BUDDHISM AND MORALITY

BUDDHIST MORALITY


Chiang Mai, Thailand

Buddhism provides guidelines for village justice, namely in the form of the five basic moral prohibitions (the Panch Sila, or the five precepts for the laity): 1) refrain for taking life; 2) don't steal; 3) avoid illicit sexual activity; 4) don't speak falsely; and 5) refrain from consuming inebriating substances. These guidelines are supposed to be followed by both lay people and monks. Devout Buddhists and monks are also supposed observe a number of other prohibitions such as avoiding dancing, singing, eating after midday and wearing jewelry and cosmetics.

The religious historian I.B. Hunter wrote: “The criteria of Buddhist morality is to ask yourself , when there is one of three kinds of deeds you want to do, whether it will lead to the hurt of self, of others, or of both. If you come to the conclusion that it will be harmful, then you must not do it. But if you form the opinion that it will be harmless, then you can do it and repeat. A person that torments neither himself or another is already transcending the active life."

Among Mahayana Buddhists there is a great deal of discussion of what is beneficial for people and what isn't since people don't always necessarily know what is good for them. Mahayana scholars discuss things like whether it is an act of kindness to kill an animal in extreme pain or give whiskey to an alcoholic and debate about the merits of medical technology which can make people healthier but ultimately is a benefit provided by material objects rather than spirituality.

Buddhism's success as a religion has been at least partly attributed to the universality of its ethical teaching and the flexibility of its spiritual message. It provides a code of conduct for the community and the individual that provides a framework for a peaceful society and peace of mind. Buddhism is arguably the most tolerant and adaptable religion. Wherever it has gone it has adapted to local conditions. That is one reason why there are so many different sects and schools and it is winning so many adherents today in the West. Buddha preached against the caste system. Much of Buddhist morality is based in on the basic Buddhist premise that life is full of suffering.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index

Buddhist Teachings About Morality

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The Sri Lankan monk Aryadasa Ratnasinghe wrote: “Buddhism is, generally, accepted as a moral philosophy to lead mankind in the proper path by doing good and avoiding evil. The Buddha himself has expressed that his teaching is both deep and recondite, and anyone could follow it who is intelligent enough to understand it. He admonished his disciples to be a refuge to themselves' and never to seek refuge in, or help from anyone else. He taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself, and to work out his own emancipation, because man has the power to liberate him self from all earthly bondage, through his own personal effort and intelligence.^^^

“Buddha based his doctrine on the Four Noble Truths, viz: suffering ('dukkha'), cause of suffering ('samudaya'), destruction of suffering ('nirodha') and the path leading to the cessation of suffering ('magga'). The first is to be comprehended, the second (craving) is to be eradicated, the third (Nibbana) is to be realised, and the fourth (the Noble Eightfold Path) is to be developed. This is the philosophy of the Buddha for the deliverance of mankind from being born again, or the cessation of continuity of becoming, i.e., 'Bhavanirodha' (the attainment of Nibbana). ^^^

“The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way, consists eight factors, namely right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Practically, the whole teaching of the Buddha, to which he devoted himself during his 45 years of ministration, deals in some way or another, with this Path. He explained it in different ways and in different words, to different people, at different times, according to mental development and capacity of a person, to understand and follow the teachings of the Buddha. In classical terminology, it is known as 'Dukkhanirodhagaminipatipada ariyasacca'. ^^^

This Middle Way is neither a metaphysical path nor a ritualistic path, neither dogmatism nor scepticism, neither self-indulgence nor self-mortification, neither externalism nor nihilism, neither pessimism nor optimism, but the path for Enlightenment as the means of deliverance from suffering, and man is solely responsible for his own pains or pleasures. Buddhism is clear, reasonable and gives complete answerers to all important aspects and questions about our lives.

These eight factors aim in promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist discipline, viz. Ethical conduct ('sila'), concentration ('samadhi') and wisdom (panna'). Ethical conduct is built on the conception of morality with compassion towards all beings. Concentration means securing a firm footing on the ground of morality where the aspirant embarks upon the higher practice on the control and culture of the mind. Beyond morality is wisdom. The base of Buddhism is morality and wisdom is its apex. It is the right understanding of the nature of the world in the light of transiency ('anicca'), sorrowfulenss ('dukkha') and soullessness ('anatta').

