Values and Commitments


Understanding how moral values and a sense of obligation can come from beliefs and experience;


Evaluating their own and others’ values in order to make informed, rational and imaginative choices.


Moral and Spiritual Qualities

In Buddhism, moral virtue is the foundation of the spiritual path. Sila, often translated as ‘behavioural disciple’, morality or virtue, is one of the three important practices (sila, samatha and panna / prajna). Virtue generates freedom from remorse and this leads, through gladness and joy, to meditative calm, insight and liberation. Ethical action contributes to a good rebirth and thereby towards eventual nibbana / nirvana. If one behaves otherwise then one will suffer in this life and subsequent lives, as a natural result of unwholesome actions (kamma / karma). Particularly important in Buddhism is the value of Compassion, which emphasises empathy and comparing oneself with others. The key basis for ethical action is the reflection that it is inappropriate to inflict on other beings what you find unpleasant yourself.

Rules and Ethical Guidelines

There are no real ‘oughts’ in Buddhist ethics. Instead, rather than one set of universal obligations, there are different levels of practice suiting different levels of commitment. For example, the undertaking of monks and nuns to abstain from sexual intercourse is not suitable for the laity. There are four levels of sila: basic morality – taking the five precepts; basic morality with asceticism – taking the eight precepts; novice monkhood – taking the ten precepts; and monkhood – following the vinaya. The five precepts are not in the form of commands, such as “though shalt not …”, but are training rules in order to live a better life. They are:

to refrain from harming living beings;

to refrain from taking what is not given;

to refrain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures;

to refrain from false speech;

to refrain from unmindful states due to alcoholic drinks or drugs;

The three additional rules of the eight precepts are:

to refrain from eating at the wrong time;

to refrain from dancing, using jewellery, going to shows, etc;

to refrain from using a high, luxurious bed.

The two additional rules of the ten precepts are:

to refrain from singing, dancing, playing music, or attending performances;

to refrain from accepting money.

The vinaya is a specific moral code for monks and nuns and includes the Patimokkha, a set of 227 rules in the Theravadin recension (numbers differ in other recensions).

Aside from undertaking the five precepts, giving is the primary ethical activity for lay Buddhists. The sangha is the primary focus for lay giving, with alms-food, medicine, robes and accommodation being donated. Another fairly common modern practice is to contribute to the cost of printing Buddhist books for free distribution. Generosity is a value which pervades Buddhist society; in fact Fielding Hall, a British official in nineteenth-century Burma, once asked for a bill at what he thought was a village restaurant, but found out he had been fed as a guest in a private house. This generosity is seen as generating merit which is instrumental in achieving a good rebirth.

Ethical Guidelines

Buddhist approaches to contemporary moral and ethical issues can be seen as maintaining traditional values. Buddhism generally asserts that consciousness begins at conception and the Buddha taught that the taking of conscious life causes suffering and so should be avoided (that is why it is one of the precepts). Therefore abortion is generally considered to be equivalent to infanticide. Similarly the Buddhist respect for life usually rules out euthanasia. The issue of whether the death penalty should be forbidden under Buddhism is highly debated. The sanctity of life is usually quoted, but many Buddhist countries still practice capital punishment (Thailand, for example). Buddhist teachings are usually disdainful towards sexuality and sensual enjoyment, with the third precept specifically condemning sexual misconduct. However, misconduct is not exactly defined. Therefore, modern issues such as homosexuality are not specifically dealt with in the scriptures. Some modern arguments claim that as long as sex is based on compassion and does not cause suffering, whether homosexual or extra-marital, the third precept is not broken.

Buddhist ethics include guidelines for good social relationships, although the practicalities of adopting these vary according to the different cultures in which Buddhism is based. The Sigalovada Sutta in the Pali Canon is an important text in this regard, and offers what has been described as the social vinaya for the laity. It offers advice on proper action towards six types of people so as to produce harmonious relationships. One should ‘minister’ to one’s parents, teachers, wife or husband, friends, servants, employees, monks and Brahmins in a variety of ways; for example, supporting one’s parents, respecting and paying due attention to one’s teachers, respecting one’s wife or husband and treating one’s employees fairly. This illustrates Buddhists’ strong social ethic and belief in human rights.

