Poya thought: The role of ethics in Buddhism | Sunday Observer

Poya thought: The role of ethics in Buddhism

8 December, 2019

In Buddhism, moral virtue is the foundation of the spiritual path, though a fixed attachment to ethical precepts is seen as a hindering ‘fetter’. Virtue generates freedom from remorse, and leads on through gladness and joy to meditative calm, insight and liberation. While this model of ethics as part of a ‘path’ predominates, it is modified in some Mahāyāna schools, particularly in Japan. Here, Sōtō Zen sees morality as a manifest of one’s innate Buddha-nature, while Jōdo-shin sees it as simply expressing gratitude to Amitābha for having saved one.

The overcoming of Dukkha, both in oneself and others, is Buddhism’s central pre-occupation, towards which ethical action contributes. Buddhism says, if one wants to attain prosperity, peace, harmony, amicable social relationships, good reputation, self-confidence, a good rebirth or progress towards Nibbāna, then act in such a way: for this is how such things are fostered. If one behaves otherwise, then one will suffer in this and in subsequent lives, as a natural (karmic) result of unwholesome actions. Behaving ethically reduces suffering and increases happiness, for oneself and those one interacts with. A moral life is not a burdensome duty or set of ‘oughts’ but an uplifting source of happiness, in which the sacrifice of lesser pleasure facilitates the experiencing of more enriching and satisfying ones.

Having no real ‘oughts’, Buddhist ethics has levels of practice suiting different levels of commitment, rather than one set of universal obligations. Most importantly, monks and nuns make undertakings ruling out actions, such as sexual intercourse, which are acceptable for a layperson.

As a Buddhist comes to understand the extent of Dukkha in his own life, a natural development is concern about others’ suffering, and a deepening compassion. The importance of ‘comparing oneself with others’ is stressed: ‘Since self is dear to each one, let him who loves himself not harm another’. The basis for ethical action is the reflection that it is inappropriate to inflict on other beings what you yourself find unpleasant, such as, desiring pleasure and disliking pain. Moreover, the benefit of self and others are intertwined, so that the concern to lessen one’s own suffering goes hand-in-hand with lessening that of others. Helping others helps oneself (through karmic results and developing good qualities of mind), and helping oneself (by purifying one’s character) enables one to help others better.

One implication of ‘impermanence’ is that people should always be respected as capable of change-for-the-better. The Suttās contain a famous example of this, when the Buddha visited the haunt of the murderous bandit Angulimāla, seeing that he needed only a little exhortation to change his ways, become a monk, and soon attain Nibbāna. Whatever a person is like on the surface, the depths of his mind are seen as ‘brightly shining’ and pure. This depth purity, known in the Mahāyāna as the Tathāgata-garbha or the Buddha-nature, represents the potential for ultimate transformation, and as such is a basis for respecting all beings.

The changes involved in the round of rebirths are also ethically relevant. Any suffering one now witnesses would have been undergone by one in some past life, and all beings will have been good to one at some time. Such considerations stimulate compassion, and positive regard for others, irrespective of their present role, character and nature. Compassion is also appropriate towards someone who, being so evil as to have no apparent good points, would in future lives undergo great suffering as a karmic result of their actions.

The teaching that no permanent self or I exist within a person, does not itself support a positive regard for persons as unique entities, as do Christian teachings. Rather, it supports ethics by undermining the very source of lack of respect, selfishness. This is done by non-self teaching and subverting the notion that ‘I’ am a substantial, self-identical entity, one that should be gratified and be able to brush aside others if they get in ‘my’ way.

It does not deny that each person has an individual history and character, but emphasizes that these are compounds of universal factors. In particular, it means ‘your’ suffering and ‘my’ suffering are not inherently different. They are just suffering, so the barrier which generally keeps us within our own ‘self-interest’ should be dissolved, or widened in its scope till it includes all beings. The non-self teaching also emphasizes that we are not as in control of ourselves as we would like to think: this adds a leavening of humility and a sense of humour to our attitude to the weaknesses of ourselves and others.

Besides such arguments for ethical action, Buddhism also encourages it through the popular Jātaka stories, on former lives and actions of the Gautama.

The writer is attached to the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya.