Buddhism: Code of Conduct | 4
Code of Conduct
One of the things that makes the theory and practice of ethics (śīla) particularly interesting in the Buddhist context is the tension that exists, right on the surface,
between the individual’s responsibility for his or her own salvation—
as exemplified by the Buddha’s advice that one must be one’s own light (atta dīpa), dependent on no one other than one’s self for salvation—
- and the individual’s connection with social life, as governed by the collective nature of karma.
This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Buddha’s own life story:
For instance, in the Buddha-carita, or, Acts of the Buddha,
the young Siddhārtha’s wife, Yaśodharā, when she hears that Siddhārtha has abandoned her, falls upon the ground “like a Brahmin, duck without its mate”—
a common symbol of lifelong marital partnership, such that one duck will die of remorse upon the death of the other.
Likewise, his son is described as “poor Rāhula,”
who is fated “never to be dandled in his father’s lap”.
The ethical and moral challenge is always to strike a balance between one’s concern for the suffering of others and one’s own progress on the path;
too much concern for other people can be a hindrance,
just as not enough can generate negative karma.
The central theme of the Buddhist ethics is the cultivation of mindfulness (sati)—
- to develop a mental attitude of complete and selfless awareness,
a mental attitude that necessarily influences the manner in which one acts toward other living beings, a mental awareness that fundamentally informs one’s every act and intention to act.
For the monk the ethical system is extremely complex and extensive, contained primarily and explicitly in the Vinaya but secondarily and implicitly in every utterance of the Buddha.
This means that one must be aware that all acts and all beings are part of Samsāra and are thus caught up in karma and pratītya-samutpāda (Pali, paticca-samuppāda; the chain of conditioned arising).
Whatever one does have effects, and those effects are not always obvious.
The implications here are perhaps best ethically stated when the Buddha says,
“Oh Bhikkhus, it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, or your father, your brother, your sister or your son or daughter” (Samyutta Nikāya).
In other words, any act necessarily affects not only the immediate actor but all beings, who, logically, are karmically connected and related.
It is also important to remember that we are still within the basic Brāhmanic milieu here.
What we see in Buddhism, however, is an emphasis on the individual as he or she fits into society, not an emphasis on how society molds or controls the individual,
as we see in Hinduism, where the emphasis is on order and duty, on making sure that everything and everyone stays in the proper place—hence caste, life stages, and so on.
This is not to say that this societal component is entirely absent in Buddhism, since one of the motivations for the individual to act ethically is to make society work.
Without social order things would fall utterly apart, as is perhaps best articulated in what is sometimes called the Buddhist book of Genesis, the Aggañña Sutta, which describes a social world in which chaos and decay emerge precisely because beings act greedily and selfishly.
Proper, ethical action in Buddhism is not performed out of duty or some higher cosmic order, however; rather, one acts ethically out of one’s own free will, because without such proper action, the individual can make no progress on the path.
The importance of proper giving (dāna) is utterly central to Buddhist ethics and to the life of both the layperson and the monk; indeed, dāna can be said to be the key to monk-lay relations.
The first principle that must be noted here is that in Buddhism there is a marked ambiguity about material wealth:
The concept of non-attachment, the absence of grasping, is of crucial importance here; from the Buddhist perspective material goods are only important as a means of cultivating non-attachment.
Again, however, the middle way is emphasized:
Too many possessions can lead to attachment, just as too few can lead to craving.
Any material prosperity offers at once the opportunity for greater giving and the cultivation and expression of non-attachment, but such prosperity also offers a temptation toward the kind of anti-dharmic self-indulgence that leads to increased entrapment in the web of worldly existence.
The model donor in Buddhism is the laywoman Sujāta, who gave Siddhārtha the simple and selfless gift of rice gruel, which enabled him to gain the strength to make the final push to enlightenment:
What makes this act of dāna so important is that Sujāta gave her gift modestly, with no self-interest, no expectation of gain or reward; she was responding with selfless compassion to Siddhārtha’s obvious need.
Equally important as a model donor is the king Vessantara, whose story is told in a popular tale from the Jātaka collection that provides not only a model of ethical giving but also a cautionary tale about the karmic consequences of giving too much:
In this story Vessantara eventually gives away his kingdom and prosperity, his wife and children, everything, and the result is suffering for all until everything is restored and Vessantara realizes the need to give modestly.
