Introduction to Early Buddhist Ethics

Refraining from every evil,
Accomplishing good,
Purifying the mind,
This is Teaching of Buddhas.
(Dhammapāda 183)

Seeing the complete awakening while seated in meditation as the Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, we often fail to recognize how thoroughly Buddhism is about ethics or virtue or morality. The Buddhist path creates saints before it creates awakened ones. Buddhism begins with ethics. Its preliminary teachings are ethical. Buddhist children learn generosity and harmlessness from toddlerhood. Ethics provides the foundation without which higher development of the mind is unattainable. Without the perfection of virtue awakening is impossible. Starting with ethics, we most easily understand the logic of the entire Buddhist path and of meditation and awakening.

The opening verse above, one of the most quoted from the Dhammapāda, itself the most read presectarian Buddhist text, gets to the heart of the matter. It enumerates the three distinct but interrelated systems of Buddhist ethics, and these, in fact, 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 harmlessly according to Buddhist ethical codes. Accomplishing good is acting for the benefit of others. Purifying the mind, the most characteristically Buddhist of the three, makes of virtue not only something we do in the world, but integral to who we are and the way we think. The three, in the Buddha’s teachings, are mutually constraining and mutually supporting, like the legs of a tripod. In this chapter, we will discuss each of the three ethical practices in turn.

Refraining from every evil

Avoiding evil, which is to say, avoiding harmful actions, is generally formulated in Buddhism in terms of precepts  (sikkhā-pada), which are prohibitive rules of thumb. Precepts are similar to the Ten Commandments of the Bible, or to traffic laws, or to the bothersome things your parents told you to do when you were a kid, like not to watch more than seven hours of TV or not to eat the dog’s food.  They also might be compared to professional rules of ethics, such of those observed by psychotherapists (not sleeping with clients) or members of the scientific community (not falsifying data), or automobile drivers (not driving over the speed limit). Traditionally lay people throughout the Buddhist world have observed at least the following five precepts since the time of the Buddha:

I undertake the precept to refrain from killing living things,
I undertake the precept to refrain from take what is not given,
I undertake the precept to refrain from commit sensual misconduct,
I undertake the precept to refrain from falsehood, and
I undertake the precept to refrain from the headlessness of spirits, liquor and intoxicants.

Some people undertake an extended set of precepts, for instance, the very apt:

I undertake the precept to abstain from malicious speech,

… or, on special occasions, …

I undertake the precept to abstain from dancing, singing, music or any kind of entertainment.

I am a Theravada monk, and Theravada monks follow a master list of 227 precepts, all the time, forever. Precepts are almost invariably stated as abstentions, things not to do, for instance, “do not kill,” rather than “protect life,” which is why they may be described with the phrase to refrain from every evil.

Elucidation of refraining from evil. Philosophers would classify a system of precepts a deontological or duty ethics. The motivating principle of refraining from evil is harmlessness (ahiṃsā). It constrains those actions that almost inevitably cause harm, particularly to others. A number of  precepts actually serve functions other than harmlessness, most particularly of purification of mind. We will discuss this latter function later, but an example of a precept justified in terms of purification is that just cited about dancing, singing, etc., for restraint of the senses is a key factor in purification. The precept about alcohol is justified both in terms of purification – inebriation suppresses mindfulness – and at the same time in terms of harmlessness – inebriation commonly results in abusive relations and violence.

Since most readers are at least familiar with Christian commandments, let me make a few contrasts to draw out some peculiar qualities of Buddhist precepts.

Precepts pertain, at least in early Buddhism, to actions of body and speech, but not of thought. Commandments, on the other hand, seem sometimes to apply to thoughts such as coveting our neighbor’s house, cow or wife. Thoughts as a matter of ethics are covered in Buddhism in much more sophisticated detail in purifying mind.

Precepts are taken on in Buddhism entirely as trainings; the Pali word for precept, sikkhā-pada, means literally training step. That is, they are undertaken voluntarily as an individual practice commitment, rather than as imposed by a God, a Pope, government or other authority. As a consequence, there is no sin in Buddhism, whereas violating a commandment in Christianity or in other Abrahamic faiths insults the will of God. Rather, precepts reflect a duty to oneself or to the world, not to God or any higher authority.

Finally, the violation of a precept, although involving a physical act of speech or body, also requires a mental intention; accidentally running over the neighbor’s cat cannot violate the precept against killing living beings. Violating a precept is, in other words, karmic, with karmic fruits.

We cannot talk about ethics – or any element of practice – in Buddhism without reference to karma, an oft poorly understood concept. The term karma in Sanskrit, or kamma in Pali, meant originally simply action. However, the Brahmanic or Vedic religious tradition had long used this word in a specialized sense to capture the key concept of ritual action, where rituals were supposed to determine the future well-being of the person on whose behalf the ritual was conducted. A properly performed ritual, often an animal sacrifice and some incantations of memorized texts, was good karma, an improperly performed ritual was bad karma. For the Buddha every action that each of us performs has this sacred role as a determinant of the actor’s future well-being, for no one can intercede on our behalf. Moreover, the benefit is found not in the ritual quality, but in the ethical quality of our actions. That ethical quality is determined our intentions, roughly, whether we intend harm or benefit to others, or are instead motivated by personal advantage. Karma, in Buddhism, is exactly intentional action. Our future well-being is a matter karmic results or fruits that intentions have in shaping our own future lives. Briefly, as we make the world with our actions, so do we make ourselves. We will come back to karmic fruits or results momentarily.

Precepts provide the most primitive and concise of the three kinds of ethics. Their primary advantage is that they provide reasonably clear guides to conduct, even when we are drawing a blank and cannot work out all the consequences of a proposed action. This reduces much of our conduct to rules of thumb that are easy to learn and remember, even for the young or young at heart, or for the beginning Buddhist or the one with beginner’s mind. A precept tends to highlight a basic problem area in human conduct that the sages of past ages must have experienced and recognized.

The weaknesses of precepts as guides to ethical conduct are that they generally allow loopholes and they don’t permit appropriate exceptions, that is, precepts are porous and rigid.  There is the case in which the Gestapo shows up at our front door and asks us, gleefully aware that a Buddhist will not lie, if we are hiding Jews in the attic, or that in which one of us just happens to be returning from a softball game with a  bat in his hand and walk in right behind a man who has just “gone postal” and is about to embark on taking out fellow employees. There are, moreover, many harmful, generally mildly harmful, behaviors that simply are not covered in precepts, like taking up two parking spaces.

Nonetheless, it is significant that the Buddha rarely sanctioned exceptions to precepts to correct their rigidity. I suspect this is because he wanted us to be fully aware of, and live with, the contradictory nature of the human condition rather than regulating it away. The one example I am aware of in which the Buddha discusses the kinds of contradictions that may arise in following precepts is in MN 38 where the Buddha was challenged for his own use of harsh speech against Devadatta, his cousin, who had (1) created a schism in the Sangha, (2) had injured the Buddha in an assassination attempt, (3) had induced a prince to murder his father in order to become king, and (4) had committed various other odious misdeeds. The Buddha’s response was that sometimes it is necessary to dig a pebble out of a child’s mouth even though it causes great discomfort. Providing a metaphor for choices we must sometimes make, rather than admitting loopholes, was wise: given the smallest loophole, many people will become quite creative in their exceptions to precepts, for instance, soon disregarding non-harming in the case of people one does not like, or for whomever is otherwise imagined to be undeserving.