Wisdom leads to the state of 'dhyana' (psychic faculty), generally called trance. Wisdom covers a very wild field, comprising understanding, knowledge, and insight specific to Buddhism. Wisdom being the apex of Buddhism, is the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.

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Tibetan wrathful diety
It is one of the seven factors of Enlightenment, some of the four means of accomplishment, one of the five powers ('pannabala') and one of the five controlling faculties ('panna indriya).

The highest morality is inculcated in the system of Buddhist thought, since it permits freedom of thought and opinion, sets its norms against persecution and cruelty and recognises the right of animals. Liquor, drugs and opium and all that tends to destroy the composure of the mind are discountenanced. When considering the fraternity of people, Buddhism acknowledges no caste system and admits the perfect equality of all men, as it proclaims the universal brotherhood.

Buddhist Sources on Morality

Instruct yourself (more and more) in the highest morality.—Nagarjuna's "Friendly Epistle." [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Wealth and beauty, scented flowers and ornaments like these, are not to be compared for grace with moral rectitude!—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

No fear has any one of me; neither have I fear of any one: in my good-will to all I trust.—Introduction to the Jataka.

Our deeds, whether good or evil, ... follow us as shadows.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

As he said so he acted.—Vangisa-sutta.

Neither is it right to judge men's character by outward appearances.—Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

Like a ... flower that is rich in color, but has no scent, so are the fine ... words of him who does not act accordingly.—Dhammapada.

Morality brings happiness: ... at night one's rest is peaceful, and on waking one is still happy.—Udanavarga.

Hear ye all this moral maxim, and having heard it keep it well: Whatsoever is displeasing to yourselves never do to another.—Bstanhgyur.

Then declared he unto them (the rule of doing to others what we ourselves like).—San-kiao-yuen-lieu.

Buddhism and Character

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Examination for Thai monks
The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “Buddhism is a “Nay-saying” religion, rejecting all life as suffering and promising release from it; yet when one is actually in a Buddhist country it is hard to resist the impression that one is among the liveliest, the most invincibly cheerful, the most “yea-saying” people on earth."

Describing his people the King of Thailand told National Geographic magazine, "Thais seem to be happy go lucky but are quite strong. Our people are relaxed, not high strung or stiff. They are hospitable to strangers and to new ideas. The majority are Buddhist---and the Buddhists have never had a holy war. They are polite. Honorable politeness. They have courage but are not harsh’strong but gentle."

Poor people in Buddhist countries often have a big smiles on their faces, something that many people believe is attributed to the fact they spend so much time praying and engaging religious activities. Religion is a daily, if not hourly, practice for many Buddhists. Tibetans, for example, seem to spend hours each day praying or spinning prayer wheels.

Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life and look for happiness in future lives. This outlook and is sometimes viewed in the West as a lack of ambition or unwilling to work hard to get ahead.

The teaching of right speech in the Noble Eightfold Path, condemn all speech that is in any way harmful (malicious and harsh speech) and divisive, encouraging to speak in thoughtful and helpful ways. The Pali Canon explains: And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

Patience is a great virtue especially to Mahayana Buddhists. One passage from the Manual of Zen Buddhism goes: “However unnumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them! However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them! However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them! However incomparable Enlightenment is, I vow to attain it! Mahayana Buddhists see patience in terms of moral patience to endure suffering and hostile acts of others and intellectual patience to accept ideas — especially ones that seem so unfathomable and unpleasant like the non-existence of all things — before understanding them.

Buddhist Sources on Good Character


Lotus sutra

Reverently practicing the four gracious acts— Benevolence, charity, humanity, love; Doing all for the good of men, and that they in turn may benefit others. —Phu-yau-king. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

All men should cultivate a fixed and firm determination, and vow that what they once undertake they will never give up.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Rather will I fall headlong into hell ... than do a deed that is unworthy.—Jataka.

May my body be ground to powder small as the mustard-seed if I ever desire to (break my vow)!—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Upright, conscientious and of soft speech, gentle and not proud.—Metta-sutta.

Uprightness is his delight.—Tevijja-sutta.

He injures none by his conversation.—Samanna-phala-sutta.

Not the whole world, ... the ocean-girt earth, With all the seas and the hills that girdle it, Would I wish to possess with shame added thereto. —Questions of King Milinda.