Monks also engage in dāna, although rather than giving material goods, which they necessarily depend on the laity for, they give what the Dhammapada says is the best gift of all:
“The gift of dharma excels all gifts.”
Two important metaphors for proper ethical giving are bīja and kṣetra:
Bīja basically means “seed” but is nearly always used to describe the seed of an auspicious act: This act, if it is indeed done with the correct selfless motives, bears karmic fruit (phala);
the act itself is called kuśalā, which can be defined as “good, moral, skilful, proper,” or, to use the best Buddhism definition, that which is “karmically wholesome”—
- in other words, a gift that is given with proper intention, given out of selfless compassion.
The best field in which to plant a seed is the Sangha (community of monks), and the best seed to plant is an act of giving, dāna. The Sangha is thus consistently referred to as a fertile karmic field.
This imagery is further developed in times when there are monastic schisms or crises, in which case the monks are sometimes described as a barren field in which no seeds will bear fruit.
This imagery is not limited to the monks and gifts to them but refers to any auspicious action. Buddhist acts of charity, then, are fundamentally symbiotic in nature:
The laypeople provide the monks with the material support that they need—shelter, robes, food, and so on—and in the process cultivate the crucial attitudes of non-attachment and compassion, a kind of domestic asceticism that is not disruptive of the social order.
The monks, in turn, depend on the laypeople
and return the material gifts with the gift of the Buddha’s teachings.
Furthermore, the ideology of dāna is such that the laypeople’s gifts will only bear “fruit” (that is, positive karma) if the monks are pure (in other words, a fertile field).
If a particular monastery becomes corrupt, then the laypeople will give somewhere else, providing a kind of ethical imperative for monastic purity.
A crucial element in all of this is the concept of puṇya (merit), which is positive karma:
By giving selflessly, one “earns” merit, accumulating positive karma,
which determines the quality of one’s next rebirth.
If one is too attached to this merit, though—too focused on the end products and not the selfless and compassionate act of giving (and giving up)—then one in fact earns not positive karma but negative, which will hinder one’s ultimate spiritual progress.
The pañcha śīla are the basic ethical guidelines for the layperson, they are the basis for ethical behaviour, a kind of practical blueprint.
A fundamental difference from the Christian Ten Commandments, though, is that the pañcha śīla are voluntarily followed and are a matter of personal choice, not an imperative to act in a particular manner.
The first guideline is No killing:
The basic idea here is that every individual is connected with all other living beings. Buddhists go to considerable lengths to qualify this precept, giving 5 conditions that govern it:
(1) presence of a living being,
(2) knowledge of this,
(3) intention to kill,
(4) act of killing, and
What is most important about this first precept is not its negative form, injunction against killing, but its positive aspect, that of compassion and loving kindness.
This positive aspect is one of the most common things upon which laypeople meditate, often with this verse from the Metta Sutta:
“May all beings be happy and secure;
May their hearts be wholesome.
Whatever living beings there be—
Feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium,
Short, small or large, without exception—
Seen or unseen, Those dwelling far or near,
Those who are born or who are to be born,
May all beings be happy.”
The second guideline is Taking Not what is not given.
This is particularly important for the monks.
Here the concept of dāna is crucial:
Because one of the chief ethical activities of the layperson is to give unselfishly to the Sangha, this giving is contingent on the monks accepting, also unselfishly, whatever is given.
The monks are not to take anything that is not given to them.
This holds true also for the layperson, in that he or she is not to steal.
The third guideline is No sexual misconduct:
This prevents lust and envy, which are the most powerful forms of thirst (tanḥā).
The fourth guideline is No false speech:
Lies create deception and illusion and lead to grasping.
Also, for the monks, this is about speaking not false doctrines.
The fifth guideline is No liquor, which clouds the mind and prevents sati (mindfulness).
In addition to these 5 basic principles,
monks follow additional basic rules, sometimes 3, sometimes 5:
1. No untimely meals
(thereby promoting group sharing of food and hindering the desire to hoard);
2. No dancing or playing of music
(thereby promoting a sober, non-frivolous life);
3. No adornments or jewellery
(which would be against the basic ascetic attitude of the monk);
4. No high seats
(an injunction intended to promote equality in the Sangha); and
5. No handling of money
(thereby preventing greed and attachments).
For Buddhist Monks also additional 235 rules of Vinaya discipline apply.