.
Before investigating the Buddhist perspective of morality, it is necessary to
see what is meant by the term morality in general. This word pertains to the distinction
between right and wrong or good and evil in relation to actions, volitions and
character. It relates to the nature and application of what is ethical. A moral
sense is said to mean the power to understand the difference between right and
wrong especially when viewed as an innate quality of the human mind, which is
described as the moral faculty. Moral concepts are terms involving ethical praise
or blame, concerned with virtue and vice or rules of right conduct. Here, moral
virtue is distinct from intellectual virtue just as moral laws are different from
legal and institutional laws. Other aspects of morality include moral rights,
moral force, moral res- ponsibility, moral courage, moral behaviour and moral
At this juncture many relevant questions emerge. Are these concepts of morality
understood in the same way among all religions? Is morality a gift from a supernatural
power? Is it a quality naturally endowed like intelligence? Is it a quality to
be acquired, developed, cultivated and practised by the individual? Can morality
be practised by both young and old? Is morality relevant to and essential for
the modern age? If the Buddhist interpretation of morality is "Sila",
can the laity practise it in the course of their busy day? Is there a set period
of time to observe morality as only when one has observed the Five or the Eight
Precepts? Should the observance of morality be a part and parcel of every conscious
moment of one's private and public life? What reasons make it necessary for us
to ponder a subject like this?
In almost every country the media report numerous undesirable events and actions
at local, national and international levels. At an increasingly alarming level
we come to know of serious failings of human beings of both sexes, young and old,
rich and poor, intelligent and educated and vice-versa, irrespective of their
race, religion, colour or language. In spite of various rules and regulations
and devices implemented for the safety of life and property, there is hardly anyone
who lives without an uneasy sense of fear. One might ask of whom are we so frightened.
Is it of fierce wild animals or of natural disasters from wind, water and fire?
No. Human beings are most frightened of undisciplined, unreliable members of our
own noble species - other humans. Human beings are driven to be frightened of
those human beings who are selfish, grasping, immoral and ignorant of or indifferent
towards their duties and responsibilities, and the rights of others, and of those
who think unreasonably with distorted minds and ruin others. The range of their
antisocial, anti-self thoughts, actions and words is far too wide, too numerous,
too frequent and too widespread to need elaboration. Some of the most frequent
and common examples include the manufacture and consumption of various dangerous,
life-threatening drugs, arms and weapons, robberies, plundering, frauds, exploitation
and blackmail of wealth, rights, emotions, causing threats, torture, bullying,
harassment, rape, child-abuse, paedophilia, negligence of spouses, children, the
aged, the feeble and the sick, cruelty and killing of the born and the unborn,
production of and sale of harmful offensive literature, films, videos and committing
suicide. Minor and major crimes are committed from the home level to local, national
and international levels by people in both private and public life. These criminals
obviously do not seem to be endowed or gifted with or been trained to develop
a moral conscience to direct themselves in a righteous path.
One might argue that there is nothing new in these observations as unwholesome
behaviour has prevailed from time immemorial. At the same time we tend to flatter
ourselves believing that we are now more civilised, advanced, progressive, refined,
cultured, scientific and modern in outlook and are even conquerors of space and
masters of ingenious inventions. Undoubtedly the human species has progressed
fast materially but unfortunately regressed spiritually. They have yet to conquer
their own minds in order to understand and enjoy civilisation and progress in
the right, highest and true sense of the words.
As judged from these outcomes our existing concepts of being civilised, cultured
and advanced appear to be rather warped and superficial where the individual is
within misguided by a defiled mind. This is perhaps one reason why the subject
of morality is coming to the forefront and various views and suggestions are being
aired by responsible persons among the clergy and laity of various religions including
Buddhism, educationalists, counsellors and even politicians. In short, normal
sane and sensible people are shocked by the repercussions of the unending series
of serious violations of morality in modern society. It is a relief to note that
they are thinking in the right direction in order to help human beings to become
an asset to one another.
In examining the Buddhist perspective of morality it is apparent that the Vinaya
Pitaka is allocated to the morality of the clergy or the Sangha. Though some of
these aspects of the Buddhist perspective of morality are common to both the clergy
and the laity, only those aspects dealing with the latter are dealt with in this
The Buddhist perspective of morality is given in a nutshell in the little Pali
"Sabba papassa akaranam - kusalassa upasampada
sachitta pariyodapanam - etam buddhanu sasanam"
"To keep away from all evil, cultivate good, and purify one's mind is the
advice of all Buddhas."
We must understand what is meant as good and evil in the Buddha's teaching. Again
the Buddha explains the criterion of morality when he advises his son Samanera
Rahula:- "If you wish to do a certain action, first reflect whether the action
is likely to harm yourself or others or both. If the action is likely to cause
suffering, refrain from doing it."
"If the action is likely to cause happiness and no harm can arise from such
a deed, do it again and again."
