Other religions derive their ideas of right and wrong
from the commandments of their god or gods. You Buddhists don't
believe in a god, so how do you know what is right and wrong?
Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed,
hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad
and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving,
love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good.
To know what is right and wrong in god-centered religions, all
that is needed is to do as you are told. But in a human-centered
religion like Buddhism, to know what is right or wrong, you have
to develop a deep self-awareness and self-understanding. And ethics
based on understanding are always stronger than those that are
a response to a command. So to know what is right and wrong, the
Buddhist looks at three things - the intention, the effect the
act will have upon oneself and the effect it will have upon others.
If the intention is good (rooted in giving, love and wisdom),
if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving and
wiser) and help others (helps them to be more giving, more loving
and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and
moral. Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes
I act with the best of intentions but it may not benefit either
myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but
my action helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good
intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress
to others. In such cases, my actions are mixed - a mixture of
good and not-so-good. When intentions are bad and the action helps
neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my
intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others,
then the deed is wholly good.
So does Buddhism have a code of morality?
Yes, it does. The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist
morality. The first precept is to avoid killing or harming living
beings. The second is to avoid stealing, the third is to avoid
sexual misconduct, the fourth is to avoid lying and the fifth
is to avoid alcohol and other intoxicating drugs.
But surely it is good to kill sometimes. To kill disease-spreading
insects, for example, or someone who is going to kill you?
It might be good for you but what about that thing or
that person? They wish to live just as you do. When you decide
to kill a disease-spreading insect, your intention is perhaps
a mixture of self-concern (good) and revulsion (bad). The act
will benefit yourself (good) but obviously it will not benefit
that creature (bad). So at times it may be necessary to kill but
it is never wholly good.
You Buddhists are too concerned about ants and bugs.
Buddhists strive to develop a compassion that is undiscriminating
and all-embracing. They see the world as a unified whole where
each thing or creature has its place and function. They believe
that before we destroy or upset nature's delicate balance, we
should be very careful. Just look at those cultures where emphasis
is on exploiting nature to the full, squeezing every last drop
out of it without putting anything back, on conquering and subduing
it. Nature has revolted. The very air is becoming poisoned, the
rivers are polluted and dead, so many beautiful animal species
are extinct, the slopes of the mountains are barren and eroded.
Even the climate is changing. If people were a little less anxious
to crush, destroy and kill, this terrible situation may not have
arisen. We should all strive to develop a little more respect
for life. And this is what the first precept is saying.
The Third Precept says we should avoid sexual misconduct.
What is sexual misconduct?
If we use trickery, emotional blackmail or force to compel
someone to have sex with us, then this is sexual misconduct. Adultery
is also a form of sexual misconduct because when we marry we promise
our spouse we will be loyal to them. When we commit adultery we
break that promise and betray their trust. Sex should be an expression
of love and intimacy between two people and when it is it contributes
to our mental and emotional well-being.
Is sex before marriage a type of sexual misconduct?
Not if there is love and mutual agreement between the
two people. However it should never be forgotten that the biological
function of sex is to reproduce and if an unmarried woman becomes
pregnant it can cause a great deal of problems. Many mature and
thoughtful people think it is far better to leave sex until after
But what about lying? Is it possible to live without
If it is really impossible to get by in society or business
without lying, such a shocking and corrupt state of affairs should
be changed. The Buddhist is someone who resolves to do something
practical about the problem by trying to be more truthful and
Well, what about alcohol? Surely a little drink doesn't
People don't drink for the taste. When they drink alone
it is in order to seek release from tension and when they drink
socially, it is usually to conform. Even a small amount of alcohol
distorts consciousness and disrupts self-awareness. Taken in large
quantities, its effect can be devastating.
But drinking just a small amount wouldn't be really
breaking the precept, would it? It's only a small thing.
Yes, it is only a small thing and if you can't practice
even a small thing, your commitment and resolution isn't very
strong, is it?
The five precepts are negative. They tell you what
not to do. They don't tell you what to do.
The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality.
They are not all of it. We start by recognizing our bad behavior
and striving to stop doing it. That is what the Five Precepts
are for. After we have stopped doing bad, we then commence to
do good. Take for example, speech. The Buddha says we should start
by refraining from telling lies. After that, we should speak the
truth, speak gently and politely and speak at the right time.
"Giving up false speech he becomes a speaker of truth, reliable,
trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Giving
up malicious speech he does not repeat there what he has heard
here nor does he repeat here what he has heard there in order
to cause variance between people. He reconciles those who are
divided and brings closer together those who are already friends.
Harmony is his joy, harmony is his delight, harmony is his love;
it is the motive of his speech. Giving up harsh speech his speech
is blameless, pleasing to the ear, agreeable, going to the heart,
urbane, liked by most. Giving up idle chatter he speaks at the
right time, what is correct, to the point, about Dhamma and about
discipline. He speaks words worth being treasured up, seasonable,
reasonable, well defined and to the point."
M. I, 179