Although precepts and commandments widely overlap in content, the difference noted entails that one can logically break a commandment without doing or intending harm, or observe a commandment while doing and intending harm, for God’s will can work in mysterious ways that we know not of. Murder, theft, bearing false witness and adultery are actions both harmful to others and displeasing to God. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, making for ourselves an idol or handling leather made from pig skin would seem rather harmless (“victimless crimes”), but nonetheless, we are told in the Old Testament, are displeasing to God. Stoning someone to death is clearly harmful to others and clearly violates the first Buddhist precept, yet might be sanctioned by God in response to others’ deeds. As a practical consequence of the absence of sin, we rarely find “victimless crimes” in early Buddhist ethics. Sexual misconduct in the third precept above, for instance, refers to things like acts of adultery or sex with a child, in which the harmony of standing human relations is violated, tending toward verifiable harm, and is never a matter of the perceived “kinkiness” that might adhere to sexual acts according to societal standards. In fact, the Buddha’s precepts are to a surprising degree free of cultural norms and quite relevant to this day.

The practice of refraining from evil. Taking on the precepts is one of life’s landmark decisions, like choosing a spouse, career path or dog.  We honor this decision with a sense of vow or commitment, dedication and devotion, with full awareness that, “This will be the shape of my life.”

However, in vowing to live according to precepts our intentions are most often mixed (remember, intention is a key word). A very pure motivation indeed for the practice of refraining from evil is one rooted in the virtue of harmlessness, and related virtues such as generosity and kindness play key roles. Humans seem to be born with a certain degree of innate goodness: people want to do good, to benefit and live in harmony with others. One sees this often even in small children and to a surprising degree in the most ignoble ruffians. Such intentions count for a lot in Buddhism. A second, less pure, reason for becoming a precept practitioner is being carried along force of habit or societal norms. For the Buddhist born, precept practice generally already has the great momentum of cultural and family tradition behind it, sustained already without question for many generations, or under the influence of peer pressure

A third reason for commitment to refraining from evil is the fruits  or results of karma mentioned above.  Karma, we have seen, is intentional action and therefore the stuff of ethical conduct – and, in fact, the stuff of our entire Buddhist practice. Volitional acts generally have external consequences for the world, for good or bad (or neutral). It is in this sense that violations of precepts tend to cause harm. In addition, each karmic act has internal consequences, for good or bad, for ourselves. It is roughly described as follows.

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)

Our karmic acts not only help make the world what it will be, but make us what we will be. Good deeds work to our own benefit as well as to the benefit of others. Bad deeds work against our own benefit as well as against the benefit of others. Pure intentions, as determinant of ethical quality, produce the most personal benefit. These effects on oneself are referred to as karmic results (vipāka) or alternatively a karmic fruits (phala). Exactly how and why karmic acts produce their results according to ethical quality in this way is a natural question for curious moderns and not explicitly clarified by the Buddha. However, I will point out before the end of this chapter that what the Buddha’s psychology does teach, substantially accounts for karmic results.

Karmic results are described allegorically, when not literally, in various ways in early Buddhism. Most often fruits are described in terms of conditions of rebirth. We will consider the role of rebirth in Buddhism in a later chapter, but the idea is that karmic fruits can be realized in this life or in subsequent lives. A habitual doer of good deeds might expect a rebirth in a heavenly realm or as a human under favorable circumstances. A relentless doer of bad deeds might expect a rebirth in a hellish realm or as a human living under unfavorable circumstances, for instance, in poverty. Allegorically, the Buddha on many occasions attributes a particular rebirth to a single karmic act, sometimes a fairly ordinary one, which if we think about it doesn’t make much literal sense given the thousands of karmic acts we perform each day. Nonetheless, we can test for ourselves the general idea that our living circumstances result from our past karmic acts at least with regard to the present life. Consider that the person who acts habitually out of anger or ill-will to the harm of others typically creates his own hell right here on earth, unhappy, alone, unloved, perpetually dissatisfied, guilty, ugly and in poor health. The person who acts habitually out of kindness experiences the world in the opposite way. Ebeneezer Scrooge comes to mind, before and after, but the reader will almost certainly know real-life examples.

The point is that recognizing the nature of karmic fruits provides added incentive for refraining from evil, and also for accomplishing good: As we look out for others, we look out for ourselves and as we look out for ourselves we look out for others (see SN 47.19). It begins to dispel the the notion that self-interest stands in perpetual opposition to other-interest, and encourages us to experience more fully the personal joy and satisfaction that comes from living harmlessly and with kindness.

Without the practice of refraining from evil, we, more often than not, take more from the world than give, harm others, often unspeakably, as we accrue personal material advantages, and we become ever more entrenched in reprobate behaviors as we act out our greed, hatred and delusion.  Even as we practice with precepts, we are likely to struggle with needy and aversive impulses rooted in the central importance of a misperceived self that must navigate a harsh, competitive and often abusive world, at least until we are able to dispel the opposition of self and other that the recognition of karmic results undermines.

Bad deeds, and deeds hurtful to ourselves, are easy to do; what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do. (Dhammapāda, 163)

In following precepts, we cannot help but confront the mind; we find ourselves repeatedly sitting on the fence between what our minds demand and what the precepts ask of us. Many of us have little awareness of our own minds, so we do well to take this opportunity to investigate our minds, as preparation for the practice of purifying the mind. We find that sometimes the confrontation involves immediate impulses following familiar habit patterns, such as the impulse to flirt with someone other than our own spouse or to overcharge customers. We may find that more often than not the confrontation between intention and precept involves a pre-planned personal agenda, as when, in order to secure a promotion, we attempt to control who in authority knows what and end up telling a lie as a result. Precept practice has a way of breaking up personal agendas.

Accomplishing good

Go your way, monks, for the benefit of the many: for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit, the happiness of gods and men. (Vinaya, Mahāvagga).

To accomplish good is to perform actions that have beneficial consequences. It is to make a gift to the world. One might see a turtle in the road, stop the car and carry it to one side lest it be run over by a less mindful driver. One might cook a meal to the delight and nourishment of one’s family. One might rescue a flood victim from perilous waters. One might teach Buddhism or offer a match, to those in need of a light. One might help overturn an unjust economic order for those in need of a bite.

The practice of accomplishing good is generally framed in terms of generosity (dāna). Note, however, that “generosity” is the translation of either of two words in Pali. Dāna is the physical act of giving something material or immaterial, including service, and therefore directly accomplishes good.  Cāga is the internal mental disposition that most typically underlies dāna, though kindness (mettā) and compassion (karuṇā) are also implicated and is thereby more relevant to purifying the mind. I will resort to giving as a translation of dāna when it is important to distinguish physical act from disposition.

A little reflection reveals that how much and what kinds of good can be accomplish is far more open-ended than how much and what kinds of evil we might refrain from. This is probably why the Buddha hoped that we might refrain from all evil, but only accomplish some good. Some people use all of their available energy to feed the homeless, to adopt rescue dogs, to campaign for universal health care, while others, for no apparent lack of good-will, sit at home, read the news and fret, … but don’t steal or lie. Sometimes people are lazy or just lack the imagination or self-confidence for intensive good accomplishment. Others are clever in finding an excuse that it is not their problem, while others readily take responsibility in true dharmic fashion. While refraining from evil can be formalized reasonably effectively in a fixed set of rules, accomplishing good is practiced in an astounding number of different ways. It is not feasible to itemize all of ways to accomplish good in the way we can with refraining from evil.