Moral Exemplars

One of the great paradigms for Buddhists is the historical Buddha, Gotama / Gautama. His teaching and the way he led his life is very inspirational to Buddhists. However, it is stories of his previous lives that people use as a guide for social behaviour. The Jataka stories, in the Pali Canon, comprise 542 poems in roughly ascending length. They show the Buddha as a bodhisattva in a number of previous lives, in both animal and human forms. Each story has a moral message with the bodhisattva acting wisely and compassionately, sometimes even giving up his life for others. These stories are very important for Buddhists as they show how small acts of kindness, that we are all capable of, can eventually lead to salvation.

Aside from the Buddha, one of the most important historical people who has become a paradigm for good Buddhist behaviour is King Asoka / Ashoka. Asoka / Ashoka (c. 304-232BCE) ruled most of present-day India after a number of bloody military conquests. However, he later dedicated himself to the propagation of Buddhism and, rather than military excursions, went on Dhamma / Dharma conquests. The social ethics propagated by Asoka can be found in Buddhist scriptures and verified by inscriptions of his edicts. He advocated non-violence, not just to humans, but to animals as well (he had no meat at the palace and gave up hunting). Enormous rest houses were built where travellers and pilgrims could stay at free of charge. Asoka / Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them outside one day each year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study and water transit and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics and caste. In the Mauyan empire citizens of all religious and ethnic groups were treated equally and all had the rights of freedom, tolerance and equality. Thus Asoka / Ashoka is particularly important as a model of the perfect Buddhist leader. Many subsequent rulers have attempted to follow this model and advocate the values, rights and responsibilities that he advocated

Rights and Responsibilities

The rights and responsibilities involved in being a Buddhist are best thought of in terms of the positive implications of the Five Precepts: one should live with kindness and compassion to all; one should practice generosity to all; one should aim for contentment with few wishes; one should always be truthful; one should be mindful and aware. These values determine how Buddhists privately live their lives, but also how they interact socially – treating people with compassion and generosity. Therefore these values determine Buddhists’ views of human rights and their responsibilities in a global context.

There is a clear link between certain Buddhist beliefs and the modern concept of Human Rights. According to Buddhism, all human being are equal in that each has the potential to achieve Enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhists recognise the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings. The Buddha pointed out the importance of treating others as if they were members of one’s own family, since, due to the infinite number of rebirths, all have at some point been one’s parents, siblings and children. The Buddhist respect for human life is very much an ideal inherent in Human Rights ideas.

Social Justice is also an issue which resonates with Buddhists. While on the one hand Buddhists attempt to be mindful of suffering and accept it with a calm mind, the Buddha never taught a message of inaction. One of the most important aspects of being a human (or any sentient being) is freedom to act. This freedom generates both good and bad kamma / karma and allows us to change ourselves and eventually escape samsara. While suffering even in the case of social injustice, can be seen as a result of bad kamma / karma (although not every occurrence is seen as the result of kamma / karma), this is not a reason for inactivity. For many, removing social injustice is viewed as a kammically / karmically good action. A good example of a Buddhist fight for Social Justice can currently be seen in Burma, where the Sangha engaged in a peaceful protest through the streets of Rangoon. A 20th Century example is Thic Quang Duc who burnt himself to death as a public protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnam’s administration. Equally, the importance of Asoka / Ashoka to Buddhists illustrates how strongly they believe in social justice. King Asoka / Ashoka is viewed as the paradigm of a Buddhist King. He treated all of his subjects as equals, regardless of class or religion, constructed hospitals, built roads and universities, as well as promoted freedom, equality and vegetarianism among other qualities.

The Environment

The Environment is currently an important issue for everyone and so Buddhism’s relationship to this issue is equally important. The Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly ‘Friends of the Western Buddhist Order’) point out that to “live in harmony with nature is a crucial Buddhist practice”.

In the traditional Buddhist texts there is little reference to what would these days be called environmental or ecological ideas. However, this is because the culture in which the Buddha lived was in far greater harmony with the environment than ours. In the Buddha’s life all of the most significant events occur in the countryside and are associated with trees (his birth, his early meditative experiences, his Enlightenment and his parinibbana / parinivarna). Thus we see a close harmony with nature, which Buddhists should attempt to continue.

Similarly the doctrine of Dependent Origination teaches the inter-relationship of all causes and effects. Thus it is clear that human actions have effects – for example, pollution through acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and global warming. This clearly has a negative effect on all living beings, even to the point of making some species extinct. For Buddhists, this clearly breaks the first precept (harming living beings).

