- Dr. Peter Della Santina
In Chapter 4 we discussed the Four Noble Truths, our last topic being
the fourth truth, which consists of the Noble Eightfold Path to the end of suffering.
There we used the analogy of climbing a mountain, where the very first step depends on
keeping the summit firmly in view, while the last step depends on being careful not to
stumble at the outset. In other words, each part of the way depends on the other parts,
and if any part of the path is not completed, the summit will not be gained. In the same
way, in the case of the Noble Eightfold Path, all the steps are interrelated and depend on
one another. We cannot do away with any one step.
Nonetheless, as mentioned at the end of Chapter 4, the eight steps of
the path have been divided into three ways of practice: (1) morality, (2) mental
development, and (3) wisdom. Although, conceptually and structurally speaking, the first
step of climbing a mountain depends on the last and the last depends on the first,
practically speaking, we do have to climb the lowest slopes first. We may be attracted to
the summit, but to get there we must cross the lower slopes first; only then can we
proceed to the higher reaches. It is for this very practical reason that the steps of the
Noble Eightfold Path have been divided into these three ways of practice.
The first of these three ways of practice is morality. Morality forms
the foundation of further progress on the path, of further personal development. It is
said that, just as the earth is the basis of all animate and inanimate things, so morality
is the basis of all positive qualities. When we look around us, we can see that everything
rests on the earth, from buildings to bridges, animals to human beings. The earth supports
all these things; in the same way, morality is the foundation of all qualities, all
virtues, all attainments, ranging from the mundane to the supramundane, from success and
good fortune to skill in meditation and, ultimately, wisdom and enlightenment. By means of
this analogy, we can easily understand the importance of good conduct as a fundamental
prerequisite for following the path and achieving results on it.
Why do we take the trouble to stress the importance of good conduct as
the foundation of progress on the path? The reason is that there is a tendency to think of
good conduct as rather dull and boring. Meditation sounds more exciting and interesting,
and philosophy and wisdom, too, have a kind of fascination about them. There is a
dangerous temptation to neglect the importance of morality and want to go straight on to
the more exciting parts of the path. But if we do not create this foundation of good
conduct, we will not succeed in following the other steps of the path.
It is necessary to understand how the rules of good conduct, or the
precepts, are established in Buddhism, because there are different ways in which moral or
ethical codes can be presented. If you look at the moral teachings of the major religions
of the world, you will find that there is a surprising degree of agreement among them. If
you look, for instance, at the moral teachings of Confucius or Lao Tzu, at those of the
Buddha and of Hindu teachers, and at those of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, you will find
that the basic rules of good conduct are almost identical. However, although the rules in
most cases correspond almost exactly, the attitudes toward these codes and the ways they
are presented, understood, and interpreted differ considerably from faith to faith.
In general, there are two ways moral codes can be established--what we
might call the authoritarian way and the democratic way. A good example of the former is
God handing down the tablets of the Ten Commandments to Moses on the mountain. By
contrast, in Buddhism we have what I think we can call a democratic way of establishing
the basic rules of good conduct. You may wonder why I say this when, after all, we do have
rules of morality laid down in scriptures. You might ask, "Isn't this similar to God
handing down the commandments to Moses?" I think not, because if we look more closely
at the meaning of Buddhist scriptures, we can see what lies behind the rules of good
conduct--namely, the principles of equality and reciprocity.
The principle of equality holds that all living beings are the same in
their basic orientation and outlook. In other words, all living beings want to be happy,
to enjoy life, and to avoid suffering and death. This is just as true of other living
beings as it is of us. The principle of equality is at the heart of the universality of
the Buddha's vision. Understanding the principle of equality, we are encouraged to act in
light of the additional awareness of the principle of reciprocity.
Reciprocity means that, just as we would not like to be abused, robbed,
injured, or killed, so all other living beings are unwilling to have such things happen to
them. We can put this principle of reciprocity quite simply by saying, "Do not act
toward others in a way you would not want them to act toward you." Once we are aware
of these principles of equality and reciprocity, it is not hard to see how they form the
foundation of the rules of good conduct in Buddhism.
Let us now look specifically at the contents of morality in Buddhism.
The way of practice of good conduct includes three parts of the Noble Eightfold Path: (a)
right speech, (b) right action, and (c) right livelihood.
