Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

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.

4. Right action: Actions that are not "right" are those that are forbidden by the five precepts: lying, stealing, killing, taking intoxicants, and sexual misconduct. Instead, one must act with respect, generosity, self-control, honesty, and compassion.

5. Right livelihood: One should not pursue an occupation that harms or exploits others, nor should one be motivated by a big salary or hope to earn more than one needs. The right livelihood is one that provides for one's needs while at the same time serving others and improving the human condition.

Right practice (Samadhi)
6. Right effort: To follow the Buddha's teachings is difficult and requires conscientious effort. This effort need not involve straining or struggling. Instead of trying to prevent wrong thoughts or speech, for example, one can, when they occur, simply let them go. One could try to understand them without allowing them to fester, or one could visualize the negative consequences if they are allowed to persist. Another method is to consciously cultivate more productive mental states. One can also change one's environment to one that is more conducive to following the proper path.

7. Right mindfulness: To be mindful is to be aware of one's thoughts, feelings, and actions so that one is not controlled by them. In addition, mindfulness is awareness of the nature of the world and its operations.

8. Right concentration: This involves a one-pointed focus on spiritual realization. It is a way of avoiding distractions and disruptive emotions and directing the mind toward productive action. The Buddha taught specific practices to cultivate right concentration, forms of meditation that encouraged either tranquility or insight.

The Eightfold Path, along with the concepts of merit and karma, while originally directed toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment, serve also as behavioral guidelines. Within the Buddhist world, these concepts effectively inspire moral behavior and foster social harmony.

Study Questions:
1.      Describe the relationship of merit and karma.
2.     Describe how the eight items of the Eightfold Path are categorized. How do they relate to one another?
3.     What is meant by “right,” as it is used within the Eightfold Path?

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