Lay Morality

The historical Buddha taught both those willing to completely renounce ordinary life and join his community of monks and nuns (the sangha) and also those from all walks of life who were not able or ready to do this. It is important to remember that the latter are by far the majority of all who identify as Buddhists, who do not spend all their time in deep meditation or studying Buddhist texts. Advice given to lay people includes looking after your family, respecting and obeying parents and looking after them when elderly, bringing up children to be loving and responsible, being faithful to your partner and sharing work fairly, choosing the right friends and being loyal and helpful. Good relationships should be formed between teachers and pupils and employers and employees, with respect on both sides. Careers should be chosen wisely and money used responsibly and generously. Advice given to one particular young man, Sigala, sounds remarkably up to date 2,500 years later. Avoid drinking, roaming the streets late at night, spending all your time at fairs, festivals and entertainment, gambling, mixing with addicts, cheats and criminals, and being idle. You will regret it.

The most important thing about Buddhist morality is that it should spring from love. Buddhist tradition identifies four aspects of love: metta or friendliness, wishing well for all; karuna or compassion, sympathising with the suffering of others; mudita or sympathetic joy, being pleased at the happiness of others; and upekkha or even-mindedness, spreading love equally and not becoming too emotionally attached. These four states, known as the brahma viharas should be developed as a form of meditation, but also apply to how we treat others in practice.

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