“What Would Buddha Do?”

by Gary Gach, PBS.org (Blog), 7 April 2010

“At first, precepts are a practice. Then they become a necessity, and finally they become a joy.” - Jack Kornfield

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Meditation draws many to Buddhism. Similarly, Buddhist wisdom traditions hold powerful attraction. Ethics sometimes get short shrift when considering the Way of the Buddha.

Yet to live as a Buddha, selfless and loving, which is to say, leading a genuine life, intimate with life itself - amongst other buddhas and buddhas-to-be - wouldn’t you appreciate some guidelines?

Just as vast ethical collections exist in Judaism beyond the “top ten” of the Decalogue, Buddhism has collections of rules numbering in the hundreds, called vinaya for monastic life. Since the time of the Buddha, the precepts have preserved the continuity and vitality of the beloved community, the Sangha.

Indeed, initiation into many Buddhist sanghas, the beginning of formal practice, occurs through transmission of the precepts. Different schools carve up the Ethical Pie in varying ways for all practitioners, with 10 precepts, 16, 58, etc. Here, we can summarize the key points as five: 1) to not kill, 2) not steal, 3) not screw around, 4) not lie, and 5) not get drunk.

As with the commandments from Mt. Sinai, each are phrased in the negative: Thou Shalt Not. This recognizes our natural inclination to get our feet caught in certain thickets, and that humanity has already had a head start on going amuck. Don’ts could equally be phrased positively.

Nonviolence implies reverence for life. No theft implies trustworthiness and generosity. No sex without commitment implies intimacy and responsibility. To not lie, implies honesty, deep listening and loving speech. Non-intoxication implies mindful consumption, healthy nourishment.

Ethics are a full third of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, in tandem with wisdom and meditation. Ethics, wisdom, and meditation are wisely braided in interaction. They coexist without clear separation. If wisdom can be symbolized by the head, and meditation by the heart, then we see ethics as pertaining to the body; refining our instinctual nature. The Buddhist invitation is thus to live with body, heart, and head as one; to fully keep our appointment with life. Ethical guidelines support our meditation which, in turn, informs and deepens our wisdom as to how things are. And, conversely, in letting go of our baggage and fully experiencing the wisdom of the present moment, we gain greater insight into the nature of human conduct, starting with our own.

Zen offers an example of how fitting the precepts into our own lived world takes wisdom and can be a meditation. Zen recognizes three levels to the precepts. The first level is straightforward: Don't do harmful things, such as killing. The second level asks us to recognize that we're killing all the time (blowing out a flame, crushing insects as we walk, swallowing microbes when we drink a glass of water, etc). Being aware of this keeps us from being too self-righteous. The third level asks us to recognize the impossibility of killing. Matter is never created nor destroyed. Destroy something here, and it pops up in another form elsewhere.

Ancient as they might be, Buddhist ethics contain a wealth of meaning for today’s world. For example, the applicability of the spotlight on intoxication can be seen in the effectiveness of Buddhism in addiction recovery, a potent spiritual Twelve-Step. And, on a more extensive level, intoxication can also pertain to being hooked on material consumption, not knowing “enough,” and, conversely, sobriety as including a sustainable life-style.

Just as the Eightfold Path isn’t a set of instructions to be followed one through eight, but rather integrally, so too are the precepts interconnected. To practice one deeply eventually leads to all the others. Mere intoxication, for example, can lead to violence, theft, saying bad things, and sexual impropriety.

Whether you called this ethics, conscious conduct, mindfulness training, or virtue -- the Buddhist precepts for following a path with a heart are crafted from the same gold as the Golden Rule. One unique factor to the Buddhist perspective is in its not being based on decrees via heavenly messenger. This doesn’t mean we can make rules up to suit our fancy, but neither are there edicts carved in stone. Rather, there are astute observations of cosmic truths as to what nourishes life. The assumption is thus that no one has sovereignty over our hearts, our minds, our lives, but we ourselves. So we can enjoy these ethical guidelines as trainings in our mindful awareness of our Buddha nature. They liberate rather than shackle. (In general, you’ll find Buddhism isn’t a matter of words heard or read but rather how you understand and realize teachings, putting them into practice.)

Certain precepts might shine a different or deeper light onto aspects of our behavior than we might be used to from other traditions. As a person whose livelihood is based in words, for example, I doubly cherish the Buddhist emphasis on speech. (As a journalist, I note how commercial mainstream media often appeals to the lowest common dominators — toxic inclinations to sex, cynicism, fear, violence — to the detriment of “the good news.”) Looking deeply, we find deep listening required for loving speech: hearing what’s being said and also what’s not being said, without judgment. Bearing witness. And speech is thought as well as an action; intention is given no less attention than performance. Since we all use words every day, this can be a very transformative attention. (Watch your language.)

The Buddha says, “Avoid evil; do good; clear the mind.” Any nine-year-old might know this. But even at 90 we might still find it hard to realize. The world has grown no simpler than 2600 years ago, and so the ethical challenges of modern secular life don’t necessarily get any easier. There is ongoing discussion as to “What would Buddha do?” as to abortion…animal experimentation…euthanasia…genetic engineering, and so on.

Evil? Here it’s seen as a result of the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion, to which the self is prone. To cross a “t” on Buddhist morality, we don’t speak here of wretched sinners and such-like, but rather more of skillful or unskillful actions – that is, as either conducive or counterproductive to liberation.

As with all the teachings of the Buddha, the motto here is ehipassiko: come, see for yourself.

For further reading:

Robert Aitken, The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics

Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future To Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life