Monique Moushis / Monday, May 18, 2020 / Categories: Intro To Ethics Intro to Buddhist Ethics Wisdom from the East. “All beings are essentially like myself insofar they desire happiness and dislike suffering. All beings, myself included, though desiring happiness, do evil and therefore experience suffering again and again. Owing to our own stupidity, like prisoners unable to escape from jail, we all revolve endlessly in Samsara” - Tibetan Buddhist verse A Unique Form of Ethics Buddhism is known by many as a religion of the East, but others view it merely through its doctrine of ethics or a just another way to live your life. As many philosophies tend to manifest differently over time, it is important to consider ideas from the time of their conception. What is significant about Buddhist philosophy and its Ethics, is that similar ideas were gaining in popularity in the East and the West at the same time in the 500s-300s BC. More amazingly, the Stoic and Epicurean schools of thought in Greece had come to similar conclusions about the same problem: The condition of human suffering. Perhaps this is because the world’s population of their times had similar strife to live through, but it could also have been taught via word-of-mouth: I once met a Theravada monk who claimed that the Buddha’s disciples had travelled from India all the way to Greece and Italy in the 400BCs to teach others of the Buddhist way to end human suffering. There are also accounts of Cynic disciples learning from the ‘naked philosophers’ in Indian states during Alexander the Great’s eastern campaigns. Despite the various historical accounts and records of each school’s doctrine, it remains that Buddhist philosophy has been and still is widely influential. But of all the doctrines that provide a method to end human suffering, the most distinguishable factor for Buddhism is that it doesn’t necessarily rely on metaphysical and epistemological truths to effectively argue for its method to end suffering, unlike Stoic and Epicurean thought. You will find that despite its conventions of the time, its focus on how suffering exists in the human experience and its steps to mediate them, are equally valid without accounting for its metaphysical underpinnings of reincarnation, karma and other Hindu influences. Because of this ‘metaphysically-agnostic’ perspective so to speak, it has a very unique identity in the realm of ethics and religion. This is why you find many people who tack on Buddhism to their other religious identities and why there’s still so much room for discussing its Ethics. Its universality lies in the concept of Samsara. The Universal Problem of Human Suffering Suffering exists because of Samsara, which translates to ‘the repeated cycle of birth, mundane existence and death’. Regardless of whether you believe in reincarnation or an afterlife (or none of them) the ideas of birth, life and death are indeed cyclical and vary in nature on different levels of abstraction. In essence, Samsara is another conception of Entropy. As a philosophy, Buddhism has contributed the one of the most detailed and dedicated doctrines concerning life, death and suffering: The Dharma, which has also conceptualised impermanence, the self and morality. While there are many differing interpretations of The Dharma across its many schools, the interpretation of its morals and base teachings is largely consistent: The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts all encompass the Buddhist ethical path. To understand how these concepts fit together and lead to its Ethics, imagine the concepts flowing through a well-grounded tree. From its roots, the Four Noble Truths outline the nature of existence and suffering. Its trunk has grown from these truths to form the Eightfold Path which outlines the steps to ending suffering; each trunk ring a new step on this Path, growing to surround the proceeding ring. The Eightfold Path trunk then grows up into supporting branches, one of which is Ethics. The leaves that grow on this branch are the Five Precepts. The Four Noble Truths of our existence To me there is not much room for discussion when it comes to the Four Noble Truths. Some may disagree with the Buddha’s path to end suffering, but to argue against the presence, nature and effect of suffering as a fact of life is a hard task, especially for any Empiricist. The fact that suffering appears in other philosophies as an element of the human condition is evidence enough that we’ve most likely got this right. Desires and ignorance are vices of the ego or self that the Buddha recognises as the main causes of suffering. Simply put, our minds and bodies are always set at an ‘dissatisfaction’ mode (an idea backed by a lot of recent psychology). That is why we fail at diets, scratch every itch, and why we have spending habits. But while some desires aren’t inherently harmful or immoral, the fact that we are set at a default of dissatisfaction means that we can never really feel happy permanently; we continue to feed our desires with impermanent band-aid solutions. It is because of this impermanence that desires act as vices against our happiness. So why do we keep doing these things? Because of ignorance, according to the Buddha; ignorance to the fact of impermanence of everything in life, where all bad things and all good things will eventually pass. The third Noble Truth follows from this; removal of unnecessary desires and learning of impermanence