Buddhism and ethical life
by Ven. Dr. Handupelpola Mahinda
Emancipation from the
inherently suffering nature of samsara or the round of
births and deaths is brought about by a progressive and
gradual process of spiritual discipline through virtuous
conduct, mental concentration and intellectual eminence.
The main aim of this course of conduct is the
elimination of all evil tendencies and the cultivation
of virtuous dispositions. The Buddha’s last behest has
very succinctly indicated this most important process in
the following words.
Sabba papassa akaranam kusalassa upasampada
Sacitta pariyodapanam etam Buddhana sasanam (Dhp)
(The Buddha’s teaching is as follows: Abstain from doing
all evil, cultivate virtue, and purify your mind.)
The Buddha has clearly indicated to us, that release
from samsara could only be obtained by the personal
involvement of the individual himself and that no god or
deity, however powerful or benevolent he may be, could
bring about the emancipation of anyone else.
This position should be clearly instilled in the
individual a sense of self-responsibility, and even self
confidence and self respect to be able to secure his
salvation solely through his own efforts. In this
connection, the Buddha, in his universal compassion, has
advised us to cultivate physical, verbal and mental
restraint through which to reach that goal. Herein he
has also indicated to us that of these forms of
restraint, mental restraint is the most difficult to
The restraining process of the body and speech is
brought about by the observance of sila, while that of
the mind is secured through the practice of bhavana or
Every Buddhist is advised to practise daily, a code of
moral ethics called pancasila or the five precepts which
have a special significance in Buddhist terminology.
Although this term has in recent times acquired a
political flavour, it nevertheless is an exclusive term
used in Buddhist circles. The five precepts, or the
pancasila should, in fact be considered a universal code
of moral and social ethics acceptable for any and every
society irrespective of caste, creed, colour or
If this benevolent ethical conduct is cultivated
steadfastly by all alike in society, it should be such a
pleasing and sustaining haven for everyone to live
therein. However, it still remains a far cry from actual
realization, and the social climate in society has
degenerated into an alarmingly low depth as a result.
Sila or ethical and moral virtue elevates not only the
individual who cultivates it, but also the social
structure he lives in, since this social structure is
built upon the behavioural activities of the individuals
that constitute it. If this factor is satisfactorily
realised by us all, and adequate steps are taken in its
observance, a wholesome social revolution could indeed
result from such a beneficial move. The samma
ajivaconcept (right-livelihood) enunciated in the Aryan
eight-fold path could be achieved through conformity to
The restraining tendencies of physical and moral vices
interpreted in the social context means, the emergence
of a socially well behaved and morally righteous
individual who would be a marked blessing to any
society. When any society is structured with a majority
of such benevolent and benignant individuals, their
behavioural patterns being projected into the social
structure, it becomes a worthy example of a most
righteous and just society, where everything is
pleasing, harmonious and beneficial.
The first precept in the Buddhist panca-sila of
abstinence from killing establishes one of the most
important fundamental rights of every living being. It
should be clear to everybody who could accept the
principle that there is no valid justice or authority
for anyone to kill any other, to believe at the same
time that the well-being of every other person or living
being in society should also be his special concern.
Some modern religious leaders seem to advocate that the
killing of adherents of other religious faiths, and
being killed in the attempt is a certain golden
opportunity to enter the portals of heaven. Buddhism not
only dissociates itself from such frivolous
pronouncements, but also goes on, to say most positively
that as life is dear to all, one should neither kill nor
cause other to kill.
Sabbe tasanti dandassa sabbe bhayanti maccuno
Attanam upamam katva na haneyya, na ghataye (Dhp)
(All tremble at punishment, all are frightened at death,
so comparing others with oneself, one should neither
kill nor cause to be killed)
During the lifetime of the Buddha, when animal sacrifice
had been very rampant in the social structure, the
Buddha had the moral courage and the social awareness to
denounce this inhuman and illogical practice.
We thus observe that the much-talked of human rights of
the present day, and of the freedom from injury and
killing, had its beginnings many, many centuries ago.
The positive approach to the injunction of abstinence
from killing is to extend amity and loving-kindness to
every living being.
A society wherein such praiseworthy virtues are
practised in every sphere of life is bound to blossom
forth as a most pleasant, social structure conducive to
the well-being and prosperity of everybody alike.
