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.

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