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
for Buddhists differs according to whether it applies to the laity
or to the Sangha or clergy. A lay Buddhist should cultivate good
conduct by training in what are known as the "Five Precepts".
These are not like, say, the ten commandments, which, if broken,
entail punishment by God. The five precepts are training rules,
which, if one were to break any of them, one should be aware of
the breech and examine how such a breech may be avoided in the
future. The resultant of an action (often referred to as Karma)
depends on the intention more than the action itself. It entails
less feelings of guilt than its Judeo-Christian counterpart. Buddhism
places a great emphasis on 'mind' and it is mental anguish such
as remorse, anxiety, guilt etc. which is to be avoided in order
to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind. The five precepts are:
undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings.
This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All
beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.
undertake the training to avoid taking things not given.
This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should
avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended
that it is for you.
undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct.
This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as
relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence
in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct
of a sexual nature.
To undertake the training to refrain from false speech.
As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander
as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.
To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause
intoxication and heedlessness.
This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any
intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such
a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.
the basic precepts expected as a day to day training of any lay
Buddhist. On special holy days, many Buddhists, especially those
following the Theravada tradition, would observe three additional
precepts with a strengthening of the third precept to be observing
strict celibacy. The additional precepts are:
abstain from taking food at inappropriate times. This
would mean following the tradition of Theravadin monks and not
eating from noon one day until sunrise the next.
abstain from dancing, singing, music and entertainments as well
as refraining from the use of perfumes, ornaments and other items
used to adorn or beautify the person.
Again, this and the next rule.
undertake the training to abstain from using high or luxurious
beds are rules regularly adopted by members of the
Sangha and are followed by the layperson on special occasions.
following the Mahayana tradition, who have taken a Bodhisattva
vow, will also follow a strictly vegetarian diet. This is not
so much an additional precept but a strengthening of the first
precept; To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of
beings. The eating of meat would be considered a contribution
to the taking of life, indirect though it may be.
clergy, known as the Sangha, are governed by 227 to 253 rules
depending on the school or tradition for males or Bhikkhus and
between 290 and 354 rules, depending on the school or tradition
for females or Bhikkhunis. These rules, contained in the Vinaya
or first collection of the Buddhist scriptures,, are divided into
several groups, each entailing a penalty for their breech, depending
on the seriousness of that breech. The first four rules for males
and the first eight for females, known as Parajika or rules of
defeat, entail expulsion from the Order immediately on their breech.
The four applying to both sexes are: Sexual intercourse, killing
a human being, stealing to the extent that it entails a gaol sentence
and claiming miraculous or supernormal powers. Bhikkhunis' additional
rules relate to various physical contacts with males with one
relating to concealing from the order the defeat or parajika of
another. Before his passing, the Buddha instructed that permission
was granted for the abandonment or adjustment of minor rules should
prevailing conditions demand such a change. These rules apply
to all Sangha members irrespective of their Buddhist tradition.
of the rules, however differs between the Mahayana and Theravada
traditions. The Theravadins, especially those from Thailand, claim
to observe these rules to the letter of the law, however, in many
cases, the following is more in theory than in actual practice.
The Mahayana Sangha interprets the rule not to take food at an
inappropriate time as not meaning fasting from noon to sunrise
but to refrain from eating between mealtimes. The fasting rule
would be inappropriate, from a health angle, for the Sangha living
in cold climates such as China, Korea and Japan. When one examines
the reason that this rule was instituted initially, the conclusion
may be reached that it is currently redundant. It was the practice
in the Buddha's time for the monks to go to the village with their
bowls to collect food. To avoid disturbing the villagers more
than necessary, the Buddha ordered his monks to make this visit
once a day, in the early morning. This would allow the villagers
to be free to conduct their day to day affairs without being disturbed
by the monks requiring food. Today, of course, people bring food
to the monasteries or prepare it on the premises so the original
reason no longer applies. As many of you would be aware, in some
Theravadin countries, the monks still go on their early morning
alms round, but this is more a matter of maintaining a tradition
than out of necessity. Also, a rule prohibiting the handling of
gold and silver, in other words - money, is considered by the
Mahayana Sangha a handicap were it to be observed strictly in
today's world. They interpret this rule as avoiding the accumulation
of riches which leads to greed. Theravadin monks tend to split
hairs on this rule as, although most will not touch coins, many
carry credit cards and cheque books.
