The Buddhist approach to ethics

Posted by on Sep 24, 2012 in Buddhism | No Comments

The other night I was hanging out with some friends (after the meditation flash mob) and we got talking about ethics. Why do we think something’s right or wrong?

People have different ideas, from ‘because it says so in the Bible’ to ‘because it feels good’ to ‘because it’s our duty as patriots’.

There are books and books on this. Here, I’m just going to give a brief introduction to the Buddhist approach.

For Buddhism, there isn’t ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ so much as ‘skilful’ and ‘unskilful’. This is because for Buddhism, ethics is essentially a skill to be developed and mastered.

The idea that someone can be ‘evil’ is fundamentally at odds with the Buddhist perspective. Someone can develop ‘evil’ (or unskilful) behaviours and mental states. That person can also turn such negative mental states around, and eventually become a Buddha.

For Buddhism, the argument for acting ethically is essentially that this is the wise course of action. If we want to be well and happy, we should act ethically. It is in both our interests and the interests of others to live this way.

An ethical universe?

Buddhism considers the universe to be fundamentally organised along ethical lines. The theory of karma is an expression of this. The Buddhist approach to karma is quite specific – it’s not quite as simple as ‘what goes around comes around’. It’s more that acting unskilfully (that is, out of hatred, greed, or delusion) gives us a momentum in a certain direction. It will inevitably lead to suffering, as we eventually land in unpleasant conditions.

The reverse is also true. If we act out of love, generosity or wisdom, we are setting up the conditions for future wellbeing.

This is considered to be a law or property of the universe in the same way as gravity is a law or property. It’s not about a god, it’s more like science.

Personally, I’m not sure I buy into the whole karma trip. But I do see the benefits of living as if it were true. Who knows what’s really going on.

The way I see it in my own life is that acting unethically results in, and is a result of, pulling away from others. It’s about separateness. It makes you feel small and at odds with others. It doesn’t lead to peace or happiness (though it often leads to money and power!)

For example, by not eating meat, I can feel more of a connection with other species. My heart can open without pain. However, eating dairy products, I know I’m causing the death of other beings, and the suffering of others.

The only way I can eat dairy and feel OK is to emotionally cut off from the consequences of my actions, and to emotionally and mentally turn away from the reality of what I’m doing.

Now this post isn’t about vegetarianism or veganism. I’m just using this as one example of the Buddhist approach to ethics.

Ethics as a foundation for meditation

Building from this, the practice of ethics (for in Buddhism, ethics is something you practice, and hopefully get better at) acts as a foundation for meditation. If we have no dark corners in our hearts and minds, we can develop a stronger meditation practice without fear. Meditation has a way of shining a light on those dark corners, and this can be painful and scary.

No one is perfect, and I’m not suggesting we don’t meditate for fear of looking at our dark sides. I’m saying that if we get into an essentially positive relationship with the universe (by trying to treat the world and other beings as well as we can), we sit more easily.

Of course, the image of a ‘foundation’ is not quite right. Meditation, because of its tendency to open our hearts and clear our minds, tends to move us in the direction of more ethical living. So perhaps it is a feedback loop.

Don’t kid yourself

A note of caution though. There is nothing fundamentally ethical about meditation. Plenty of despicable acts have been committed by meditators. It is possible, by strengthening our minds through meditation, to actually do more harm than we otherwise would have. If we undermine our guilt, loosen our bonds to cultural conventions, and develop confidence in ourselves, we are capable of terrible things.

So if we are on the spiritual path, personally I think we have to keep more of an eye on ourselves, and keep our feet on the ground.

The guy who brought Buddhism to Tibet (a guy called Padmasambhava) reportedly said “I do not know, I do not have, I do not understand.”

Smart words from the great guru.



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