Buddhist Ethics

Namo Tassa Bhagvato Arhato Sammasambuddhassa.

The subject of Buddhist Ethics is very broad and serious. So, I will try my best to explain it to you. It feels strange for me to give my presentation on Buddhist Ethics because I gather that you are all matured Buddhists. I do not want to limit Buddhist Ethics by linking it to a particular religion only, – because all the teachings of the Buddha were given on the basis of “Bahujan Hitay Bahujan Sukhay, Lokanukampaya”. This means for the benefit of the maximum number of sentient beings.

For example, water quenches the thirst, no matter if they belong to any particular religion, creed, and nation. Whether woman or man, young or old, animal, etc. Water is for everyone, who needs it. But the person who is thirsty must go to the water to drink it. Water will not come to him or her. In the same way, Buddhist Ethics or Morality is for our practice to imbibe its principles within ourselves. It is very clear that whoever wishes to be benefited from it must practice ethics.

Buddhist Ethics is universal, for the people of this world. The Ethics taught by Tathagata Buddha about 2600 years ago is relevant even today. If the Buddha had not talked about morality or ethics,- then, even at that time, he would not have tried to end the discriminations related to untouchability, the high and low, caste distinctions that were present in the Indian society of his time. He would not have welcomed Upali the barber, Sunit the scavenger, courtesan Amrapali and many more into his Sangha. He accepted everyone in his Sangha. There was no greater moral authority than the Buddha in those days, and none else in modern times either.

I think in the world today there is a great need for Buddhist Ethics. In this age of competition, – people forget their own limits and in an effort to put themselves first, they snatch away the rights of countless people and forget about humility and morality. Every person wants for himself or herself to come first, no matter what has to be done to achieve it, and how many unethical acts have to be indulged. We are social animals, living in human society; we can see unethical incidents happening in everyday life.

As long as we do not purify our minds, we will continue to do unethical deeds and disregard ethical practices. We get angry over small things and then start trying to destroy the person by considering him as our sworn enemy in the whole world, the greatest enemy ever. And we challenge by saying “No matter what, I will not leave you alone. (kisi bhi keemat pe jeene nahi dunga), etc.  

Apart from this, we are not able to sleep peacefully day and night. Whether we are asleep or awake, the fire of revenge keeps burning in us. The sparks of anger destroy oneself and the lives of those whom we consider our enemies. Why does this happen? Is it not because of anger? When we are angry, at that time we forget all our ethical behaviors and adopt unethical ones. With regard to this, Tathagata Buddha explains to the ignorant man by telling the Dhammapada (5th sloka of Yamak Vagga)-

न हि वेरेण वेराणि समंतीध कुदाचनं।

अवेरेण च सम्मन्ति एस धम्मो सनातनो।५।

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is the eternal law.

How do you think that killing a person frees you from all kinds of suffering? No, no. In fact, endless suffering begins there. The family of the so-called enemy makes its pledges and promises, children also are incited to destroy your family, and thus the cycle of revenge continues back and forth for generations. If they had followed ethical principles from the beginning, then this chain of miseries would not have continued. Therefore, all kinds of unwholesome or unethical acts are done because of the influence of our minds. Our unruly mind commands us to do physical, verbal and mental actions.

If you do good deeds, then you will have happiness and if you do unethical deeds, then you will get suffering or Dukkha. Buddha spoke in the very first two Gathas or verses of Dhammapada about how we get suffering through undisciplined mind and happiness by through the disciplined mind-


मनोपुव्बंगमा धम्मा मनोसेठ्ठा मनोमया

मनसा चे पदुट्ठेन भासति वा करोति वा।

ततो नं दुःखमन्वेति चक्कं व् वहतो पदं।1

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief, they are all mind wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.


मनोपुव्बंगमा धम्मा मनोसेठ्ठा मनोमया

मनसा चे पसन्नेन भासति वा करोति वा।

ततो नं सुखमन्वेति छाया व अनुपायिनी।2

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief, they are all mind wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow. Both verses are very important and strongly related to training our minds.

According to the Buddhist tradition, there are ten wholesome actions. These are applicable to everyone, whether you are Buddhist or not. The ten wholesome actions are divided into three categories as given below-

Wholesome actions performed by the body are three-

  1. Abstaining from killing living beings
  2. Abstaining from stealing
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct

Wholesome actions performed by the speech are four-

  1.  Abstaining from false speech
  2. Abstaining from malicious speech
  3. Abstaining from harsh speech
  4. Abstaining from gossip

Wholesome actions performed by the mind are three-

  1. Abstaining from covetousness
  2. Abstaining from ill-will
  3. Possessing Right Understanding of the Dharma

I will not explain one by one because all of you are well aware of these ten virtues. Suffice it to just name them here. The important question is this:-, do we really need to practice these ten wholesome actions? Yes, I do believe that as human beings living in the world, we have to practice them and we have to assimilate these wholesome deeds or actions in our life. If you commit the ten unethical or unwholesome deeds then you will go to jail, whether you are Buddhist or not. Buddha will not come to save you. Buddha will not say, please don’t punish him because he is my follower. On the contrary, Buddha will say, take this person to jail because he or she does not listen to me. I taught him or her not to engage in unwholesome deeds. But he engaged in them. So he or she cannot be my follower.