Let me now
deal briefly with the Buddhist attitude to violence, war and peace.
The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:
breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful
live giving up victory and defeat.(Dp.15,5) and
never cease by hatred in this world; through love alone they cease.
This is an eternal law. (Dp.1,5)
precept refers to the training to abstain from harming living
beings. Although history records conflicts involving the so-called
Buddhist nations, these wars have been fought for economic or
similar reasons. However, history does not record wars fought
in the name of propagating Buddhism. Buddhism and, perhaps, Jainism
are unique in this regard. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has never
suggested armed conflict to overcome the persecution and cruelty
perpetrated by the Communist Chinese occupation forces. He has
always advocated a peaceful and non-violent solution. Venerable
Maha Ghosananda, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia has urged Cambodians
to put aside their anger for the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and
to unify to re-establish their nation. He has written:
of Cambodia has been deep. From this suffering comes great compassion.
Great compassion makes a peaceful heart. A peaceful heart makes
a peaceful person. A peaceful person makes a peaceful family.
A peaceful family makes a peaceful community. A peaceful community
makes a peaceful nation. A peaceful nation makes a peaceful world.
to the early history of Buddhism, Emperor Asoka, who, after a
bloody but successful military campaign, ruled over more than
two thirds of the Indian subcontinent, suffered great remorse
for the suffering that he had caused, banned the killing of animals
and exhorted his subjects to lead kind and tolerant lives. He
also promoted tolerance towards all religions which he supported
financially. The prevalent religions of that time were the sramanas
or wandering ascetics, Brahmins, Ajivakas and Jains. He recommended
that all religions desist from self praise and condemnation of
others. His pronouncements were written on rocks at the periphery
of his kingdom and on pillars along the main roads and where pilgrims
gathered. He also established many hospitals for both humans and
animals. Some of his important rock edicts stated:
ordered that banyan trees and mango groves be planted, rest houses
built and wells dug every half mile along the main roads.
2. He ordered
the end to killing of any animal for use in the royal kitchens.
3. He ordered
the provision of medical facilities for humans and beasts.
commanded obedience to parents, generosity to priests and ascetics
and frugality in spending.
officers must work for the welfare of the poor and the aged.
6. He recorded
his intention to promote the welfare of all beings in order to
repay his debt to all beings.
7. He honours
men of all faiths.
Not all Buddhists
follow the non-violent path, however. A Buddhist monk, Phra Kittiwutthi
of the Phra Chittipalwon College in Thailand, is noted for his
extreme right-wing views. He said that it was not a breech of
the first precept to kill communists. He said that if Thailand
were in danger of a communist takeover, he would take up arms
to protect Buddhism. Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai peace activist, reports
in his book, "Seeds of Peace" that Phra Kittiwutthi
has since modified his stance by declaring "to kill communism
or communist ideology is not a sin". Sulak adds that the
monk confessed that his nationalist feelings were more important
than his Buddhist practice and that he would be willing to abandon
his yellow robes to take up arms against communist invaders from
Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. By doing so, he said, he would be preserving
the monarchy, the nation and the Buddhist religion. In contrast
to the views of Phra Kittiwutthi, Sulak Sivaraksa reports that
the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is of the view that 'preserving
Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives
in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries or rituals.
Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are
preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated towards
peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts
of human beings.
I will briefly mention some other issues mentioned in the Syllabus.
precept on training in restraint of the senses includes sexuality.
A Buddhist should be mindful of the possible effects on themselves
and on others of improper sexual activity. This precept would
include adultery because this also breeches the precept of not
taking what does is not freely given. A relationship with someone
who is committed to another is stealing. Similarly in cases of
rape and child abuse, one is stealing the dignity and self respect
of another. One is also the cause of mental pain, not to mention
physical pain so one is causing harm to another living being.
