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Buddhist ethics

For the academic subdiscipline of Buddhist Studies, see Buddhist ethics (discipline).

Buddhist ethics are traditionally based on what Buddhists view as the enlightened perspective of the Buddha, or other enlightened beings who followed him. Moral instructions are included in Buddhist scriptures or handed down through tradition. Most scholars of Buddhist ethics thus rely on the examination of Buddhist scriptures, and the use of anthropological evidence from traditional Buddhist societies, to justify claims about the nature of Buddhist ethics.[1]

According to traditional Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is The Five Precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants. In becoming a Buddhist, or affirming one's commitment to Buddhism, a layperson is encouraged to vow to abstain from these negative actions. The precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice.[2] In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of dana and ethical conduct will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower hells is unlikely, even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting one's aims to this level of attainment.[3] Buddhist monks and nuns take hundreds more such vows (see vinaya).

The Buddha (BC 623-BC 543) provided some basic guidelines for acceptable behavior that are part of the Eightfold path. The initial precept is non-injury or non-violence to all living creatures from the lowest insect to humans. This precept defines a non-violent attitude toward every living thing. The Buddhist practice of this does not extend to the extremes exhibited by Jainism, but from both the Buddhist and Jain perspectives, non-violence suggests an intimate involvement with, and relationship to, all living things.[4]


Killing, causing others to kill


Main article: Ahimsa § Buddhism


Main article: Buddhism and abortion

There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion although traditional Buddhism rejects abortion because it involves the deliberate destroying of a life and regards life as starting at conception. Although some Buddhism can be interpreted as life beginning before conception because of the never ending cycle of life.[5] Those practicing in Japan and the United States are said to be more tolerant of abortion than those who live elsewhere.[6] In Japan, women sometimes participate in Mizuko kuyo (水子供養 — lit. Newborn Baby Memorial Service) after an induced abortion or an abortion as the result of a miscarriage; a similar Taiwanese ritual is called yingling gongyang. The Dalai Lama has said that abortion is "negative," but there are exceptions. He said, "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance."[7]

Capital punishment

Buddhism places great emphasis on the sanctity of life. However, there is disagreement among Buddhists as to whether or not Buddhism forbids the death penalty. The first of the Five Precepts (Panca-sila) is to abstain from destruction of life. Chapter 10 of the Dhammapada states:

"Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill".

Chapter 26, the final chapter of the Dhammapada, states "Him I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures. He neither kills nor helps others to kill". These sentences are interpreted by many Buddhists (especially in the West) as an injunction against supporting any legal measure which might lead to the death penalty. However, almost throughout history, countries where Buddhism has been the official religion (which have included most of the Far East and Indochina) have practiced the death penalty. One exception is the abolition of the death penalty by the Emperor Saga of Japan in 818. This lasted until 1165, although in private manors executions conducted as a form of retaliation continued to be conducted.

In the Jataka, which tell stories of the past lives of the Buddha, Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) actually kills someone to save another person's life, though because of this action, he was no longer able to achieve enlightenment in that particular life.[citation needed] Therefore, few (if any) Buddhist groups issue blanket decrees against Buddhists being soldiers, police officers or farmers (which in Buddhism is classified as a profession involved in destruction of life), and some argue that the death penalty is permissible in certain circumstances. In general, Buddhist groups in secular countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan tend to take anti-death penalty stance while those in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bhutan where Buddhism has strong political influence, the opposite is true. Almost all Buddhist groups, however, oppose the use of the death penalty as a means of retribution.


In Theravada Buddhism, for a monk to praise the advantages of death, including simply telling a person of the miseries of life or the bliss of dying and going to heaven in such a way that he/she might feel inspired to commit suicide or simply pine away to death, is explicitly stated as a breach in one of highest vinaya code regarding prohibition of harming life, hence it will result in automatic expulsion from Sangha.[8] In caring for the terminally ill, no one should subject a patient to treatment designed to bring on death faster than it would if the disease were simply allowed to run its course.[citation needed]


The first precept of Buddhism focuses mainly on direct participation in the destruction of life. This is one reason that the Buddha made a distinction between killing animals and eating meat, and refused to introduce vegetarianism into monastic practice (see Vegetarian section of Buddhism).

Many Buddhists, especially in East Asia, believe that Buddhism advocates or promotes vegetarianism. While Buddhist theory tends to equate killing animals with killing people (and avoids the conclusion that killing can sometimes be ethical, e.g. defense of others), outside of the Chinese and Vietnamese monastic tradition, most Buddhists do eat meat in practice.[9] There is some controversy surrounding whether or not the Buddha himself died from eating rancid pork.[10] While most Chinese and Vietnamese monastics are vegetarian,[9] vegetarian Tibetans are rare indeed.[9] The same applies to the scarcity of Japanese Buddhist vegetarians.[9] The Dalai Lama, after contracting Hepatitis B, was advised by doctors to switch to a high animal-protein diet.[11] The Dalai Lama was once engaged in an ethical discussion with some Theravadan Buddhists who believed that as long as one was determined to eat meat, seafood was preferable to red meat. The Dalai Lama responded that one bowl of shrimp would kill multitudes of sentient beings, but one sheep or cow would feed many people.[citation needed] The Dalai Lama eats vegetarian every second day, so he effectively eats a vegetarian diet for 6 months of the year.[12]