Unethical human beings have been equated with animals because animals do not know what they have to do or not do. They care only about their day-to-day living. But human beings are social animals, so we have to live in society; If he/she wants to live in society then it is a bit difficult to live without ethics. There are more than 7 billion human beings living in this world and we are directly or indirectly connected to each other. We may not think of ourselves, but we should think of others.

The theme of this Global Buddhist Conference is Legacies of Nalanda Buddhism: Scholarship and Practice. So, yes, it is true that many scholars who had come out from the ancient Nalanda institution maintained and kept alive Buddhism and its practice of ethics. I will not say anything about the relevance of Nalanda here because other speakers will speak on this topic.

Acharya Shantideva (8th century) the great scholar of Nalanda Mahavihar has composed a very wonderful text on Buddhist Ethics, Bodhicharyavatar or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, I think this text is very beneficial for mankind. I am also fortunate enough to have received many teachings from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and had the opportunity to translate his teachings on this treatise.

Acharya Shantideva says the following verse in the sixth chapter (Patience) of  Bodhicharyavatara:-

ཞེ་སྡང་ལྟ་བུའི་སྡིག་པ་མེད།། བཟོད་པ་ལྟ་བུའི་དཀའ་ཐུབ་མེད།།

དེ་བས་བཟོད་ལ་ནན་ཏན་དུ།། སྣ་ཚོགས་ཚུལ་དུ་བསྒོམ་པར་བྱ།།

There is no evil like hatred and no fortitude like patience. Thus I should strive in various ways, to meditate on patience.

There is no sin greater than anger because a moment of anger; eradicates virtues accumulated over eons momentarily, anger is like a raging fire.

As we all know that innumerable scholars came out from Sri Nalanda Mahavihara. The impact of Buddhist ethics was profound on Tibetan masters and kings. The kings of Tibet invited many Indian scholars from Nalanda University like Acharya Shantirakshit, Atisha Dipankar Shreejnana, Kamalasheel, and so forth and they taught Buddhist philosophy, ethics, logic, epistemology, meditation, etc in Tibet. Tibetan scholars translated Buddha’s words into the Tibetan language with the help of Indian Masters under the patronage of the kings of Tibet. Tibetan scholars and the public have kept the Nalanda tradition alive till now.

About the ethical conduct, the great scholar of the 11th century from Tibet, Geshe Langri Thangpa, says in the third verse of his Eight Verses on Training the Mind(Chitta shodhana ke asth pad) or in Tibetan བློ་སྦྱོང་ཚིག་བརྒྱད་མ།

སྤྱོད་ལམ་ཀུན་ཏུ་རང་རྒྱུད་ལ།། རྟོག་ཅིང་ཉོན་མོངས་སྐྱེས་མ་ཐག།

བདག་གཞན་མ་རུངས་བྱེད་པས་ན།། བཙན་ཐབས་གདོང་ནས་བཟློག་པར་ཤོག

In all my deeds may I probe into my mind, And as soon as mental and emotional affliction arise

As they endanger myself and others, May I strongly confront and avert them.

Geshe Langri Thangpa Ji instructs us so well, to check our mind in every circumstances, and as soon as a harmful affliction arises in our mind, we should strike them down forcefully. Usually, people do not strike down their mental afflictions but welcome them.

Although this text is very short with only eight verses, in these verses, Geshe Ji has given serious exhortations on our physical, verbal, and mental behavior and actions.

I am trying to quote from different texts because apart from the scholars named above, many other scholars had come from the ancient Nalanda University and greatly contributed to spreading Buddhist ethics among the masses and made it long-lasting.

Buddhism is a way of life. We can live life properly only when our physical, verbal, and mental actions are strong and steadfast. If there is any disturbance in any one of these three doors of actions, then there is only a downfall of human being. If we follow or practice any religion then we are a religious people. Then it is very important to have a good character. In this regard, the Buddha says in the Lokvagga (World) of the Dhammapada:-

धम्मं चरे सुचरितं, न नं दुच्चरितं चरे।। धम्मचारी सुखं सेति, अस्मिं लोके पहिम्च।।३।।

Conduct dharma with a good character; never conduct dharma with an evil character. Because only the righteous live happily in this world and the hereafter.

