Digest of terms

Buddhist ethics

Buddhism shares belief in karma and samsara with Hinduism (see Hindu ethics), although both are interpreted rather differently (the caste systems are rejected). The ultimate goal, nirvana, involves release from the burden of rebirth, and morality is a key part of the Eightfold Path to achieve that goal: three of the eight aspects are identified as right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These are then interpreted in the light of other moral values highlighted in the tradition.

In Buddhism, as in Hinduism, there are both world-affirming and world-denying strands of thought. In Hinduism the two are reconciled in the stages-of-life (ashrama) teaching and are to be pursued at different times by the same person. In Buddhism they are represented by two different groups of people, monks (and nuns) and laity.

Moral teaching applicable to both groups is found in the Five Precepts, according to which personal character should be cultivated by refraining from: taking life (ahimsa), stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech, and intoxicants. An additional five prescriptions apply specifically to monks and nuns (who are subject to further rules ordering their communal lives) promoting a life of relative (not extreme - Buddhism is the 'middle way') asceticism. Meanwhile it is incumbent on lay people to offer food and alms in support of the monks (today there are few nuns), a practice known as dana. This lay support may result in monks receiving small luxuries (indeed today some have become very comfortably off), a trend repugnant to other monks who withdraw into the forest to pursue a stricter lifestyle. This lay support is reciprocated by the monks through preaching and offering religious instruction to the laity.

In practice it has proved necessary to compromise over the ideal of ahimsa in particular. The vegetarianism implied to be obligatory is not always a realistic possibility (not least in Tibet). Again, farmers have to control rats, for example, in order to protect rice harvests. Moreover ahimsa conflicts with another important ideal, that of the 'righteous king' (dharmaraja), for he requires an army - so is being a soldier a suitable form of 'right livelihood'? Buddhist ethics does not avoid such dilemmas.

In addition to the moral teaching of the Five and Ten Precepts there are the Four Illimitables: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. The last of these sits somewhat uncomfortably, perhaps, alongside the others.

The importance of compassion conduced to the emergence of Mahayana schools, prominent in China and Japan, and in some tension with the Theravada prevailing in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Theravadins were accused of pursuing an overly self-centred ideal of individual liberation (though the Precepts do not support this), and the Mahayanists promoted the role of bodhisattvas, mythological figures who exemplify self-sacrificial compassion by transferring merit from their own vast store to ordinary people as a means of supporting their path to liberation (or rebirth in a Pure Land).

The concept of merit accumulation retains great significance among contemporary Theravadins. Anthropologists have drawn attention to a distinction between 'nibbanic' and 'kammatic' patterns of Buddhism. The former retains nirvana as the immediate goal, while the latter postpones the pursuit of nirvana indefinitely and focuses on the more immediate goal of accumulating merit in order to achieve a better rebirth in future lives. This will still involve the practice of dana, compassion and the other virtues, but it does raise questions about purity of motive - and right motive is regarded as being central for Buddhists.

Today the modified world-rejecting asceticism of the monastic ideal, as well as being qualified in practice by gifts accruing from dana, has been balanced by movements of 'socially engaged' Buddhism in pursuit of social reform. When, at times, monks have become involved in these, controversy has naturally ensued, the monks being accused - by both monks and laity - of compromising their calling by dirtying their hands in politics. Still, compassion is of course a prime motive for the pursuit of social justice. Less obviously defensible, perhaps, is the role of some monks in becoming activist nationalists.

Related to these developments have been discussions of the extent of the possibility of compatibility between Buddhism and modern human rights movements, and of the contribution of Buddhism to any emerging global ethic. As in all traditionally patriarchal religions, the role and status of women has become a contested issue.

Buddhist ethics seeks ideally to balance concern for individual pursuit of nirvana and concern for social welfare. Whether the tension between the two can be finally resolved remains perhaps something of an open question.

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