This shows that the best view is to take into consideration the interests of oneself
and of others.
The Buddhist perspective of morality is well illustrated especially in the Sigalovada,
Vyagghapajja, Parabhava, Vasala, Mangala, Metta and the Dhammika suttas and of
course in the Dhammapada, to mention only a few sources. The morality reflected
and explained in these is not founded on any divine revelation. It is a rational
practical code based on verifiable facts and individual experience. The individual
is to practise this teaching in everyday life with effort and diligence and depend
on oneself, cultivating self discipline and self-control, self-reliance and self-purification.
There are no dogmas to be believed and followed blindly, without reasoning and
putting to the test. Praying to the Buddha or other beings, the performance of
superstitious rites and ceremonies, meaningless sacrifices and penance's are not
helpful. Morality in Buddhism provides human beings with guide lines of conduct
of what it is good to do and what it is not good to do for the sake of oneself
and of others. It is an in-looking or looking into the behaviour of the mind type
of morality with an outside glass and a rotten and defiled interior. It guides
the layman to achieve and enjoy material progress in harmony with spiritual satisfaction
and upliftment. It guides us to calm our senses, avoid conflict between the mind
and the heart, enabling us to get on with our work, duties and responsibilities
with peace of mind and joy.
The morality as expounded by the Buddha is not difficult to understand or practise
during every conscious moment of our life. It does not need to be postponed to
the years of retirement or some such period. It is to be practised by us incorporating
it in our thoughts, words and actions in our day-to-day practical life. We should
train the young to practise it. Children are unable to understand theoretically
the concepts of morality. It has to be a part of their informal and formal education
given to them by those responsible not only by admonition and precepts, but by
the real example set by adults in the eyes of children. These adults in particular
are parents and teachers, the clergy and also other adults who necessarily come
in contact with children. So what does Buddhist morality mean for us lay men?
It is nothing but the Five Precepts which are incorporated in the Noble Eightfold
Path in the section of Morality or sila. This section deals with the three aspects
of Right Speech, action and livelihood, although the other five aspects have a
direct bearing on morality and all the aspects are inter-related. They are Right
effort, mindfulness, concentration, understanding and thought. Recognising and
treading this Path is the right and privilege of any one who so desires, for all
of us laymen, as far as we can in this lifetime as an unfailing guide line to
our conduct. This is to be projected to all our inter-personal relationships such
as between wives and husbands, parents and children, teachers and pupils, brothers
and sisters, friends and relatives, employers and employees, clergy and the laity,
the governing and the governed and in international, inter-religious and inter-racial
relationships and so on.
Let us give a little thought to the impact of the five precepts associated with
the Noble Eight Fold Path on our daily lives and the peace and harmony of human
society in general. This would considerably illustrate the Buddhist perspective
of lay morality. Caritta, Varitta Do and Don't.
1. Life and limb are precious to every living being and nobody has the right to
destroy the life of another for any reason. But we know that human beings kill
others individually and collectively in the name of human rights, religion, peace,
nation, race, culture and population control- all assumed good purposes. Hatred,
jealousy, power, greed, ill will, selfishness, cruelty, callousness, pride, ignorance
are incentives that provide and drive one to commit panatipata. This is a deviation
from the Noble Eight Fold Path - Right understanding, thought and action.
If the noble spirit of love and compassion, goodwill, mutual affection and calm
form the constituents of the social atmosphere at home, children will not be induced
to violate the 1st precept and the morality will stay within them and direct their
thinking during crises, develop pure thoughts and eliminate evil thoughts.
In recent times we have heard of children killing children, parents killing children,
pupils killing teachers, killing each other and a variety of numerous incidents
of cruelty and killing.
2 Coming to the second precept - refraining from stealing may range from stealing
a minor thing like a sweet or a plastic toy at early stages leading to greater
robberies, thefts, bribes, cheating, frauds, impersonation, swindling and the
like at various levels.
Respecting one's own and others property at home and at school, being generous
to those in need, being unselfish, contented, simple, honest, trustworthy and
reliable are qualities that could be easily cultivated from a young age within
the family. Such a person would try to abstain from all forms of stealing in obvious
or disguised forms. Unless one is convinced that stealing is evil, force, punishment
etc. would have little effect. This is why right understanding is essential at
elementary and basic level.
We can see the amount of loss and misery, frustration and fear caused to the victims
of stealing and the anxieties, fear, threat of punishment, misdirected effort
etc. caused to the state, again passed down to the taxpaying society.
