Morality within Buddhism

Philo and Soc Sci Essays



How significant is morality within Buddhism’s eight-fold path?


Jeffry Ocay



The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain Nirvana, a Sanskrit word for enlightenment. According to the Buddha, this can be attained through the of process cultivating oneself, which involves the Eightfold Path (Wallace, 2003). Each stage of the Eightfold Path that a person has to undergo is founded on moral virtue. Thus, morality is crucial to the attainment of enlightenment as it serves as the underlying principle of the Eightfold Path. This essay attempts to explore the important role that morality played within Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. It begins with a discussion on the meaning of Buddhist ethics and the common ethical principles articulated by the Buddha. It then proceeds with a discussion on the stages of the Eightfold Path and sketches the developmental process involved in each stage. Finally, the essay briefly presents the important role that morality played in the Eightfold Path.

What is Buddhist ethics?

From the perspective of Western philosophy, the morality of human actions can be determined through the satisfaction of a given set of man-made rules and standards. In the case of Utilitarian ethics, for example, an act is considered morally right if it produces greatest happiness to a great number of people in society; if it produces more harm than happiness, then an act is considered morally wrong (Smart & Williams, 1973; Albert, Denise & Peterfreund, 1984). In Kantian ethics, an act is considered morally right if the maxim of an act can become a universal law (Lindsay, 1934; Ross, 1954; Beck, 1960). In other words, for Kant, an act is right if everybody agrees to the principle upon which the action is based.

As we can see, the Western model of ethics is founded on arbitrary rules and standards that humans invented for their own utilitarian purpose. For example, abortion is morally wrong in many countries but is right in other countries. In this way, the morality of abortion is entirely a matter of social custom that are useful and acceptable to a particular social context. Buddhist ethics, on the contrary, is not based on man-made rules and standard but rather on permanent laws of nature (Harvey, 2000). Thus, Buddhist ethical values are rooted in nature and the unchanging law of cause and effect. For this reason, the ethical imperatives in Buddhism should not be construed as rules for people to follow, but as guidelines for attaining enlightenment (Harvey, 1990). This is why the Buddha did not prescribe any strict rules in which people are compelled to obey. On the contrary, the Buddha is seen to be helping people understand the nature of existence and at the same time guiding them on how to act ethically for their own happiness and for the benefit of others (Harvey, 1990). The Buddha articulated these guidelines through the five precepts.

The first precept involves the intention of not killing living beings. This does not mean, however, that we are not allowed to kill dangerous insects or slaughter some animals for consumption. What the Buddha wants to convey here is that we need to develop compassion for all living beings, most especially human beings. The second precept is to abstain from stealing. Of course, stealing means not depriving others of what is rightfully theirs. But the Buddha goes beyond the ordinary understanding of the term. Hence, in the second precept the Buddha wants us to develop a sense of justice and fairness.

The third precept is abstention from sexual misconduct. Caveat must be borne in mind though that the term ‘sexual’ here does not necessarily refer to sexual intercourse but the entirety of the senses. Thus, when we say sexual satisfaction in this context, we mean sensual satisfaction or the satisfaction of the senses. The satisfaction that one gets from eating could then be a concrete example of sexual satisfaction. What this precept suggests is that we should not live in excess, such excessive eating. The fourth precept is to abstain from lying. Here, the Buddha encourages us to be truthful all the time and be kind and gentle when dealing with our fellowmen. This precept also calls us to refrain from speaking falsely and gossiping maliciously. Finally, the fifth precept encourages us to abstain from intoxicants, such as alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. The reason for this is obvious. Because in Buddhism meditation is one of the keys in attaining enlightenment, it is but proper to avoid these intoxicants as they only hamstring the development of rational thinking and self-consciousness needed for mindfulness.

With these precepts, understood as the practical expression of Buddhist ethics, we can now determine what makes morally right and morally wrong in Buddhism. All actions that spring from selfishness, hatred, greed, and ignorance are considered morally wrong, while those that spring from love, kindness, generosity, and wisdom are considered morally right. However, it is important to take note that Buddhist ethics does not speak of right and wrong as these words tend condemn; rather, it speaks of being ‘skillful’ (kusala) and ‘unskillful’ (akusala) for right and wrong respectively (Harvey, 2000). Indeed, this shows that Buddhist ethics is concerned with practices that tend to help rather than harm the self and other.

Morality and the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path is crucial to Buddhism as it provides the concrete path toward the attainment of enlightenment. As the name suggests, it consists of eight stages of increasing spiritual insights, namely, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Normally, these are categorized into three, with the first two tend toward the cultivation of wisdom, the next three toward ethical conduct, and the last three toward the development of the mind (Wallace, 2003).

Right View means seeing the world as it is in itself. This is a significant step because understanding the world as it is in itself allows us to know what really life is, which in Buddhism is characterized by suffering, absurdities, and meaninglessness. And for the Buddha, Right View implies the acceptance of life no matter how absurd and meaningless it may have appeared to us. If Right View allows us to affirm life, Right Intention enables us to decide to go on with life despite the difficulties it harbors. Thus, Right Intention encourages us to have a positive attitude in life.

The Buddha viewed Right Speech as an act of abstaining from thoughtless words that cause harm to others, such as lying and malicious gossip. Here, the Buddha wants us to speak with honesty, mindfulness, and loving kindness. Right Action means behaving in such a way that we do not harm any living being. Right Livelihood follows directly from Right Action in the sense that, according to the Buddha, we ought to make a living in a just and peaceful way. For this reason, the Buddha calls us to refrain from having livelihoods that cause harm and destruction to our community, such as dealing with weapons.

Right Effort has something to do with the development of wholesome qualities, such as love, kindness, wisdom, and generosity, as well as the release of unwholesome qualities, such as hatred, anger, and ignorance. Right Mindfulness is the complete awareness of the moment. For the Buddha, Right Mindfulness is to remain focused on things that we desire without becoming attached to them. And lastly, Right Concentration involves the turning of the mind to focus on an object that we desire. This implies the seclusion of the mind from sensual and unskillful qualities.

Each stage in the Eightfold Path supports the next stage, that is, in the process of attaining enlightenment, the cultivation of one stage necessarily leads to the cultivation of the next, and so on. Thus, all the paths interact and support each other in the process of realizing the ultimate goal. Now, it must be emphasized that all of this is made possible through the work of morality as the foundation of the Eightfold Path. This is because in Buddhism, the cultivation of what is wholesome depends entirely on the abstention from committing evil deeds and reprehensible actions. In fact, the Buddhist scriptures reveal that a person cannot proceed to meditation without first of all acquiring moral virtues that can restrain the external expression of defilement, such as greed, hatred, and ignorance (Almond, 2006; Der-lan Yeh, 2006).


The above discussion shows that unlike the Western model of ethics which is founded on arbitrary rules and standards that humans invented for their own utilitarian purpose, Buddhist ethics is rooted in nature and the unchanging law of cause an effect. Thus, the ethical imperatives in Buddhism are not to be construed as rules for people to obey but as guidelines for the attainment of enlightenment. The discussion also shows that the five precepts in Buddhism serve as the basis in determining the rightness or wrongness of a human act. Lastly, given the brief engagement with the meaning of Buddhist ethics and the Eightfold Path, this essay concludes that it is impossible for any person to attain enlightenment without the aid of morality.



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