Buddhist Ethics

I first got involved with Buddhism after I had been going for a little while to some self-help groups; the first one I went to being for people with a desire to have healthy relationships. You see I didn’t seem to be very good at ‘being faithful’, which meant that I’d start a sexual relationship with someone and then find sooner or later I was sabotaging it by getting off with someone else – of course in other ways I’d be faithful for years with someone I was in love with (and having a friendship with) but not having sex with – not that I was celibate – far from it. It became clear one day that although I had always been very restrained in drinking, smoking and taking drugs (people sometimes asked me what my vice was – I usually replied jokingly that I liked having sex, in an innocent kind of way) in fact I was pretty well addicted to sex, not just having it, but thinking about it, planning it, hoping for it, waiting for it, most of my waking moments.

I found out about and started to go to a group for sexual compulsives and I felt very much at home there – I felt people really understood where I was coming from. A lot of the time I didn’t really enjoy the sex I was having but since the prevailing idea on the gay scene at the time was that quantity was better than quality I hadn’t had much sympathy with saying that. I guess we were wanting to shift to quality rather than quantity. We were wanting to change habits (sometimes of a lifetime) that went against the flow, in many ways, of the current ethos of the western world. We were following what we called a “spiritual program of recovery from sexual addiction” based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now I’m mentioning this in the context of Buddhist ethics because the 12-step programme, although it was developed in the United States by Christians, appears to follow the Threefold way of the Buddha, namely: Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom, and as such is largely concerned with ethical behaviour – in fact 7 out of the 12 steps are devoted to it. These 7 steps are a very comprehensive way of looking at behaviour we regret starting with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”, going on to acknowledge our faults and let them go, making amends where appropriate and continuing to take personal inventory, all this particularly in relation to the addictive behaviour but not exclusively tied to it. Basically it was about letting go of unhelpful destructive habits with new more positive ones.

I have to admit that I wasn’t attracted to the systematic way that people wrote out their personal inventory and went through the steps in a very methodical way. However I think I did see that other people found the practice valuable and together with learning about Buddhism at the same time certainly made me more aware of my behaviour ethically. Not all the behaviour I would regret now was connected with getting sex but I certainly did lie, steal, cheat, get high and hurt people (emotionally probably rather than physically) to get my fix of sex. I find it difficult to understand now that I used to think of myself at that time as pretty ethical, but I didn’t really believe I was lying, cheating etc because maybe it was half-truths or it was the government I was telling or big business I was cheating – and it was ok in my book to tell the government lies or cheat big business because it wasn’t actually real people I was affecting. Particularly with sex there wasn’t really anything that would get in my way of having it if the other person was willing.

Now as soon as I heard the five Buddhist precepts I was attracted to them, particularly when expressed in their positive form:

With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body
With open-handed generosity I purify my body
With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body
With truthful communication I purify my speech
With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

I will deal with them in detail later but at the moment I just wanted to say that I found them really beautiful. I was just struck by their simplicity and I don’t think I’d thought of ethical behaviour in positive terms before that. Morals had always seemed to be about not doing things, or doing things I didn’t want to do. What I discovered was that Buddhist ethics are a training to help us develop and gain Enlightenment (whatever that means), not strictures of a vengeful God. It’s not about thinking things I do are bad and that I am a bad person for doing them. More that these are unhelpful habits if I want to be really true to myself. Moreover they may well have been helpful habits when I started them, otherwise I wouldn’t have started them in the first place – helpful in the sense that they helped me survive, feel happier or whatever, but since conditions have changed they are not relevant any more or have become a problem in their own right ie addictive.

Buddhist ethics are based in the experience of the Buddha’s ‘Enlightenment’, as we call it in English. It is a translation of an ancient Indian word bodhi, which more literally means awakening – the Buddha ‘woke up’ to the nature of reality, or the way things are. The word Buddha means ‘one who is awake’ to the truth. He experienced the world in a completely different way than we normally do, as in constant flux, continually changing, but it wasn’t just an idea that he had, he realised deep in his being that he and everything else didn’t exist in the way we normally assume it does. Basically, nothing is fixed and everything is dependent on conditions. He realised that there wasn’t really, ultimately, an end to him and a beginning to everything else and he lived from that experience. He therefore had no less love for other beings than he had for himself – he in a way couldn’t differentiate emotionally from the body he inhabited and its concerns and the concerns of other bodies because he knew that ultimately they weren’t separate. After he gained Enlightenment he actually wasn’t sure that he could communicate this, that people were ready to understand because most of us are so fixed in our delusion – we confuse our very practical view of seeing the world in terms of separate objects with ‘the way things are’ – our brains develop a model of the world, a necessarily simplistic view of the universe, in order to function in a day to day way. We see this as a chair, that as a person, this as a floor, that as a cup and it makes life easy to negotiate, but as modern physics tells us this isn’t at all the case – every ‘thing’ is made up of a lot of space and a small amount of ‘matter’, held together by incredible forces, but all in motion, all the time.