For the most part the Buddha focused on generosity as it is practiced in the narrow context of the Buddhist community and of the household, on what I will call conventional generosity. The remainder of accomplishing good we I will call unrestricted generosity. Conventional generosity lends itself much more readily to description and formalization and thereby to specific practice commitment than does the hugely open-ended unrestricted generosity.

Elucidation of accomplishing good. Accomplishing good belongs to the class of ethical systems that philosophers call consequentialism. Its motivating principle is kindness (mettā). Whereas refraining from all evil is guided by a good or bad quality attributed to the proposed action itself independently of context, achieving good is guided by the future good or bad consequences of the proposed action. The Buddha introduced this practice to his newly ordained son as follows:

What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, sir.”
“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.
“… if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do. (MN 61)

This last paragraph is repeated verbatim several times, but where skillful verbal  then mental actions are substituted for bodily, and unskillful actions with unpleasant consequences are substituted for skillful and pleasant, then declared not fit for Rahula.

Our practice is in its broadest sense to aim for good consequences, and thereby to give to the world. The world carries a burden of great suffering; it needs people to accomplish good, now more than ever. The great challenge of accomplishing good is to trace as best as possible, with discerning wisdom, just what the heck all the consequences of our actions might be. We live in a very complex and highly interdependent world in which the consequences of the simplest action run very deep, playing themselves out almost forever. We are like the famed butterfly (of the butterfly effect) who, by choosing to fly from one flower to the next, will, meteorologists tell us, trigger storms and hurricanes on the other side of the world in the decades and centuries to come that otherwise would not have occurred, or prevent those that would have. Similarly our actions may (or, more likely, will) enable wars to happen or not to happen, and we may never know. We, like chess players, can only see a few moves ahead. We are at the same time nearly omnipotent yet almost totally blind. This is why the Buddha recommended that Rahula consider his karmic actions with great care.

Merit (puñña) is a kind of composite measure of the ethical value of a karmic action, a tool that incorporates both external consequences and intentions. Karma that is of benefit to others and at the same time is well-intentioned is meritorious, and will accordingly produce good fruits.  Generosity is the practice of gaining merit, or of merit-making. Karma that brings harm to others and is also ill-intentioned is demeritorious. Breaking and thereby causing harm is demerit (pāpa). The Pali word for evil in refraining from all evil is this same pāpa. The merit or demerit of an action represents its expected karmic fruit, and the terms are generally used in the context of quantifying this.

… conventional generosity. Conventional generosity is sometimes described in relation to relative amounts of merit gained. For instance, a high amount of merit is attributed to certain categories of recipients, certain categories of gifts, certain manners of giving and certain intentions behind giving.

  • Worthy recipients of generosity are ascetics and priests (who live on alms), destitutes, wayfarers, wanderers, the sick and beggars, as well as family members and guests. The purity of the recipient correlates with the amount of merit made. For instance, offerings to those of great spiritual attainment gain oodles of merit. (DN 5, DN 23, DN 26)
  • The gift of Dhamma (dhammadāna) exceeds all other gifts, which tends to give monastics an edge in merit-making.i It is important to note that the merit earned correlates inversely with one’s resources, for instance, a meager offering from a pauper might easily earn more merit than a sumptuous gift from a tycoon. This is because it is the intentions that count. Although most gifts are material, the gift of service (veyyāvacca) is also very meritorious. (SN 1.32, Dhp 224)
  • One might give with different intentions: out of annoyance, fear, in exchange, thinking generosity is considered good, to gain a good reputation, out of kindness, aware of the karmic consequences, or to “beautify and adorn the mind .” The first are fairly neutral with regard to merit, since in each case one is generally taking as much as giving. The last gains a truckload of merit. (AN 8.31) Again, we find intention to be critical, for merit ultimately is about purity of mind. In general it is best to give with no expectation of personal benefit. (AN 7.52)

Also, if we feel happy before, during and after gift we are in the swing of this practice (AN 6.37). Then,

When this gift of mine is given, it makes the mind serene. Gratification & joy arise. (AN 7.49)

Accordingly, we should take care that there is later no resentment for having given (SN 3.20). The purest form of giving is with the attitude:

This is an ornament for the mind, a support for the mind. (AN 7.49)

Notice how the Buddha’s emphasis in discussing generosity moves freely from benefit for others to pleasant personal experience and back again. Pure acts of giving are expected to gladden the heart and contribute to the development of personal character. This creates some confusion concerning motives: are we practicing generosity for them or for us, out of benevolence or out of selfishness? The paradox about generosity is that it gains most merit for us when it is most selfless and least merit when it is most selfish. It feels great when our intention is to benefit others. This is a direct experience of the fruits of karma.

For a  lot of our actions we cannot actually trace the consequences, for good or bad, and in fact our judgments about the consequences may be biased by our own personal interests (“It will do the long line of drivers stuck behind me good to slow down, as I drive way under the speed limit in the fast lane; their lives are probably too fast-paced anyway”). In such cases, the merit of our actions depends only on our intentions (Is there benevolence or ill-will? Do I delight in this action?). If the intentions are impure, most likely the consequences of our actions will be harmful, since we are very likely to have introduced a personal bias into our actions. This is why the ultimate determinant of merit is its effect on us, that is, its intentional purity, which corresponds to its karmic fruit. Our actions should be an ornament for the mind.

Continuing, the Buddha recommends that offerings never be given in a callous manner, but rather respectfully, not in a way that humiliates the recipient and ideally with one’s own hands rather than through an intermediary. It is also best to give at a proper time and to give what is not harmful (AN 5.148). Notice that these recommendations encourage direct engagement in, and full experience of, the act of giving. In this way, these measures encourage feelings of friendship, appreciation and interpersonal harmony in association with the act of generosity. They also enhance the benefit consequential on giving, to such a degree that one begins to lose track of who is the giver and who is the receiver in a particular transaction. For unrestricted generosity this manner of giving would suggest that it is better to be actively present at the orphanage one is donating too rather than simply writing out a periodic check, or arranging an automatic fund transfer. Notice that that would also allow us more closely to track the consequences, for harm or benefit, of one’s generosity.

It should be appreciated how the practice of conventional generosity is adapted to the structure of the traditional Buddhist community, in which the relationship of laity to monastic has played a central role since the time of the Buddha and still does in Buddhist lands to this day. The Buddha gave great attention, in the Vinaya, the monastic code, to organizing and regulating the monastic community to a level that seems to have been unknown in other ascetic communities of the time, with full understanding that the lay behavior would shape itself to the behavior of the monastics. Alms-giving, the support of ascetics in various traditions, was already prevalent in India at the time of the Buddha, and is naturally a part of conventional generosity and merit-making for Buddhists.

