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Buddhism and Morality

An Introduction to the Buddhist Approach to Morality

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The Dharma Wheel
Alex Abian/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

Western culture seems at war with itself over moral values. This conflict, pundits tell us, has two opposing sides. On one side are those who believe one lives a moral life by following rules handed down by tradition and religion. This group accuses the other side of being "relativists" without values. Is this a legitimate dichotomy, and where does Buddhism fit into it?

"Dictatorship of Relativism"

Shortly before he was named Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, "Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards… We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires."

This statement is representative of those who believe that morality requires following external rules. According to this view, the only other arbiter of morality is "one's own ego and one's own desires," and of course ego and desire will lead us to very bad behavior.

If you look for them, you can find essays and sermons all over the Web that decry the heresy of "relativism" and insist that we humans, flawed as we are, cannot be trusted to make moral decisions on our own. The religious argument, of course, is that the external moral rules are God's law and must be obeyed in all circumstances without question.

Freedom Through Discipline

The Buddhist view is that moral behavior flows naturally from mastering one's ego and desires and cultivating loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna).

The foundation teaching of Buddhism, expressed in the Four Noble Truths, is that the stress and unhappiness of life (dukkha) is caused by our desires and ego-clinging. The "program," if you will, for letting go of desire and ego is the Eightfold Path. Ethical conduct -- through speech, action and livelihood -- is part of the path, as are mental discipline -- through concentration and mindfulness -- and wisdom.

The Buddhist Precepts are sometimes compared to the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions. However, the Precepts are not commandments, but principles, and it is up to us to determine how to apply these principles to our lives. Certainly we receive guidance from our teachers, clergy, scriptures and other Buddhists. We are also mindful of the laws of karma. As my first Zen teacher used to say, "what you do is what happens to you."

The Theravada Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said,

"We can bring the practice all together as morality, concentration and wisdom. To be collected, to be controlled, this is morality. The firm establishing of the mind within that control is concentration. Complete, overall knowledge within the activity in which we are engaged is wisdom. The practice in brief is just morality, concentration and wisdom, or in other words, the path. There is no other way."

The Buddhist Approach to Morality

Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor of theology and a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, explains,

"There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. 'Buddhism' encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. ... When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation--whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion--and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha's teachings."

Buddhist practice, which includes meditation, liturgy (chanting), mindfulness and self-reflection, make this possible. The path requires sincerity, discipline and self-honesty, and it is not easy. Many fall short. But I would say the Buddhist record of moral and ethical behavior, while not perfect, compares more than favorably to that of any other religion.

The "Rules" Approach

In his book The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi said (p.17), "The absolute position, when isolated, omits human details completely. Doctrines, including Buddhism, are meant to be used. Beware of them taking life of their own, for then they use us."

I think the embryonic stem cell controversy provides a good example of what Aitken Roshi meant. A moral code that values surplus, eight-cell frozen blastocysts over children and adults who are sick and suffering is self-evidently screwy. But because our culture is fixated on the idea that morality means following rules, even people who see the screwiness of the rules have a hard time arguing against them.

Many atrocities perpetrated in the world today -- and in the past -- have some connection to religion. Nearly always, such atrocities require putting dogma ahead of humanity; suffering becomes acceptable, even righteous, if it is caused in the name of faith or God's law.

There is no justification in Buddhism for causing others to suffer for Buddhism.

A False Dichotomy

To me, the notion that there are only two approaches to morality -- you either follow the rules or you are a hedonist with no moral compass -- is a false one. There are many approaches to morality, and these approaches should be judged by their fruits -- whether their overall effect is beneficial or harmful.

I think we see that a strictly dogmatic approach, applied without conscience, humanity or compassion, often is harmful.

To quote St. Augustine (354-430), from his seventh homily on the First Epistle of John:

"Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good."

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