The first lay precept in Buddhism is usually translated as "I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures." Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is a divergence of views within Buddhism on the need for vegetarianism, with some schools of Buddhism rejecting such a claimed need and with most Buddhists in fact eating meat. Many Mahayana Buddhists - especially the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions - strongly oppose meat-eating on scriptural grounds.[13]

In the Pali version of the Tripitaka, there are number of occasions in which the Buddha ate meat as well as recommending certain types of meat as a cure for medical conditions. On one occasion, a general sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. The Buddha declared that:

Meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); these, Jivaka, are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten, Jivaka! I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); Jivaka, I say these are the three circumstances in which meat can be eaten.

-- Jivaka Sutta</blockquote>

The Buddha, on one particular occasion, specifically refused suggestions by Devadatta to institute vegetarianism in Sangha. According to Kassapa Buddha (a previous Buddha of legend not Shakyamuni Buddha) "[t]aking life, beating, wounding, binding, stealing, lying, deceiving, worthless knowledge, adultery; this is stench. Not the eating of meat." (Amagandha Sutta). There were, however, rules prohibiting consumption of 10 types of meat. Those are humans, elephants, horses, dogs, snakes, lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas because these animals can be provoked by the smell of the flesh of their own kind.[citation needed]

Theravada commentaries[which?] explain the Buddha was making distinction between direct destruction of life and eating of already dead meat. Moreover, they point out that any act of consumption would involve proxy killing, including the farming of crops, so the idea that meat eating amounted to proxy killing while eating vegetables does not is ignorance. For this reason, they discourage gluttony or any other act of craving which lead to over consumption.[citation needed] However, some Therevadan monks[who?] suggest that it is possible to make some case for vegetarianism starting from brahmavihara. Interestingly, this, in addition to their Mahayana scriptural sources, is how many Mahayana Buddhists make the case for vegetarianism.

While there is no mention of Buddha endorsing or repudiating vegetarianism in surviving portions of Pali Tripitaka and no Mahayana sutras explicitly declare that meat eating violates the first precept, certain Mahayana sutras vigorously and unreservedly denounce the eating of meat, mainly on the ground that such an act violates the bodhisattva's compassion. The sutras which inveigh against meat-eating include the Mahayana version of the Nirvana Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Brahmajala Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, the Mahamegha Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra, as well as the Buddha's comments on the negative karmic effects of meat consumption in the Karma Sutra. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final elucidatory and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his death, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead) is prohibited by him. He specifically rejects the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it: ". . . it should be rejected . . . I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction . . . I teach the harm arising from meat-eating." The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and lyingly claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact he says he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption and unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. In several other Mahayana scriptures, too (e.g., the Mahayana jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.

Sexual misconduct

The Third (or sometimes Fourth) of the Five Precepts of Buddhism states that one is to refrain from "sexual misconduct". Buddhist teachings are usually disdainful towards sexuality and distrustful of sensual enjoyment and desire in general.[14] Buddhist monks and nuns of most traditions are not only expected to refrain from all sexual activity but take vows of celibacy.


Among the Buddhist traditions there is a vast diversity of opinion about homosexuality and in interpreting the precedents which define "sexual misconduct". Though there is no explicit condemnation of homosexuality in Buddhist scripture, be it Theravada, Mahayana or Mantrayana, societal and community attitudes and the historical view of practitioners have established precedents. Some sangha equate homosexuality with scriptural sexual misconduct prohibited by the Five Precepts. Other sangha hold that if sexuality is compassionate and/or consensual and does not contravene vows, then there is no dharmic infraction irrespective of whether it is same-sex or not.

See also


  1. ^ Damien Keown The Nature of Buddhist Ethics Macmillan 1992; Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000
  2. ^ Stewart McFarlane in Peter Harvey, ed., Buddhism. Continuum, 2001, page 187.
  3. ^ Stewart McFarlane in Peter Harvey, ed., Buddhism. Continuum, 2001, pages 195-196.
  4. ^ Carl Olson, The Different Paths of Buddhism p.73
  5. ^ "Abortion: Buddhism." BBC Religion & Ethics. Retrieved January 15, 2008.
  6. ^ Barnhart, Michael G. (1995). Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 5. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  7. ^ Claudia Dreifus (November 28, 1993). "The Dalai Lama". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2012. 
  8. ^ Pruitt & Norman, The Patimokkha, 2001, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, Defeat 3
  9. ^ a b c d Dharma Data: Vegetarianism
  10. ^ Vegetarianism and Buddhism
  11. ^ Dalai Lama (1991). Freedom in exile: the autobiography of the Dalai Lama. HarperOne. pp. 184–185. ISBN 0-06-098701-4. 
  12. ^ Phelps, Norm. (2004). The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights. Lantern Books.
  13. ^ Buddhist Resources on Vegetarianism and Animal Welfare
  14. ^ See Religion and sexuality#Buddhist views of sex and morality

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