Outlook on Theravada Buddhist Ethics

Topics: Buddhism

Buddhism contains an excellent moral code, including one for the monks and another for the laity, but it is much more than an ordinary moral teaching. Morality (s´la) is only the preliminary stage and is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. Though absolutely essential, it alone does not lead to one’s Deliverance or perfect purity. It is only the first stage on the Path of Purity. Beyond morality is wisdom (pa——a). The base of Buddhism is morality, and wisdom is its apex.

As the pair of wings of a bird are these two complementary virtues. Wisdom is like unto man’s eyes; morality is like unto his feet. One of the appellatives off the Buddha is VijjOEcaraöasa×panna endowed with wisdom and conduct. Of the Four Noble Truths that form the foundation of Buddhism, the first three represent the philosophy of the Buddha’s teaching; the fourth ethics of Buddhism based on that philosophy.

Morality in Buddhism not founded on any doubtful divine revelation, nor is it the ingenious invention of an exceptional mind, but it is a rational and practical code based on verifiable facts and individual experience

. In the opinion of Prof. Max Muller the Buddhist moral code is one of the most perfect which the world has ever known. Prof. Rhys Davids says: “Buddhist or no Buddhist I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world; and in none of those 1 . The term Theravada means the ‘Ancient teaching’ or ‘Way of the Elders’ school, one of the major pre-Mahayana schools of Buddhism, and the only one to survive into the modern day, found mainly in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

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2 have I found anything to surpass in beauty and comprehensiveness the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path.” It is interesting to note that according to Buddhism there are deeds which are ethically good and bad, deeds which are neither good nor bad, and deeds which tend to the ceasing of all deeds. Good deeds are essential for one’s emancipation, but when once the ultimate goal of the Holy Life is attained, one transcends both good and evil. The Buddha says: “Righteous things (dhamma) you have to give up: how much more the unrighteous things (adhamma).”

The deed which is associated with attachment (lobha), illwill (dosa) and delusion (moha) is evil. That deed which is associated with non-attachment (alobha) goodwill (adosa), and wisdom (pa——a), is good. The deeds of an Arahant,2 a Stainless One, possess no ethical value as he has gone beyond both good and evil. This does not mean that he is passive. He is active, but his activity is selfless and is directed to help others to tread the path he has trodden himself. His deeds, ordinarily accepted as good, lack creative power as regards himself. Unlike the actions of a worldling his actions do not react on himself as a Kammic effect.

His actions, in Pali, are called kiriya (functional). Purest gold cannot further be purified. The mental states of the four types of supra-mundane Path consciousness, namely, SotOEpatti (Stream-Winner), SakadOEgOEmi (Once- 2 . Arhat in Sanskrit, a fully liberated saint who has experienced Nirvana by uprooting and destroying his or her attachment, hatred and delusion. 3 Reruner), AnOEgOEmi (Non-Returner) and Arahatta (Worthy), though wholesome (kusala), do not tend to accumulate fresh Kamma, but, on the contrary, tend to the gradual cessation of the individual flux of becoming, and therewith to the gradual cessation of good and evil deeds. In these types of supra-mundane consciousness the wisdom factor (pa——a), which tends to destroy the roots of Kamma, is predominant; while in the mundane types of consciousness volition (cetanOE) which produces Kammic activities is predominant.

What is the criterion of morality according to Buddhism? The answer is found in the admonition given by the Buddha to young SOEmaöera ROEhula. ÒkOEyena kama× karomi ida×me kOEyakamma× attabyOEbOEdhOEyapi sa×vattati, parabyOEbOEdhOEyapi sa×vattati, ubhayabyOEbOEdhOEyapi sa×vattati, akusala× ida× kOEyakamma× dukkhadraya× dukkhavipOEkantiÓ “If there is a deed, Rahula, you wish to do, reflect thus: Is this deed conducive to my harm, or to others’ harm, or to that of both? Then is this a bad deed entailing suffering. From such a deed you must resist. ÒkOEyena kama× karomi ida×me kOEyakamma× nevattabyOEbOEdhOEyapi saμvattati, na parabyOEbOEdhOEyapi sa×vattati, na ubhayabyOEbOEdhOEyapi sa×vattati, kusala× ida× kOEyakamma× sukhadraya× sukhavipOEkantiÓ 3 “If there is a deed you wish to do, reflect thus: Is this deed not conducive to my harm, nor to others’ harm, nor to that of both?

