Becoming Better: Two Principles You Should Know About Buddhist Morality

Becoming Better: Two Principles You Should Know About Buddhist Morality

Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Buddhist scholar Sylvia Bay’s Chapter on Morality. Beyond the familiar 5 precepts (training guides for laypeople), she explores deeper into the principles behind them. Principles help colour in the grey areas we sometimes see in ‘rules’. TLDR & Wise Steps have been added by the HOL Team

TLDR: Right or wrong. Can or cannot. Some Buddhists are sticky on rules, some are not. Sylvia Bay shares on taking a step back and understanding the Buddha’s principles towards morality.

For the thinking Buddhist, it is not enough to know what is good or bad, right or wrong and should this or should that not be done. 

It is just as important to understand why the moral code is so. By understanding the basis for sīla (morality), we will know what is right and should be done under any circumstances without having to fret about the correct interpretation of precepts or to consult another. 

Two key principles need to be highlighted as they underpin Buddha’s teaching on sīla: empathy and spiritual utilitarianism. 

1. Principle of Empathy 

Buddha had taught that when considering whether an action is right or wrong, we should see things from the recipient’s perspective. What we do not like, it is fair to assume that others would not either. 

What we like, they probably would as well. Therefore the point is to treat another, the way you would want to be treated. 

The empathy principle underpins four of the five layman moral precepts, the ten unwholesome actions and several of the wholesome qualities mentioned earlier. For instance, on killing, Buddha had said that everyone wished to live and not die and everyone was “fond of pleasure and averse to pain”. 

If we dread pain and value our life, then we should not inflict pain on another and intentionally deprive him of his life. Likewise, just as you value your possessions and would experience pain or loss if you were to lose them, then you should not take another’s belongings. You do not like being lied to, then do not lie to another. You do not like to be the object of gossip, slander, angry words and so on, then avoid subjecting others to the same. 

Be kind and considerate, show respect, be reasonable and gentle, and so on. 

If we go by this empathy principle, we can probably resolve most moral dilemmas ourselves without having to consult another. 

For instance, let’s examine some commonly asked ‘controversial’ questions. Should we tell someone who is dying the truth of his prognosis? Is a white lie acceptable? Should homosexuality be condemned? 

To answer these questions, simply pose them to yourself with the same questions: if you were dying, would you want to be told the truth? Would you accept being told a white lie? Would you want to be condemned for your sexual preferences? You know your answers. 

If you do not extend the same courtesy to others, then you are exercising double standards, aren’t you? How can that be sīla?

2. Spiritual Utilitarianism 

By spiritual utilitarianism, it means that an action is skilful, good and should be performed if it increases the well-being and happiness of you and others, and takes you closer to Nibbāna.

Conversely, an action that brings pain and suffering to all and that takes you further away from Nibbāna is unskilful, bad and should be avoided. 

Buddha had advised his disciples to reflect as follows before undertaking any action: it should be avoided if it “leads to my own affliction, to other’s affliction, and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna.”

In a similar vein and a touch of more detail, Buddha instructed his son, Rāhula, to reflect on his actions “like a mirror”, i.e., objectively, and to avoid any “unwholesome bodily action” that leads to “my own affliction or to the affliction of others”, and that comes “with painful consequences, with painful results”.

One may protest and say if one is clueless about Nibbāna, how does one tell if an action will take one closer to or farther away from it? 

That is a valid point. 

Therefore, for one new to the Dhamma or still struggling with understanding it, Buddha offered another perspective. He said we would know for ourselves when we are feeling calm or agitated, happy or sad, content or troubled and so on. 

Intuitively we know that a peaceful state of mind is beneficial and pleasing while a shaky, restless and agitated one is painful and probably harmful. Therefore, undertake actions that lead to a calm and peaceful mind and avoid those that increase yearning, anger, restlessness and worry. 