Therefore, such behaviour is breaking several precepts.
is not a sacrament in Buddhism as it is in other religions. Marriage
is governed by civil law and a Buddhist is expected to observe
the prevailing law in whatever country they live. In the Theravadin
tradition, monks are prohibited by their Vinaya rules to encourage
or perform a marriage ceremony. The rule states:
Bhikkhu engage to act as a go-between for a man's intentions to
a woman or a woman's intentions to a man, whether about marriage
or paramourage, even for a temporary arrangement, this entails
initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha.
In many Theravadin
countries, the couple will, following their marriage in a civil
ceremony, invite the monks to their home to perform a blessing
ceremony. They will offer food and other requisites to the monks
and invite their family and friends to participate. In the Mahayana
tradition the same rule conveys an entirely different meaning.
Bhikkshu, seek to establish a conducive situation by means of
which a man and a woman engage in sexual misconduct, either by
himself, by order, or by means of messages, and as a result of
his activities the man and woman should meet, he has committed
does not preclude marriage but, rather, deals with the monk assuming
the role of a procurer for immoral purposes. In Western countries,
following the Christian precedent, many Mahayana monks become
registered marriage celebrants so that, if called upon, a marriage
ceremony can be performed in the temple. Generally, in countries
where the law allows, Buddhists accept de-facto relationships.
Promiscuity would be frowned upon as sexual misconduct but an
ongoing relationship between two people, either within or outside
of marriage would be considered moral conduct. As one of the essential
Buddhist teachings is that everything is impermanent and subject
to change, the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship between
a couple would be understood in this light, so divorce would not
be considered improper.
As far as
bioethical questions are concerned, it is mainly a matter of the
attitude of the different traditions or schools of Buddhism. This
is tied to the concept of rebirth and when it occurs. According
to the Theravadin tradition, rebirth occurs immediately upon death.
The body of the deceased is no longer considered as a part of
the former being, so such things as autopsies, organ transplants
etcetera are allowable. In fact, many Theravadins, especially
in Malaysia, encourage the donation of human organs as being the
highest form of giving. Often, especially at Vesak, the celebration
of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, blood
donations are performed in the temple grounds. The Mahayana, on
the other hand, believes that there is an intermediate state between
incarnations, known as Antarabhava. Most people following this
tradition try to avoid touching or moving the body for, at least
eight hours after death. This, of course, means that the organs
would by then be useless for transfer to another human being.
work ethic and business and professional ethics would, ideally
be closely tied to respect for the environment. It is well described
in E.F.Schumacher's book "Small is Beautiful":
the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is
mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is the Middle Way
and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well being. The
keynote of Buddhist economics is simplicity and non-violence.
From an economist's point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist
way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern - amazingly
small means leading to extraordinarily satisfying results."
in a paper called "Buddhism and Social Action" comments:
"Schumacher outlines a 'Buddhist economics' in which production
would be based on a middle range of material goods (and no more),
and on the other a harmony with the natural environment and its
principles suggest some kind of diverse and politically decentralised
society, with co-operative management and ownership of productive
wealth. It would be conceived on a human scale, whether in terms
of size and complexity or organisation or of environmental planning,
and would use modern technology selectively rather than being
used by it in the service of selfish interests. In Schumacher's
words, 'It is a question of finding the right path of development,
the Middle Way, between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist
immobility, in short, of finding Right Livelihood'".
theory surrounding Buddhist business practice, greed still seems
to be the order of the day in many Buddhist countries. In Thailand,
a monk in the north, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo, has been leading
a campaign against the environmental vandalism of the timber industry.
Tree felling in Northern Thailand has caused erosion, flooding
and has economically ruined small farmers. For his environmental
efforts, Acharn Ponsektajadhammo has had death threats and was
recently arrested. In Japan, another country where the majority
of the population is Buddhist, the killing of whales and dolphins
is still prevalent. Animals seem to find no place in the group
culture of Japanese society.
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.