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Religion Library: Buddhism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Julia Hardy

One of the fundamental Buddhist principles of moral thought and action is karma. Until such time as one becomes enlightened, one's actions in this life will determine the nature of future rebirths. A related concept fundamental to Buddhism is merit. Acts of generosity toward and support of Buddhist monks are channeled by the monks toward advancement for the giver in future rebirths or toward improving the lot of deceased relatives.

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths are another guiding principle of moral thought and action, particularly as expressed in the fourth truth, the Eightfold Path. The motivation for following the Four Noble Truths is not to "be good" per se, but to facilitate the realization the Buddhists call enlightenment. The English translation of the terms within the path does nothing to dispel the impression that the Eightfold Path is a series of moral injunctions — "right effort," "right livelihood," etc. — as the term "right" in English implies "correct." A more accurate translation for "right" in this case might be "skillful."

Practically speaking, since the earliest days of Buddhism, many have regarded the Eightfold Path as a set of guidelines for correct behavior, and it is not difficult to see why. Even in the early texts, the Buddha often mentioned "do nots" when discussing the Eightfold Path.

The eight items in the Eightfold Path are often divided into three categories: right view, right conduct, and right practice. These classifications are aids to remembering and understanding the nature of each item in the list. It is important to note that the Eightfold Path is not a series of consecutive steps like the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a sense, each is a path in and of itself. For example, it is not necessary to establish "right understanding" before undertaking "right livelihood."

Right view (Prajna)
1. Right understanding: Recalling that the first step in dependent arising is ignorance, it is not surprising that the first item the Buddha mentioned in listing the Eightfold Path was right understanding. To have right understanding is to comprehend that life is impermanent and that one's illusion of a separate and individual self contributes to one's dissatisfaction in life.

2. Right thought: To cultivate right thought is to avoid unhealthy states of mind that give rise to suffering, such as greed or anger or hatred. This path is not just about avoidance, however; often called right aspiration, it involves actively cultivating compassionate thoughts and positive wishes for others.

Right conduct (Shila)
3. Right speech: The Buddha taught that wrong speech included lying, slander, harsh words, and gossip. As in the previous case, it is not enough simply to avoid these; one must also cultivate speech that is kind and compassionate.