Essentially, according to Buddhist teachings, the ethical and moral principles
are governed by examining whether a certain action, whether connected to body
or speech is likely to be harmful to one's self or to others and thereby avoiding
any actions which are likely to be harmful. In Buddhism, there is much talk of
a skilled mind. A mind that is skilful avoids actions that are likely to cause
suffering or remorse.
Moral conduct for Buddhists differs according to whether it applies to the laity
or to the Sangha or clergy. A lay Buddhist should cultivate good conduct by training
in what are known as the "Five Precepts". These are not like, say, the
ten commandments, which, if broken, entail punishment by God. The five precepts
are training rules, which, if one were to break any of them, one should be aware
of the breech and examine how such a breech may be avoided in the future. The
resultant of an action (often refereed to as Karma) depends on the intention more
than the action itself. It entails less feelings of guilt than its Judeo-Christian
counterpart. Buddhism places a great emphasis on 'mind' and it is mental anguish
such as remorse, anxiety, guilt etc. which is to be avoided in order to cultivate
a calm and peaceful mind. The five precepts are:
1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept
applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their
lives and that right should be respected.
2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes
further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be
sure that is intended that it is for you.
3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often
mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers
any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct
of a sexual nature.
4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding
lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not
beneficial to the welfare of others.
5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication
and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any
intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could
be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.
These are the basic precepts expected as a day to day training of any lay Buddhist.
On special holy days, many Buddhists, especially those following the Theravada
tradition, would observe three additional precepts with a strengthening of the
third precept to be observing strict celibacy. The additional precepts are:
6) To abstain from taking food at inappropriate times. This would mean following
the tradition of Theravadin monks and not eating from noon one day until sunrise
7) To abstain from dancing, singing, music and entertainments as well as refraining
from the use of perfumes, ornaments and other items used to adorn or beautify
the person. Again, this and the next rule.
8) To undertake the training to abstain from using high or luxurious beds are
rules regularly adopted by members of the Sangha and are followed by the layperson
on special occasions.
Laypersons following the Mahayana tradition, who have taken a Bodhisattva vow,
will also follow a strictly vegetarian diet. This is not so much an additional
precept but a strengthening of the first precept; To undertake the training to
avoid taking the life of beings. The eating of meat would be considered a contribution
to the taking of life, indirect though it may be.
The Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, are governed by 227 to 253 rules depending
on the school or tradition for males or Bhikkhus and between 290 and 354 rules,
depending on the school or tradition for females or Bhikkhunis. These rules, contained
in the Vinaya or first collection of the Buddhist scriptures,, are divided into
several groups, each entailing a penalty for their breech, depending on the seriousness
of that breech. The first four rules for males and the first eight for females,
known as Parajika or rules of defeat, entail expulsion from the Order immediately
on their breech. The four applying to both sexes are: Sexual intercourse, killing
a human being, stealing to the extent that it entails a gaol sentence and claiming
miraculous or supernormal powers. Bhikkhunis' additional rules relate to various
physical contacts with males with one relating to concealing from the order the
defeat or parajika of another. Before his passing, the Buddha instructed that
permission was granted for the abandonment or adjustment of minor rules should
prevailing conditions demand such a change. These rules apply to all Sangha members
irrespective of their Buddhist tradition.
The interpretation of the rules, however differs between the Mahayana and Theravada
traditions. The Theravadins, especially those from Thailand, claim to observe
these rules to the letter of the law, however, in many cases, the following is
more in theory than in actual practice. The Mahayana Sangha interprets the rule
not to take food at an inappropriate time as not meaning fasting from noon to
sunrise but to refrain from eating between mealtimes. The fasting rule would be
inappropriate, from a health angle, for the Sangha living in cold climates such
as China, Korea and Japan. When one examines the reason that this rule was instituted
initially, the conclusion may be reached that it is currently redundant. It was
the practice in the Buddha's time for the monks to go to the village with their
bowls to collect food. To avoid disturbing the villagers more than necessary,
the Buddha ordered his monks to make this visit once a day, in the early morning.
