Buddhist ethics give moral insight

About 2500 years ago Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) offered moral guidelines developed from his own observation and direct experience of the nature of suffering. Gautama showed his followers a path to the alleviation of suffering (enlightenment) which required studying the dharma (Buddhist teachings), meditation and living a moral life.

Buddhism, being based on a worldview significantly different to the dominant Western worldview, is capable of providing unique and profound moral insight. Over the next three articles we will explore three major influences on ethics in Asian culture; Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.

According to Buddhism every person has Buddha nature or inherent goodness. This inherent goodness lies hidden due to our continual grasping and attachment to material wealth, beauty, fame etc obscuring the realisation of our true (Buddha) nature. The Buddhist path to leading a moral life requires the removal of this obscuration and recognition of the link between insatiable desire and suffering.

A Buddhist path to a moral life differs from the Christian view of humans as sinners, although as you will see the Buddhist and Christian moral guidelines are remarkably similar. Nevertheless a view of humankind as inherently sinful necessitates an absolute set of moral rules requiring strict enforcement.

Thich Nhat Hanh, an exceptional Vietnamese Buddhist lay teacher, describes five Buddhist moral precepts which provide ethical guidance for all members of society:

1. Cultivate compassion and protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals.

2. Practice generosity, do not steal or possess anything that should belong to others, and prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species.

3. Do not engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment, protect children from sexual abuse and prevent families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

4. Cultivate loving speech and deep listening and speak truthfully recognising words can create happiness or suffering.

5. Promote good health by consuming a healthy diet free of intoxicants and not engaging in unhealthy behaviour.

Ethical rules such as do not kill, do not lie, or do not steal are familiar to us all. But some aspects of these Buddhist precepts are distinctive and challenging.

I interpret the first precept as protecting forests and cultivating a healthy and diverse natural environment. An interesting contrast is provided by the national energy policies of Bhutan and Australia. Both countries possess rich mineral and fossil fuel reserves. Australia acts as quarry to the world whilst Bhutan leaves their minerals in the ground as they follow a Buddhist path to Gross National Happiness, prioritising culture and environmental preservation ahead of short-term economic gains.

The second and third precepts require decisive action to prevent sexual abuse, misconduct and suffering caused by the exploitation of people or animals for profit. The fourth precept is in recognition that immoral actions begin with immoral thoughts and speech, emphasising the importance of honesty and avoiding verbal violence.

The fifth precept recognises the destructive nature of addiction, whether it’s junk food, alcohol, pornography, excessive levels of TV, entertainment or shopping.

It’s interesting that some entrenched problems would be alleviated by following these five Buddhist precepts. For example greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced significantly by stopping deforestation and switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy and from animal to plant-based food sources, as the first rule suggests.

Importantly these precepts prescribe a non-violent and compassionate morality, which is critical as humankind stumbles, unable to develop a set of values consistent with our long-term survival.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.


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