(To the) self-reliant there is strength and joy.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Five Precepts: The Buddhist Guide to Good Behavior

The Five Precepts by which all Buddhists are expected to refrain from are: 1) harming living things; 2) taking what is not given; 3) sexual misconduct; 4) lying or gossip; 5) taking intoxicating substances such as drugs or drink. These five moral precepts are not commandments but aspirations voluntarily undertaken by individuals.

Major General Ananda Weerasekera, a Sri Lankan general who became a monk, wrote: “A code of conduct” is “clearly laid down by Buddha to all four sections of the Buddhist Society. That is Bikkhu (monks), Bikkhuni (nuns), Upasaka (laymen), Upasika (laywomen). The disciples of the Buddha whether men or women belong to many walks of life from a King to a Servant. Whatever their civil status may be a code of conduct and moral obligations for each one has been clearly laid down by the Buddha. This code of conduct is collectively referred to as Virtue (seela) which encompasses disciplined speech, disciplined thought and controlled senses. A layman or a laywomen is advised to observe the five basic precepts as the minimum limit of their 'discipline' in the society. The limits of 'seela' are different for those who have renounced the lay life in search of liberation, The Nirvana. [Source: Major General Ananda Weerasekera, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]


Chinese monks

Have a strict control over your passions.—Story of Sundari and Nanda. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Practice the art of "giving up."—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Control your tongue.—Dhammapada.

Offensive language is harsh even to the brutes.—Suttavaddhananiti.

Aiming to curb the tongue, ... aiming to benefit the world.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

He knew not the art of hypocrisy.—Jatakamala.

Ask not of (a person's) descent, but ask about his conduct—Sundarikabharadvaja-sutta.

Keep watch over your hearts.—Mahaparinibbana-sutta.

Above all things be not careless; for carelessness is the great foe to virtue. —Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

The member of Buddha's order should abstain from theft, even of a blade of grass.—Mahavagga.

Earnestly practice every good work.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

From bribery, cheating, fraud, and (all other) crooked ways he abstains.—Tevijja-sutta.

The Scripture moveth us, therefore, rather to cut off the hand than to take anything which is not ours.—Sha-mi-lu-i-yao-lio.

Let him not, even though irritated, speak harsh words.—Sariputta-sutta.

What he hears he repeats not there, to raise a quarrel against the people here.—Tevijja-sutta.

From this day forth, ... although much be said against me, I will not feel spiteful, angry, enraged, or morose, nor manifest anger and hatred.—Anguttara-Nikaya.

Buddha's Words on Kindness (Metta Sutta)


Sakyamuni Buddha from Bodhgaya

The Buddha said: This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in saftey,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views, [Source: Dharma.net]
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Buddhist Sources on Goodness


girls dressed up like Apsaras in Laos

This good man, moved by pity, gives up his life for another, as though it were but a straw.—Nagananda. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

He lived for the good of mankind.—Jatakamala.

Full of truth and compassion and mercy and long-suffering.—Jataka.

What is goodness? First and foremost the agreement of the will with the conscience.—Sutra of Forty-two Sections.

'Tis thus men generally think and speak, they have a reference in all they do to their own advantage. But with this one it is not so: 'tis the good of others and not his own that he seeks.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

From henceforth ... put away evil and do good.—Jataka.

At morning, noon, and night successively, store up good works.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Always doing good to those around you.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

In order to terminate all suffering, be earnest in performing good deeds.—Buddhaghosa's parables.

He who does wrong, O king, comes to feel remorse.... But he who does well feels no remorse, and feeling no remorse, gladness will spring up within him.—Questions of King Milinda.

Buddhist Sources on Duty and Reaping What You Sow

Walk in the path of duty, do good to your brethren, and work no evil towards them.—Avadana Sataka. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Intent upon benefiting your fellow-creatures.—Katha Sarit Sagara.

Let none be forgetful of his own duty for the sake of another's.—Dhammapada.

Better to fling away life than transgress our convictions of duty.—Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

He who, doing what he ought, ... gives pleasure to others, shall find joy in the other world.—Udanavarga.


Losar in Tibet

Religion means self-sacrifice.—Rukemavati.

I consider the welfare of all people as something for which I must work.—Rock Inscriptions of Asoka.

Our duty to do something, not only for our own benefit, but for the good of those who shall come after us.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

As men sow, thus shall they reap.—Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

Actions have their reward, and our deeds have their result.—Mahavagga.

