Contemporary Moral Issues

There is no one ‘Buddhist’ view on any moral issue, anymore than one ‘Christian’ or ‘Pagan’ view. There is only space here to indicate some Buddhist perspectives on some controversial moral issues.

Killing and harming is ruled out by the first precept, but there are areas of disagreement.

Death penalty – still used in modern Thailand, a country whose population of over 90% Buddhist, with a Buddhist monarchy and a powerful Buddhist establishment, but banned by the 13th Dalai Lama in pre-communist Tibet.

Assassination – usually wrong, but see above the case of the Tibetan monk who assassinated the evil king.

War – Buddhists are generally committed to non-violence. The historical Buddha taught that you should not feel hatred even if someone were to carve you in pieces. Many Buddhists, including monastics, have been involved in anti-war protests, and are active in peace movements and peace negotiations. However, Buddhist-majority countries have armies, and have been involved in international and civil wars. Examples include the Sri Lankan war against Indian invaders in the 1st century BCE, the civil war between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and mainly Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka that started in the 1980s, Buddhist support for Japanese aggression in World War II, and the treatment of the Rohingya minority by the army in Myanmar in the present. In most such cases there are other Buddhist voices speaking out in protest. It is possible for Buddhists to feel more sympathy with the oppressed using violence rather than the powerful, which has happened for example in Tibet.

Suicide – generally seen as a selfish act springing from desire for annihilation, but monks in Vietnam and Tibet have used self-immolation by fire to draw attention to situations of great suffering, and the historical Buddha allowed one monk in great pain to kill himself.

Abortion – many Buddhists see abortion as wrong because killing a living being/potential human, but there may be circumstances where it is the most compassionate action. In Japan abortion is legal and widely practised and there are post-abortion Buddhist religious rituals, seen by some as a helpful way of addressing the associated emotions, and by others as exploitation of vulnerable people.

Euthanasia – generally considered wrong as end-of-life suffering may be a necessary burning out of past bad karma, and should be endured with patience, but there may be circumstances where it is the most compassionate action (see suicide above).

Nuclear weapons – many Buddhists are at the forefront of campaigns against, and Japanese Buddhists remember the horrors of Hiroshima. A Buddhist could support having nuclear weapons if she believed in the deterrence argument that they prevent more war and suffering.

Killing and harming animals – should be minimised. Animals are sentient beings, one of the forms of possible rebirth and potentially may eventually, like humans, achieve nirvana or Buddhahood. Many Buddhists are vegetarian and vegetarianism is considered superior, but many others eat meat and/or fish. This usually depends on circumstances. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally ate meat because of the climate and dependence on animal food sources, some Sri Lankan Buddhists are dependent on fishing. The Buddha taught that it was OK for his monks/nuns to accept meat if it hadn’t been killed especially for them, and so in some Buddhist cultures butchers tend to be from other religions, allowing Buddhists to eat meat while not involved in the killing themselves. Buddhists would generally support animal welfare such as free-range conditions, would want experiments on animals to take place only when completely necessary, and would not kill insects unless they were, for example, spreading diseases such as malaria.

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