3. Refraining from sexual misconduct seems to be a precept of vital importance
in modern society all over the world. Violation of this precept causes most disastrous
and alarming repercussions on the physical health, the mental health of the individual,
disruption of the family unit, shirking of duties and responsibilities to spouse
and children and putting their children at risk. Last Sunday Dec. 1st was Worlds'
AIDS Day to fight against the raging epidemic that is destroying the human species
like a nuclear war. Children, wives and husbands and patients who never violated
the precept also are victims of the deadly disease. Child abuse, rape, incest
and so many types of perverted sexual behaviour on the part of human beings seem
to be surfacing in all societies, east and west - we call it the violation of
the 3rd precept. The criminals are mature adults and not children. Absence of
self-control, an understanding of right and wrong, selfishness, greed for money
and other commercial incentives seem to drive people to violate this precept and
entice others also to do so. Children who are constantly exposed to one or more
of these vices begin to think that such behaviour is normal and simply mislead
themselves too. Right thought, effort and action are violated, while they can
be easily developed.
4. The 4th precept concerning the spoken word or Right Speech is Samma vaca. This
is a unique gift to mankind of which the most harmless, fruitful use should be
made. To say it broadly, Right speech covers the abstaining from false words that
are not true, slander, harsh speech and idle chatter. The observance of other
precepts would result in gaining truthfulness, trustworthiness, friendliness,
pleasantness, gentleness and meaningfulness and fruitfulness in what one says.
The written, printed word too is here included. Those qualities can easily be
cultivated from the time one begins to speak if one grows in such an atmosphere
where the spoken word is beautiful and harmless, thoughtful, convincing, acceptable,
useful, kind, clear and gentle. Anyone is able to illuminate one's spoken word
if only one wants to and does not need intensive study of a language. Where standards
have been set at home a growing child is not likely to succumb to the impact from
other sources. Therefore it can be seen that entering the Noble Eight fold path
is possible from an early age.
5. The 5th Precept about the abstinence from intoxicants in whatever form, liquid
or solid, involves several aspects of the Noble Eight Fold path - Right Mindfulness,
Understanding, Thought, Livelihood, Action and Effort. By abstaining or trying
to abstain, one is in the Path in several aspects at one and the same time and
vice versa. Under the successive influence of intoxicants a person loses self-control
of both body and mind and causes problems to oneself and society. It is a world-wide
problem irrespective of age, sex, race and religion. Mainly homes, schools and
wherever people gather are affected and a variety of crimes are being increasingly
committed. Family breakdown, children being adversely affected, robberies, bodily
harm, murders, abuse, deaths, loss of wealth and property and so on are far too
well-known. Various people with cruel and erratic minds manufacture, distribute
and sell these things to make themselves wealthy at the cost of millions of fellow
beings. Governments are left with no option but to spend money on means to control
drug traffic, treating and rehabilitation of addicts, court cases, prisons etc.
It results in a pathetic moral degradation with loss of reason, memory, power
of thinking and the breakdown of health and misery to kith and kin.
So what is so special about the Perspective of morality about which I have spoken
now? First and foremost it is based on wisdom, freedom of thought and inquiry
and the natural law of cause and effect. There is no commandment, coercion, persecution
or fanaticism or demand for a blind faith. Loving kindness (metta), Compassion
(karuna), Non-violence (ahimsa) and Patience (khanti) nurture morality. Reciprocal
relationships as between husband and wife, parents and children, between siblings,
friends, relatives, teachers and pupils, employers and employees, the clergy and
laity are emphasised. What has been considered good in teaching is not twisted
and made flexible to accommodate this evil. For example killing is an akusala
kamma, even if it is in the name of religion and country. Manufacture and sale
of weapons will not be thought as justifiable because they earn vast incomes for
countries like the USA and Britain. No one will be pardoned and absolved by one's
evil actions however much one may pray. Some religions think so. Good actions
will bring good results and bad actions bad results, whether the doer be king
or pauper, according to the Buddha's teaching. Teaching of morality by setting
a practical example is judged as superior to prescriptive teaching. The Buddha
himself was the best example. It is a practical morality which helps the individual
to behave harmoniously and righteously with others far and near.
The individual is made to feel responsible and dignified by his or her own actions.
Buddhist morality forms the standards and principles of good behaviour manifested
in verbal and physical actions according to the path of righteousness and self-discipline
developing from within and not through fear of punishment. It guides us to be
good and to do good and to keep away from evil. It involves performance of certain
deeds and the avoidance of others.
Buddhist morality goes hand in hand with wisdom and concentration - sila, samadhi,
panna. Here wisdom is not the same as being knowledgeable only. Gaining knowledge
only, without wisdom, could turn out to be a dangerous asset.
Leading a positive and wholesome life on earth following the guidelines in Buddhism,
creating true happiness, peace and contentment to oneself and others is certainly
worthier than a life of trying to satisfy one's ego and greed. It also automatically
builds up an insurance policy for the future after death. If we can honestly and
sincerely say to one another, you are a blessing to us, we are practitioners of
the Buddhist perspective of morality and are also treading on the Noble Eight
Fold Path. Therefore a time-tested, rational, reasonable, logical, practicable
moral code is essential for everyone, just as we need the knowledge and application
of the highway code for all road-users and motorists in particular. The Buddha's
teachings have given us such a code, if only we care to recognise and abide by
05 May 1997