Our deeds are not lost, they will surely come (back again).—Kokaliya-sutta.

Reaping the fruit of right or evil doing, and sharing happiness or misery in consequence.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

Doing good we reap good, just as a man who sows that which is sweet (enjoys the same).—Fa-kheu-pi-us.

Buddhist Sources on Social Relations

Liberty, courtesy, benevolence, unselfishness, under all circumstances towards all people—these qualities are to the world what the linchpin is to the rolling chariot. —Sigalovada-sutta. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Since even animals can live together in mutual reverence, confidence, and courtesy, much more should you, O Brethren, so let your light shine forth that you ... may be seen to dwell in like manner together.—Cullavagga.

Trust is the best of relationships.—Dhammapada.

Faithful and trustworthy, he injures not his fellow-man by deceit.—Tevijja-sutta.

He sought after the good of those dependent on him.—Questions of King Milinda.

Who, though he be lord over others, is patient with those that are weak.—Udanavarga.

Loving her maids and dependents even as herself.—Lalita Vistara.

Loving all things which live even as themselves.—Sir Edwin Arnold.

Judge not thy neighbor.—Siamese Buddhist Maxim.

Buddhist Sources on Friendship


Korean monks

Look with friendship ... on the evil and on the good.—Introduction to Jataka Book. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

If thou see others lamenting, join in their lamentations: if thou hear others rejoicing, join in their joy.—Jitsu-go-kiyo.

Let us be knit together ... as friends.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

(The true friend) forsakes you not in trouble; he will lay down his life for your sake.—Sigalovada-sutta.

In grief as well as in joy we are united, In sorrow and in happiness alike. That which your heart rejoices in as good, That I also rejoice in and follow. It were better I should die with you, Than ... attempt to live where you are not. —Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

His friendship is prized by the gentle and the good.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

All the people were bound close in family love and friendship.—Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king.

A heart bound by affection does not mind imminent peril. Worse than death to such a one is the sorrow which the distress of a friend inflicts.—Jatakamala.

Buddhist Sources on Ways to Treat Others

Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.—Udanavarga. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

The man of honor should minister to his friends ... by liberality, courtesy, benevolence, and by doing to them as he would be done by.—Sigalovada-sutta.

Speak not harshly to anybody.—Dhammapada.

May I speak kindly and softly to every one I chance to meet.—Inscription in Temple of Nakhon Vat.

Courtesy is the best ornament. Beauty without courtesy is like a grove without flowers.—Buddha-charita.

Let not one who is asked for his pardon withhold it.—Mahavagga.

Always intent on bringing about the good and the happiness of others.—Jatakamala.

If they may cause by it the happiness of others, even pain is highly esteemed by the righteous, as if it were gain.—Jatakamala.

Let him not think detractingly of others.—Sariputta-sutta.

But offer loving thoughts and acts to all.—Sir Edwin Arnold.

Never should he speak a disparaging word of anybody.—Saddharma-pundarika.

Lightly to laugh at and ridicule another is wrong.—Fa-kheu-pi-us.

Buddhist Views on the Treatment of Animals

According to the BBC: “Although Buddhism is an animal-friendly religion, some aspects of the tradition are surprisingly negative about animals. Buddhism requires us to treat animals kindly: 1) Buddhists try to do no harm (or as little harm as possible) to animals; 2) Buddhists try to show loving-kindness to all beings, including animals; 3) The doctrine of right livelihood teaches Buddhists to avoid any work connected with the killing of animals. The doctrine of karma teaches that any wrong behaviour will have to be paid for in a future life - so cruel acts to animals should be avoided. Buddhists treat the lives of human and non-human animals with equal respect. [Source: BBC |::|]


Chart indicating good and bad bloodletting days and when to guard against demons. The chart also contains a sme ba, 9 figures symbolising the elements in geomancy, in the centre with the Chinese pa-kua, 8 trigrams, surrounded by 12 animals representing months and years. Below this, symbols of the 7 days of the week. 106 compartments containing an ornamental letter in each and written in dbu indicate bloodletting days. The protector deities, top, are Manjursri, the White Tara and Vajrapani, below them the 8 fortune signs and other symbols


“Buddhists see human and non-human animals as closely related: 1) both have Buddha-nature both have the possibility of becoming perfectly enlightened; 2) a soul may be reborn either in a human body or in the body of a non-human animal. Buddhists believe that is wrong to hurt or kill animals, because all beings are afraid of injury and death:”
All living things fear being beaten with clubs.
All living things fear being put to death.
Putting oneself in the place of the other,
Let no one kill nor cause another to kill. — Dhammapada 129