Then is 3 . Ambalatthikarahulovada Sutta of MN, II 4 this a good deed entailing happiness. Such a deed you must do again and again.” In assessing morality a Buddhist takes into consideration the interests both of himself and others—animals not excluded. In the Karaö´ya Metta sutta the Buddha exhorts: ÒMOEtOE yathOE niya× puttamOEyusOE ekaputtamanurakkheÓ 4 “As the mother protects her only child even at the risk of her own life; even so let one cultivate boundless towards all beings.” The Dhamapada states: ÒSabbe tasanti daö¶assa sabbe bhOEyanti maccuno, attOEna× upama× katvOE na haneyya na ghOEtayeÓ 5 “All rear punishment, to all life is dear. Comparing others with oneself, let one neither hurt nor kill.” To understand the exceptionally high standard of morality the Buddha expects from His ideal followers, one must carefully read the Dhammapada, SiºgOElovOEda Sutta, VyOEgghapajja Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Metta Sutta, ParOEbhOEva Sutta, Vasala Sutta, Dhammika Sutta, etc. As a moral teaching it excels all other ethical systems, but morality is only the beginning and not the end of Buddhism.

The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma, which, literally, means that which upholds or sustains (him who acts in conformity with its principles and thus prevents him from falling into woeful states). 4 . Kariniyametta Sutta of KN 5 . Dhp. 129 5 There is no proper English equivalent that exactly conveys the meaning of the Pali term. The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the Doctrine of Reality. It is a means of Deliverance from suffering and Deliverance itself. Whether the Budhha arise or not the Dhamma exist from all eternity. It is a Buddha that realizes this Dhamma, which ever lies hidden from the ignorant eyes of men, till He, an Enlightened One, comes and compassionately reveals it to the world. “Whether the Tathagatas appear or not, O Bhikkhus, it remains a fact, an established principle, a natural law that all conditioned things are transient (anicca), sorrowful (dukka) and that everything is soulless (anatta).

This fact the Tathagata realizes, understands and when He has realized and understood it, announces, teaches, proclaims, establishes, discloses, analyses, and makes it clear, that all conditioned things are transient, sorrowful, and that everything is soulless.”6 In the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha says: “One thing only does the Buddha teach, namely, suffering and the cessation of suffering.” This is the Doctrine of Reality. UdOEna states: ÒSeyyathOEpi, bhikkhave, mahOEsamuddo ekarasso loöarasso, evamevakho, bhikkhave, aya×dhammavinayo ekaraso vimuttirassoÓ 7 “Just as, O Bhikkhus, the mighty ocean is of one flavour, the flavour of salt, even so, O Bhikkhus, this Dhamma is of one flavour, the flavour of Deliverance (Vimutti).” This is the Means of Deliverance. 6. Buddhism in Nutshell, by Narada Thera, Printed in Taipei, Taiwan, 1988. p-8 7 . Sonavagga pali of KN, III 6 This sublime Dhamma is not something apart from oneself. It is purely dependent on oneself and is to be realized by oneself. As such the Buddha exhorts: “Attad´pOE viharatha attapaÊisaraöOE ”—Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a refuge.

“Dhammad´pOE viharatha, dhamma paÊisaraöOE, ana——a patisaraöOE ”—Abide with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as a refuge. Seek not for external refuge.9 Finally, 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 – even Buddhists. 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. Buddhist ethics recognizes the objectivity of moral value. It brings great benefits to this life and the lives hereafter. Therefore, a person should try his best to observe the moral values with understanding and as often as he can.