This would allow the villagers to be free to conduct their day to day affairs
without being disturbed by the monks requiring food. Today, of course, people
bring food to the monasteries or prepare it on the premises so the original reason
no longer applies. As many of you would be aware, in some Theravadin countries,
the monks still go on their early morning alms round, but this is more a matter
of maintaining a tradition than out of necessity. Also, a rule prohibiting the
handling of gold and silver, in other words - money, is considered by the Mahayana
Sangha a handicap were it to be observed strictly in today's world. They interpret
this rule as avoiding the accumulation of riches which leads to greed. Theravadin
monks tend to split hairs on this rule as, although most will not touch coins,
many carry credit cards and cheque books.
Let me now deal briefly with the Buddhist attitude to violence, war and peace.
The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:
*Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving
up victory and defeat.(Dp.15,5) and
* Hatreds never cease by hatred in this world; through love alone they cease.
This is an eternal law. (Dp.1,5)
The first precept refers to the training to abstain from harming living beings.
Although history records conflicts involving the so-called Buddhist nations, these
wars have been fought for economic or similar reasons. However, history does not
record wars fought in the name of propagating Buddhism. Buddhism and, perhaps,
Jainism are unique in this regard. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has never suggested
armed conflict to overcome the persecution and cruelty perpetrated by the Communist
Chinese occupation forces. He has always advocated a peaceful and non-violent
solution. Venerable Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia has urged
Cambodians to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and to
unify to re-establish their nation. He has written:
The suffering of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion.
Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes a peaceful person.
A peaceful person makes a peaceful family. A peaceful family makes a peaceful
community. A peaceful community makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes
a peaceful world.
Going back to the early history of Buddhism, Emperor Asoka, who, after a bloody
but successful military campaign, ruled over more than two thirds of the Indian
subcontinent, suffered great remorse for the suffering that he had caused, banned
the killing of animals and exhorted his subjects to lead kind and tolerant lives.
He also promoted tolerance towards all religions which he supported financially.
The prevalent religions of that time were the sramanas or wandering ascetics,
Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains. He recommended that all religions desist from self
praise and condemnation of others. His pronouncements were written on rocks at
the periphery of his kingdom and on pillars along the main roads and where pilgrims
gathered. He also established many hospitals for both humans and animals. Some
of his important rock edicts stated:
1. Asoka ordered that banyan trees and mango groves be planted, rest houses built
and wells dug every half mile along the main roads.
2. He ordered the end to killing of any animal for use in the royal kitchens.
3. He ordered the provision of medical facilities for humans and beasts.
4. He commanded obedience to parents, generosity to priests and ascetics and frugality
5. All officers must work for the welfare of the poor and the aged.
6. He recorded his intention to promote the welfare of all beings in order to
repay his debt to all beings.
7. He honours men of all faiths.
Not all Buddhists follow the non-violent path, however. A Buddhist monk, Phra
Kittiwutthi of the Phra Chittipalwon College in Thailand, is noted for his extreme
right-wing views. He said that it was not a breech of the first precept to kill
communists. He said that if Thailand were in danger of a communist takeover, he
would take up arms to protect Buddhism. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai peace activist,
reports in his book, "Seeds of Peace" that Phra Kittiwutthi has since
modified his stance by declaring "to kill communism or communist ideology
is not a sin". Sulak adds that the monk confessed that his nationalist feelings
were more important than his Buddhist practice and that he would be willing to
abandon his yellow robes to take up arms against communist invaders from Laos,
Cambodia or Vietnam. By doing so, he said, he would be preserving the monarchy,
the nation and the Buddhist religion. In contrast to the views of Phra Kittiwutthi,
Sulak Sivaraksa reports that the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is of the view
that 'preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives
in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries or rituals. Even if
Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human
dignity and freedom are cultivated towards peace and loving kindness, Buddhism
can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.
In conclusion, I will briefly mention some other issues mentioned in the Syllabus.
The third precept on training in restraint of the senses includes sexuality. A
Buddhist should be mindful of the possible effects on themselves and on others
of improper sexual activity. This precept would include adultery because this
also breeches the precept of not taking what does is not freely given. A relationship
with someone who is committed to another is stealing. Similarly in cases of rape
and child abuse, one is stealing the dignity and self respect of another. One
is also the cause of mental pain, not to mention physical pain so one is causing
harm to another living being. Therefore, such behaviour is breaking several precepts.