Moreover, the Buddha did something interesting: He imposed on the monastic community through the monastic precepts an enhanced level of dependence on the laity, removing them entirely from the exchange economy and making their dependence a matter of daily contact with the laity. He made the monks and nuns as helpless as house pets or as young children with regard to their own needs, but did not substantially restrict what monastics can do for others. The result is that monastics live entirely in what has been called by Thanissaro Bhikkhu an economy of gifts in which goods and services flow entirely through acts of generosity. Laity participate in this economy in their interactions with monastics, but the economy also naturally generalizes to the larger community. In Burma, for instance, I observed how readily this classical practice of generosity carries beyond the monastery walls, how people naturally take care of each other with a sense of obligation that requires no compensation. The Buddha fashioned an economy particularly conducive to the practice of conventional generosity. Although the same material benefits might be realized in an exchange economy, the economy of gifts affords more opportunity for merit-making, which is to say, for karmic results such as the improvement of personal development of purity of mind.

… unrestricted generosity. We have been discussing the practice of conventional generosity, which, we see, is handled in Buddhism somewhat formulaically. However, this is only a part of our hugely open-ended capacity for accomplishing good. We can call the remaining range of generosity unrestricted generosity, to distinguish it from conventional generosity. This would include addressing a range of local social needs such as giving alms to the poor, providing care for orphans, organizing education and charitable projects, or addressing more global issues like ending wars, oppression, crime or ecological degradation, sometimes through advocacy for changing social, economic, political or cultural structures and institutions. Presumably because of its diverse range, the Buddha had few specifics to offer about unrestrictive generosity and no structured practice.

Nonetheless, the Buddha did leave us with many examples of unrestricted generosity. In an incident described in the Vinaya (Mv 8.26.1-8) the Buddha and Ānanda come upon a monk sick with dysentery, uncared for, lying in his own urine and feces. After he and Ānanda had personally cleaned the monk up, the Buddha admonished the other monks living nearby for not caring for the sick monk, famously proclaiming:

“Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.”

The Buddha’s design of the monastic order as a kind of microcosm of society gives a clear idea of many of the social values the Buddha felt should be upheld. The traditional Indian caste system completely disappears and almost complete gender equality is implemented within the early monastic Sangha. Moreover, governance is decentralized such that major decisions are made by consensus only among monastics who are physically present in a local community. Detailed instructions sustain harmony within the Sangha.

The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:

“Whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”

This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:

“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in unlocked houses.”

We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, even thieves and brigands, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be adjusted, at least by kings. The advice to the king here is also an instance of the practice of appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra, literally thinking from the origin), which also plays a fundamental role in the seminal teaching of dependent co-arising, which the Buddha applies particularly effectively to the understanding of human psychology. The plague addressed in this passage arises from social conditions, not from some supposed unconditioned evil of thieves and brigands, which would be a commonplace assumption, but one that would lead to a counterproductive and hateful response. The Dhammapāda reaffirms this attitude:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By kindness alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapāda 5)

The practice of generosity is further restricted by the practices of refraining from evil and of purifying the mind. We have seen that Buddhist ethics is a hybrid of three ethical systems, each related to what is generally found in isolation in other ethical traditions. Although accomplishing good is in itself consequentialist, it is tempered by its concomitant duty and virtue ethics.  Therefore, whereas a purely consequentialist ethics is generally subject to the  sometimes objectionally radical principle, “the end justifies the means,” in the Buddha’s ethics the means cannot be violent, cannot be exploitive and cannot be deceitful, lest precepts be violated. Nor can they be motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, lest, as we will see, impurity of mind be fostered.

This restraint on ethical reasoning is wise given the practical difficulty, noted at the beginning of this section, in tracing the consequences of our actions, the butterfly effect. Whereas we can fairly clearly understand the means, the ends are rarely reliably predicted in any complex domain, such as in human social systems. Consider that probably most of the great man-made evils of history have applied the principle “the end justifies the means” in the context of an ideologically founded certainty about what the ends will be. These include many Communist programs, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the attempt of the Khmer Rouge to impose a rural peasant society on Cambodia; the remaking of European society through ethnic cleansing by the National Socialists in Germany and like-minded Fascists elsewhere, the removal of democratic controls and adjustments over markets in neoliberal economic theory, and the practice of the British colonialists in playing one ethnic or religious group against another, with unanticipated but devastating consequences that the worlds’ states-people are trying to sort out to this day.

The practice of accomplishing good. Generosity is the first step in the gradual instruction, which the Buddha presents in various discourses (Udana 5.3, for instance) to newbies who lack the prerequisites to entering the Noble Eightfold Path. See Figure 1 below. It is helpful to review at this juncture the steps of the gradual path to get an idea of how the practice of generosity is foundational to the entire Buddhist path.

  • Generosity, the practice of accomplishing good.
  • Ethics, the practice of refraining from all evil.
  • The heavens, which refers to the fruits of karma, most commonly conceived as rebirth in a heavenly realm.
  • The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions.
  • The rewards of renunciation.

When, from the understanding and pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the Buddha recommends that following should be taken up:

  • The Four Noble Truths, including the Noble Eightfold Path.

Figure 1. The gradual instruction.

The reasons for beginning with generosity in the gradual instruction must certainly include the ease with which the practice is understood and taken up, even by children; the traditional community support around conventional generosity that the Buddha had fashioned; and the immediate gratification that arises in conjunction with the practice of generosity, both on the giving and on the receiving end. Generosity can actually engender unworldly mental states of joy and happiness that are, like meditative states, quite independent of sense pleasures.

The next factor in the gradual instruction, ethics (sīla), is generally equated with precepts, but generalizes to all the forms of ethics.

Heavens, or the fruits of karma, follows closely the practices of generosity and precepts. Initially it provides a primary incentive for undertaking these practices, the accrual of merit. Generosity, probably in particular, then provides direct experience of at least some of the paradoxical workings of the fruits of karma, since it feels so good, but less good to the extent that selfish motives intrude.

The next two factors (drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions; and the rewards of renunciation) are subtle realizations that arise with appropriate attention from the practices of generosity and precepts. Together they provide the entry way into the entire Buddhist path, and at the same time, into our third ethical practice of purification of mind, for which the entire Buddhist path serves. Precepts and generosity force us to struggle and compromise with those mental aspects that attempt to divert us from those practices. Sensual passions are the primary human motivations when no ethical considerations are present. These are presumably what motivate animals almost entirely, but ethical practices repeatedly force restraint. Generosity, in particular, gives frequent rise to supermundane feelings of delight and joy, which are not rooted in sensuality. This puts a new light on the efficacy of the pursuit of sensual pleasures as a path to personal well-being. In fact, at some point these considerations will throw us for a loop and make us wonder why we have been living the self-centered way we have. The more we investigate this, the more we discover the shallowness of  pursuing satisfaction in selfish pursuits. This begins the process of renunciation, the gateway to the remainder of Buddhist practice.

Conventional generosity, because it is practiced primarily in the context of Buddhist community in Asia, is also encouraged and reinforced in that community. Young children who grow up in Buddhist families traditionally learn communal generosity, including support of the monks and maintenance of communal facilities as an integral part of being Buddhist, along with refuge and following precepts. For many Buddhists conventional generosity will remain the primary practice for one’s entire life. In practice, a family or an individual will commonly pick a particular practice of conventional generosity according to a daily or weekly schedule. This might be to prepare and offer rice or other foods for monks on alms round every morning, or to bring a meal offering to the monastery once a week, or to provide work for the community one day a week. In addition an individual might be routinely on the lookout for any Sangha or community need in order to play Johnny-on-the-spot when one  arises. Financial contributions to conventional projects also constitute conventional giving. Generally these practices are accompanied by a sense of merit-making, much as we might keep track of our hours of meditation per week as a kind of practice metric.