This principle of spiritual utilitarianism underpins the fifth (Precept of Avoiding Intoxicants Which Cause Heedlessness) of the five layman precepts, and the practitioner component of the eight and ten precepts as well as some of the meritorious actions mentioned above

Wise Steps:

  • Develop empathy towards others by reflecting on how we wish to be treated. Rather than sticking to just following the ‘rules’, we also need space to empathise with others
  • Conduct yourself in a way that increases the overall well-being of oneself and others. Every intentional action we take, mental or physical, either brings us closer to the path of peace or away from it.
Pandemic Diaries: Lessons On Right Effort And Morality

Pandemic Diaries: Lessons On Right Effort And Morality

TLDR: ‘Right’ Effort is not always obvious. Walking the Middle Way applies – especially to our actions during the current pandemic. While it’s important to adhere to guidelines, it’s important to practice self-compassion.

In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta, the Buddha advised his son that if an action is viewed to bring harm of any sort, then it should not be done.

If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do…”

(MN 61 Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone, emphasis mine)

The global pandemic is a situation where one person’s actions could harm themselves, others, or both. So it seems that the wise thing to do would be to stay home as much as possible.

Extreme #1: Going out 238423 times a week

Some people may outright ignore this advice. They may even be in denial, downplaying the dangers of the virus and thinking “aiya, I won’t get it one la”, or “I probably already got it and am immune to it already”.

When looking at the mind, it seems that the desire to go out unnecessarily comes from restlessness. Because we usually find it hard to sit with unpleasant feelings like boredom and depression, we search for distractions.

As Ajahn Jayasaro recently said, one of the most severe forms of punishment in our society is solitary confinement – putting someone in a room with nothing to stimulate the senses. The lockdowns and restrictions we are facing globally are similar but on a grander scale.

As people generally have not trained themselves to find a reliable form of happiness from within, this condition seems unbearable. So it’s understandable why people would find it challenging to adhere to guidelines.

These conditions are tough, and something we can empathise with and have compassion for.

Extreme #2: Hermit mode

Some people (*raises hand slowly*), however, veer towards the other extreme. At the beginning of the pandemic, I made it a point not to go out except when necessary – even if government restrictions allowed it. I turned into a full-fledged hermit.

When considering whether to go out, I would ask myself, “Am I doing this out of necessity or just for pleasure?” Knowing that my actions could put lives at stake, then if this came from a desire to indulge in sense pleasures, I wouldn’t really act on it.

I would miss important family gatherings like the Winter Solstice. Or when Aunty cooked her special homemade chicken noodles for the whole family. Or when a relative turned 60.

I practically never saw my friends, even though I was due for many catchups after coming back from overseas.

In Chinese culture, family, togetherness, customs and tradition are incredibly important. So what I was doing seemed pretty blasphemous.

I received remarks from my relatives like:

“Why you so long never come visit me???”

“But it’s legal what”

“Your head square square one la”

Despite all this, I stood my ground, believing that I was keeping my sīla very well. I thought people around me just couldn’t deal with being cooped up at home and were being heedless.

I called up my Dhamma friends and ranted to them, complaining that I didn’t feel understood.  People didn’t bother understanding my good intentions.

I reflected that a benefit of keeping sīla is freedom from remorse. I thought to myself, in the future, I’ll feel at ease knowing that amidst all the suffering, sickness and death endured during the pandemic, I did my best not to consciously contribute to that.

That probably sounds well and good… except for the fact that I was miserable and depressed.

The Middle Way

Recently I had a series of insights that have helped me move closer to the ‘right’ effort. I realized that self-imposed isolation (on top of other things) was causing me depression and that it’s actually not a crime (literally and figuratively) to go out. As we’re social beings, we do need adequate levels of human connection, and I’ve learned that it’s especially important to me personally.

Close friends of mine know that I have a strong defilement of self-denial and borderline asceticism, which often throws me off the middle way. My behaviour during the pandemic has been a case in point.

