Buddhist ethics for the modern world | Daily News

Buddhist ethics for the modern world


Dai Biaoyuan, a famous Chinese poet and statesman who lived in the thirteenth century, once went to see an eminent Buddhist monk whose saintly life was known far and near, and asked him if he would instruct him in the essentials of Buddhist doctrine. The monk assented and recited the following gâtha:

Sabbapapassa akaranam; kusalassa upasampada;

Sacittapariyodapanam; etam buddhana sasanam.

(To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas).

The statesman-poet was not at all satisfied with this simple moral teaching, for he expected to have something highly philosophical from the mouth of such a prominent and virtuous personality. Said the poet, “Every child is familiar with this Buddhist gatha. What I wish to learn from you is the highest and most fundamental teaching of your faith.” But the monk retorted, “Every child may know of this gatha, but even a silvery-haired man fails to put it into practice.” Thereupon, it is said, the poet reverentially bowed and went home meditatively.

Code of moral conduct

How does one distinguish between goodness and evil? To live is to act, and our actions can have either harmful or beneficial consequences for oneself and others. Buddhist ethics is concerned with the principles and practices that help one to act in ways that help rather than harm.

The core ethical code of Buddhism is known as the five precepts, and these are the distillation of its ethical principles. This code of moral conduct is laid down as the basis and framework during the elementary stage of a long journey through samsara. This, like a ruler for drawing a straight line, prevents Buddhists from sidestepping the right path and urges them on straight to the final goal.

The five precept shave been formulated for the welfare and security of everyone and their observance means peace and happiness, not only of the individual undertaking to preserve them in purity, but also to all others with whom he has contact.

The precepts are ‘principles of training’, which are undertaken freely and need to be put into practice with intelligence and sensitivity. The precepts are simple and easy to follow. They consist of commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

Obviously they are not ‘commandments’, and it is important that we don’t take them on as though they were imposed on us from outside.

Six roots

In Buddhism, all moral good and moral evil can be traced to six radical roots. All moral evil spring from the three radical roots of lobha (greed, covetousness), dosa (hatred, aversion) and moha (ignorance, delusion, mental confusion). On the contrary, all moral good can be traced to three radical roots of alobha (non-greed, non-covetousness), adosa (non-hatred, non-aversion) and amoha (non-delusion, absence of ignorance). In other words, generosity, compassionate love and wisdom.

A mind obsessed with greed, malice and delusion is in bondage. It fails to see things in their proper perspective, and prevents us from acting properly. Thus it is called akusla or unskilful.

When kusala qualities are dominant, we experience mental health (arogya), mental purity (anavajjata), dexterity (cheka), mental felicity (sukha-vipaka). Such a mind is healthy.

Similarly, each of the Five Precepts has a ‘positive’ and a ‘negative’ form. The negative forms advise us what not to do – they set alarm bells ringing when we are about to do or say something unskilful. The positive forms express the general principles we should be aiming for, and are the more general and important of the two sets.

The Buddhist tradition acknowledges that life is complex and throws up many difficulties, and it does not suggest that there is a single course of action that will be right in all circumstances.


The central idea of Buddhist ethics is that of karma, the principle according to which all actions have consequences that depend on the state of mind in which they are committed. Actions performed on the basis of negative volitions, such as anger, aversion, greed and spiritual ignorance, will at some point have a negative effect on the person committing them – and other people with whom that person comes into contact – causing suffering to all concerned. Conversely, actions performed on the basis of positive mental states, such as love, compassion and generosity, have a positive effect, resulting in states of happiness for the doer and others.

As explained, Buddhism uses the term “skilful” to denote actions performed on the basis of ositive states of mind, and “unskilful” for the opposite – and develop our capacity for ethics right up to the point of eliminating unskilfulness altogether. Positive mental states give rise to happiness, which in turn naturally gives rise to more positive mental states: a “virtuous circle” which results in ever happier and ever more skilful states of mind – with absolutely no limit.

A Buddha is incapable of acting unethically. The Enlightened mind is totally free of hatred, anger, greed and confusion. The natural expression of such a mind is compassionate action, and it is a mind that we too can cultivate. But we can’t just spontaneously do this, which is why Buddhism suggests certain training principles, all of which are based on love.

Right and wrong

What is the position of Buddhism regarding ethical propositions and the notions of right and wrong? Only a careful study of the analysis of right and wrong in the scriptures can reveal the Buddhist point of view.

According to Buddhist teaching, the necessary condition, which differentiates right actions from wrong ones, is the motive and intentions with which they are done. Suppose a person gets hold of a knife and intentionally cuts open another’s body. Is this a right action or a wrong action?

Some modern Western philosophers determine the rightness or wrongness of any action on observable characteristics of the action itself or its consequences. They do not refer to the motive or intention. In fact, it is the motive and intention, which make a big difference to the nature of the act.

We will go back to the person with the knife. If his intention was to injure or kill the other man and he was motivated by personal animosity, a Buddhist will regard it as a wrong act (akusala).

If, however, if the man was a surgeon and he performed a surgical operation to remove a cancer then the intention was to prolong the other person’s life. By performing a surgery he was motivated by a desire to be of service to a fellow man. Even if the second person dies due to complications, still Buddhists would regard it as a right action (kusala). It is primarily the motive and intention (cetana), which determines whether the act was right or wrong.

Yet, mere good intentions are not enough. The act must be performed as well before we can say whether a right action has been done. Besides, for the action to be a skilful (kusala) action, the act itself must be appropriate.

Cause and effect

For Buddhists, the practice of moral life is a graduated course. It involves self-transformation from a lower to higher level. During this transformation we avoid unskilful behaviour because we want ourselves and others to be happy, not because we’re afraid of any wrath. The only source of retribution we really need worry about is the one we ought to: Cause-and-Effect. This is true whether one believes in the Buddhist concept of karma, or the modern scientific understanding of cause and effect. As Samyutta Nikaya says, “As you sow the seed so shall you reap the fruit.”


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