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.

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