Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do the Right Thing

In Buddhism there are various ways of talking about ethics and ethical behavior: the Eightfold Noble Path, the Ten Virtuous and the Ten Non-Virtuous Actions, the Six Paramitas, the Five Lay Precepts, and so on. While each of these schema come at the subject from different angles, they are all concerned with three key points:

  • Refraining from causing harm (to oneself or others)
  • Practicing virtue (or doing good, creating benefit)
  • Taming and training the mind completely

It is said that these three points encapsulate all the teachings of the Buddha. Practicing these three points is the essence of following the Buddhist path.

In Buddhism there is no external Creator who lays down the law and tells us what is right and what is wrong. There is no Moses coming down the mountain with tablets of Commandments inscribed by God speaking from the burning bush. Rather, there are basic, common-sense principles for conduct, based on the natural laws of cause and effect. We can test these principles in our own experience and see for ourselves how it works: committing so-called "negative" actions leads to unhappy results, while committing so-called "positive" actions leads to happy results. But this does not result in a black and white moral code, a list of "Thou Shalt Nots." The positive or negative charge of any action is always shaped by our intentions, and under certain circumstances, with certain intentions, an action that appears outwardly negative may actually be quite positive, and vice versa.

The Five Precepts are one way of understanding the notion of ethical conduct. In different Buddhist traditions, there are various ways of phrasing and interpreting the Five Precepts (ranging from conservative to liberal), but basically they are:

1: Refraining from killing. Recognizing that all sentient beings value their own life just as we do, we undertake to do our best to refrain from taking the life of any sentient being. One of the things we discover as we practice this precept is how deeply we are embedded in the web of life and death, and how much death actually occurs all the time in order to keep us alive (if we contemplate the food chain, for example, we see how many beings died in order to bring us our food -- even if we are vegetarians). But by making the effort to refrain from killing as much as possible, we discover in ourselves a deeper respect (and even affection) for the lives of all creatures -- a sacred outlook that includes all living beings, even spiders and creepy-crawlies.

2: Refraining from stealing. Recognizing that all beings value their own property and possessions, we undertake to do our best to refrain from taking anything that isn't freely offered. This could include not only material possessions, but things like time and attention and energy -- how often do we steal those things from another person?

3: Refraining from sexual misconduct. Recognizing the potential mayhem that can be caused when we misuse our sexuality, we undertake to do our best to refrain from sexual misconduct. It is said that the Buddha recognized the tremendous power of his own sexual energy, and said that if he had been subject to another instinctual drive as strong as sex, he probably would not have been able to attain enlightenment. In Buddhism, sexual misconduct is not defined mechanically as this or that bodily activity, but rather as any sexual behavior that might cause harm to oneself or others; thus, there are certain basic things to avoid, such as adultery (someone always gets hurt), or promiscuously spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Ultimately, our sexual relationships should be wise and mature, based on mutual respect and affection, not just a matter of selfishly using other people to gratify our physical urges.

4: Refraining from wrong speech. Recognizing that our speech has a powerful effect on our own mind and on the minds of others, we undertake to do our best to refrain from speaking in unskillful ways. This precept is sometimes translated as refraining from lying (speaking with intent to deceive others), but unskillful speech includes more than just lying. We also cause harm when we speak harshly with intent to hurt someone's feelings or to malign another person, to cause divisions between other people, or even when we simply indulge in pointless, idle chatter to fill up the empty space, robbing ourselves and others of mindfulness.

5: Refraining from abuse of intoxicants. Recognizing that all Buddhist practice is about gaining greater clarity and presence of mind, we undertake to do our best to refrain from damaging that clarity and clouding our presence of mind through abuse of alcohol and other intoxicating substances.

Observing the Five Precepts can help us accomplish the three key points of the Buddhist path: refraining from causing harm, practicing virtue, and taming the mind completely. The first two points relate to each of the precepts very directly, but the third -- taming the mind -- is less obvious. But consider what happens in our mindstream if we steal something, for example -- think of how much energy and time we then devote to feeling guilty and worrying about getting caught. If we speak falsely to deceive others, think of how clouded and jumbled our mind becomes with our own lies and alibis and the fear of being exposed as a liar, until we get so mixed up that we can't even remember what story we told to whom. If we get drunk or high on drugs, it is difficult to think clearly, let alone to meditate effectively the next day; even putting aside the question of what we do when we're intoxicated, the recovery time alone is a huge drain on our physical energy and clarity of mind.

Thus, building a good foundation of ethical behavior removes obstacles -- from our own mindstreams and from our relationships with others -- that would otherwise prevent us from progressing along the spiritual path. It creates peace of mind and clears the way for awakening to unfold naturally -- that is, as long as we don't get hung up on our concepts of morality, or attached to our self-image of being a "good" person or a "good" Buddhist. If we turn the Five Precepts, for example, into a rigid moral code, then it's like putting on a wonderful pair of shoes and tying our shoelaces together -- we won't get far that way.


Stephen said...

Thank you, Dennis, for taking the time to organize and publish your thoughts for the rest of us. I always look forward to reading your blog. Keep 'em coming.


Anonymous said...

I struggle a big with some the precepts. I cannot accept them at face value, so I am not a monk. At the same time, I like working with my desires, trying at least to transform them into something "positive". Knowing I enjoy being a being, I try to engage in activities that preserve mind, whether it's my mind or yours. If mind has an expiration date, then so be it. I don't think I can say it does or doesn't, but it's active right now.

Dennis Hunter said...

I know what you mean -- I struggle with some of them too, and I *am* a monk -- at least temporarily!

Actually, the approach for monks and nuns is much more strict -- the way monastics practice the third precept is celibacy, and the way they practice the fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants altogether. That's why laypeople sometimes take only the first, second and fourth precepts -- or use modified, more flexible language for the third and fifth precepts, as I did in this post. In the latter case, those precepts simply mean avoiding sexual behaviors that might cause harm, and avoiding using intoxicants in a way that might cause harm -- how "harm" gets interpreted is for you to decide.