Another Western Buddhist Monk's site

Insight into Morality, the first training on the path–Part 1

Morality or Ethics [Paali: siila]

The purpose of Morality is twofold. It brings benefit to oneself and others, as all practices in the Buddha’s teaching would do. The benefit for oneself is, one avoids a guilty conscience and depression and one’s mind can be relatively bright and clear. The benefit for others is, people who maintain the five precepts are safe to be around. They make society that little bit safer because they are moral people. The Buddha said those who are moral are “devaa” which is translated as “gods”, but for those with a Christian upbringing “angels” would give a closer understanding. Have you ever called someone an angel due to their kindness? Well that is the kind of thing the Buddha meant.

This gives a very different understanding to the chant Asian monks recite very often as a blessing, which says “may all the gods protect  you”. You have to understand that blessing with the advice from the Buddha “don’t associate with fools, but associate with the wise, this it a high blessing”. The wise are moral, they are gods/angels and a blessing is the result of our action, not the speech or wish of others. The Buddha said wishes are not just obtained by wishing, but by acting also. On the other hand, acting without making a clear wish or intention would not be very effective.

The Buddha’s teaching is summarised as:

  1. Not to do evil,
  2. To do good and
  3. To purify the mind.

The first of these three points refers to Morality. It is avoiding serious unwholesome actions of thought, word and deed. Yes, all three.

The common explanation of the Path is the Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Aspiration
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Right Understanding and Right Aspiration come first and these are not Wisdom. These are part of the training in Morality. The Buddha taught that mind is most important when we consider suffering.  So the first thing we need to avoid is unwholesome aspects of thought: wrong understanding and wrong aspiration. These two are the most obstructive things for progress on the path. Being established in Right Understanding and Right Aspiration, we can then go to the next steps of avoiding serious unwholesome aspects of speech and deed. Our speech and deeds will not be ritualistic, they will be realistic and practical. They will be effective in purifying our lives and bringing happiness.

When we consider the five precepts for laypeople, moral thinking is assumed, or we can say the first two steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are assumed, because the five precepts are given to those on the path, who have proper understanding, right thinking. Therefore the five precepts only cover Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, that is speech and deed.

People with right thinking know that the five precepts are not Morality. They know the difference between precepts and Morality. Precepts are a guide, usually from others, originating externally, but Morality is a quality of character, a quality of mind, an inner quality. The precepts are only the path to Morality, or the trainings for Morality. After training, we develop Morality. If the five precepts were Morality, then we could say we get Morality by doing the religious ceremony of receiving the five precepts from monks. That would mean that monks give us Morality, but this is totally against the teaching of the Buddha. Morality is the first training that we undertake as part of the path. We do the training, we walk the path. No one can do it for us, no one can give us inner qualities. They can only show the way for us to develop those qualities ourselves. This is what happens when we get the five precepts from monks.

The five precepts have two levels that are usually not understood.

The five precepts are:

  1. Avoid murder
  2. Avoid stealing
  3. Avoid sexual misconduct
  4. Avoid lying
  5. Avoid intoxication

The Buddha said to compare the Discourses and the Discipline when we are trying to understand his teaching. When it comes to understanding Morality, the monk’s Discipline explains it as avoiding serious actions (the first two groups of monks precepts totalling 17 precepts). Of course the other not so serious actions should be avoided too, but breaking them is not called immorality. Avoiding the other less serious actions is called good habits (Mv IV.16.12 = V i 172). Breaking the less serious actions would be called “bad habits”. Avoiding “bad habits” is not defined as part of “ethics” and vice versa. So we have two levels of prohibition. This can be seen as the principle that should be applied to the lay training in Morality also.

The serious precepts for the monks are: the four defeats and the thirteen offences requiring a meeting of the community of monks. If a monk commits any of the four defeats, he is no long a monk, automatically. Breaking the first four precepts cannot be reversed. That shows how serious they are. If any of the thirteen others have been done, the monk must undergo a period of probation and rehabilitation. He temporarily does not have full status as a monk. That shows how serious they are, but that situation can be repaired. The thirteen are not relevant to laypeople.

The five precepts can be seen to cover both the serious and not serious rules of the monks. Here we must use our intelligence. If, for example, killing a mosquito is a “bad habit” that a monk should avoid, but it is not being immoral (like killing another human being), then it must be similar for the laypeople. The lay peoples’ training cannot be more strict than the monks’! It cannot be that killing a mosquito is a bad  habit for a monk but immoral for a layperson!


To be continued…


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