We must practice dharma with our minds and heart. Whatever we are wearing, wherever we live, whatever language we speak, however much wealth we have, whether we are black or white, etc, these do not matter at all for practicing the dharma. Mainly humans should practice religion or spirituality. Am I saying it right or wrong? Have you ever seen cows, buffaloes, goats, etc. practicing dharma or meditating, giving discourses? No? Never. That’s Right.

We, humans, have the ability to think, this is the specialty of our species. We can hear, contemplate and meditate but animals cannot do all these. If we practice dharma, it is natural to strive to improve our character or behavior. Therefore, our Chitta or mind plays an important role in becoming ethical and virtuous. If we do good things, we will be happy and if we commit wrongdoing, we will naturally suffer as a consequence.

According to Buddhist ethics, there is a need for the Noble Eightfold Path to correct one’s actions of body, speech, and mind. By following these paths, a person attains nirvana by completely overcoming suffering and its causes. The Noble Eightfold Path is considered to be the best among all the paths, so the Noble Eightfold Path is as follows:-

  • Right understanding( samma ditthi)
  • Right thought(samma sankappa)
  • Right speech(samma vaca)
  • Right action(samma kammanta)
  • Right livelihood(samma ajiva)
  • Right effort(samma vayam)
  • Right Mindfulness(samma sati)
  • Right concentration(samma samadhi)

Of the Noble Eightfold Path, the first two paths are related to the Pragya or wisdom, the middle three paths pertain to Sila or ethics, and the last three pertain to Samadhi or concentration. You are all familiar with these paths, so don’t need to explain them here.

It is well known that the great scholar and traveler Faxian was a famous Chinese Buddhist monk. He felt that the portion of Vinaya Pitaka available in China was incomplete, so he decided to come to India and search for the complete Vinaya Pitaka and other religious texts. He arrived in India in the year 402 AD and studied in Nalanda Mahavihara. The main purpose of Faxian’s coming to India was to find the complete version of the ‘Vinaypitaka’, one of the basic texts of Buddhist ‘Tripitaka’. 

Another great scholar was Hiuen Tsang, who came to India in the 7th century (630 AD) during the reign of King Harshavardhana. He studied Sanskrit, Buddhist philosophy, Yoga Shastra, etc. at Nalanda University. He studied and translated scriptures for about 15 years while living in India. When he arrived back in China in 645 AD carrying 520 boxes containing 657 Buddhist texts, the people of China had given a grand welcome to him.

Both of these scholars’ propagated Buddhist philosophy and ethics preached by Buddha in their country China. Through their life accounts we can understand the profound impact of Buddhism has on the people of China even to this day.

In the end, I would like to say that whether it is an individual or a nation, where morality is disregarded and immorality adopted, destructions of the fabric of life occur and people have to bear its negative consequences.

At present, when we look at Afghanistan, for example, common citizens, especially girls and women, are being tortured by the Taliban. There is chaos all around the country. This was a country where Buddhism and ethics were dominant at the time of Great Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. The Gandhara art of making Buddha statues was developed there. There was peace and harmony all around the country but now the situation is terrible.

Please don’t misunderstand me. It is not that I do not have sympathy with the common citizens, but it is true that Buddha statues were deliberately destroyed in Bamiyan, which should come under the category of the heinous crime. Just like the saying: Like father, like son (Like begets like.). This is definitely the result of the misdeeds done by the earlier generations.

In the modern time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is pursuing Buddhist ethics and inspiring the world to follow it. You all know how much suppression there is in Tibet by China. They destroyed and are still destroying the art, culture, Buddhist texts, language, etc., But His Holiness never advised to be violent. He could have done so, and the six million Tibetans would readily take revenge on the Chinese at his behest, but he did not do so because he understands the principle of non-violence of the Tathagata Buddha very well.

Because of His Holiness, the Buddhist ethics is not only followed in Tibet but his followers are in different countries like China, Mongolia, India, Japan, Russia, Vietnam, Taiwan, America, Europe, etc. His Holiness is following the ethics or Sila which was propounded by the Buddha Shakyamuni. He tirelessly advocates of compassion, friendship, non-violence, brotherhood, as the spiritual Gurus did in the past.

Finally, I would like to end here with His Holiness’s famous quote about the true meaning of life. He says:-

“We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During that period we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”

Thank you

Kailash Chandra Bauddha

Mcleodganj, Dharamshala, HP, India

Note-this paper was prepared during the Global Buddhist Conference at Sarah Collage on 1st October 2021

One comment on “Buddhist Ethics

  1. Elta October 9, 2021 4:36 pm

    Deepest gratitude to you Kailash ji for shedding light on the topic of ethics and morality and many other important topics. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight with us. May all be able to perfect the training of morality and ethics and other trainings and achieve the highest goal. May all be happy 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

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