All of this works pretty smoothly in Asia at the village level, but is more difficult in cities where there is less sense of community, or in the West where there may not be a local monastery and one might not even know one’s neighbors. In these circumstances, efforts might well be made to create local communities of like-minded people, often centered around temples to which dispersed community members must travel on special days, such as quarter moon days (uposatha days). It is important that a temple or monastery operate without fee or dues, if this is at all possible, because any financial exchange is an opportunity lost for the practice of generosity. In the West, where the Buddhist ethic of generosity is seldom understood, implementing the economy of gifts may require educational effort.

Unrestricted generosity moves beyond the immediate religious community, but might also take the form of  developing projects in a persistent way. One might volunteer as a candy-striper at a local hospital, engage in hospice work, rescue abandoned puppies, pick up trash along the highway, mentor troubled youth, teach meditation in prison, offer sandwiches to the homeless. Regular volunteering is highly recommended as a means of fulfilling the practice of accomplishing good. Such volunteer efforts can scale up to enterprise-level efforts, like founding and funding hospitals, or advocacy for peace, social justice or environmental preservation.ii

Purifying the mind

Well-makers direct the water;
Fletchers bend the arrow;
carpenters bend a log of wood;
Good people fashion themselves.
(Dhammapāda 145)

Our actions, for harm or benefit, arise first in the mind, as thoughts with certain intentionality behind them. For most of us, as we attempt to refrain from evil and accomplish good, the mind is often contrary and unsupportive, agitated and rebellious; it has another, generally selfish, agenda. Following the precepts and practicing generosity is something we need to struggle with. Occasionally, however, we may experience the enormous joy of mind and body coming into full alignment as our most virtuous intentions flow effortlessly into actions harmless and of great benefit. This is a moment purity of mind. There are those noble ones among us whose experience of life is like this all of the time. The mind for them has become an instrument of virtue, of kindness and compassion, wisdom and strength. They have become adepts in virtue through the practice of purifying the mind, and so walk the earth with unbounded good-will, equanimity and wisdom, selfless, beyond delusional views, with an unobscured vision of what is of harm and what is of benefit. They are, by the way, also among the happiest of us.

Purifying the mind begins with the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good, but also to a significant degree takes on a life of its own and in the end floods the practices of refraining from evil and practicing good with pure intentions.

Elucidation of purifying the mind. The basic principle of purifying the mind is expressed in the first two verses of the Dhammapāda  as follows:

All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master,
It is produced by thought.
If one speaks or acts,
With pure thought,
Then happiness follows,
Like a shadow that never leaves.
(Dhammapāda 1-2)

The practice of purifying the mind belongs to virtue ethics. Its motivating principle is renunciation. It sees ethics as a quality of mind, not specifically of physical action and its consequences for benefit or harm. We have seen that refraining from all evil and accomplishing good focus on the latter. Purifying the mind places the emphasis of ethics on the development of the kind of mind that naturally seeks benefit action and eschews harm.

Training the mind toward virtue might, at first, seem like a hopeless task. Most of us have a lot of endless activity rattling and buzzing around between our ears, and it is not clear how it might be brought into any reasonable order much less under control:

“Hubba hubba.” “That jerk!” “Out of my way!” “It’s his own fault.” “Oh boy! Beer!!” “Aha!” “There, there now; let me get you a paper towel.” “If I slide my sunglasses up my forehead I’ll look really cool!” “Good Morning, God!” “Arrrrgh.” “Yaaawn.” “What th…, huh?” “I’m gonna get even!” “Good God: Morning!” “Yikes!” “Yakity yakity yak.” “Relaaaaaax.” “Tomorrow … is another day!” “Let’s be logical about this.” “Mine, all mine! Haha.” “No more … Mr. Nice Guy!”

How do we sort through this, much less point it in the general direction of virtue? Exactly what is a pure thought as opposed to a corrupted thought anyway? Can we actually get rid of one and keep the other so that happiness will follow like a shadow instead of pain like a wheel? The Buddha reports that he had began with such questions early on:

“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened bodhisatta, it occurred to me, ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes’. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will (kindness) and thoughts of non-harming.” (MN 19)

Notice that the thoughts on the second side include renunciation, kindness and non-harming, the motivating principles for purifying the mind, accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively.

The Buddha called the first class of thoughts unwholesome or unskillful (akusala) and the second class wholesome or skillful (kusala). Wholesome thoughts have the intentional quality of meritorious deeds. Unwholesome thoughts have the intentional quality of demeritorious deeds. Wholesome and meritorious (or unwholesome and demeritorious) are interchangeable in most contexts, except that wholesome is generally used for an intention and meritorious for the whole action that intention gives rise to. It is significant that the Buddha chose terminology for the mind suggestive of skill, which – like tennis or crossword puzzles – is something we get better at over time, rather than of moral judgment.

For instance, among the thoughts identified as unskillful are restlessness, agitation, conceit, jealousy, guilt, pride, cynicism, greed, miserliness, thoughts of revenge, spite, envy, grumpiness, ill-will, anger, hatred, rage, sorrow, fear, bias, delusion, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, torpor, complacency, affection, and lust. Among those identified as skillful are generosity, renunciation, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, intelligence, discernment, shame, rectitude, mindfulness, concentration, equanimity, pliancy, buoyancy, conviction, open-mindedness, composure, proficiency and gladness for the good fortune of others.

What criteria did the Buddha employ to create this dichotomy? Unless we understand this, we will never thoroughly understand the role of skill and non-skill in our own mind, we will continue to be driven by forces we do not understand, we will cause great harm, and we will never find satisfaction in our life. The Buddha discovered that several criteria coincide remarkably in these designations.

There are these three roots of what is unskillful. Which three? Greed as a root of what is unskillful, hatred as a root of what is unskillful, delusion as a root of what is unskillful. These are the three roots of what is unskillful. (Itivuttaka 3.1)
The roots of the skillful are the opposites of the unskillful: non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion, also known as renunciation, kindness and wisdom.

Greed (lobha) is the desire, longing, attachment or lust for sensual pleasures, for reputation or fame, for wealth, for power, for comfort, for security and so on.  I would prefer to translate this as the more general “neediness,” but “greed” has become standard in English. Greed causes anxiety and restlessness, initially from not having what we desire, then later, if we have acquired what we desire, from knowing we will lose it, or from simply wanting more.

Hatred (dosa) is the aversion, dislike, dread or fear of pain, of discomfort, of enemies and so on. It includes thoughts of anger, revenge, envy or jealousy (these two also involve greed), resentment, guilt and self-hatred, disdain, judgmental attitudes. Aversion is probably better for dosa, though hatred has become standard. Hatred immediately manifests as anxiety and restlessness, in short, suffering, because it entails dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Often it arises when our desires are thwarted or threatened.