Right speech constitutes an extremely important aspect of the path. We
often underestimate the power of speech. As a consequence, we sometimes exercise very
little control over our faculty of speech. This should not be so. We have all been very
greatly hurt by someone's words at some time or other in our lives, and similarly, we have
sometimes been greatly encouraged by the words someone has said. In the area of public
life, we can clearly see how those who are able to communicate effectively are able to
influence people tremendously, for better or for worse. Hitler, Churchill, Kennedy, and
Martin Luther King were all accomplished speakers who were able to influence millions with
their words. It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than a weapon, whereas a
gentle word can change the heart and mind of even the most hardened criminal. Perhaps more
than anything else, the faculty of speech differentiates humans from animals, so if we
wish to create a society in which communication, cooperation, harmony, and well-being are
goals to be attained, we must control, cultivate, and use our speech in helpful ways.
All the rules of good conduct imply respect for values founded on an
understanding of the principles of equality and reciprocity. In this context, right speech
implies respect for truth and respect for the well-being of others. If we use our faculty
of speech with these values in mind, we will be cultivating right speech, and through this
we will achieve greater harmony in our relationships with others. Traditionally, we speak
of four aspects of right speech--namely, the avoidance of (a) lying, (b) backbiting or
slander, (c) harsh speech, and (d) idle talk. Some of you may already be familiar with the
Buddha's instructions to his son Rahula about the importance of avoiding lying. He used
the example of a vessel. The vessel had a little bit of water in the bottom, which he
asked Rahula to look at, commenting, "The virtue and renunciation of those who are
not ashamed of lying is small, like the small amount of water in the vessel." Next,
the Buddha threw away the water in the vessel and said, "Those who are not ashamed of
lying throw away their virtue, just as I have thrown away this water." Then the
Buddha showed Rahula the empty vessel and said, "Just as empty is the virtue and
renunciation of those who habitually tell lies."
In this way the Buddha used the vessel to make the point that our
practice of wholesome actions, our good conduct and character, are intimately affected by
lying. If we are convinced that we can act in one way and speak in another, then we will
not hesitate to act badly, because we will be confident that we will be able to cover up
our harmful actions by lying. Lying therefore opens the door to all kinds of unwholesome
acts. Slander is divisive. It creates quarrels between friends, and it creates pain and
discord in society. Therefore, just as we would not like to have our friends turned
against us by someone's slanderous talk, so we ought not to slander others.
Similarly, we ought not to abuse others with harsh words. On the
contrary, we should speak courteously to others, as we would like them to speak to us.
When we come to idle talk, you may wonder why we cannot even engage in a little chitchat.
But the prohibition against idle talk is not absolute or general. The kind of idle talk
meant here is malicious gossip--that is, diverting ourselves and others by recounting
people's faults and failings. In short, why not simply refrain from using the faculty of
speech--which, as we have seen, is so powerful--for deception, creating divisions among
others, abusing others, and idling away time at their expense? Instead, why not use it
constructively--for communicating meaningfully, uniting people, encouraging understanding
between friends and neighbors, and imparting helpful advice? The Buddha once said,
"Pleasant speech is as sweet as honey; truthful speech is beautiful, like a flower;
and wrong speech is unwholesome, like filth." So let us try, for our own good and the
good of others, to cultivate right speech--namely, respect both for truth and for the
welfare of others.
The next part of the Noble Eightfold Path that falls into the category
of morality is right action. Right action implies (a) respect for life, (b) respect for
property, and (c) respect for personal relationships. You will recall what I said a moment
ago about life being dear to all. It is said in the Dhammapada that all living beings
tremble at the prospect of punishment, all fear death, and all love life. Hence, again
keeping in mind the principles of equality and reciprocity, we ought not to kill living
beings. You might be ready to accept this for human beings but demure with regard to some
other living creatures. Here, however, some of the developments in recent years in the
fields of science and technology ought to give the most skeptical freethinker food for
thought. For instance, when we destroy a particular strain of insect, are we absolutely
certain of accomplishing the greatest, long-term good of all, or do we, more often than
not, instead contribute unwittingly to an imbalance in the ecosystem that will create even
greater problems in the future?
Respect for property means not to rob, steal from, or cheat others.