In Christian thought, there is the idea that man is given ownership of the world, to manage its resources. Buddhists do not have this idea and see the relationship between the world and humans (and all being for that matter) as mutual, each conditions the other and a balance of harmony should be strived for.

Finally, in accordance with Dependent Origination, humans are the principal cause of environmental problems. Therefore, in behaving in a way which has a negative impact on the environment we are causing countless animals to suffer and die, which is breaking the first Precept. Thus to live in accordance with refraining from killing or harming living being, Buddhists try to live in harmony with the environment.

Moral Issues: examples

The means by which Buddhists can take part in action in the world are varied. Obviously, Buddhists avoid any kind of violent action or war as this contravenes the first Precept and goes against Buddhist values of loving kindness and not harming sentient beings. Therefore, Buddhists often work with peacekeeping organisations and political groups for example, the UN. Equally Buddhists participate in inter-faith dialogue as well as taking part in non-violent protests as seen in Burma and Tibet.

Buddhist values of compassion and loving kindness are extremely important in terms of their attitudes to issues such as Health, War, Animal Rights, Wealth, and the Environment.

Health: in Buddhist countries some illnesses and disabilities are viewed as the results of bad kamma / karma. However, this does not mean that ill and disabled people shouldn’t be helped. While bad kamma / karma may have placed them in a position of suffering, their inherent freedom means that they should try and extricate themselves. This is in fact the very message of Buddhism: that people should try and alleviate and escape suffering. Not only should the sick try and do all they can to help themselves get better, other people should try and help them as well. This will generate good kamma / karma for those people and fits in with Buddhist ideals of loving kindness. Buddhists also see a human rebirth as being very valuable, as this is the best point to attain nibbana / nirvana from. They therefore do all they can to help people retain this human life.

War: the first Precept (to refrain from taking the life of sentient beings) means that Buddhists are very opposed to war. In fact non-violence is at the heart of Buddhist thinking and behaviour. In the Kamcupama Sutta the Buddha emphasises the need to love your enemy no matter how cruelly he treats you: “Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.” The Dalai Lama has emphasised this teaching saying: “Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone”. Thus many Buddhists have refused to take up arms under any circumstances. However, there are cases where Buddhists have fought. For example, Buddhists developed martial arts (e.g. Shaolin Monks). But most martial arts traditions insist on a responsible and minimalist attitude to violence. Still Buddhists have taken part in wars – e.g. Zen masters supported Japan’s wars of aggression and the civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils has cost many lives.

Animal Rights: Buddhists hold that one should avoid causing harm and suffering to sentient beings, as detailed in the first precept. Therefore the kind treatment of animals has been very important to Buddhists from early on. King Asoka / Ashoka, for example, built hospitals for animals, criticised hunting for sport and advocated vegetarianism. However, while all Buddhists would try and avoid causing suffering to animals and advocate animal rights, not all are vegetarian. The Buddha himself seems to have accepted meat in his begging bowl and he allowed monks to eat meat as long as they had not seen or heard the slaughter of the animal and they did not suspect it was slaughtered particularly for them. Since intention is all important to Buddhists, in most Buddhist societies it is normally acceptable to eat meat as long as someone else has killed it (i.e. someone else intends to cause suffering to the animal). Therefore, most butchers tend to be non-Buddhists. In Southern Buddhism, while only a few are vegetarians, those that are looked up to. The well-being of animals before slaughter is also considered very important – battery farming, for example, is criticised.

Wealth: Buddhist countries are found at many different levels of economic development. Bhutan, at one extreme, is a developing country where the people are poor, but generally contented. In fact the king has said he is more interested in the “Gross National Happiness” than the “Gross National Product”. On the other hand, Japan is at the other extreme, where the Buddhist emphasis on self-detachment and the Confucian emphasis on serving the group have led to rapid modernization, a strong work ethic, and a powerful economy. Overall, Buddhism does not teach against wealth, with many Buddhists viewing it as the natural result of previous good actions (kamma / karma). However, in order to be sure of a pleasant rebirth, the wealthy must use their wealth well – e.g. pay for the publication of Buddhist scriptures, donate land for monasteries etc. Eventually, if one is to progress on the Buddhist path, wealth must be given up as it is a material attachment which can hinder one attaining final enlightenment.