Of course the Buddha did decide to try to communicate his experience and the conceptualisation of it is described in number of different ways including: Dependent origination; Conditioned co-production; Everything arises in dependence upon conditions – to speak in more general terms. Applying to human experience we have: What we dwell on we become; and Actions have consequences. These last two ideas can be seen to be the basis of Buddhist ethics and the five precepts.

The Buddha could just see that because everything is in flux that all phenomena influence other phenomena (and I use the term phenomenon provisionally, lightly here) and so whatever we do we have an effect on the universe around us but more than that, because we are conscious beings our minds and our thoughts have a effect on the mind itself as well as the world around us. I think it has been shown in terms of neural paths in the brain that when we think in a particular way connections are made in the neural network and once created are more easily followed in the future. So if we do something or think something once it is more easy to think it or do it again, and of course if there is pleasure associated with it then of course we want to do or think it again. I’m not really sure why our minds choose to believe the model of the world our brains create for us, why we refuse to see ourselves as in flux but probably developing awareness is the answer.

Enlightenment is traditionally thought of has having two aspects: a compassion aspect and a wisdom aspect, in other words: an outward looking aspect and an inward looking aspect. Really for the Buddha there is no difference between wisdom and compassion because he doesn’t view his existence as separate, but for us as unenlightened beings it is the way we tend to see how the Buddha is. We see his compassion for all beings as a different mode of expression to his awareness of the nature of reality. That we label an aspect of his mode of being as compassion indicates our unenlightened way of seeing things because for the Buddha our seeming separateness is not really true and he will not cherish himself any more than any other being. What we call love is, in a way, the nature of reality, ultimately.

It is not surprising therefore that Buddhist ethics are an expression of the compassion aspect of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Buddhist ethics are about wanting to be more like the Buddha, not that the Buddha is telling us how we should live our lives. Acting like the Buddha means that we are acting in line with the way things are; we become in accord with reality, and actually being like that will be a much more pleasant experience for us because we are not pushing against what the universe is showing us.

Buddhist ethics are described in terms of precepts, which are training principles, not rules. They are more about acting as if we are Enlightened and seeing if it works, seeking if it has a positive effect on ourselves and/or others. Remember the Buddha was very clear that we should not take his words or any other teacher on blind faith, but that we should check them with our reason and test them in our experience before we accept them.

The first precept is the most fundamental – all the others can be seen as this one applied to different modes of our being. As translated it is: I undertake the training principle to abstain from the harming of living beings, ie the principle of non-harm or put positively loving-kindness, in other words it is compassion in action. Because the principle is that of kindness, of love it cannot include unintentional harm, and conversely deeds that appear on the outside to be loving and kind are not in line with this precept (or reality for that matter) if they are not really motivated by kindness and love. This is often described as an ethics of intention; in other words it has to be done with a pure heart. But we are not dealing with absolutes here because until we are Enlightened we will always have some mixed motives – just an inevitable consequence of our seeing ourselves as completely separate from the rest of the universe. We have a bottom line of non-harm or non-violence but the upper limit of loving-kindness is completely open. With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body. The mention of body here might seem a bit curious, but really it is referring to bodily action (or just action as we would normally think of it) as opposed to speech and thought; the Indian Buddhist mind was exhaustive in its classifications and divides our actions into those of body, speech and mind to cover all possibilities.

In practising this precept most Buddhists are vegetarians and against any form of killing but it is not black and white. The precepts are not rules that we follow blindly; they are principles that we can judge our actions and intentions against. We must not forget to include ourselves in the deeds of loving kindness or avoiding harm because just as metta is universal loving kindness we are all interconnected and to leave ourselves out would be deny reality. So there may be times when we given very uncomfortable choices say for example where our health may be at stake and the treatment requires some suffering by an animal or, as was the case in Tibet, the land we they lived on could not support the growing enough vegetables for the population and so they lived on the produce (including meat) of animals that could forage on what vegetation was available. We may have a pet that is terminally ill and we have to decide whether or not to put them to sleep to stop their suffering. On the other had we may decide that although drinking cows milk or eating eggs doesn’t directly inflict pain and suffering on animals the fact that there is inevitably the killing of the male offspring because they don’t produce eggs or milk means that we will decide to avoid any animal product and become vegan rather than just vegetarian.

