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.
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.
TLDR: Good Friday is a time to contemplate more deeply the teachings left to us by Jesus Christ. We look at the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism in the practice of virtues.
The author is a practising Buddhist who also finds many aspects of the teachings of Jesus Christ inspiring. She writes this article based on her understanding of the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity that does not necessarily reflect the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha. She hopes readers can read with wise discernment.
Good Friday is a time where all Christians observe fasting, penance and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus. To me (as a Buddhist), Jesus showed us how to carry our crosses (suffering).
Remembering the iconic image of Christ carrying his cross during difficult times can help soothe one’s heart. Unlike the majority of us, he did not get rid of suffering through impatience or aversion. With great faith, he showed us it is possible to face suffering with forgiveness, patience and love. To me, this is one of the reasons he is so deeply revered.
Similarly, the Buddha taught us about suffering. He taught us what suffering is, the cause of suffering and how to cease suffering. Patience is a virtue to be cultivated in Buddhism so that we may endure suffering and let it go every time it comes up.
In this post, I would like to celebrate the spirit of Good Friday with the teachings of Christ that have inspired many people in the world.
Perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous teachings on virtue is that of giving and loving our neighbours as we would love ourselves. The Buddha too taught this in the practice of loving-kindness meditation, where we cultivate a love for ourselves and share it with all beings
The teaching of virtues
Another parallel between Christianity and Buddhism is that Jesus too, taught morality as the Buddha did. Morality helps us cultivate virtues (such as patience, joy, forgiveness and love) in our hearts.
In one episode of his life, Christ was criticised by the Pharisees for breaking the ancient fathers’ ceremonial tradition of washing hands before eating.
Jesus replied that whatever enters into a man from the outside (food) cannot defile him because they do not enter the heart but into his stomach and out into the sewer.
But what comes out of a man’s heart defiles a man. From the hearts of men come evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetousness, envy, pride and foolishness.
Jesus was pointing to us that the crucial thing is to cultivate goodness in our hearts instead of placing our attention on rites and rituals only.
Due to the evil that can emerge from the hearts of men, Jesus taught those who listened not to commit murder, steal, adultery, lie or swear. He encouraged us to love, instead of hate our enemies.
Although these moral precepts seem easy on the surface to follow, they are not. We often see the faults in others instead of our faults. One of the famous quotes from Christ, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?”
Easier to see others’ faults than our own
Jesus was right to say we are eager to see the trivial faults in others while ignoring our massive shortcomings. We often jump to hasty judgments based on our projections.
Recently, my sister told me that she is cutting down to two meals a day to lose weight. But she still drank protein to stave off hunger. I asked her why she was consuming protein shakes as I thought it is for vegans and those who are weightlifting. She said protein shakes contain 200 calories as opposed to 500 calories from a meal.
I told her that’s still three meals a day and commented that I too took two meals a day but without any meal replacement. She quickly jumped to a conclusion and said, “This is not a competition.” I was surprised as I did not make the comment to compete but rather to clarify that two meals a day meant no meal replacements (if she wanted to lose weight).
I cannot say that I have not projected my habitual thoughts onto others.
I often make baseless assumptions and have annoyed many people. One of the many assumptions I make is that no one ever listens to what I say and I also assume I know what others are thinking.
The list of prideful assumptions I make about others is too long to mention here.
Often, we enjoy judging whether others are keeping their morality well instead of perfecting our virtues. Doing this grows our pride instead of virtue.
Human laws do not necessarily follow nature
We look for ways to benefit ourselves in this world and are often encouraged by others. In a recent conversation, a friend said that it is not wrong if she were to take money from the ATM if the person before her forgets to take the money.
In her view, she is not stealing but merely taking. I would have agreed with her in the past. As a practising Buddhist today, I told her that is stealing because she is aware of taking another’s possession.
I have understood adhering to the precepts as laid out by the Buddha and Christ is for our well-being. It is because natural laws exist and we are not doing it to please the founders of religions.
Ayya Khema, a late prominent German Buddhist nun asked her students, “What is natural?” She said we often look for natural and organic food. But aren’t we a part of nature as well? We cannot escape the natural laws of birth, decay and death.
Emotionally, we are also constrained by nature’s laws because when we become extreme in either sadness or happiness, misery follows. We understand that sadness can become depression. Extreme happiness can also bring on a heart attack.
We often praise the intelligence of someone who can lie to get what s/he wants. We are also in awe when someone can cheat the system as featured in movies like Ocean Eleven to self-righteous murders in numerous superhero films.
Virtues are heroic acts
We admire heroes who save the world. But if we were to closely examine popular violent/action films, to the number of wars fought in our history, the heroes are as responsible as the villains for causing calamities.
Growing virtues in our hearts is an act of self-denial as opposed to self-aggrandisation. We are always looking for opportunities to grow our pride by increasing our education, wealth, network and possessions.
I am not saying it is wrong to educate or upgrade ourselves in our lives, but rather, we look outwards to grow our pride more than looking inwards to examine our hearts.
Virtues are heroic acts because we need to have the courage to deny the unskillful qualities in our hearts.
For example, someone who is impatient seldom thinks s/he is wrong and wants to get things done quickly their way. This can cause anger in himself/herself and in those around them.
Being impatient and self-righteous can make it hard to listen to differing opinions and not argue with another. By being patient, we can avoid arguments with another, and reduce the chances of getting angry. By taming our unvirtuous heart, we can become happier and as a result, reduce suffering for ourselves and others.
Conquering our bad habits and cultivating virtue is a heroic act because it is so hard to recognise and admit to our faults as opposed to blaming others for not accepting our views. Virtues are for our well-being and also do not cause harm to others. This is how we can love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
The purpose of developing virtues
The Buddha said that it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell to practice virtues.1 While alive, virtues can bring joy and make life easier for us. As we do not create suffering for others, they do not cause us much trouble.
If upon death, we discover heaven and hell do exist, we are safe because having virtues in our hearts is the way to heaven. Cultivating virtues is like buying insurance for the present life and also the afterlife if we are unsure of the existence of heaven and hell.
In Christianity, the existence of heaven and hell is highly emphasised. Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal; lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, your heart will also be.”
Jesus clearly tells us virtues in the heart is a timeless treasure compared to our temporary material possessions.
Holidays like Christmas, Good Friday and Vesak Day are not just holidays to take a break and be with loved ones but for us to remember the teachings of these two great teachers, the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
1. Sutta MN 60: “Even if we didn’t speak of the next world, and there weren’t the true statement of those venerable contemplatives & brahmans, this venerable person is still praised in the here-&-now by the observant as a person of good habits & right view”
Wise Steps :
We can remember the virtues of patience, forgiveness and love by recollecting Jesus carrying the cross when carrying our own crosses (suffering)
Before you criticise another, whether commenting on a politician, celebrity or friend, look at the speck in your eyes.
Spend time recollecting your heart every day. Is there anything you have said or done that has made your heart uneasy such as criticising a friend? If you can do something to unburden your heart, do it the next day. If the deed cannot be undone, forgive yourself and those around you to lighten your heart.
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…”
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.
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.