Fundamentals of Buddhism


Last week we completed our survey of the Four Noble Truths and in so doing the last topic that we dealt with was the Noble Eightfold Path to the end of suffering. We used the analogy of mountain climbing when we talked about treading the Eightfold Path to the end of suffering. We have said that just as when one climbs a mountain the first step depends on the last, the last depends on the first because we have to have our eyes firmly fixed on the summit of the mountain and yet we also have to be careful not to stumble while taking the first few steps up to the mountain path. So here in climbing a mountain, each portion of the path depends on the other portions. In this sense, regarding the Noble Eightfold Path, all the steps of the path are interrelated, are dependent on one another. We cannot do away with any one step. Nonetheless, for practical purposes the eight steps of the path have been divided into three ways of practice, or three divisions of training. These three divisions are good conduct or morality (Shila), mental development or meditation (Samadhi) and finally wisdom or insight (Prajna). Although conceptually and structurally, the first step depends upon the last and the last depends upon the first; although they are dependent on one another, still in practical terms when one climbs a mountain one has to climb the lowest slope first. One may be attracted to the summit, but in order to get there one has to cover the lower slope first. It is for this very practical reason that we find the eight steps of the Eightfold Path grouped into these three ways of practice.

The first of these three ways is good conduct. Good conduct forms a foundation for further progress on the path, for further personal development. It is said that just as the earth is the base of all animate and inanimate things, so is morality the foundation of all qualities. When we look around us we can see that everything rests upon the earth, whether it be the building, whether it be the tree and bush, or whether it be the animal. The earth is the foundation, and in the same manner morality is the foundation of all qualities, all virtues, all attainments ranging from the mundane to the supra-mundane, ranging from success, good fortune all the way up to skill in meditation, wisdom and enlightenment. Through this metaphor, we can under-stand the importance of good conduct as a foundation for following the path, as a basis for achieving results on the path.

Why do we take time to stress the importance of good conduct as a foundation for progress on the path? The reason is that there is a tendency to think of good conduct as rather boring, rather dull. Meditation sounds more exciting and interesting. Philosophy has a kind of fascination about it. There is a dangerous tendency to neglect the importance of good conduct and to go to the more exciting parts of the path. But if we do not create this foundation of good conduct, we will not succeed in treading the other parts of the path.

We have to understand the way in which the precepts or the rules of good conduct are established within Buddhism because there are various ways in which moral or ethical codes are established. If you look at the moral codes of the major religions, you will find that there is a surprising correspondence. If you look at the moral teachings of Confucius, of Lao Tzu, of the Buddha, of Hindu teachers, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, you will find that regarding the basic rules of morality, there is a large degree of correspondence. But while the rules in many cases correspond, the attitude, the ways in which the rules are presented, understood and interpreted differ considerably from religion to religion. Essentially, to generalize, there are two ways in which moral codes can be established. One way we might call the authoritarian way, and the other we might call the democratic way. And a good example of the first is God’s handing down the Ten Commandments to Moses on the mountain. On the other hand in Buddhism, I think what we have here might be called a democratic way of establishing the rules of good conduct. You might wonder why I say that. After all we do have the rules of good conduct laid down in scriptures. So you might ask is this not similar to God’s handing down the tablets to Moses? But I think this is not really so because if we look closely at the scriptures, we do find what lies behind the rules of good conduct, and the principles that lie behind that are the foundation of the rules of good conduct, are the principles of equality and reciprocity.

What equality means is that all living beings are equal in their essential attitudes. In other words, all living beings want to be happy. They fear pain, death and suffering. All want to live, to enjoy happiness and security. And this is also true to all living beings just as it is true to ourselves. We can call this equality the great universality of the Buddhist vision in which all living beings are equal. On the basis of this equality, we are encouraged to act with the awareness of reciprocity.

Reciprocity means that just as we would not like to be killed, robbed, abused and so forth, so would all other living beings not like to have these things happen to them. One can put this principle of reciprocity quite simply by saying "do not act towards others in a way which you would not want them to act towards you". Given these principles of equality and reciprocity, it is not hard to see how they stand behind, how they create the foundation for the rules of good conduct.