The Buddha did probably eat some meat because he accepted all food that was offered to his begging bowl unless he believed an animal had been killed especially for him to eat – he would just go from house to house being given a small amount of whatever people were cooking at the time and stop when there was enough in the bowl for his daily meal – all mixed together. So although he will probably have eaten some meat his intention was to disturb people as little as possible and was grateful for anything he might be offered – his kindness and consideration of the householders was more of an issue for him than any strict diet he might want to follow.

Sangharakshita has defined love as the awareness of another’s being and so brings to light, in a sense, a wisdom aspect to the first precept. Just being really aware of another person will be bound to express itself in kindness and we will want to respond to their needs and desires, maybe even before they are aware of them themselves. No act of kindness is too small to perform – we never know the positive effect our actions can have. It is incredibly important to for us to follow through our kind intentions and not suppress them because we may feel embarrassed or shy to express them – stopping ourselves may well make it more difficult for us to act kindly another time – we are starting or reinforcing a habit.

The second precept is: I undertake the training principle to abstain from taking the not-given; or the principle of generosity. This is a working out of the principle of kindness and non-harm applied to a person or being indirectly, for example to their belongings. Many of us will know what it is like to have been the victim or theft or burglary and it can feel like an act of violence has been perpetrated upon us even though no obvious violence was a part of it. I have been burgled several times and of course it was upsetting that objects that I was rather attached to were taken but more than that it was a horrible feeling that someone I didn’t know had rifled through my possessions. The principle is not just one of not-stealing because it can include not borrowing without asking or not using something of some else’s without asking, like for example using a phone at work for personal calls (which strictly probably isn’t stealing) or making photocopies on the work photocopier, even doing a personal errand in work time. So it’s not just possessions but time we may take that has not been given to us. I used to do this by taking time off work sick to go cruising or by just taking days off work that weren’t due to me and not record them so no-one knew what was going on. I generally wouldn’t didn’t steal things from an individual I knew but from a large corporation I worked for or fiddling benefits from the government didn’t seem to bother me. Of course I didn’t want to get caught and a fear that I might be found out did affect me with anxiety and now I’d rather live a much simpler life which doesn’t lead me to feeling anxious. As the Buddha said: Actions have consequences, and the consequences of going against the precepts, or reality, in effect, somehow reinforces our separateness from the universe and this is a painful place to be; part of us knows that we really are connected and doing something that somehow severs that connection cut us off from life in a way.

With open-handed generosity I purify my body; We can promote interconnectedness by giving, by generosity with our possessions, our money, our time. In many cases our deeds of loving kindness are also acts of generosity. We can make someone a cup of tea when we are feeling a bit out of sorts with the world and very often I find that I am immediately more open and relaxed – I’ve come out of my shell and made some human contact that will usually be appreciated. Not surprisingly our motives will inevitably be mixed but don’t let it stop us from acting generously by worrying that I might be doing it for selfish reasons. Let’s only examine our motives after the fact and see whether we might for example be subtly demanding a reciprocal action from the other person.

According to the Buddhist tradition there are two kinds of action, skilful and unskilful, skilful actions being those that are motivated by generosity, by love and understanding (of the nature of reality). Unskilful actions therefore are defined as those rooted in craving (or greed), hatred and ignorance (of the nature of reality). Unlike the terms good or bad the terms skilful and unskilful imply that ethics include a sense of reason, of investigation and understanding of the way things are. So we can examine our actions and see if they are driven by greed rather than generosity. Only we will know what a particular action is motivated by and we will know if we really look into ourselves and are able to be honest with ourselves. We will get an indication if we feel more open-hearted and connected with world around us as opposed to feeling more separate and closed off from people.

It usually becomes much more complicated to examine our motives when sex is involved, because it is such a strong drive – in fact the Buddha said that if we had another drive as strong as sexual desire it would be impossible for us to gain Enlightenment. For this reason undoubtedly sexual activity has a precept all to itself, although really it is just an expression of the first two precepts applied to the sexual arena: I undertake the training principle to abstain from sexual misconduct. So sexual misconduct is sex mixed up with violence and harm and/or sex mixed up with taking the not given, which traditionally is rape, adultery and abduction. Most of us will find it difficult to relate terms like rape, adultery and abduction to our sex lives but we could probably really examine what we do in terms of whether it may harm someone else or look at how we may subtly take the not given in having sex with someone else.