Delusion (moha) is found in erroneous views or justifications, mis-perceptions, ignorance and denial. Many of our delusions may be widely held beliefs in a given society, or even across cultures, for instance, that material abundance produces happiness, that unconditionally evil people walk among us, or that one race or class is superior to others. These lead to endemically misguided decisions and actions. Others are often pervasive across cultures, manifesting particularly in the sense that certain things are unchanging, fixed or reliable, and that there is fun, happiness and beauty where in fact there is decay and suffering. The greatest delusion for the Buddhist is that there is an abiding self, a “me,” that in some way remains fixed in spite of all the changes that happen all around it, that is also the owner and controller of this body and mind. For the Buddha, delusion is the most dangerous of the three unwholesome roots.

But there is a taint worse than all taints: delusion is the greatest taint. O mendicants! throw off that taint, and become taintless!    (Dhammapāda 243)

The root of delusion is also the basis of the other two roots, in fact the delusional sense of self is the source of it all and the basis of our resistance to ethical conduct. In the absence of the capacity to take them personally, greed and hatred do not arise.

This relation of delusion to greed and hatred is also reciprocal. The Buddha observed:

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbāna. (AN 3.71)

Here we see that the arising of any of these is tied up with mis-perception, that is, they distort reality for those under their influence. They also cause personal suffering and are a diversion from the Buddhist path to awakening. The second of the Four Noble Truths (e.g., SN 56.11), that craving is the origin of suffering, should also be mentioned here, since greed is a kind of craving for the presence of something, and hatred for its absence. We will look at the Four Noble Truths in later chapters.

Let’s consider anger, as an example, one of the great fountainheads of karmic intentions. Perceived through angry eyes the object of our anger, even a close friend or family member, easily appears as a  jerk or a schmuck if not a demon, that, when the anger subsides, will remorph back into its normal more amiable form. The level of dukkha associated with the arising of even slight anger is astonishing when seen with a clear mind, and great anger plunges us into a hell-like state. We are all aware that habitual or sustained anger can even affect our physical health (high blood pressure, heart disease) in a profound way. As anger becomes more ingrained through habit, it will become increasingly difficult to bring the mind into states of calm and insight.

The Buddha also discovered that an unwholesome/unskillful thought …

… leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbāna. (MN 19)

This reiterates the suffering, mis-perception of reality and lack of progress on the Buddhist path associated with the unwholesome, and adds to it the inflicting of harm on others. Harm naturally results when greed, hatred or delusion forms the volitional basis of our karmic acts. Consider how often violence or dangerous behaviors, such as road rage, arises from anger, or how our anger leads to fear in others. On the other hand, skillful thoughts bring proportionate success to the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good. It is easy to see why this might be so: We misperceive reality under the influence of greed or hatred, our actions are like driving with a frosty windshield. We may spot our ignoble goals but don’t know who we might be running over as we head toward them. As we have seen, it is difficult enough to track consequences of actions into the future even when we see the present reasonably clearly.

To summarize the Buddha’s observations just discussed, unwholesome/ unskillful thoughts are recognizable in terms of the following handy checklist:

  1. They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
  2. When they give rise to actions, those actions generally cause some degree of harm.
  3. They give rise to mis-perception.
  4. They cause personal suffering.
  5. They subvert development along the Path.

Let me take lust as another example of an unwholesome mental factor. Alongside anger, lust is another major fountainhead of human intentionality. Although we tend to think of lust in western culture as a positive factor in our lives (unlike anger), in terms of the five factors listed above, we discover otherwise.

1. Lust is grounded in greed, that is, in neediness.

2. Lust also tends toward harm. For instance, stealing is often a result of lust, including stealing someone’s man or someone’s woman. Often it is even consciously self-destructive: people sacrifice physical health out of lust for food, drink, cigarettes and so on, and sacrifice mental health out of lust for electronic entertainment, drugs and so on. People are often propelled by lust from one unhealthy and unhappy sexual relationship to another.

3. We lose wisdom under the spell of lust, sometimes sacrificing careers and marriages as well as health in the hopes that “love will find a way.”  When the object of lust is not attained or is lost, depression, and even suicide or murder can result.

4. Lust is always at least a bit painful, sometimes so painful we can hardly stand it. It often flares up into a fever of longing. Relief is possible if the object of lust is realized, but otherwise lust may lead to bitter disappointment, itself a kind of aversion or hatred.

5. Finally, lust diverts from the path to awakening: It agitates the mind, obstructing stillness and other skillful factors. It easily spins out other unskillful thoughts such as anger, jealousy, and greed for various instruments needed for satisfying lust such as those sporty clothes or that sexy sports car. It easily becomes ingrained as unskillful habit patterns, that is, addictions.

This is quite an indictment against lust, one that the Buddha makes repeatedly. Why, then, do we tend to think of lust as something positive? I think it is because we confuse lust with pleasure. Lust seeks pleasure, and pleasure often evokes lust for more of the same, or for an escalation of pleasure. Together they are typically bound in an intimate cycle of mutual conditionality, and are thereby identified with one another. However, the two are quite distinct: lust is painful, pleasure is, uh, pleasurable. Addiction is when this cycle spins out of control. The failure to properly understand the cycle of lust and pleasure, and to recognize which is which, has miswritten many lives, and even the histories of nations. The Buddha warns us,

There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires.  (  186-7)

Notice that the last two characteristics of the unwholesome, that is, 4. suffering and 5. retarded development, together tell us that virtue is its own reward. As long as we act with unskillful intentions we suffer. Moreover, since we also fail to make progress, in fact, regress, on the path we sacrifice the future happiness enjoyed by those of advanced spiritual attainment, for when we repeatedly weaken the habit patterns that trigger skillful thoughts and strengthen the habit patterns that trigger unskillful thoughts, we ensure greater suffering in the future as well. The Buddha describes this process of strengthening habit patterns:

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness. (MN 190)

In short, when we act with unskillful intentions, we suffer twice, first, immediately and, secondly, through the replaying of the habit patters that we are reinforcing. This is reminiscent of the fruits of karma:

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)

Recall that while we make the world through our actions, we also make ourselves. While we perform virtuous actions, we become virtuous people. While we perform beastly actions we become cads. We therefore expect merit-making/good karma to adhere to the intentions, wholesome or unwholesome, behind our actions rather than to the form of the physical actions themselves.

In short, the Buddha’s psychological observations anticipate many of the kinds of fruits of different karmic intentions will bring (though the Buddha did not himself make explicit why karmic actions should have fruits) and should convince the most skeptical reader that there is at least some validity to the notions of karmic fruits and merits.

A number of additional examples of karmic fruits from the early texts also have simple explanations: Our harmful actions tend to incite retribution to our detriment from those affected, because people tend by nature to be vengeful. Our angry or greedy disposition gives rise to loneliness, because people tend also not to like those of angry or greedy disposition and therefore eschew them. Furthermore, habitual anger and other unwholesome mental factors are demonstrably associated with physical health problems. Even physical beauty adheres to ethical character: kind people often exhibit a kind of angelic glow where hateful people often seem perpetually under a cloud.

Remaining, mysterious examples from the discourses, such as offering a monk alms in one life and then receiving great riches for oneself in the next, are actually fairly rare in the earliest texts and could well be entirely allegorical. In brief, practical psychological, physiological and sociological processes in themselves adequately motivate almost all of the claims about karmic fruits.

