(commentary on Dhammapāda, 183)
Refraining from every evil,
Purifying the mind,
This is Teaching of the Buddhas.
Striking about the Dhammapāda are the many verses compelling in their simplicity and yet so far-ranging in their implications. We read verse #183 and it speaks to the heart: “Yeah, that’s how my life should be.” But having listened to it and taken it to heart, we find ourselves on what appears under our feet as the entire Buddhist path with all that that entails.
Nugget #183 in fact enumerates the three distinct systems of Buddhist ethics. Interestingly these correspond closely to the three major forms of modern normative ethics in the West: deontology or duty ethics, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. Refraining from every evil involves behaving according to duty, generally with regard to the prohibitive precepts of Buddhism. Accomplishing good is acting to bring beneficial consequences into the world. Purifying the mind, the most representative of the three Buddhist ethical practices, makes of virtue not only something we do in the world, but the way we think and feel, a way that, carried to its logical extreme, leads to awakening as the perfection of virtue.
Although duty ethics, consequentialism and virtue ethics are generally treated as mutually exclusive in Western thought, in Buddhism they support and constrain one another. In exploring the Buddha’s integration of the three we recognize the fundamentally moral basis of the complete path of Buddhist practice, and that there is nothing in Buddhism that is not at root about ethics.
This verse from the Dhammapāda provides a particularly helpful perspective for us moderns also because we have a tendency to overlook ethics and virtue in our practice in favor of “higher” practices of mindfulness and samādhi, or in some traditions advanced esoteric practices that facilitate higher knowledges and awakening itself. This unfortunate tendency is a bit like building a high-rise starting with the penthouse. The high-rise of Buddhist accomplishment is to be built on a foundation of ethics, practical philosophy and values that ensures it does not start to lean as we advance to higher practices. This is clear in the teachings of the Buddha’s gradual path and even in the ordering of the eightfold noble path. Consider that a hunter, a sniper or a Wall Street stock broker can certainly attain deep levels of sustained concentration, but not Right Samadhi.
Lets turn to each of the three ethical practices of refraining from evil, accomplishing good and purifying the mind in turn, foreseeably one per week.