What is Buddhist Ethics?

Buddhist Ethics is the training in virtuous conduct beloved by the Noble Ones. Its core principle is non-cruelty: the abstaining from all intentional harm.

The most gross forms of cruelty are the ethical precepts common to all Buddhists and to most other religions besides: the renunciation of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxication. The Buddha’s instructions, however, continue far beyond such perennial philosophy: to guarding the senses, the development of positive moral character, and (eventually) to the complete eradication of the underlying tendencies towards greed, hatred and delusion which cause cruelty in the first place.

The Buddha’s teachings on how to live thus outline a system of transformation which is aimed at awakening — powerful tools for us to use to transform our habits of body, speech, and mind so that they might both afford and accord with liberating insight.

Prerequisites

Prior familiarity with Buddhism will be helpful but is not necessary for this course.

Textbooks

There are two textbooks for this class: one dry and one wet.

An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues – Peter Harvey
  • This classic textbook covers a surprising breadth of subjects and perspectives in Buddhist Ethics in admirably clear and precise prose.
  • It will supply the “dry” explanations for this course. You can think of Harvey as our lecturer: elucidating the meaning and providing a solid grounding for our course.

Our “wet” textbook is the Sanskrit classic:

The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – Śāntideva
  • This epic poem on grasping firmly the intention to awaken has inspired many generations of Buddhists (myself included) to live a more ethical and spiritual life and it captures beautifully the aesthetic of Buddhist ethics. Well worth reading again and again and again.
  • There are a few English translations of this classic of world literature. Steven Bachelor has a translation available online here for free, but I strongly recommend the Padmakara translation published by Shambhala in 2011 for its unparalleled accuracy and force.

Course Outline

Forget you. This is about waiting

A poem which shakes ‘work’ from its masculine frame and recenters it, not on you, on your brother.

We start the course with this poem by American poet Philip Levine. Go ahead and read it now. Think about that last line. What is work?

Hopefully this course will help you answer that question.

Part 1: Foundations

A lay follower living at home with these five qualities is self-assured.

The core of Buddhist Ethics is summed up well in this pithy sutta. The five qualities listed here are called “The Five Precepts” and all Buddhists strive to preserve these five qualities. Technically, observing these five moral precepts assiduously is sufficient to be considered an ethical person.

If Buddhist Ethics can be summarized so quickly, why a whole course? What challenges do you see in trying to strictly observe these Five Precepts?

Chapter 1: The Shared Foundations of Buddhist Ethics

The course will follow the sequence of the chapters in Harvey’s Introduction. Go ahead and read Chapter 1 now, and when you’re finished consider this:

  • If you make your living off immorality, it takes a huge toll on your mind, relationships, and health.
  • What kinds of things do liberated beings never do? And why not?
  • A lecture introducing Buddhist Ethics, particularly from the perspective of early Buddhism.

Part 2: Cultivating Virtue

Buddhist ethics corresponds to a more generic, act-centered virtue ethics.

In this half of the course, we focus on the cultivation of virtue. What mental states make virtue? What beliefs enable such virtuous mental states?

To help us explore these questions, we’ll turn to the Tibetan Tradition’s favorite poem:

The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – Śāntideva

This entire half of the course technically covers only Chapter 2 of Harvey but really centers on The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.

The Padmakara translation has a good introduction, and you may want to read that now, but the introduction more suitable for the purposes of this course is:

  • An encylopedia entry on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism which lays the groundwork for our reading of this beloved classic. If you’re finding the poem confusing or would like to know more about its historical context, this article and your translation’s introduction (if any) should be a good place to start.

With that, let’s read Śāntideva himself! Preferably twice. Seriously, it’s that good.

Your first time, just read it all the way, straight through. Let his language and imagery work their magic. After reading it once on our own, we’ll go back and reread the book together chapter by chapter to compare the poem with the Pali Canon.