“Buddhist behaviour towards and thinking about animals is not always positive. The doctrine of karma implies that souls are reborn as animals because of past misdeeds. Being reborn as an animal is a serious spiritual setback. Because non-human animals can't engage in conscious acts of self-improvement they can't improve their karmic status, and their souls must continue to be reborn as animals until their bad karma is exhausted. Only when they are reborn as human beings can they resume the quest for nirvana. This bad karma, and the animal's inability to do much to improve it, led Buddhists in the past to think that non-human animals were inferior to human beings and so were entitled to fewer rights than human beings. Early Buddhists (but not the Buddha himself) used the idea that animals were spiritually inferior as a justification for the exploitation and mistreatment of animals. |::|

“Buddhists say that this is morally wrong if the animal concerned might come to any harm. However, Buddhists also acknowledge the value that animal experiments may have for human health. So perhaps a Buddhist approach to experiments on animals might require the experimenter to: 1) accept the karma of carrying out the experiment; 2) the experimenter will acquire bad karma through experimenting on an animal; 3) experiment only for a good purpose experiment only on animals where there is no alternative; 4) design the experiment to do as little harm as possible; 5) avoid killing the animal unless it is absolutely necessary; 6) treat the animals concerned kindly and respectfully The bad karmic consequences for the experimenter seem to demand a high level of altruistic behaviour in research laboratories.” |::|

Refraining from Harming Living Things

The first of the Five Precepts is to abstain from taking life. "Life", according to Buddhism covers the entire spectrum of living beings, which the 'Karaneeya Mettha Sutta' says includes: 1) Tasa-Tava:- moving, unmoving; 2) Diga-long, Mahantha-large; 3) Majjima-medium; 4) Rassaka- short; 5) Anuka-minute, Thula- fat; 6) Ditta-that can be seen; 7) Additta-that cannot be seen; 8) Dure-which live far; 9) Avidure-which live near; 10) Bhuta-born; 11) Sambavesi- seeking birth. [Source: Major General Ananda Weerasekera, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]



Buddhism beliefs in sanctity of life and non-violence have their origins in Hinduism and Jainism. See Hinduism and Jainism.

The member of Buddha's order ... should not intentionally destroy the life of any being, down even to a worm or an ant.—Mahavagga. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Nor [shall one] lay Upon the brow of innocent bound beasts One hair's weight of that answer all must give For all things done amiss or wrongfully. —Sir Edwin Arnold.

Whosoever ... harms living beings, ... and in whom there is no compassion for them, let us know such as a "base-born."—Vasala-sutta.

Living in the world, and doing no harm to aught that lives.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Every variety of living creature I must ever defend from harm.—Ta-chwang-yan-king-lun.

Whether of the higher class of beings, as ... a perfect man, ... or of the lower class of beings, as a grasshopper or the smallest insect—in one word, whatever hath life thou shalt not kill.—Sha-mi-lu-i-yao-lio.

Buddhist Views on Capital Punishment

According to the BBC: “Because Buddhism exists in many forms, under many organisations, there is no unified Buddhist policy on capital punishment. In terms of doctrine the death penalty is clearly inconsistent with Buddhist teaching. Buddhists place great emphasis on non-violence and compassion for all life. The First Precept requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing any living creature. The Buddha did not explicitly speak about capital punishment, but his teachings show no sympathy for physical punishment, no matter how bad the crime. An action, even if it brings benefit to oneself, cannot be considered a good action if it causes physical and mental pain to another being. If a person foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my boundless love. The more evil that comes from him, the more good will go from me. [Source: “Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty.” Alarid and Wang, BBC |::|]

“Buddhism believes fundamentally in the cycle of birth and re-birth (Samsara) and teaches that if capital punishment is administered it will have compromising effects on the souls of both offender and the punisher in future incarnations. As far as punishment in this world is concerned, Buddhism has strong views: 1) inhumane treatment of an offender does not solve their misdeeds or those of humanity in general - the best approach to an offender is reformatory rather than punitive; 2) punishment should only be to the extent to which the offender needs to make amends, and his rehabilitation into society should be of paramount importance; 3) punishing an offender with excessive cruelty will injure not just the offender's mind, but also the mind of the person doing the punishing; 4) it is impossible to administer severe punishment with composure and compassion; 5) if the crime is particularly serious, the person may be banished from the community or country. |::|