Mahaparinibbana Sutta of DN 9 .Attadipa sutta of SN, V 7 The Spread of Buddhism in India About 623 years before the Christian era, a Prince of the Sakayas, a race of the warrior nobility of ancient Bharata was born in Lumbini Park in the neighbourhood of Kapilavatthu, now known as Padaria in the district of modern Nepal, He was named Siddhattha Gotama; his father was a Raja, Suddhodana, his mother Maha Maya Devi. His race was that of race was that of the Ikshvakku, the Solar Dynasty, proud, heroic, rulers by descent and by instinct, who looked even upon Brahmins10 with disdain. To mark the spot as the birthplace of the greatest teacher of mankind, and as a token of his reverence for him, the Emperor Asoka11 in 239 B.C erected a pillar bearing the inscription. ‘Here was the Enlightened One born’.12 But the Prince was greater even than his lineage. For at the age of twenty-nine he abandoned his rank, turned aside from the destiny of a world-ruler that had been predicted for him, and became a wandering ascetic. The Sakyas were ambitious, but his ambition was greater than theirs, it was the greatest of which men or gods are capable. Prince Siddhattha cared nothing for earthly glory, for power or for luxury.

The tears of the world were too real to him; its pain and insecurity were too vivid, he could not rest, nor could he find distraction in activity. One thing and one thing alone could satisfy him—absolute knowledge, absolute liberation and absolute bliss. For having attained these, he could help the world of suffering beings. 10. brOEhmaöa in Pali and Sanskrit, a Hindu priest, member of the highest of four social classes in the Hindu system. 11. A§hoka in Sanskrit, Buddhist ruler (c.268-239 BCE) of a large Indian empire; left many stonecarved edict indicating his rule according to Buddhist social ethics. 12 Essential Themes of Buddhist lectures by Ashim Thittila, Religious affair, Yangon, Myanmar, 1987, p-9 8 So he renounced the world and set forth to find liberation. At first he did as all seekers do; he placed himself under a teacher, the best teacher of the time. Twice he did this, but having mastered all they could impart, he left them, dissatisfied.

He had practiced their methods, attained to the realm of Brahmas and identified himself with the highest cosmic forces, but this was not enough. He must get beyond the process of cosmic becoming, must find the last, eternal, unchanging state. He left his teachers and embarked on the path of extreme asceticism. He lived in the forest, mortified his flesh, fasted and watched and guarded his senses, deprived his body and reduced his frame to a skeleton. For six years he continued this course, with the indomitable resolution of a warrior who knows no surrender. His fair body became black, his rounded limbs mere sticks hung with withered skin, through which the bones stuck sharply, and his belly became hollow and clove to his spinal clove to his spinal column. His five companion ascetics watched and waited. Never had they seen anything like this, accustomed though they were to the superhuman mortifications of their kind.

Surely his supreme struggles must gain the supreme reward. Surely he would be their teacher and liberator. They watched and waited. But the Prince-ascetic became weaker and weaker and still he had not achieved the final goal. He had gone beyond all of them and many who were not his peers in spiritual attainment had set themselves up as teachers, were honoured and claimed large followings. He could have done the same, but not for one moment did he waver in his set purpose. He had not achieved his goal and he knew it. He must go on, higher, higher… One day he collapsed. Scarcely conscious he lay, unable to move. Yet still that fine, indomitable mind was alive, active, searching. What 9 had he gained? Instead of becoming superhuman he was reduced to this—a pitiful victim of the insatiable body, weak, powerless, almost dead from hunger. And then suddenly he knew; this was not the way. They had all been wrong.

To abuse the body is to enslave oneself to the body, whatsoever form the abuse might take. The body would take its revenge. Its conquest must take a different form from this. He offered food and he accepted it. Giving the body its just demands he strengthened himself again and once more his mind asserted itself over the body, clear and luminous and resolute. But his five companions were grieved—grieved and disappointed. He had failed them; he who was to have been their teacher, the master-ascetic, the greatest rishi of all time, had failed them. He had deserted his quest, had taken to easy living again, and was no more worthy to be their leader. They left him.13 Having this valuable experience he finally decided to follow an independent course avoiding the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, for the former tends to retard one’s spiritual progress and the latter to weaken one’s intellect.

