Apramāda

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The Buddha’s Reasons for Being Ethical

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There are a few suttas (ancient Buddhist texts) in which the Buddha gives very specific reasons why we should treat people and animals well, and should not harm them. In one of these a King named Pasenadi asks his wife Mallika whether there is anyone in the world who she loves more than herself. She replies in the negative and then asks her husband the same question, who gives the same reply – “there is no one I love more than myself.” (This can also be translated as “there is no one dearer than myself”). The King later recounts this conversation to the Buddha, who responds in verse:

Having gone around in all directions with the mind,
There is surely no one found who is loved more than oneself.

In the same way others each love themselves,
Therefore one who cares for himself should not harm another.1

Here the Buddha uses the natural love of self that Pasenadi and Mallika admit to as a criterion for the way we should treat others. Just as I love myself and want to avoid suffering, so other people love themselves and don’t want to suffer. Considering this, we should not hurt others.

In another sutta the Buddha expands this criterion. He tells his son, Rahula, that he should only perform an action after repeated reflection, that reflection being in the form of three questions: will a particular action cause suffering for myself, others, or both? If the answer is yes to any of these, then he shouldn’t perform that action. If, on the other hand, he thinks that it will likely be the cause of happiness for himself, for others, or both, then he should do it. He goes on to say that Rahula should reflect in the same way while performing the action, and once again after the action.2

In a third sutta the Buddha introduces an extra criterion for not harming living beings: he encounters some boys beating a snake with a stick, and he says to them:

Creatures love happiness,
so if you hurt them with a stick
in search of your own happiness,
after death you’ll find no happiness.

Creatures love happiness,
so if you don’t hurt them with a stick
in search of your own happiness,
after death you will find happiness.3

(If you’re wondering whether snakes can feel happiness, the word translated here as happiness – sukha – can also mean ease or pleasure.) Here the Buddha appeals to the boys’ natural desire to be happy and free from suffering, but also to their belief in karma and rebirth – a belief that the boys presumably shared. To the extent that they harm living beings in this life, they will suffer in their next. This advice is not necessarily redundant for those who don’t believe in rebirth, because the law of karma operates within one life too. The Buddha was once speaking to some people he had only just met, and so didn’t know what their beliefs about death were. He advised them to cultivate metta (loving kindness), and encouraged them to do so by telling them that, if they believed in rebirth, it would lead to a better rebirth for them, but that if they didn’t believe in rebirth it was still a good thing to do because it would make this life better for them.4 Returning to the snake-tormenting boys, the argument the Buddha used is essentially self-referential. If you harm creatures now, in the future you will suffer. So if you don’t want to suffer, don’t hurt others.

But there is another reason for being ethical, the most important one from the Buddhist perspective – to Awaken, or become Enlightened. Ethical conduct is understood as being absolutely essential to this quest, as is illustrated in one of the oldest and simplest of the Buddha’s formulations of the Path to Liberation: Ethics, Meditation, and Wisdom. You might think this is yet another self-referential motivation, but that would be to misunderstand what Enlightenment is. To be Awake or Enlightened is to be radically and permanently unselfish. Buddhist ethics is a practice in unselfish behaviour, which leads, eventually, to Wisdom, which, among other things, is the experience of natural or spontaneous unselfishness.

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Footnotes

  1. Rāja sutta, Udana 5.1, translation Bhikkhu Ānanadajoti, https://suttacentral.net/ud5.1/en/anandajoti
  2. Advice to Rāhula at Ambalaṭṭhika (Ambalaṭṭhikarāhulovādasutta), MN 61.
  3. Daṇḍa Sutta, Udana 2.3, translation Bhikkhu Ānanadajoti, https://suttacentral.net/ud2.3/en/anandajoti
  4. Kalama Sutta https://suttacentral.net/an3.65/en/bodhi
Ratnaguna

Ratnaguna has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for 45 years. He is a well-known teacher and has written four books - The Art of Reflection, Great Faith Great Wisdom (with Dharmachari Śraddhāpa), Kindfulness (in Spanish, with Dharmachari Dharmakirit), and, under his civil name, Gary Hennessey, The Little Mindfulness Workbook.

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