This is important because those who take what is not given by force, stealth, or treachery
are guilty of breaking this precept. The employer who does not pay his employee an honest
wage, commensurate with the work performed, is guilty of taking what is not given; the
employee who collects his salary but shirks his duties is equally guilty of lack of
respect for property.
Finally, respect for personal relationships means, first of all, to
avoid sexual misconduct. Put most simply, it means avoiding adultery. Beyond that, it
means avoiding sexual liaisons with people who are liable to be harmed by such relations.
More generally, it means avoiding abuse of the senses. You can easily see how, if these
guidelines are followed in a given community, such a community will be a better place in
which to live.
Right livelihood is the third step of the Noble Eightfold Path included
in the way of practice of morality. Right livelihood is an extension of the rules of right
action to our roles as breadwinners in society. We have just seen that, in the cases of
right speech and right action, the underlying values are respect for truth, for the
welfare of others, and for life, property, and personal relationships. Right livelihood
means earning a living in a way that does not violate these basic moral values.
Five kinds of livelihood are discouraged for Buddhists: trading in
animals for slaughter, slaves, arms, poisons, and intoxicants (drugs and alcohol). These
five are not recommended because they contribute to the ills of society and violate the
values of respect for life and for the welfare of others. Dealing in animals for slaughter
violates the value of respect for life. Dealing in slaves violates both respect for life
and right action in personal relationships. Dealing in arms also violates the value of
respect for life, while dealing in poisons or intoxicants also does not respect the lives
and welfare of others. All these trades contribute to insecurity, discord, and suffering
in the world.
How does the practice of good conduct, or morality, work? We have said
that, in the context of society at large, following the rules of good conduct creates a
social environment characterized by harmony and peace. All our social goals can be
achieved within the rules of good conduct based on the fundamental principles of equality
and reciprocity. In addition, each person benefits from the practice of good conduct. In
one of his discourses, the Buddha said that someone who has observed respect for life and
so forth feels like a king, duly crowned and with his enemies subdued. Such a person feels
at peace and at ease.
The practice of morality creates an inner sense of tranquillity,
stability, security, and strength. Once you have created that inner peace, you can
successfully follow the other steps of the path. You can cultivate and perfect the various
aspects of mental development. You can then achieve wisdom--but only after you have
created the necessary foundation of morality both within and without, both in yourself and
in your relationships with others.
Very briefly, these are the origin, contents, and goal of good conduct
in Buddhism. There is just one more point I would like to make before concluding our
review of Buddhist morality. When people consider the rules of good conduct, they often
think, "How can we possibly follow them?" It seems to be terribly difficult to
observe the precepts. For instance, even the prohibition against taking life, which is the
most fundamental, appears very difficult to follow absolutely. Every day, as you clean the
kitchen or putter about the garden, you are very likely to kill some insect that happens
to get in your way. Also, it appears very difficult even to avoid lying in all cases. How
are we to deal with this problem, which is a genuine one?
The point is not whether we can observe all the rules of morality all
the time. Rather, the point is that, if the rules of morality are well founded (i.e., if
the principles of equality and reciprocity are worth believing in, and if the rules of
morality are an appropriate way of enacting them), then it is our duty to follow these
rules as much as we possibly can. This is not to say that we will be able to follow them
absolutely, but only that we ought to do our best to follow the way of practice indicated
by the rules of good conduct. If we want to live at peace with ourselves and others, then
we ought to respect the life and welfare of others, their property, and so on. If a
situation arises in which we find ourselves unable to apply a particular rule, that is not
the fault of the rule, but simply an indication of the gap between our own practice of
morality and the ideal practice of it.
When, in ancient times, seafarers navigated their ships across the
great oceans with the aid of the stars, they were not able to follow exactly the course
indicated by those heavenly bodies. Yet the stars were their guides, and by following
them, however approximately, mariners reached their destination. In the same way, when we
follow the rules of good conduct, we do not pretend that we can observe all of them all
the time. This is why the five precepts are called "training precepts"; it is
also why we renew them again and again. What we have in the rules of good conduct is a
framework through which we can try to live in accord with the two fundamental principles
that illuminate the teaching of the Buddha: the principle of the equality of all living
beings, and the principle of reciprocal respect.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 47-55].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this