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 Vihara, 1996.

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 victory.
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 paper.
The Buddhist perspective of morality is given in a nutshell in the little Pali verse.
"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 it.
05 May 1997