The new path was the Majjhima PatipadOE14, the Middle Path, which subsequently became one of the salient characteristics of his teaching. .Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, by Francis story, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1985, p-13 14 . ‘Middle Path’, is the noble eightfold path which, by avoiding the two extremes of sensual lust and self-torment leads to enlightenment and deliverance from suffering. “To give oneself up to indulgence in Sensual Pleasure (kamasukha), the base, common, vulgar, unholy, unprofitable; and also to give oneself up to Self-torment (atta-kilamatha), the painful, unholy, unprofitable, both these two extremes the Perfect One has avoided and has found the Middle Path (s. magga), which causes one both to see and to know, and which leads to peace, to discernment, to enlightenment, to NibbbOEna. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, the way that leads to the extinction of suffering, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right bodily action, right livelihood, right effort, right bodily action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration”

Early in the morning on the full moon day of Vesakha, as he was seated in deep meditation under the Bodhi Tree, unaided and unguided by any supernatural agency but solely relying on his own efforts, the consciousness of true insight possessed him. He saw the mistaken ways that all the various faiths maintained he discerned the sources whence earthly suffering came and the way that leads to its annihilation. He saw that the cause of suffering lay in a selfish cleaving to life and that the way of escape from suffering lay in treading the Eightfold Path. With discernment of these grand truths and their realization in life, the Bodhisatta15 eradicated all passions and attained enlightenment – he thus became a Buddha.

Having attained Buddhahood, the supreme state of perfection, he devoted the remainder of his precious life to serving humanity, both by example and precept, without any personal motive whatsoever. In order to deliver his first sermon the Buddha started for Benares, which has been famous for centuries as the centre of religious life and thought. At Benares he met konda——a and his four companions in the Deer Park, now known as Saranath. When these five saw the Buddha coming towards them they addressed him as Gotama, his family name. Then the Buddha said to them, ‘Call me not after my personal name, for it is a rude and careless way of addressing one who has become a Buddha. My mind is undisturbed whether people treat me with respect of disrespect, but it is not courteous for others to call one who looks equally with a kind heart upon all living beings, by his familiar name; Buddhas bring salvation to 15 .

‘Enlightenment Being’, is a being destined to Buddhahood, a Future Buddha. According to the traditional belief a Bodhisatta, before reaching his last birth as a Buddha on this earth is living in the Tusita-heaven (s. deva), the Heaven of Bliss. In the Pali Canon and commentaries, the designation ‘Bodhisatta’ is given only to Prince Siddhattha before his Enlightenment and to his former existences. The Buddha himself uses this term when speaking of his life prior to Enlightenment. Bodhisattahood is neither mentioned nor recommended as an ideal higher than or alternative to Arahantship; nor is there any record in the Pali scriptures of a disciple declaring it as his aspiration. 11 the world and so they ought to be treated with respect.’ Then he preached them his first great sermon, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, in which he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

They received ordination and formed the first nucleus of the holy brotherhood of disciples known as the Sa×gha.16 During his active life the Buddha made many converts, high and low, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, brahmans and chandalas, ascetics and householders, robbers and cannibals, nobles and peasants, men and women from all classes and conditions became his countless disciples, both ordained and lay.17 The story of his death is told with great pathos and simplicity in the MahOEparinibbOEna Sutta. The Buddha was now eighty years old, worn out with toil and travel. At a village near the little town of Kusinagara, about 120 miles north-east of Benares, in 483 B.C, he passed away. The quiet end of the Buddha contrasts vividly with the martyr’s deaths of Socrates and Jesus. All the three undermined, in different degrees, the orthodoxies of their time.

As a matter of fact, the Buddha was more definitely opposed to Vedic orthodoxy and ceremonialism than was Socrates to the State religion of Athens, or Jesus to Judaism, and yet he lived till eighty, gathered a large number of disciples, and founded a religious order in his own life-time. Perhaps the Indian temper of religion is responsible for the difference in the treatment of unorthodoxies. According to the Buddha’s teaching, each man will have to find salvation, in the last resort, alone and with his own will, and he needs all 16 . (lit.: congregation), is the name for the Community of Buddhist Monks. As the third of the Three Gems or Jewels (ti-ratana) and the Three Refuges (ti-sarana), i.e. Buddha, Dhamma and Sa×gha, it applies to the ariya-sa×gha, the community of the saints, i.e. the Four Noble Ones (ariya-puggala), the Stream-winner, etc.