Let us now look specifically at the contents of good conduct in Buddhism. The way of practice of good conduct includes three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path, and these three parts are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. Speech is an extremely important part of our life. We often tend to underestimate the power of speech. We often tend to exercise very little control over our faculty of speech. This should not be so. We have all been very greatly hurt by someone’s words at some time of our life. And similarly, we have been encouraged by the words of another. In the sphere of politics, we can see how those who are able to communicate effectively are able to influence people tremendously for better or for worse. Hitler, Churchill, Martin Luther King were all accomplished speakers who were able to influence millions of people with their words. It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than weapons. A gentle word can change the heart and mind of the most hardened criminal. Probably more than anything else, the faculty of speech differentiates man from animals. So if one is to develop a society in which harmony, well-being, communication and cooperation are goals which are to be realized, one must control, cultivate and utilize one’s faculty of speech positively.

All the rules of good conduct involve respect that is founded upon the understanding of equality and reciprocity. In this context, right speech involves respect for truth and respect for the welfare of others. If one speaks with these criteria in mind, one will be cultivating right speech and through this one will achieve greater harmony within society. Traditionally we speak of four aspects of right speech. Right speech means to avoid lying, to avoid back biting or slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk. Some of you may recall the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula regarding the importance of avoiding lying. He used the example of a vessel. The vessel had a tiny bit of water in the bottom and He asked, "Rahula, see the small amount of water in the bottom of the vessel. Those who are not ashamed of lying, their virtue is small, their renunciation is small like the small amount of water in the vessel." Then the Buddha threw away the water and said, "those who are not ashamed of lying throw away their virtue just as this water is thrown away." Then the Buddha showed Rahula the empty vessel and said, "just so empty is the virtue, the renunciation of those who habitually tell lies."

Thus He used the vessel as a means to illustrate the point that lying is intimately associated with one’s practice of wholesome actions, with one’s good conduct, with one’s character. Once we are confident that we can act in one way and speak in another, then we will not be afraid to act badly, because we will be confident that we can cover up our bad actions by lying. Lying therefore opens the door to all kinds of unwholesome actions. Slander is divisive. It creates quarrels between friends. It creates pain and discord. So just as one would not want to be divided from one’s friend by slander, so ought one not to slander another. So also one ought not to abuse others with harsh words, but on the contrary should speak courteously to others as one would like to be spoken to oneself.

Regarding idle talk, often you hear of people saying that we cannot even indulge in a bit of idle talk. It is not quite that bad. Here the kind of idle talk that is particularly indicated refers to malicious gossips, diverting oneself, entertaining oneself, recounting the faults and failings of others. Rather than use this faculty of speech which is so powerful for deception, for dividing others, for abusing others, for idling away time at the expense of others, why not use it constructively, to communicate meaningfully, to unite others, to encourage understanding between neighbours and friends, and to communicate helpful, meaningful advice. The Buddha once said, "Pleasant speech is as sweet as honey, truthful speech is as beautiful as a flower, and wrong speech is unwholesome and filthy". So let us try for our own good and that of others to cultivate Right Speech, respect for truth, and respect for the welfare of others.

The next part of the path that falls under good conduct is Right Action. Right Action entails respect for life, respect for property, and respect for personal relationships. We will recall what was said a moment ago about life being dear to all. It is said in the Dharmapada that all tremble at punishment, all fear death, and that all living beings love life. So again, keeping in mind the principles of equality and reciprocity, we ought not to kill living beings. One might be ready to accept this in regard to human beings, but we might demur with regard to other living creatures. Some of the developments that we have seen taking place in the world of science and technology in recent years ought to give the most skeptical free-thinker food for thought. When one destroys a certain strain of insects, is one absolutely sure of accomplishing the greatest good, the long-term good of the environment? Or do we more often than not contribute unwittingly to an imbalance which creates even greater problems in the future?