Marriage is not a sacrament in Buddhism as it is in other religions. Marriage
is governed by civil law and a Buddhist is expected to observe the prevailing
law in whatever country they live. In the Theravadin tradition, monks are prohibited
by their Vinaya rules to encourage or perform a marriage ceremony. The rule states:
Should a Bhikkhu engage to act as a go-between for a man's intentions to a woman
or a woman's intentions to a man, whether about marriage or paramourage, even
for a temporary arrangement, this entails initial and subsequent meeting of the
In many Theravadin countries, the couple will, following their marriage in a civil
ceremony, invite the monks to their home to perform a blessing ceremony. They
will offer food and other requisites to the monks and invite their family and
friends to participate. In the Mahayana tradition the same rule conveys an entirely
different meaning. It reads:
Should a Bhikkshu, seek to establish a conducive situation by means of which a
man and a woman engage in sexual misconduct, either by himself, by order, or by
means of messages, and as a result of his activities the man and woman should
meet, he has committed an offence.
This rule does not preclude marriage but, rather, deals with the monk assuming
the role of a procurer for immoral purposes. In Western countries, following the
Christian precedent, many Mahayana monks become registered marriage celebrants
so that, if called upon, a marriage ceremony can be performed in the temple. Generally,
in countries where the law allows, Buddhists accept de-facto relationships. Promiscuity
would be frowned upon as sexual misconduct but an ongoing relationship between
two people, either within or outside of marriage would be considered moral conduct.
As one of the essential Buddhist teachings is that everything is impermanent and
subject to change, the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship between a couple
would be understood in this light, so divorce would not be considered improper.
As far as bioethical questions are concerned, it is mainly a matter of the attitude
of the different traditions or schools of Buddhism. This is tied to the concept
of rebirth and when it occurs. According to the Theravadin tradition, rebirth
occurs immediately upon death. The body of the deceased is no longer considered
as a part of the former being, so such things as autopsies, organ transplants
etcetera are allowable. In fact, many Theravadins, especially in Malaysia, encourage
the donation of human organs as being the highest form of giving. Often, especially
at Vesak, the celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the
Buddha, blood donations are performed in the temple grounds. The Mahayana, on
the other hand, believes that there is an intermediate state between incarnations,
known as Antarabhava. Most people following this tradition try to avoid touching
or moving the body for, at least eight hours after death. This, of course, means
that the organs would by then be useless for transfer to another human being.
The Buddhist work ethic and business and professional ethics would, ideally be
closely tied to respect for the environment. It is well described in E.F.Schumacher's
book "Small is Beautiful":
"While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly
interested in liberation. But Buddhism is the Middle Way and therefore in no way
antagonistic to physical well being. The keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity
and non-violence. From an economist's point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist
way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern - amazingly small means leading
to extraordinarily satisfying results."
Ken Jones in a paper called "Buddhism and Social Action" comments: "Schumacher
outlines a 'Buddhist economics' in which production would be based on a middle
range of material goods (and no more), and on the other a harmony with the natural
environment and its resources.
The above principles suggest some kind of diverse and politically decentralised
society, with co-operative management and ownership of productive wealth. It would
be conceived on a human scale, whether in terms of size and complexity or organisation
or of environmental planning, and would use modern technology selectively rather
than being used by it in the service of selfish interests. In Schumacher's words,
'It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way, between
materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding Right
Despite the theory surrounding Buddhist business practice, greed still seems to
be the order of the day in many Buddhist countries. In Thailand, a monk in the
north, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo, has been leading a campaign against the environmental
vandalism of the timber industry. Tree felling in Northern Thailand has caused
erosion, flooding and has economically ruined small farmers. For his environmental
efforts, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo has had death threats and was recently arrested.
In Japan, another country where the majority of the population is Buddhist, the
killing of whales and dolphins is still prevalent. Animals seem to find no place
in the group culture of Japanese society.
As may be seen from the foregoing, Buddhist ethical principles are very noble
and in an ideal world their practice would lead to peace and harmony but, unfortunately,
as the Buddha has taught, people are motivated by greed hatred and delusion -
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