Buddhist Ethics

“The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with Life.”
– Roshi Koun Yamada (1907-1989)
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
– The Dalai Lama

Ethics is at the heart of Buddhism because the issue of human suffering is the starting point of Buddhism. A young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, left his sheltered life in northern India in the 5th Century BCE, deeply disheartened by the amount of suffering he saw in the world, determined to realize the nature and the origin of human suffering and how to find the path to salvation from it. He first became an ascetic, rejecting everything that was worldly, and mastered the most profound dimensions of meditation, but in a severely weakened physical state from the deprivations of self-starvation, he realized that rejection of Life was not the path, rather, it was better to live a balanced life, a life of neither material opulence nor deprivation. He realized it was important to be neither mired in social convention nor isolated in hermitage and asceticism, rather to live a life of engaged, aware, enlightened, compassionate community. This became known as “The Middle Way.”

Determined to discover the nature of and transcendence from suffering, he sat in what was reputed to be forty-nine days of deep meditation, at the end of which he had seen into the nature of existence and realized complete enlightenment. He became known as “The Buddha, The Awakened One.” He arose from his meditation and began to teach what became known as “The Four Noble Truths” concerning the nature of and the path to salvation from human suffering.

With a modern psychological interpretation, The Four Noble Truths are:

  • To be Human is to experience a unique and subjective form of suffering.
  • The cause of this suffering is attachment to ego with its sense of separateness for identity and all its insatiable cravings that seek to alleviate the ego’s insecurity and experience of insufficiency through grasping after a solid and lasting identity in possessions and personal significance, to attribute happiness and unhappiness to circumstances outside of oneself that one tries to manipulate toward their advantage.
  • There is a path that liberates us from suffering
  • It is to release ego as our identity, and restore it to its appropriate balanced place and role as a mental faculty only, and to realize the truth of our existence as the awareness within which impermanent and conditional form arises, all within one interconnected and interdependent Universe, sharing our condition with all sentient Beings. To realize that happiness, or more accurately, well being, is our inherent nature, not reliant on external conditions.

With this teaching, Buddhist ethics is born. The fourth Truth is also taught with the inclusion of what is known as “The Noble Eight-fold Path.” This is essentially a description of what an enlightened life is like, leading to a profoundly ethical life, one that realizes our own inherent well being and its connection to the well-being of others. These eight qualities are: “right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.” The “right” in the Eightfold Path is not about commandments issued from an externalized deity or authority, but realizations and qualities that naturally arise within a human being who is “awakened.”.

The Buddha was quite explicit that he was not bringing forth a new religious understanding, and there is nothing in his teaching that was metaphysical or theological. His was not a divinely inspired revelation, but the realization of truths that are inherent to all human beings; that within us all is the capacity for a perfect life, free from suffering, realizing ourelves as a balanced, aware, wise and compassionate expression of the Universe. As the Dalai Lama is known to teach: “These are not religious subjects. They are about basic human good qualities and values.”

Enlightenment, then, is any moment that this reality is felt and realized (not intellectualized). This “awakened” life is called the life of bodhicitta, (awakened heart or consciousness) and is the path of the Bodhisattva (an awakened being). To be awakened, to be a Bodhisattva, is to live within the experience of the interconnectedness and interdependence that underpins all of life, and to fully realize interconnectedness and interdependence is also to see Karma, the principle of cause and effect, that determines our unfolding experience of the world.

When a person lives in realization of the principles of Karma, interconnectedness and interdependence that underpin existence, this will naturally also give rise to an ethical sense of view and conduct. This ethical perspective is codified in Buddhism as the Five Precepts, deliberately vowed to as one’s intention and meditation, and practiced to the best of one’s ability by those who take on the Buddhist lifestyle, and these are, in their most elemental expression: commitments to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

In a broader, and more psychological expression, the precepts are to abstain from willful physical harm to others, willful exploitation and material harm to others, willful exploitation that arises out of misuse of sexual, romantic or seductive behavior, willful exploitation through misleading and false action or language, and to be free of addictive behaviors that lead to an unconscious or unawakened life. This last precept is not only about chemical addictions, but all behaviors, beliefs and conditioning that lead to an egocentric life, that which is the source of the other four affronts to the dignity, worth and right to freedom from suffering in others and ourselves.

It is also inherent with the realization of the connectedness and interdependence with all Beings and the realization of the universality of the Four Noble Truths that a sense of kinship with all Beings arises. There develops an identification with their suffering, and a deep understanding of its cause as delusional egoic perspective and conditioning. This is the foundation of Buddhist compassion. To quote the Dalai Lama, it is to “realize that we are all human beings, even those who would be our enemies, who are just like you and me, seeking freedom from suffering.” And with this realization, ultimately one is led to the Path of the Bodhisattva, in a sense , a contract and commitment for compassionate living that says:
I vow to save all sentient beings.
I vow to overcome delusion.
I vow to deepen understanding of The Path to the cessation of suffering.
I vow to attain Awakening into the truth of existence.

In effect, we are our brothers’ keeper. The quality of my existence is inextricable from the quality of all beings’ existence. This then is Buddhist ethics. It is not a system of laws, rules or commandments from an outside authority. It is presented as a system of realizations available to any person who is determined, just as was Siddhartha Gautama, to understand and overcome the suffering that humans experience and bring into the world. It is available to any person because it is inherent in our own deepest human and universal nature, and it can be realized when a person, as did Siddhartha, stops living out their conventional life and meditates on the human condition.

Roshi Yamada’s predecessor, Roshi Yasutani, taught that to awaken into the truth of existence through deep meditation, will bring the realization that “It is imperative to abandon the idea of a ‘myself’ standing in opposition to ‘others.’” This then will inevitably result in, not some rigid religious moralistic code of conduct, but a fluid, natural expression of, as Yamada said, “forgetting the self in the act of uniting with Life.” This is the Buddhist path to salvation from suffering for us all. Stop asking, “what’s in it for me?” Rather, live showing up in life, moment-to-moment, asking, “what’s needed of me, that I may be an expression of the celebration and honoring of the community of Life?” This is how we awaken, and how we can contribute to the creation of an awakened, enlightened human society. Choose the Path of the Bodhisattva.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at healing@billwalz.com.

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