Guide to Buddhism: Step 3 – The Code of Ethics

Why is morality an important foundation of Buddhism?

We all need a code of ethics because human being are not innately perfect by nature.

We must train ourselves to be good and to have good conduct.

But why is doing the right thing so important in Buddhism? In short, it’s because morality brings peace.

If we do no wrong and only good, then we will not get angry or agitated. If we don’t get angry, then peace and calmness can arise within the mind.

Thus, the practice of morality creates an inner sense of tranquility, stability, security, and strength.

These qualities help to serve as the foundation of your practice.  Once you have a solid moral foundation, then you can successful progress to the other steps towards complete inner peace.

What does morality mean?

Morality means to have restraint and discipline over your body and speech. More specifically, moral discipline means that your behavior confirms with the generally accepted standards and cause no distress to other people or to yourself.

Put another way, morality means to have “Right Action” which is to have respect for life, property and personal relationships.

In the contest of Buddhism, possessing morality means that you follow the Five Precepts of Buddhism. The five precepts form the basic code of ethics or rules of morality that Buddhists should follow.

Buddhist ethics are not arbitrary standards. Laws and social customs also do not form the basis of Buddhist ethics.

Buddhist ethics are based on the unchanging laws of nature, which is why the 2,500 year old ethical code is still relevant today.

Unlike other religions, the Five Precepts of Buddhism are training rules, not commandments. Commandments are supposedly divine line imposed upon people.

The Buddhist precepts are accepted voluntarily by people, especially when they realize the usefulness of ethics for disciplining the body, speech and mind. Understanding is the reason for following the precepts, not fear of punishment.

How and where do we find morality?

Morality is not something that a friend, family member or even a religious leader can give you. You can’t ask for morality and it cannot be given.

Morality is simply a matter of your intentions. If you intentionally and consciousness determined to refrain from harmful activities through your body and speech, then you will possess morality.

Is everyone capable of having morality?

As long as you are aware of the basic Buddhist code of ethics (the Five Precepts), then you are capable of morality. Morality can be found within each of us. Whenever we decide to have morality, it is available to us just like the air that surrounds us.

If you wish to do good, then you can do it at any time and place. You can do good either alone or with others. It naturally follows that evil operates in the same manner. You can do it alone or in a group.

Unlike other animals, humans are capable of understanding right from wrong and good from evil. Other animals have no concept of knowledge of such things.

To do otherwise is to not take advantage of the precious abilities of humans and to not fulfill our potential. All humans should practice morality. If you have no morality, then you are no different than an animal.

What are the Five Precepts of Buddhism?

1) Do not kill living creatures.

This precept is related to compassion since all beings love life and fear death. (see Can Buddhists Eat Meat?).

Life is dear and cherished by all living creatures – all living things fear death, tremble at punishment and love life. Therefore we should not kill living beings.

Instead we should have compassion and sympathy towards all living creatures by showing them equality and reciprocity.

2) Do not steal or take what is not given.

This means to have respect for property. Those who take what is not given by force or deception are guilty of breaking this precept.

For example, an employer who does not pay his employee an honest wage, commensurate with the work performed, is also guilty of taking what is not given.

On the other hand, an employee who collects his or her salary but shirks their duties is equally guilty of lack of respect for property.

3) Do not commit adultery or sexual misconduct.

More broadly speaking, this means to have respect for personal relationships. Beyond that, it means avoiding sexual liaisons with people who are liable to be harmed by such such relationship.

4) Do not lie or have false speech.

In addition to not lying, we should avoid spreading rumors, using abusive or vulgar speech. Speech can break lives, create enemies, and start wars, or it can give wisdom, heal division, and create peace.

We often underestimate the power of speech and tend to have little control over what we say. Yet we’ve all been hurt by someone’s words at some point, and we’ve all been encouraged by the words of another.

It has been said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than a knife or sword. Whereas a gentle word can change the heart of the mind of the most hardened criminal.

To develop a harmonious society, we should control, cultivate and use our speech positively. We should speak words which are truthful, bring harmony, and that are kind and meaningful.

5) Do not take intoxicating drugs and alcohol.

(See Can Buddhists Drink Alcohol?)

Which careers or professions do Buddhists considered unethical?

As Buddhists, we should earn a living for ourselves and our families in a way that does not violate the Five Precepts discussed above.  

Buddha taught that there are five types of livelihoods that are discouraged for Buddhists:

  • 1) dealing in animals for slaughter
  • 2) dealing in slaves;
  • 3) dealing in weapons
  • 4) dealing in poisons; and
  • 5) dealing in intoxicants such as drugs and alcoholic beverages.

Buddha advised against these types of professions because they show a disrespect for life, property and personal relationships.

Furthermore, these types of livelihoods contribute to the problems of suffering, insecurity and disharmony in society.

Addition things to remember about ethics

While the Five Precepts above  are expressed in a negative form (i.e., do not do these things), we should not think that Buddhist morals consist of only abstaining from evil. We must also do good.

Additionally, although the ethical principles above will serve as the foundation of your practice, their ultimate purposes is more spiritual and serves as a foundation for finding inner peace.

Thus, for moral training to become a proper part of the path, it must be taken up while considering the remaining steps.

Next: Step 4: The Universal Truths