Respect for property - not to steal from or cheat others. This is important because those who take what is not given, by stealth, by treachery, are as guilty of breaking this precept as those who steal by force. In other words, the employer who does not pay his employee an honest wage that is commensurate with his work is guilty of taking what is not given. Similarly, the employee who collects a salary and shirks his duties is guilty of lack of respect for property.

Finally respect for personal relationships means to avoid adultery, to avoid sexual misconduct. You can see how, if these guidelines are sincerely cultivated within a society, such a society will be a better place to live in.

The third step of the Noble Eightfold Path included in the way of good conduct is Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is an extension of the rules of Right Action to one’s role as a breadwinner in a society. We have seen that with regard to Right Speech and Right Action the underlying principles behind the rules are respect for truth, life, property and personal relationships. Right Livelihood means that one ought not to earn a living in such a way as to violate these principles which are underlying principles of good conduct. Specifically, there are five kinds of livelihood that are discouraged for Buddhists. These are trading in animals for slaughter, dealing in slaves, dealing in weapons, dealing in poisons, and dealing in intoxicants, those are drugs and alcoholic drinks. These five kinds of livelihood are discouraged because they contribute to the ills of society and because they violate the principles of respect for life and so forth. Dealing in the slaughter of animals violates respect for life. Dealing in slaves violates respect for life and personal relationships. Dealing in deadly weapons violates the principle of respect for life. Dealing in poisons violates the principle of respect for life. Dealing in intoxicants violates the principle of respect for the welfare of others. All these trades contribute to the insecurity, to the suffering and discord in society.

How does good conduct function? We have said that, in regard to society, following the rules of good conduct creates a society characterized by harmony and peace. All social goals can be achieved through the principles and rules of good conduct based upon the fundamental recognition of equality and reciprocity. In addition, the individual also benefits through the practice of good conduct. In one Sutra, the Buddha said, "he who has practised respect for life and so forth, he feels as a king duly crowned and his enemies subdued. He feels at peace, at ease." The practice of good conduct creates within the individual an inner sense of peace, of stability, of security and of strength. Once he has created that inner peace, he can then fruitfully and successfully practise the other steps of the path. He can cultivate and develop meditation. He can achieve wisdom only when he has created both inwardly and outwardly in his relationships with others and in himself the necessary foundation of good conduct.

Very briefly, these are the origin, contents and goal of good conduct? I would like to touch on one point before I stop today, and that is when people look at the rules of good conduct, they often say how can they possibly follow the rules of good conduct. It is terribly difficult to observe the precepts. For instance, even the precept against taking life can sometimes seem awfully difficult to follow. When you clean up your kitchen, you quite likely may kill some ants. Again, it may seem difficult to always observe the precept of Right Speech. How are we to deal with this problem which is a genuine one? It is not the point whether we can observe all the rules of good conduct all the time. The point is, if the rules of good conduct are well founded, if we can accept that equality and reciprocity are principles we believe in, if we acknowledge that the rules are appropriate to implementing those principles, then it is our duty to practise, to follow the rules of good conduct as much as we can. That is not to say that we will be able to follow the rules absolutely all the time. But it is to say that if we accept that in order to live at peace with ourselves and others, we ought to respect the life of other living beings, respect their property and so forth. And if a situation arises in which we find ourselves unable to apply a particular rule in a particular situation, then that is not the fault of the rule. That simply is the gap between our own practice and the ideal.

When a navigator steers his ship across the ocean by the stars, he is not able to follow precisely the course indicated by the stars. Yet the stars are his guide and by following the stars however inaccurately or approximately, he reaches his destination. In the same way, when we follow the rules of good conduct we do not pretend that we can observe them all the time. This is why for instance the five precepts are called the training precepts and that is why we take them again and again. What we have in the rules of good conduct is a framework through which we can try to live in accord with the fundamental principles that illuminate the Buddhist teachings, the principle of the equality of all living beings and the principle of respect for others.

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