Essential Themes of Buddhist lectures by Ashim Thittila, Religious affair, Yangon, Myanmar, 1987, p-9 12 the will in the world for so formidable and effort. The general impression that the mystic experience is granted and not achieved is far from correct, except in the sense that all great moments of experience are in a measure given. The mystic is not so much passive as receptive. His life is one of strenuous discipline. The Buddha gives a workable system for monks and lay people. In the discourse to the Brahmin Kutadanta he lays down five moral rules binding on all lay people, which are: refraining from killing, from taking what is not given, from wrongful indulgence in the passions, from lying, and from intoxicants. It is not abstention from work that he demands.

A Jain layman asks him if he teaches the doctrine of inaction, and the Buddha replies: ‘How might one rightly say of me that the ascetic Gotama18 holds the principle of inaction? I proclaim the non-doing of good conduct of the body, speech and thought. I proclaim the non-doing of various kinds of wicked and evil things. I proclaim the doing of good conduct of the body, speech and thought. I proclaim the doing of various kinds of good things.’ In the Buddha’s scheme of ethics, the spirit of love is more important than good works. ‘All good works whatever are not worth one-sixteenth part of love which sets free the heart. Love which sets free the heart comprises them. It shines, gives light and radiance.’ ‘As a mother, at the risk of her life, watches over her only child, so let everyone cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.’ Respect for animal life is an integral part of morality. A good Buddhist does not kill animals for pleasure or eat flesh.

They are his humble brethren and not lower creatures over whom he has dominion by divine right. Serenity of spirit and love for all sentient creation are enjoined by the Buddha. 18 . Gautama in Sanskrit: family name of the historical Buddha, c. 480—400 BCE. 13 He does not speak of sin but only of ignorance and foolishness which could be cured by enlightenment and sympathy. He promises the beatific vision in this life to those who adopt his way. He does not mention ceremonial austerities, gods one or many, or even a worship of himself. He is the discoverer, the teacher of the truth. He concentrates his teaching on the moral discipline and would not enter into metaphysical discussions with the crowd of contemporary sophists. The Buddha has no theories.

He does not claim to have come down to earth with a wisdom which had been his from all eternity. According his own account, as the JOEtaka19 stories relate, he acquired it through innumerable lives of patient effort. He offers his followers a scheme of spiritual development and not a set of doctrines, a way and not a creed. He knew that the acceptance of a creed was generally an excuse for the abandonment of the search. Life does not begin at birth or end at death, but is a link in an infinite series off lives, each of which is conditioned and determined by acts done in previous existences.

Animal, human and angelic forms are all links in the chain. By good deeds we may raise our status and get to heaven, and by evil ones we shall lower it. Since all lives must come to an end, true happiness is not to be sought in heaven or on earth. Release from the round of births and life in eternity is the goal of the religious man and is indicated by such words as mok§a or deliverance, union with Brahman, nirvana and others. The Buddha denies the view that the ego is permanent and unchanging as well as the view that at death it is utterly destroyed. For if death ends all, many people might imagine that it was not necessary to 19 . a ‘birth story’ purporting to be about a past life of the Buddha as Bodhisattva. A text relating such a story. 14 increase the burden of this short life by the need for self-control. The ego is a composite, existent and changing. Interest in the supernatural diverts attention and energy from ethical values and the exploration of actual conditions by means of which their realization may be furthered. The Buddha learnt from life around him that men never use the powers they possess to advance the good in life so long as they wait upon some agency external to themselves to do the work they are responsible for a sudden transmutation into a higher kind of nature. Dependence on an external power has generally meant a surrender of human effort.

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Outlook on Theravada Buddhist Ethics. (2022, May 11). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/outlook-on-theravada-buddhist-ethics/

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