Buddhist Ethics


Last Week I spoke about the life of Siddhartha Gautama who became known as the Buddha. This week I want to say something about the ethical teaching the Buddha gave the world. It is important to say that as with every spiritual path there are many different forms of Buddhism. What I say today is not the entirety of Buddhism but points that struck me.
          The Hindu scripture the Mahabarata says that is the greatest wonder in the world is that all around us, every day we witness people who are ill, people who are old and we see people die; yet we expect to live forever.
          There are times when we have directly experience aging, illness and death. When this happens we usually react by declaring with a measure of surprise, that the world is full of suffering. When we say that “the world is full of suffering” we articulate the First Truth of Buddhist teaching; the truth of the existence of suffering.
          Realising this truth what do we do? Some people will retreat into mental illness or use drugs or alcohol to block out reality. Most of us immerse ourselves in the world of work and pleasure. When we go through some particular experience of suffering; we grieve. During grief we are very conscious of the reality of suffering. We do expect that in time we will return to normal life and we hope that trouble will not knock on our door for some time.
          During his Enlightenment the Buddha realised the cause of suffering. He discovered that suffering could cease and he saw the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. People who reach enlightenment leave forever the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.
          It is only in the last few hundred years that westerners encountered the teachings of Buddha. Western culture did not embrace Buddhism. If anything western culture has labelled Buddhism as being a pessimistic philosophy. The idea of leaving the cycle of birth and death appears to us as annihilation. We are more attracted to the idea of eternal existence in heaven. And yet even as a child I found the idea of plucking a harp sitting on a cloud while “enjoying the beatific vision for ever” boring!
          As far as possible the Buddha tried not to talk about the state not being re-born- or Nirvana. He knew that language is inadequate when speaking about spiritual experiences. To use language for something that is beyond our experience is futile.
          When people talk about heaven they almost invariably use the metaphor of a beautiful garden…….. When speaking of after death words are inadequate. On the few occasions Buddha did talk about Nirvana he spoke of Sublime Peace, perfect clarity of mind, unexcelled freedom.
          A typical image of a follower of the Buddhist path is of monks dressed in robes, perhaps with a begging bowl, sitting cross legged; spending hours meditating. Buddhism offers the highest reward- unending freedom from suffering- however it demands commitment from the student.
          The starting point for every spiritual path is ethics. How should we live everyday life? The follower of the Buddha undertakes five precepts. The precepts are stated in negative terms I will not do x or y. The follower should also cultivate the positive counterparts of the precepts. For us from the Christian tradition it is worth noting that the precepts are not commandments and none of the precepts is concerned with God.

The follower of Buddha undertakes to:-

1. Refrain from harming living beings. I undertake to refrain from causing harm to other living beings. This precept goes way beyond our idea of not killing another person. It includes all living beings; animals, birds, insects. The teaching is even more relevant today in a world where our lifestyle is causing the extinction of thousands of species. Two and a half thousand years later the wording is even more relevant. The counterpart to this precept is to cultivate compassion for all living beings. We are to care for all living beings as a mother cares for her only child.

2. I undertake to refrain from taking what is not freely given. Again this precept goes beyond stealing. If I find something I cannot take it; it is not freely given. It goes beyond being honest. It prohibits taking advantage of people, exploiting them or manipulating them. If I am overpaid in my change I cannot keep it; it is not freely given. The positive counterpart of this precept is to cultivate generosity.

3. I undertake to refrain from sexual or sensual misconduct. This precept essentially means not causing harm to oneself or others in the area of sexual activity. It also means not craving for luxury or overeating. The positive counterpart of this precept is respect for others, stillness, simplicity and contentment.

4. I undertake to refrain from using false speech. Buddha was right up to date on this one. Refraining from false speech goes beyond lying, either to ourselves but particularly lying to others. Speech is the crucial element in our relationships. Speech can help and speech can cause suffering. It prohibits idle gossip. Often our speech is thoughtless, unimportant drivel; something we use to distract the mind. Truthfulness, the positive counterpart of this precept, is essential in an ethical life. But truthfulness is not enough; this precept encourages us to make our speech as kindly, helpful and harmonising as possible. The precept also means that our speech is useful that it promotes serenity and that we listen to others.

5. I undertake to abstain from drink and drugs that cloud the mind. Buddhism is based on the premise that our conception of the world if flawed. Using alcohol or drugs does not facilitate clarity of thinking. For years our thinking has been conditioned to put the self at the centre of life. We need clear thinking to see the world as it really is and to be aware of our thoughts and actions.


The positive counterpart of this precept is mindfulness, and awareness. Mindfulness is a fundamental quality to be developed by the follower of the Buddha’s path, and experience shows that taking intoxicating drink or drugs runs directly counter to this.
          When a Buddhist fails to adhere to these ethics the practitioner simply reminds themselves to try again. Accept responsibility for your actions; there is no blame, no guilt just begin again.
          Buddhism is not based on faith. The Buddha said do not do anything because of scripture, or tradition, revelation or even out of respect for the Buddha. Try my teaching and if you find it useful take the next step.
          The path that leads to the cessation of suffering is founded on cultivating Compassion and Wisdom. Compassion and Wisdom are the two pillars of Buddhism; they are two sides of one coin.
          Buddhism does not promote asceticism. The philosophical concepts of Buddhism are very different and difficult for western thinkers. The Buddha himself said that sometimes the teachings seem like “a matted ball of wool”.
          The ethics promoted by the Buddha are easy to understand. It would be well worth while trying to incorporate them into how we live. Don’t harm living beings. Do not take what is not freely give, use right speech, do not misuse your physical senses. Do not cloud your mind with drugs and alcohol. Try to live mindfully so that you are aware of your actions.
          During the past few weeks I have been reading a good deal about Buddhist teachings and two things struck me. Buddhism trains the mind to live in the present. When we live mindfully we can make everything we do a spiritual practice. Cooking and cleaning is a practical demonstration of love. If I put out food for the birds do it with compassion. Mindfulness gives a greater depth to an everyday action
          The second realisation I had concerns the First Noble Truth. Suffering exists. I thought this was stating the obvious. The people I love suffer, the people who are successful suffer, the person who seems to have a perfect life suffers. The person who jumps ahead of me in the queue suffers. Even Donald Trump and Boris Johnson suffer. When I remind myself that everyone suffers it is easier to feel compassion.



Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church


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