What about unfortunate things that happen to us without a karmic explanation, like being uplifted by a tornado or falling through a manhole? It should be understood that it is very common misconception among Buddhists that everything that happens to us for good or evil, like winning the lottery or being run over by a truck, must have a karmic basis as a fruit of our own past actions. This is, in fact, explicitly denied by the Buddha in the Sīvaka Sutta (SN 36.21).

We might suspect that if we continue practicing generosity and precepts for many many years, the mind will eventually become perfectly pure when habit patterns of greed, hatred and delusion have completely disappeared as motivational factors in our actions. It is not quite so simple: There are points at which we will get stuck, largely related to recalcitrant delusional conceptualizations that need to be broken down. This is why the Buddha also gave us a Noble Eightfold Path and a very sophisticated understanding of human psychology, with which much of this book will deal.

The practice of purifying the mind. I hope none of this discussion evokes images of goose-stepping thought police in the minds of readers. In fact, if we have entered into the practices of refraining from all evil and accomplishing good, we have already stepped into the practice of purifying the mind. This is because we are forced to confront volitional impulses wherever they tend toward harm or away from benefit. Every time we override a contrary mental factor in order to adhere to a precept, we are deconditioning an unskillful habit pattern and thereby purifying the mind. Every time kindness or generosity inspires our good deeds, we are strengthening our tendency in that direction, and thereby purifying the mind. Even mixed motives, such as responding to peer or authority pressure, or just a sense of obligation rather than kindness, have a way of eventually giving way to purer motives.

For instance, there is a precept not to kill living beings. Maybe we do not initially, for the life of us, understand why the life of an ugly twiddle bug matters one snippet, but a twiddle bug is a living being, and we want to be good Buddhists, so we don’t kill twiddle bugs. After a few months we discover something that was not there before: a warm heart with regard to twiddle bugs—they have become our little friends—and not just toward twiddle bugs but toward other beings as well, even certain people that we had once put into the same category with twiddle bugs. Our mind has become purer. Try it! Let’s put away the twiddle swatter and the Twiddle-Enhanced® Raid and see if we don’t soften right up.

We have seen above that a number of precepts actually have little directly to do with refraining from evil, except insofar as they support this kind of purification of the mind. A precept against idle chatter, for instance, is rather victimless, especially given that cases in which it spills into disparagement of others are are covered by other precepts concerning speech. Nonetheless if we refrain from idle chatter over many months we discover a quieter mind, less prone to proliferation of spurious thought and therefore less prone to delusion. We have, through observing this precept, made the mind purer.iii The non-ethical/practice precepts develop purity of mind in the way as ethical precepts; they just lack their immediate external harmfulness.

Just as precepts and other physical practices define habit patterns that over time purify the mind, existing habit patterns that characterize our lifestyle may inadvertently depurify the mind. We do well to avoid those. A rather complex precept commonly observed by laypeople every quarter moon, and by monastics always, includes the following:

I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.

These are activities that turn the mind toward lust and self-enhancement. Playing violent video games and watching violent television programs, or listening to hateful speech will turn the mind toward recurring thoughts of anger and fear. Channel or Web surfing will turn the mind toward restlessness and discontent. Entertainments that excite lust will tend similarly to depurify the mind, even while not doing outward harm. We do well to ween ourselves as best we can from such habitual activities. Today we are awash in unskillful habit patterns associated with the prevalence of electronic media, so the process of sensual restraint is more challenging, but more appropriate, than ever before. In summary, there are kinds of bodily or verbal actions that have few direct consequences in terms of benefiting or harming the world, yet bear karmic fruits insofar as they condition the mind.

Moreover, merit-making asks of us that we constantly monitor our intentions. Purifying the Mind benefits from this constant awareness of our thoughts, in particular of our intentions. For some it may be the first introspective encounter with the inner, subjective world. At the same time we note our basic intentions, we should notice when discomfort, such as stress or anxiety arise – this is suffering – as well as the moments of satisfaction and joy that come with giving to others. How is that different from the pleasure of buying new clothes, say, or an new electronic gadget?  We should observe when greed or neediness/lust arises, when hatred or aversion or fear arises. At what point do we feel satisfaction as we pursue sensual pleasures? We should observe when we fall into the cycle of lust and pleasure. How much suffering is there in that cycle, particularly the anxiety of anticipation, relative to pleasure? When we might be experiencing pleasure, are we instead already lusting after the next potential pleasure? We should observe delusion in the excuses and rationalizations we fabricate to explain our actions. These are delusive acts of mental karma that have their own intentions behind them; look at these. All this is the beginnings of wisdom.

The Buddha tells us there are three kinds of volitional actions, those of body, those of speech and those of mind. Refraining from all evil and accomplishing good have to do with actions of body and speech, things acted out externally in the world, but always with a mental source in our intentions. Some karma lacks bodily or verbal involvement altogether and is therefore purely mental. Mindfulness and concentration practices are primary examples of mental practices. These are also karmic, gain or lose merit and produce fruits, but are effectively disengaged from the world. Their ethical value is realized through the process of purification of mind not through direct harm or benefit, or any effect, to others, like tuning a running engine without actually shifting it into gear so that it moves the car.

The brahmavihāras, always known by their Pali name, which means abodes of the gods, are a class of mental qualities that have ethical implications and are largely developed though mental exercises. They are four in number:

  • Kindness (mettā),
  • Compassion (karuṇā),
  • Gladness (muditā),
  • Equinimity (upekkhā).

Kindness is the root virtue. Compassion is an expression of kindness in relation to those who suffer misfortune. Gladness is an expression of kindness in relation to those who experience good fortune; it displaces the envy most of us feel in such situations, like when our neighbor puts in a swimming pool. Equanimity ensures impartiality, that is, that the other virtues cover everyone, like rain that falls on goody-goodies and scoundrels alike, but also non-attachment to consequences of actions, lest we become frustrated when our compassionate or kind actions fail achieve their intended results. The brahmavihāras are often practiced through meditation, with special emphasis on the root mettā meditation.

Many of us are ill-equipped for the kind of introspection required to engage completely with the process of purifying the mind; we may barely be aware that we have an inner life. Asian cultures generally extol the inwardly directed mind, reflective and still, and Western cultures praise the outwardly directed individual, quick of response and versatile of task. Yet for both, the flash and dazzle of modern life challenge our capacity for developing introspective habits. For this reason, undertaking a routine meditation practice early on is highly recommended for modern people as a highly effective means of turning the mind inward. A simple practice of following the breath, for instance, might be undertaken from the beginning of Buddhist practice, long before there is any consideration of entering the higher path, for which meditation is an even more essential part.

To conclude, let’s see where we are in terms of the Buddha’s teaching of the gradual training, depicted in Figure 1. The first two steps constitute accomplishing good and refraining from all evil, respectively. The remainder is concerned with purifying the mind per se. The fruits of karma are the basis of purifying the mind, since karma leaves its trace on the mind and is the foundation of our practice.  The recognition of the shallowness of the life centered in selfish pursuits and the importance of giving up this way of being provide the motivations for undertaking the wholehearted practice of purifying the mind. Renunciation is always present where we make progress on the path. Once we are consummate in ethics and committed to purifying the mind, we are ready to understand the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and to undertake the higher practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. This is why refraining from all evil, accomplishing good and purifying the mind are invariably the teaching of all buddhas.

