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.

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