The Ethics and Morality of Buddhism

posted by Mama Hope | July 6th, 2008 in Spirituality

One of the central aspects of Buddhism, in my experience, is the manner in which it deals with ethics and morality in a very logical, driven manner. In that way, Buddhism serves as a great tool for me (as a gamer, a former computer programmer and all-around logic-driven gal), to help guide my goals in life in an ethical and moral direction. As I’m also writing about teaching children values through our new Sunday church at home practice, I felt it was important to take a moment to remark on my experience of Buddhist ethics.

While there are plentiful sources to consult for teachings on the fundamentals of Buddhism and The Four Noble Truths, I found one quote on personal values to be very simple and relevant to daily life. The quote is from the Dalai Lama’s How to Practice : The Way to a Meaningful Life. It is particularly useful in reminding me why I study Buddhism, and also helps inspire my own inner moral discipline and “personal mission.” If you study the quote carefully, you’ll see how its message is not unlike one of the core messages of Jesus Christ:

…Discontentment. You want more and more. This, in a sense, is real poverty–always to be hungry, hungry, hungry with no time to be satisfied. Others might not be rich, but contentment provides them with fewer worries, fewer enemies, fewer problems, and very good sleep. On more than one occasion, when I have visited very nice homes in rich communities, I have peeked inside the medicine chest in the bathroom and found some medications to provide energy for the day and others to induce sleep at night. Contentment might do both of these jobs better since it reduces anxiety during the day, paving the way for sleeping peacefully.

In the frenzy of modern life we lose sight of the real value of humanity. People become the sum total of what they produce. Human beings act like machines whose function is to make money. This is absolutely wrong. The purpose of making money is the happiness of humankind, not the other way round. Humans are not for money, money is for humans. We need enough to live, so money is necessary, but we also need to realize that if there is too much attachment to wealth, it does not help at all. As the saints of India and Tibet tell us, the wealthier one becomes, the more suffering one endures. (H.H. the Dalai Lama, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, PhD, How to Practice)

It’s easy to see how the teachings of Buddhism appeal to the West, partly because they do relate to a universal morality that is also taught in Christianity. What Buddhism adds is a directed practice to discipline one’s mind and one’s behavior to act, live, and find peace according to that morality, and then work to help others achieve the same.

Ethical Decision Making

How does this relate to the ethics and decision making of our daily life? It’s important to see that when we talk about attachment to wealth we’re not only talking about money but about the whole concept of dissatisfaction and striving for “more.” In our driven society, we are constantly pushed to produce more, do more, “be more.” The Dalai Lama further supports this point in his Ethics for the New Millennium:

In place of the sense of community and belonging, which we find such a reassuring feature of less wealthy societies, we find a high degree of loneliness and alienation… All this is compounded by the contemporary rhetoric of growth and economic development which greatly reinforces people’s tendency toward competitiveness and envy. And with this comes the perceived need to keep up appearances–itself a major source of problems, tension, and unhappiness.

Yet the psychological and emotional suffering we find so prevalent in the West is less likely to reflect a cultural shortcoming than an underlying human tendency. Indeed, I have noticed that similar forms of inner suffering are evident outside the West. In some parts of Southeast Asia, it is observable that as prosperity has increased, traditional belief systems have begun to lose their influence over people. With this, we find a broadly similar manifestation of unease as that established in the West… Thus, in the southern, undeveloped, or “Third World” countries we find ailments broadly confined to that part of the world, such as those arising from poor sanitation. By contrast, in urban industrial societies, we see illnesses manifest in ways that are consistent with that environment. So instead of water-borne diseases, we find stress-related disease. All of this implies that there are strong reasons for supposing a link between our disproportionate emphasis on external progress and the unhappiness, the anxiety, and the lack of contentment of modern society. (H.H. the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium)

In a way it seems counterintuitive: that by working so hard to be happier we can bring ourselves unhappiness. In daily practice this hounds me as a persistent paradox. But there are ways of beginning to observe our experiences to sort out a clear direction.

An excellent example is the book Your Money or Your Life. It’s subtitled “Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence” and it’s essentially a guide to budgeting your life according to your real values, complete with step by step instructions on bookkeeping and money tracking. I discovered it about five years ago and it’s definitely shaped my path (these days I’m saving money while making less than I did while working on Wall Street). In the first Chapter, they use catchy little phrases to make their point, such as “Money: The Tender Trap,” and “We aren’t making a living, we’re making a dying.”

But their point really hits home when they discuss “The Fulfillment Curve,” which echoes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Essentially, they explain that back in the reaches of prehistoric time we were programmed to hunt out more, more, more because without that drive we couldn’t survive. But there comes a point, which they call “enough,” the peak of the curve, where more stops bringing us more happiness and satisfaction, and starts bringing us less. Keeping a watchful eye for that point is what their book is all about, and I find it a good way to visualize my own ethical decisions as well. In fact, Vicki Robin also recommends my current green read, Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle.