“Despite these teachings several countries with substantial Buddhist populations retain the death penalty, and some of them, for example Thailand, continue to use it. These are no states that have Buddhism as their official religion. Alarid and Wang suggest that this apparent paradox partly stems from the difference between popular and monastic Buddhism. The majority of lay Buddhists in these countries follow Buddhist practices and are entirely sincere in their commitment, but "the genuine study of Buddhism, its rituals, and carryover to daily life is superficial for most Buddhist followers." Other reasons Buddhist countries retain the death penalty are: 1) belief by politicians that capital punishment is necessary for retribution, cultural customs, or for deterrence value; 2) a long tradition of capital punishment in a particular country keeping order in society is seen as more important than Buddha's teaching; and 3) reaction to long periods of political unrest or economic instability.” |::|



Buddhist Views on Euthanasia and Suicide

According to the BBC: “Buddhists are not unanimous in their view of euthanasia, and the teachings of the Buddha don't explicitly deal with it. Most Buddhists (like almost everyone else) are against involuntary euthanasia. Their position on voluntary euthanasia is less clear. The most common position is that voluntary euthanasia is wrong, because it demonstrates that one's mind is in a bad state and that one has allowed physical suffering to cause mental suffering. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Meditation and the proper use of pain killing drugs should enable a person to attain a state where they are not in mental pain, and so no longer contemplate euthanasia or suicide. Buddhists might also argue that helping to end someone's life is likely to put the helper into a bad mental state, and this too should be avoided. |::|

“Buddhism places great stress on non-harm, and on avoiding the ending of life. The reference is to life - any life - so the intentional ending of life seems against Buddhist teaching and voluntary euthanasia should be forbidden. Certain codes of Buddhist monastic law explicitly forbid it. Lay-people do not have a code of Buddhist law, so the strongest that can be said of a lay person who takes part in euthanasia is that they have made an error of judgement. |::|

“Buddhists regard death as a transition. The deceased person will be reborn to a new life, whose quality will be the result of their karma. This produces two problems. We don't know what the next life is going to be like. If the next life is going to be even worse than the life that the sick person is presently enduring it would clearly be wrong on a utilitarian basis to permit euthanasia, as that shortens the present bad state of affairs in favour of an even worse one. The second problem is that shortening life interferes with the working out of karma, and alters the karmic balance resulting from the shortened life. |::|

“Another difficulty comes if we look at voluntary euthanasia as a form of suicide. The Buddha himself showed tolerance of suicide by monks in two cases. The Japanese Buddhist tradition includes many stories of suicide by monks, and suicide was used as a political weapon by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war. But these were monks, and that makes a difference. In Buddhism, the way life ends has a profound impact on the way the new life will begin. So a person's state of mind at the time of death is important - their thoughts should be selfless and enlightened, free of anger, hate or fear. This suggests that suicide (and so euthanasia) is only approved for people who have achieved enlightenment and that the rest of us should avoid it.” |::|

Buddhist Views on Organ Donation

According to the BBC: “ There are no rules in Buddhism for or against organ donation, but central to Buddhism is a wish to relieve suffering. There may also be occasions when organ donation may be seen as an act of charity. In Buddhism the decision for or against organ donation relies very much on an individual's decision. People may decide for or against it, without one choice being seen as right, and the other wrong. The needs and wishes of a potential donor should not be compromised by the wish to save a life. [Source: BBC |::|]

“The death process of an individual is viewed as very important, and a body should be treated with respect. However, there are no beliefs that say the body should be preserved in its entirety, so removing organs is not an issue from this point of view. A dead body, however, should only be disturbed for appropriate reasons, and with special care. It is also important to consider the consciousness of the dead person, and whether this might be adversely affected by organ donation, as the surgery takes place immediately after the donor takes their last breath. |::|

“Some Buddhists, including those who are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, believe the consciousness may stay in the body for some time after the breath has stopped. Until the consciousness leaves the body it is important the body remains undisturbed, so Tibetan Buddhists may have some concerns that an operation so soon after death may damage their consciousness and cause harm to their future lives. But others may decide this final act of generosity can only have positive ramifications.” |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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