The Secret to Understanding Buddhist Ethics

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The Secret to Understanding Buddhist Ethics

The secret to understanding Buddhist ethics (according to the Buddha’s elevator speech) is that they all spring from one ethical foundation—harmlessness. Abstaining from killing or harming others (“Do not do evil; only do good”) is the most fundamental of Buddhist principles. That’s why we don’t screw around on our wives, steal and lie; those are actions that hurt others.

 

By Gerald “Strib” Stribling

A job coach I once worked with during my deadbeat dad days describe the elevator speech as the pitch you can deliver about what you have to offer, be it a product, an idea, or yourself as a prospective employee, to a stranger on an elevator ride. I hate elevator speeches.

What is an elevator speech?

“You’re a writer? What do you write about?”

“Um, I write about Buddhism for semi-literate testicular-types.”

But the Buddha had an elevator speech. Asked to summarize his teachings, his response was, “to avoid evil, to do good, and to purify the mind.” In other words, living a blameless, compassionate life will release people from the hell of suffering and rebirth.

Like the after-life promises of Deity-based religions, traditional Buddhist ethics takes a carrot-and-stick approach to human behavior, in the form of karma, and its ultimate expression, rebirth. Be good and reap rewards, be bad and get punished. It’s kind of the way the mind naturally looks at things, along with the delusion that people’s lives are so important that the universe cannot go on without them.

Karma and rebirth, while closely associated with Buddhism, did not originate in Buddhism. Many Buddhists don’t believe in karma and rebirth at all. And yet they adhere to Buddhist ethics and behave according to Buddhist expectations, despite their enlightened realization that there is no punishment-and-rewards system to the universe. Why? I hope it is because the rewards of living a Buddhist life can manifest themselves every minute of every day.

For those who don’t consider Buddhism to be their religion, it is, instead, a philosophy—a moral and ethical philosophy.

Ethical considerations abound in Buddhism. They range from the Five Precepts (the Buddha’s admonitions against killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, and getting shit-faced) and more than a third of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Means of Livelihood), to the implications of anatta (no-self), which would lead people to conclude that it is pointless to live anything but a compassionate life.

The secret to understanding Buddhist ethics (according to the Buddha’s elevator speech) is that they all spring from one ethical foundation—harmlessness. Abstaining from killing or harming others (“Do not do evil; only do good”) is the most fundamental of Buddhist principles. That’s why we don’t screw around on our wives, steal and lie; those are actions that hurt others.

Abstaining from alcohol or intoxicants is not a requirement per se for Buddhists, except for Theravada Buddhist monks. But the point is the avoidance of the heedlessness and mindlessness from over-consumption that would compel an unhappy drunk to hit his wife, or cause an auto accident, or become an addict…well, beloved reader, you and the universe know where I’m going with this.

But even among the most hard-core Buddhist “rules,” there are no absolutes.

Drinking or smoking marijuana in moderation maybe fine, despite what the hard-asses say about its erosion of a person’s “mindfulness.” What’s the point of a couple of beers after work but to purposefully erode one’s mindfulness when one has been called upon to be mindful all day long? I bet even the Buddha got the giggles every once in awhile by ingesting bhang in his nightly hot cocoa.

I was a trained killer once, and am happy that I was. I could think of a half dozen reasons why it would be okay to kill someone who deserved it. But that’s the Marine in me, not the Buddhist. And what the heck constitutes sexual misconduct anyway? There are strict lines to not cross, of course, but homosexuality isn’t one of them. There is no reference to it in the entire Dhammapada.

See, that’s the thing—it is dependent on people’s circumstances, intentions, and what an action might cause.

There are life’s exceptions to all this stuff. Stealing to feed your hungry children and lying so as not to hurt someone’s feelings are obvious exceptions. Not behaving angrily is an important Buddhist virtue. It’s learned by studying Dharma, which tells us that anger brings with it all sorts of problems, especially stupidity, and in the process of strengthening your mind through meditation to turn the tables on your own anger, you eventually develop the skill not to allow anger to arise at all. That takes time and patience and work.

And so it all ties together. Buddhism is, for the most part, ethics.

The “rules” are there for all to see, and for the most part I can see how most people could easily be able to live happy and contented lives by following them. None of them should be followed stupidly or blindly. Common sense trumps everything, and Buddhist ethics are common sense. Or what should be common sense.

A well-reasoned and easy to understand “code of ethics” makes life easier, not harder. It does so by making decisions easier, not harder. It’s easier to do the right thing when you’re more sure of the right thing to do.

 

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Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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Gerald "Strib" Stribling

Gerald “Strib” Stribling is the author of Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, 2015). His past incarnations have included farm hand, steelworker, U.S. Marine, elementary school teacher, and social services professional. Strib volunteered to teach English to children in Sri Lanka as a personal response to 9-11. There he studied with some of the most highly revered monks in Theravada Buddhism. During three of his seven months in the island nation, he actually resided in a Buddhist monastery.

He wrote Buddhism for Dudes as a not-so-subtle, basic examination of the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It’s short and funny and to the point. “Way too much Buddhist information is too complicated to wade through, and some of it is fairyland voodoo, full of metaphysical improbabilities. Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a way to live a happy life. This is not hard stuff to understand.”

Stribling writes a blog called Buddhism for Tough Guys. “There are lots of tough guy Buddhists out there willing to take a bullet for anybody. One of their mottoes is ‘Just because I am a person who loves peace doesn’t mean that I have forgotten how to be violent’.” He once broke up an assault with a little kitchen broom. “It’s my best story,” he says.

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