The second precept of abstinence from stealing ensures
the sanctity of rightful ownership. In it is clearly
conceded the right of any person to own and possess his
own wealth and property without being wrongfully
snatched away by anybody else. Although there appears to
be a fair amount of misconception even among Buddhists
to feel that the Buddha had denounced the possession of
wealth, it is to his credit, that the Buddha had on many
occasion, not only declared the value of wealth but had
also indicated the best and most profitable way of
utilizing such wealth.
Buddha speaks of the happiness in the possession of
wealth (atthi sukha), the happiness in the utilization
of wealth (bhoga sukha), the happiness derived in the
knowledge of the absence of indebtedness (anana sukha),
and the happiness emanating from a knowledge of the
righteous use of wealth (anvajja sukha). The Budddha has
also indicated that the possession of wealth is highly
conceded in Buddhism, at some time, it considers it
absolutely unethical and most unjustifiable to rightly
conceded in Buddhism, at some time, it considers it
absolutely unethical and most unjustifiable to cast
avaricious eyes on another’s wealth or possessions and
attempt to steal them. Unfortunately, stealing another’s
possession is a most common anti-social practice
prevalent almost everywhere causing much hardship and
acrimony in society. The concept of the family is a most
sacred institution of individual and social living. The
cultural and social progress of humanity, depend to a
large extent on the inviolability of this sacred thread
of family fidelity. This concept is enshrined in the
third precept of the pancasila, which enjoins a person
to abstain from misconduct in sexual behaviour.
According to this precept, no individual has any right
whatever to disturb the serenity and harmony of the
family-life of any person.
It should be possible for any right-thinking individual
to visualize the most baneful and unlimited extent of
calamity and frustration that could be brought about in
a family by any form of laxity in this direction.
Therefore any shady or wrongful sexual indulgence on the
part of anyone in society should be looked upon as a
very grievous crime against the very gain of society. It
has also been emphatically stressed in Buddhist texts
that the violation of this principle not only degenerate
the individual but also entails loss of wealth and
prestige, causing lasting calamity to the individual
himself and the general social structure at large.
One may witness the many cases of legal proceedings
processed in courts of law, to realise the validity of
these assertions. The Buddha’s teaching, therefore
rightly advises everyone to abstain from this grievous
Society exists and progresses mainly through the process
of communication. The sustenance and advancement of this
social process would depend to a very great extent on
the richness and nobility of the pattern of
communication itself. One’s word or speech could either
cause great blessings or unlimited hardships to the
individual and to the social structure.
The Buddha dhamma has therefore enjoined us to use our
speech faculty for the well-being of both the individual
and society. The fourth precept of abstinence from lying
ensures harmony in social living by not only accepting
the value of speech, but also extending a sense of trust
and confidence in truthful speech. Gentle and truthful
speech is also spoken of as one of the main blessings
enumerated in the Mangala sutta.
Bahu saccan ca sippan ca vinayo ca susikkhito
Subhasita ca ya vaca etam mangala muttamam.
(Much learing, skill in arts and crafts, well trained in
discipline, pleasant in speech - these are highly
Samma-vaca (godly speech) is one of the aspects of the
noble Eigh-fold Path.
Although the practice of rightful and truthful speech is
sparsely manifest in society today, one may not disagree
with the assumption that the most vital and social
characteristic necessary to bring about trust and
confidence among mankind is the necessity for truthful
Ekam dhammam atitassa musavadissa jantuno
Vitinna paralokassa natthi papam akariyam.
(There is no sin that cannot be committed by the person
uttering falsehood, transgresses virtuous speech, and
who is unconcerned with next world.)
The fifth and the last precept coming within the
panca-sila code of moral ethics, namely the abstinence
from taking intoxicant drinks, ensures a healthy mind in
a healthy body, so very necessary for a healthy and
harmonious way of living in society. An unbalanced and
ill-functioning mind caused by the baneful effect of
alcoholic drinks, prevents a person from being able to
distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad,
virtue and vice, and makes him act in a violently
dangerous and acrimonious manner, most often destroying
completely the peace and harmony of society around him.
The Buddha has therefore enjoined us, both for our own
individual well-being and that of the society at large,
to abstain from taking alcoholic drinks which flagrantly
destroys the sanity and balance in our lives.
The social and ethical significance of the panca-sila or
the five precepts enunciated in the Buddhist moral code
can be easily assessed when we observe their
transgression that brings in untold misery and
unhappiness both to the individual and to the society,
he happens to be living in.