Let’s revisit the Buddha’s advice introduced at the beginning.

This whole time, I thought I was doing the right thing because by isolating myself:

1. I’m not harming myself physically

2. I’m not harming others physically

3. I’m neither harming myself nor others physically

But I never really considered my mental health when reflecting on this. And even though I knew I was feeling depressed, I thought that it was better for me to endure that state of mind than put lives at risk.

I thought I was doing the right thing, especially when I looked to the monks as role models. Even in ordinary circumstances, my Ajahn (monastic teacher) rarely ever left the monastery unless there was a good reason (e.g. to visit sick devotees at the hospital). This sent the message that Dhamma practitioner should focus less on the external world and more on doing inner work. As long as there is food, shelter and medicine, a practitioner can remain in one place, limiting their movements and restraining the senses. This solitude is important for the practice.

Again – all well and good. If you can practice the Dhamma at that level – Great. Amazing.

But personally, I was punching above my weight. I was trying to practice like that and it was not working. I was just not at that level yet, but I was forcing this onto myself because my logical mind willed itself to do something that I was not emotionally and intuitively ready to sustain. It was an effort, but it was the wrong effort.

I’m reminded of a quote by Ajahn Chah:

When you practice, it has to be in line with your own strength. Here you have a single cart and your ox is the size of your fist, and yet you want the cart to carry as much as a ten-wheeled truck. You see ten-wheeled trucks passing you on the road and you want to be like them. But you’re not a ten-wheeled truck. You’re just a cart. It’s sure to break down. You’re what’s called a fruit that’s ripe even before it’s half-ripe, food that’s burned even before it’s cooked.”

(In the Shape of a Circle by Ajahn Chah, translated by Ajahn Thanissaro)

So in realizing this, I tweaked my behaviour.

Now, I make a conscious effort and set aside specific times during the week to spend quality time with close friends and family.

In addition to that, I’ve also taken a gentler approach in my practice (e.g. it’s OK to be watching more Netflix), as I feel that this is just what I need at this time.

That being said though, I’m still careful not to be heedless – not to veer towards Extreme #1. I give myself a quota: two outings or gatherings a week – just enough to keep me uplifted and mentally well. I do this with the underlying intention to take care of myself, not simply out of pure, unrestrained pleasure.

I think this is ‘the middle way’ for me – although it may look different for other people.

Over the years, I’ve learned that sīla and right effort are not black and white. It’s more of a gradual training in skillfulness and understanding rather than something that you ‘get right’ or a list of ‘to do’s’ to check off. The ‘right thing’ can look different, depending on circumstances and your capacity to practice at that time. For example, the monks observe 227 rules, and some do it with great ease – but if I tried to make myself do that right now, I’d probably have a nervous breakdown.

I think what’s most important is one’s intention – knowing what our intention is when doing something, and how pure it is. You could tell yourself that you don’t have much capacity for self-restraint, so you HAVE to go out 10 times a week. But is that really true? Or are you just making excuses and being heedless? It’s therefore also very important for us to be honest and true with ourselves. Then, we can truly act with goodness in our hearts, bringing goodness to others and ourselves. I believe this is right effort.

Wise Steps:

  • Reflect on the middle way and ‘right effort’ for you, so that you can rest assured that you’re not being heedless and also taking care of yourself. Set up systems and take intentional actions, like setting a quota for how much you go out per week.
  • If you’re experiencing peer pressure from others to go out more than you’re comfortable with, practice establishing right view. Reflect wisely so as to establish goodwill and empathy in your mind. Reflect on how all beings are the owners of their actions and its results and know that your actions do matter.
  • Practise gentleness and self-compassion. The pandemic has shaken up the world. While we work towards cultivating an unshakeable mind amidst turbulent conditions, it’s important to have mettā as a foundation during these tough times, accepting and receiving whatever we may be going through before trying to ‘fix’ any of it.

Help us spread more goodness to the world