Realistic Practice of Buddhism and Ethics

While there is much to be done in the path to enlightenment, as it were, I am currently working to keep two points in mind as I work to make decisions according to a Buddhist ethics. It’s something I’m trying to remind myself as I make decisions (even little ones) throughout the day: before I open my mouth to say something, when I find myself having an emotional response to something.

  1. I try to ask myself, what do I want here? What seems to be motivating me? Once you get in the habit of listening to what you are really going for you can begin to find those moments where you can add discipline and direct yourself a bit. Is this thing that you want related to an urge for “more”? Is it something you really need to bring you true inner wealth and satisfaction, or is this just one more example of a motivation that puts you *past* that peak of the Fulfillment Curve?
  2. Secondly, I try to remind myself to look for the opportunity for a more genuine happiness. While there’s not always a chance to make space in the mind for this, it helps to simply note it as a step to try to make, which then sets up the possibility for it to arise! By genuine happiness here, I’m referring to the moments when I can bring a benefit to someone *else*, however great or small. If I can turn this moment around, it truly makes my day.

Of course this second point relates to a whole world view that is both easy and difficult to comprehend. There are those who might think it’s glaringly obvious that bringing comfort to others is the best way to feel satisfied yourself, and then there are those who think its just so much hippie dippie nonsense! What I really appreciate about the book Ethics for the New Millennium, is that the Dalai Lama goes to great lengths to outline a solid, logical argument for this point. No shiny, happy magic (in fact there’s a chapter entitled “No Magic, No Mystery”) just a well-reasoned point-by-point analysis of why compassion is the big winner in life’s values. If you’re interested in giving it a roll, the crux of that argument is in his fourth chapter “Redefining the Goal.” Although the Dalai Lama is himself Buddhist and the book mirrors his values, it is actually written toward producing secular, non-religious ethics and so can be applied regardless of your personal religious beliefs.

Wikipedia defines ethics as “a major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life” and morality as “a code of conduct held to be authoritative in matters of right and wrong”. Although they are nearly synonymous, in practice ethics is used as a non-secular term, whereas morality often implies religion. According to Alan Watts, the 60’s guru who introduced Eastern philosophies to the West, Buddhism and Eastern religions bypass this distinction because in a way they are neither philosophies — as philosophies detach themselves entirely from the individual and are thus purely exercises in intellect, nor religions — as religions prescribe a “bond or rule of life” that must be followed. He explains: “Neither Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism can possibly be called religions in this sense, because all of them significantly lack the virtue of obedience.”

Although Buddhism does lack a godhead, it does in all of its forms provide a view toward ethical and moral behavior, as well as a means, through trial and error, to achieve that goal. Ultimately, I find the teachings of Buddhism, while sometimes intellectual, to be a great fit toward applying a personal goal of morality and plain ol’ goodness toward the practice of daily living.

To your health!

Mama Hope

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11 Responses to “The Ethics and Morality of Buddhism”

  1. Hi Mama Hope
    really love your website. I am looking at homeschool options. Which homeschool program/s do you use? Please tell me the reasons for your choice? I am new to the homeschool world, so I am open to all options

    keep writing
    Fiona - Cyprus

  2. Thanks Fiona!

    Sounds like a good idea to put a homeschool post together, I appreciate the thought. I’ll try to talk about my own off the cuff thoughts, plus some good resources.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Your thoughts are very insightful and beautiful.

    I’m a devout Catholic but I practice some Buddhist principles like detachment and simplicity–although Catholicism has teachings on these matters too, I find the approach of Buddhism more approachable and doable–Somehow it helps me keep check with reality.

    More power to you!

    CypeVens last blog post..Hide and seek: Title deeds

  4. CypeVen,

    Thank you! I realized that it’s a good time to re-read this post myself to keep myself on track, thanks for the reminder!

    I agree that detachment and simplicity are such essential principles to ethical living and they’re certainly not exclusive to Buddhism or any spiritual path.

    Thanks for the well wishes! Right back at you!

  5. Anybody else think its funny that the dali lama is the kind of person that peeks inside peoples medicine cabinets?

  6. You know that is funny, I never thought of it! Speaking of morality I wonder if Buddhism has anything to say about privacy! I suppose it all comes down to one’s intentions, no?

  7. I also homeschool. Brainpop jr. is excellent. We are Buddhists and these are some wonderful articles!!!!

  8. “Neither Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism can possibly be called religions in this sense, because all of them significantly lack the virtue of obedience.”

    I don’t think that’s a valid reason why not to call them religions. In fact, I would suggest that in these more esoteric religions that one is cultivating an obedience towards the glimpses one has of ones true nature, until the day we are overcome by our true nature.


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