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Summary Article: Buddhist ethics
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Questions of right and wrong considered according to Buddhism. Buddhist beliefs are governed by the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Five Moral Precepts (or Eight or Ten Moral Precepts). In making difficult moral decisions, there are no hard and fast rules to be applied. It is up to individuals to maintain a clear, broad understanding of situations and to make the best judgement they can. Buddhists do not believe in a God who created the world. Buddhism sees the world as something that is continually changing and re-forming, with reincarnation for people who have not achieved enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that semi-divine beings populate many different heavens and non-earthly realms, but these are subject to rebirth in the same way as humans.

Some Buddhists today follow the principle of Engaged Buddhism, taking an active part in non-violent protest, offering support for victims, and educating the public on issues of moral concern. For daily living, Mahayana Buddhists sum up these ideas in the six paramitas (perfections). These are: giving (dana) to other people, of not only material things but of time and effort; morality (sila), shown by living with thought and right intention; energy (virya), shown in commitment to Buddhist goals; patience (kshanti) towards oneself and others, shown by taking into account everyone's differing limitations and abilities; meditation (samadhi), used to develop a clear mind, insight, and equanimity; wisdom (prajna), shown by acting appropriately and skilfully in any situation.

Relations with others Buddhism teaches that the attachments that people form to their friends, culture, or country, are illusory, and that people should practise equanimity and compassion towards all. Buddhists believe that what we sometimes call love is actually a clinging to, or grasping at, another person as the source of our happiness. This is not the same as genuine, selfless caring, and can only lead to harm and unhappiness, firstly because Buddhists believe that all things change, and secondly because they believe that fulfilling desires is not necessarily the road to happiness.

Family life Buddhists are taught to have great respect for their parents. Because of the concept of reincarnation (or rebirth), Buddhists believe that the soul of any person or animal living has probably been their mother at least once in one of the many lives they have lived in the past. A mother's love is held to be the best example of selfless care (which all Buddhists should try to show to everyone). The family of birth is designated according to the karma of all the family members.

Marriage and sexuality Marriage, for Buddhists, is not considered a ‘sacred’ union, but a practical partnership. It is an opportunity to practise selfless caring for another person. Loyalty, faithfulness, and honesty are important for the marriage to work. The Five Moral Precepts include forbidding sexual misconduct, such as having sexual relationships with partners other than the spouse. Both husband and wife are expected to fulfil responsibilities such as showing respect for each other's families, sharing decision-making, and working for the good of the household. In many Buddhist countries, within both marriage and wider society, women and men are equal; this includes equality in employment and property rights.

Ultimately, Buddhists believe that the goal of enlightenment is achieved when a person sees that attachment to people and to the world is unnecessary. Sexual attraction and sexual love are part of the illusory world, and the life of a celibate monk is considered to be further along the path to enlightenment than married life. Sexual desire is considered one of the many types of desire that keep people attached to the round of rebirth. Sexual expression is not seen as wrong, but anything that increases longing and attachment to the world, or causes suffering to others, should be avoided. Moderation, and an understanding of the suffering that may be caused, lead Buddhists to promote sexual relationships within long-term, monogamous, and faithful relationships. Real love is seen not as sexual desire but as selfless caring. Contraception is acceptable to Buddhists, but in view of the belief in the continuity of the spirit through rebirth, abortion is against the first of the Five Moral Precepts. It is believed to accrue bad karma for the people responsible, unless there are very particular circumstances, for example if a pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother. Divorce is allowed within Buddhism, but must be conducted with care and respect for the parties involved. In some Buddhist countries property is divided equally between partners, and divorced men and women are accorded equal respect. In other countries, a divorced woman is at a disadvantage. These differences are social rather than religious.

The body and physical care Buddhists believe that a human rebirth is a rare and precious commodity that should be treated with great care and respect, and used to full advantage to achieve enlightenment. The use of drugs and alcohol is forbidden by the fifth of the Five Moral Precepts. Not only might it lead to actions that may hurt others, but enlightenment cannot be found with an unclear mind. Most Buddhists are vegetarian if it will not harm their health, because the first of the Five Moral Precepts forbids killing. In some countries, though, the diet is so poor that vegetarianism would pose a health risk.

Suicide and euthanasia Buddhists believe that committing suicide or attempting to aid someone to die through euthanasia will affect one's karma, and that because rebirth is inevitable, suffering may continue in the next life. It follows, therefore, that suffering should be alleviated through support, and the person in pain should be helped to face the situation and to progress with a calm mind.

Wealth and charity Buddhists believe that wanting things is a cause of suffering, because humans have a tendency to crave new things continually, or more than they already have. The Buddhist belief is that people should not suffer need or poverty. However, having more than enough is unnecessary for Buddhists, and encourages greed, fear of loss, and more craving. The happiness provided by getting what one wants is always temporary. The Eightfold Path (also known as the Middle Way) is the path of moderate living. To be generous and compassionate to others is part of the Eightfold Path, and will increase one's karma. The laity is required to give food and clothing to monks who, in their turn, provide teaching and support. Neither pays the other; their interdependence is simply accepted. In this way, everyone learns to give as part of a community, and it is not considered as a loss or sacrifice.

Suffering and evil For Buddhists, suffering and evil in the world can only be attributed to the actions of people. The fact of the existence of suffering was the foundation on which the Buddha based his search for the truth. His teachings say that people who do evil have not realized that trying to obtain what they want by any means will not make their lives any happier in the long term. The only lasting satisfaction is the achievement of nirvana, a state of perfect serenity, compassion, and wisdom gained by the eradication of all desires.

Peace and conflict The precepts of Buddhism lead Buddhists to avoid violence or doing harm to other living things. As well as the harm it does to others, it is thought to harm oneself, by polluting one's existence, and by making bad karma. Buddhists believe that everyone is free at any time to learn from their mistakes, and that punishment that intends to harm a person is inappropriate and unhelpful. Theoretically, this has meant that Buddhists are pacifists, but lay Buddhists will break the first precept (refraining from taking life) when acting in self-defence. Buddhists recommend that compassion is used skilfully and with wisdom.

Animal rights and the environment Buddhists believe that the current state of our planet is a direct result of previous humans' actions and that the whole universe is interdependent. Buddhists consider humans to be equal to the other forms of life in the world. However, in the human form, people have greater consciousness and more choice over their actions. It is, therefore, their responsibility to protect and care for the life forms that are less able to take an active part in preserving good environmental conditions. The Buddhist belief in non-violence means that most are vegetarian, and are strongly opposed to hunting animals as a sport, and to keeping them in inadequate conditions.

Creation story Although Buddhists do not believe in a creating God, there are stories about the beginnings of human existence. The scriptures tell of the times when cycles of the cosmos end. At these times, ‘Radiant’ gods are believed to die, and then wait, hovering over the formless and darkened water of the physical world. In their purely spiritual state they have neither form nor gender. After many ages, a tasty crust of land develops over the water, and some of the beings become greedy and crave the crust to eat. As they do so, they begin to take on a form and gender. They become proud of their appearance, and become frightened that others will want their land. They start to claim parts of the earth as their own, and private property comes into being. With the idea of ownership, the beings, who have developed into people, begin to steal, lie, and attack one another. They eventually choose a ruler who will protect them and punish those who disobey the rules.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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