Further Reading

Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, 2000, Cambridge University Press.


i. Religious gifts made to the general public would, particularly in later Buddhist traditions, include contributions to building pagodas, Buddha statues and things along those lines. Otherwise gifts satisfy mundane material needs.

ii. Buddhism has not traditionally been as known for its enterprise-level efforts as has Christianity, for instance. But there is no reason that the ethic of accomplishing good should not scale up in this way. Probably social conditions in Asia have been, until recently, less conducive to enterprise-level efforts of this kind. On the other hand, Ven. Rahula (not the Buddha’s son, but the author of the widely read What the Buddha Taught) devoted a book to making the case, specifically for Sri Lanka, that the widespread reputation of monks as indifferent to social concerns arose during European colonization, in which the Sangha was systematically disenfranchised from responsibilities in which it had previously routinely engaged, such as running schools. In fact, in recent decades Buddhist communities have become quite socially engaged, often inspired by Christian example.

iii. Similarly, there have traditionally been practices of the enactment of accomplishing good – such as making food offerings to an inert and definitely not hungry Buddha statue – that serve to develop generosity and reverence and are found in virtually any later Buddhist tradition but quite make sense from the perspective of early Buddhism.

3 Responses to “Introduction to Early Buddhist Ethics”

  1. fran Says:

    Dear Ven. Bhikkhucintita– It has been quite a while since I’ve written you, and for the most part, all is well. I finally took the three refuges and five precepts at MABA a few weeks ago, which gives me confidence in my Buddhist practice; I’m wearing the hai jin with pride and reverence to myself. I give your blogs some of the credit, of course, and your latest post is again both thought provoking and illuminating. I’ve worked up to meditating for 40 minutes twice a day, including a loving-kindness meditation — I feel so much better this year, with more clarity in my life. I was mired in a toxic relationship for four years (which has since ended), which took me far from the me I knew I was. I feel such freedom with Buddhism!

    Perhaps you can help me resolve my understanding of Hinayana. I attended the Bohisattva retreat at MABA last month, which follows a Chan Mahayana. Truly it was beyond my pay grade, but those of us who’d only taken the precepts were welcome to attend; I was content to listen and learn. In discussing the vow to not slander the Dharma, Hinayana was mentioned. I thought that term was used by those who consider Mahayana to be a Greater Vehicle, while referring to Theravada as Hinayana, a Lesser Vehicle. That, to me, seems to be slandering the Dharma, by elevating Mahayana over Theravada! I’ve been assured that MABA does not use the term Hinayana (although I have heard it twice recently), instead preferring the term Original Teachings School. And that use of the term Hinayana is not slanderous. Is it? I don’t have enough knowledge at this point to resolve this in my mind. Just give me the Buddha’s teachings (translated, of course), commentaries and admirable friends to talk to, and I’m happy :).

    I’m comfortable at MABA, with good friends in the Sangha, and find refuge there; the Venerables always see that I’m happy when I’m there (my Dharma name fits!). It will take me some time to decide whether to take the Bodisattva vows (I’m not yet fully vegetarian), and my beliefs seem to combine both Theravada and Mahayana teachings. All I want is to be of benefit. I don’t need to become a Buddha, an Arhat someday is sufficient (talk about being full of myself!). When it is time for me to leave samsara behind, my work here will be done and I will move on and begin again. I don’t want to take vows falsely or without conviction.

    As an aside, Bhikkhu Bodhi has consented to visit us again next fall, October, I think, to coincide with the BGR Hunger Walk. I was impressed with his eloquence and understanding of the world’s human conditions when he spoke to us under the St. Louis Arch a couple of years ago. With the current unrest in Ferguson and Columbia, MO, I feel that visits by monks outside of the area might be beneficial, since such visits tend to inspire new people towards the Buddha’s compassion, especially if we can persuade the local news to find it newsworthy. But I don’t know who here to ask that they invite you, if that makes any sense at all.

    Some of the younger people at MABA feel that St. Louis is quite lacking in social outreach, and feel the local Buddhists should become more involved. But the younger people don’t offer solutions, just a demand for change (we’re all that way in our 20s, I think). Perhaps their understanding of Buddhist approaches is lacking, I don’t know. MABA has a Guanyin pavilion, with signs in Chinese telling us to turnaround our minds, that if we don’t help ourselves first, how can we expect to be of benefit to others? It may not have provoked their thinking, they just feel a need for (perhaps ill-conceived) action. MABA has been experiencing a construction boom over the last few years, currently working on a female residence hall. The direction is towards becoming a retreat center with residencies, which is needed here in the Midwest; I see that as beneficial progress. I was born in 1960, and remember St. Louis’ unrest here in the 1960s-70s; it seems like little has changed, no matter who’s in charge, we’re still pointing fingers at everyone but ourselves. It all comes down to us as individuals effecting the change in ourselves, I think. I’m not interested in violent upheavals, which don’t turn out well for anyone. These days I’m merely trying to lead by quiet example, and know that education and knowledge are the keys. A smile in gratitude goes a long way these days. And I’ve rambled on long enough.

    Thank you again for your blog! Hoping your vassa is of benefit, Bhante, and that we will see you in St. Louis some day. With Metta,Xiǎnhuān Francesca顯歡 From: Through the Looking Glass To: Sent: Friday, November 13, 2015 6:14 PM Subject: [New post] Introduction to Early Buddhist Ethics #yiv2910694627 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2910694627 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2910694627 a.yiv2910694627primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2910694627 a.yiv2910694627primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2910694627 a.yiv2910694627primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2910694627 a.yiv2910694627primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2910694627 | bhikkhucintita posted: “Refraining from every evil,Accomplishing good,Purifying the mind,This is Teaching of Buddhas.(Dhammapāda 183)Seeing the complete awakening while seated in meditation as the Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, we often fail to recognize how thoroug” | |

    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      I’m glad to hear from you.

      As for Hinayana, On the term Hinayana: It means lesser vehicle, as opposed to the great vehicle Mahayana. So, it is, or was originally, derogatory in intent. It is widely considered today to be politically incorrect, but survives, largely because there is no widely agreed on term for the historical pre-Mahayana sects, such as Theravada, Sarvastivadin, Dharmaguptaka, Mahasanghika, etc. Theravada is only surviving sect, so some people think Hinayana means Theravada.

      Actually, I think the original use of Hinayana fits Theravada only partially. Mahayana seems to have arisen for various reasons.
      One of those reasons was as a response to the elaborate scholastism that arose in northern Indian Buddhism in the first millenium AD that many felt distorted the Buddha’s message. Particularly controversial was the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma. Mahayana restored the notion of emptiness to center stage. In this regard, Theravada was not really the target, which had a much tamer Abhidhamma.
      Another of those reasons was the development of the Bodhisattva ideal. None of the early sects, including Theravada, had this the way it was developed in Mahayana.
      Of the two reasons, the Mahayana took a conservative position in the first, and progressive in the second. In either case, the ones who disagreed became the Hinayana.


  2. grevilleacorner Says:

    Reblogged this on Grevillea Corner and commented:
    “To summarize the Buddha’s observations just discussed, unwholesome/ unskillful thoughts are recognizable in terms of the following handy checklist:

    They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
    When they give rise to actions, those actions generally cause some degree of harm.
    They give rise to mis-perception.
    They cause personal suffering.
    They subvert development along the Path.”

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