forces you to forgo expectation, meaning you can never be disappointed. More importantly, this means you can forge happier relationships with those around you. The Noble Eightfold Path to regaining self-control So, what is Right? In Buddhism, Right consists of being in a specific nature: genuine in intention, being of necessity and not causing harm. Simply put, Right Understanding consists of acknowledging and accepting the Four Noble Truths and an understanding of the concept Right, which will set you up for following the remainder of the Eightfold Path. Right Thought follows on this understanding; thoughts that are productive, necessary and are free of ignorance are those that should be acted upon. It proceeds Right Speech because Thought directly controls Speech and Action. Right speech is speaking when necessary, saying something helpful (or non-harmful) with good intentions. While these terms do seem a little arbitrary, adding context to suit your life allows them more relevant meaning and instruction. Consider this currently relevant example: You’re in the supermarket, reaching for a can of beans. As you reach out, another person on your left shoulders you roughly and snatches the can from the shelf. How do you react? Understandably, the natural reaction is to yell at them in annoyance. But with Right Understanding, you know that this incident and the panic buying tendencies won’t last forever. You know that there will be another can on the shelves at a future point. You know this person’s actions are most likely fueled by fear. And if the physical contact hasn’t caused any serious damage, you know that any sensation from the contact is now over. So you turn to face the person, most likely with an outraged look with many thoughts running through your mind. What do you say? Right Thought’s job is to discard any unproductive, harmful or unnecessary ideas of what to say. You decide to inform them of their wrongdoing. Right Speech would therefore express your position on the incident without using harmful language, nor using any excess of words, which would extend the incident further. My suggestion: “Ouch!” or “Excuse me, I did not appreciate that”. Now, you are allowed to be frustrated and angry. But in exercising Right Thought and Right Speech you will stop yourself or others from suffering any longer than necessary from this experience. But why should you even bother change your actions and speech when the person who shoved you is most likely inconsiderate by default? Because you can’t change other people, only yourself. To paraphrase the Dharma: You cannot drink poison and expect the other person to die. Having control of oneself means you have power to control the level of suffering for yourself and those lives you influence. It Starts at the Precepts The Five Precepts are an immediate extension of Right and is how you put the Eightfold Path into practice. While Monks of various traditions follow additional precepts to suit their lives in communes, these are the universal five that serve as the minimum moral conditions in Buddhist Ethics. These are only the basics of Buddhist philosophy; the Dharma is vast and varies from each tradition. As I started learning about Buddhism in my studies, I found that if you merely take these concepts on an intellectual level, you often miss out on knowledge lent to you through practice. So I continued to learn from the Temples and Monasteries themselves, studying first-hand from Monks in the Pure Land (Chinese) and Theravada (Thai/Indian) traditions. These precepts are essentially mindsets that follow from Right Understanding and an acceptance of the Four Noble truths. The strength in these precepts is that they aren’t expected to be followed in an absolute sense: exercising these qualities takes time, patience and practice. The monks who dedicate their lives to Buddhism know this, and the experience they face are the same struggles that we experience: you don’t have to be a monk to successfully action these precepts, you merely have to identify where they fit into your context and work on them within your own life. These precepts give you a sense of fulfillment and control of your actions, facilitates mindfulness and a happiness in that you are always actively considering your own ethical stance. It is a consolation, that this philosophy can fit so well into our modern lives, as it aims to lessen the burdens of an ancient ailment in the human condition we all live through. Practice Provides Clarity of Your Ethical Path Some systems of ethics have had practical methods set around them, and these usually transform into religions given they become popular enough. Buddhist thought can easily substitute the majority of Stoic thought and practice, but Stoicism isn’t a religion. As both philosophies create compassionate and temperate agents, this puts into doubt that only established religions can facilitate practical ethics – which provides you with much vaster normative options. As a philosopher, a Buddhist practitioner – and now teaching it in my private life – I realised that it is most beneficial for oneself to judge a system of ethics by living through it. With Buddhism, the Buddha was adamant that its success as a philosophy was found through practice tailored to each individual – in trying it out and seeing if it works for you. Posting Fire in a Crowded Forum Amor Fati Print 1735 Rate this article: 5.0 Please login or register to post comments.