The Way of the Bodhisattva

Chapter 1: The Excellence of Bodhicitta

In Buddhism, the highest good is awakening, and in this chapter Śāntideva expresses his devotion to that ideal and honors those who are advanced on the path towards to. This raises two questions:

  • But what makes awakening good?
  • How did the Buddha suggest that we pay him homage?
Chapter 2: Confession

Accepting our faults is a critical starting point for ethical development, and a practice that the Buddha talked much about:

  • How do you react when someone criticizes you? Can you recognize yourself or someone you know in each of these eight ways?
  • Venerable Mahā Moggallāna lists 16 qualities that make someone easy to admonish.
  • The Buddha points out that even a killer only spends a small amount of their time actually killing, pointing out how hard it is to know ourselves.
Chapter 3: Taking Hold of Bodhicitta
  • A Queen gives her King a shockingly honest answer, prompting the Buddha to teach “The Golden Rule”
  • A rather remarkable sutta, in which the Buddha admits that it’s often painful to strictly follow the precepts.
  • Given that following the precepts sometimes leads to pain, why does the Buddha still recommend them?
  • The corner stone of Buddhist morality is generosity, for all other virtues start in its renunciation and care for others. But clearly there are better and worse ways to give, as rich people often demonstrate. What factors make giving better or worse?
Chapter 4: Carefulness
  • How does the Buddha advise that we care for others?
  • The standard for “refraining from taking that which was not given” can be extremely high!
  • From the perspective of the Buddhist path, what is so blameworthy about “stopping to smell the roses?”
  • People often acuse Theravada Buddhism of focusing only on strict, negative ethics, but I find it helpful to know what not to do.
  • But this reputation isn’t wholely deserved, as Ajahn Suchart points out here that there are a number of good things Theravada Buddhism encourages.
Chapter 5: Vigilant Introspection
Two Questions on Ethics – Ajahn Jayasaro (mp3)
  • Ajahn Jayasaro answers two common questions on the five precepts, including whether it breaks the precepts to have a glass of wine for your health.
  • As we improve our conduct and remove our blemishes, humility might seem to dictate that we don’t acknowledge our increasing virtue. What harm can come from refusing to accurately assess our purity?
  • In one of the most famous similes of the canon, the Buddha encourages his son to constantly watch his own behavior to see what it reveals about his heart.
Chapter 6: Patience
  • The Buddha never condoned anger, but what can we do if anger does arise?
  • We can improve ourselves and the world without anger or guilt.
Chapter 7: Diligence
  • Two of the most important suttas on Buddhist Ethics in the whole canon, translated with helpful notes.
  • Whenever we lose our diligence, it show us where we lack wisdom. Where we have wisdom, we will have ease and prosperity.
Chapter 8: Meditative Concentration
  • Why is Zen so minimalistic? Why take on the practice of celibacy or reduced eating?
  • What kinds of people are better not associated with? What kinds of places are better left behind?
  • And what does all this have to do with enlightenment anyway?
Chapter 9: Wisdom
  • What qualities distinguish the wise?
  • What is the highest external virtue? How can we avoid conflict in this world?
Chapter 10: Conclusion

What did you think going through The Way of the Bodhisattva a second time? Was anything new? How does it compare to the philosophy of the Pali Suttas? Did you notice any significant differences?

At this point you should now have a firm grasp of Buddhist Ethics. For our “Midterm Exam”, write an essay comparing Buddhist Ethics to the popular ethics of your own culture. What do they agree on? Where do they diverge?

Part 3: Engaging the World

Now that we’ve finished Parts 1 and 2, we’ve covered the core of Buddhist Ethics and can revisit Philip Levine:

  • Rereading the poem now, has your understanding changed at all since we started the course? How would you now explain what work is?

I give you back 1948.

A poem about what time can do to a person.

In Part 3 we return to Peter Harvey’s Introduction and, chapter by chapter, engage in a number of topical, ethical debates, starting with the Mahayana’s twist on Buddhist ethics already alluded to earlier in our comparison of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra to the Pāli Canon. As we go through this part of the course, please keep in mind the radical openness of our second Philip Levine poem, “You can have it.” How can we use our heart to check our intellect and our culture’s typical way of doing things?

Chapter 3: Mahayana Adaptions

  • A Theravada response to the Mahayana assertion of the existence of compassionate killing.
  • Ven Pandita tackles the famous “Trolly Problem” from the perspective of Theravada Ethics, and illuminates a way in which Theravada and Mahayana ethics might agree more than you think.

Chapter 4: Natural World

  • Mindfulness practices may be essential for facing climate change.
  • With its focus on the mind and the social realm, Buddhist ethics still has some perspective to offer the environmental movement.