As we know for most people sex is so bound up with other emotional needs that it is very difficult to trust our motivations or even examine them objectively. This where I think the positive form of the precept can be very helpful: with stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body. Is what we are doing promoting peacefulness and calm or are we becoming more agitated and fevered? Is our life getting more complicated or simple? Are we feeling more content and satisfaction or more discontent and dissatisfaction? I certainly felt that my life was less complicated when I went out with someone a few years ago and decided not to sleep with anyone else while we were together. I also found that even as far as sex with him was concerned that I found that I could take it or leave it, but then although I found him very sexy I wasn’t overly attached to him emotionally; it may well have been different if I had fallen in love with him.

I have found though that through my experiences of meditation, through feeling amazingly happy or bodily rapture that sexual pleasure doesn’t have such a hold on me and that generally I’m much more content, my life is much less complicated and calmer. I have an inkling that I could get to a stage where more refined pleasures will be more satisfying and the pursuit of orgasms will be just as unappealing as getting drunk is for me these days.

Moving onto the fourth precept we engage with the second aspect of action, that of speech: I undertake the training principle to abstain from false speech. False speech is speech rooted in craving, hatred and fear. If we tell a lie it is usually because we want something, or because we wish to harm someone else or just because we are afraid to tell the truth. The positive precept is: with truthful communication I purify my speech. It is easy for us to forget that truthful communication needs in reality to be motivated by loving kindness. So often we can use ‘honesty’ as a weapon to hurt someone in the guise of being truthful – we may be being truthful about our negative mental states but that is often just an excuse to act them out rather than examine what is really going on for us. In fact a lot of the time we don’t really know ourselves enough to know what the truth is we need to communicate. Either that or we don’t have the literacy in our vocabulary to be able to pinpoint the truth in our experience. So often if I want to express a feeling in words I find it really hard to find the word that really describes what is going on for me at that moment. Then that feeling is often just the tip of an iceberg based on whether our needs at that moment are being met or unmet. Without awareness we are rarely in touch with what our motivations really are. So kindness and awareness are the keys again, whether we are speaking about people who aren’t present or we are speaking to someone with us, and a desire for connection, for interconnectedness rather than separation and division.

The fifth precept is about awareness: I undertake the training principle to abstain from substances which cloud the mind, or in its positive form: with mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind. We really can’t be aware of ourselves if we are intoxicated either by substances or perhaps by less tangible things like fame or glory, by sexual desire even. We have no hope of being able to have insight into the way things are if we live in a fog of our own making. Of course we like being in a fog because we don’t need to think about things, a lack of awareness can be quite pleasurable because we can live in a kind of animal existence that doesn’t worry or care about the consequences of what we are doing. Unfortunately we can’t eradicate awareness completely as human beings and it usually takes more and more substances to keep the mind clouded and unaware and those glimpses we do have of what we are about will probably frighten us if we let them in. Awareness is the only answer and actually as we find when we meditate it is a source of pleasure in itself. We are connecting more inwardly and outwardly as we develop awareness and our separation seems less certain, which of course can seem a bit scary for our ego, our fixed idea of ourselves. But it is the way things are and that interconnectedness has its own pleasures.

As well as viewing the precepts through the prism of loving-kindness we can see them through the prism of awareness, and awareness manifest by the Buddha is the wisdom aspect of Enlightenment. When we are truly aware of ourselves and the way things are we will communicate truthfully, we will be still and content, and we will be kind and generous.

I didn’t manage to quell my sexually compulsive behaviour by just abstaining by willpower, in fact I needed to stop trying to control it at all. I think I had to really know it, to be aware of it and not think of myself as a bad person because I was ‘promiscuous’. I decided that I would allow myself to go out cruising and have as much sex with as many people as I wished for as long as I wanted. I did this in the context of talking about it in the self-help group and with some of my new Buddhist friends. I improved the situation I was living in and I was going on retreats and learning to meditate. What happened was I discovered that I could have sex with people I wanted to and by staying out a few nights all night I realised that I didn’t really want to be there and I especially didn’t want to have sex in public toilets any more. Developing awareness of my feelings kindness towards myself was a large part of the solution.