Chapter 5: Economics

  • In which the Buddha compares attachment to wealth to a dung beetle proud of her dung.
  • A Buddhist monk who rejects money has a lot to say about economics, perhaps because of the objectivity that distance affords.
  • There is a profound connection between internal states of delusion and macroeconomic problems.

Chapter 6: War and Peace

  • An argument between two highly respected Theravada monks on the subject of whether war can ever be justified, Bhikkhu Bodhi wonders out loud, “War: what is it good for?” and Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds with, “Absolutely nothing!”
  • An African American law professor gives a master class in nonviolent communication.

Note: Sadly, Harvey’s Introduction doesn’t include a chapter explicitly on racism — a notorious blind spot for Buddhists both East and West which the Buddha himself pulled no punches in denouncing.

Chapter 7: Suicide

  • An early Buddhist perspective on suicide.
  • A Theravada answer to the question of euthanasia.

Do you agree with their answers? What do you think makes the subject so uncomfortable?

Chapter 8: Abortion

Speaking of uncomfortable!

  • A Theravada monk gives an important clarification on the early Buddhist perspective on abortion and IVF, which later (conservative) texts have muddled in their quest for clear, crisp lines.

Chapter 9: Sexual Equality

  • Not Buddhist per se, but a contemporary classic, this essay shows exactly what casual sexism feels like.
  • Bhikkhuni Subha comes up with an extraordinary (if not recommended!) way of handling more serious sexual harassment, showing that women have long had to deal with the same problems.
  • But that doesn’t mean that things can’t or don’t get better. This letter celebrates one such step towards gender equality taken in recent years.

Chapter 10: Sexuality

  • What is gender, really? And how can people feel entitled to change it?
  • A refreshingly humble and non-dogmatic essay on everyone’s favorite topic, embodying the spirit of generous orthodoxy.

Conclusion

Ajahn Brahm concludes by reminding us that between all the ethical debates and traditions and forms, there is a common core of good sense which we can rely on:

Ajahn Brahm returns to the origins of Buddhism to help us understand the intentions and practice of “original” Buddhism.

Further Reading

Monographs

A classic translation of this classic book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.

Booklets

As for the question of suffering in the future—in this life or the next—don’t overlook your heart that’s suffering right now.

What lies behind this insistence on love is a worry: without a deep-seated fear that one day love would no longer exist (or exist in the same way) why would anyone feel that they have to insist upon it so much?

This book is intended to provide an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha which will shed some light on a subject that, to non-Buddhists, can appear both unexpectedly rational and exotically strange.

Canonical Works

It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief

A magisterial compendium of good advice for lay people.

Khp 5: The Highest Blessings

Featured in the course, " Buddhism 101"

Diverse problems demand a diverse range of responses. Rather than selling a “one size fits all” solution, in this sutta the Buddha outlines seven methods for dealing with the afflictions of life and in so doing gives us a comprehensive overview of Buddhist practices.

In a practical meditation teaching, the Buddha describes five progressive approaches to arresting unwanted thoughts.

‘By this virtue or observance or asceticism or holy life I shall become a great god or some lesser god,’ that is wrong view in his case. Now there are two destinations for one with wrong view, I say: hell or the animal realm. So, Puṇṇa, if his dog-duty succeeds, it will lead him to the company of dogs; if it fails, it will lead him to hell.

What is the one thing, O Gotama, Whose killing you approve?

Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the east. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the east. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures.’

Papers

Articles

Essays

There is no single “swiss-army knife” technique that works equally well at all times; instead, we must carefully examine our present conditions and determine what practice is most relevant.

Audio/Video

The text jumps inside me and helps. me. out.

So, when you’re studying Buddhism, what are you studying?
I know the answer. I’m studying me.
I’m studying me.

Advanced Courses

The Function of Buddhism
If you haven't taken it already, this course outlining the purpose of Buddhist practice is very much worth checking out. We'll cover ethics within the context of practice and more firmly connect ethics with the development of wisdom. I highly recommend it.
An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy
An overview of Theravada Philosophy structured around the three jewels and four noble truths.
The Early Buddhist Texts
Continue reading and studying the Pāli suttas with Bhikkhu Bodhi himself.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.