Dragon's Gate Temple Library

"Good follows the doer of good as the wheel of the cart follows the foot of the ox that pulls it."


There is a tendency to go to extremes when considering morality in Buddhism. Some treat it as a way to earn Enlightenment, others consider it unimportant. Both are wrong.

Let me establish a metaphor.

Consider a land where no one had ever learned to open their eyes. They would develop rules to avoid walking off cliffs or bumping into rocks. Maybe someone would have a dream in which the Great Thundering Cucumber said "Take three steps north from the apple tree then turn left 45 degrees..."etc. Some people would have faith and follow His holy word. If they didn't fall off any cliffs, they would consider that proof that the Great Thundering Cucumber was real. Otherwise they'd be in a pickle. Those who did not follow the words revealed by the prophet in his salad days would eventually run off a cliff. Then everyone would explain that they were being punished for their sins. More proof, if any were needed, that His Vegetableness exists.

Our culture is the result of many competing beliefs. Those who had a good workable set of guidelines survived and prospered. Unfortunately, they called these rules "morality" instead of "tactics" and attributed them to some very unlikely sources.

When the citizens of our hypothetical country start to develop a scientific understanding of their world, they might see, for example, how thunder can happen without anyone causing it. At this point, some would question the existence of the Great Green One. The Faithful, naturally, would reject this "science" stuff, maybe branding it the work of the evil Tomato Demon. Others would try to reconcile science and religion, either by misunderstanding science or reinterpreting the Scriptures until they bear no recognizable relationship to their original intention. They would develop Theology, saying that these rules were handed down from a Higher Reality (whatever that means). They would invent Philosophy, holding that the Cucumber Principle is the important thing, not whether He merely exists or not.

The sad part is, all the clear thinkers who always found the doctrines too cucumbersome would then say "Hey, no more Cucumber! We don't have to follow those stupid rules any more!" and then walk off a cliff. Picture Wile E. Coyote's big scene.

The important things to remember here are:

  1. these rules work, whether you celebrate National Salad Week as a religious holiday or not, and
  2. these guys still have their eyes closed!

Let's say someone, maybe a prince, went off into the vegetable garden to Seek the Truth, and instead somehow managed to get his eyes open. What could we reasonably expect him to do?

At first he would probably try to describe what he saw, but since no one had any understanding of what he was talking about, they would just get in fruitless arguments about whether the Chasm and the Cucumber were the same or different.

He would teach morality so his students would last long enough to learn. He would phrase it as cause-and-effect, not reward-and-punishment. But in a sense, that would be beside the point. His main teaching would be how to open your eyes. Once his followers learned that, they would avoid the pitfalls naturally, without memorizing rules or feeling pious.

Many Buddhist traditions translate the Sanskrit phrase "sila-paramita" as "morality which goes (or takes one) beyond". The Tibetan translation is "going beyond morality". I think this may explain what they mean.

The Buddha taught morality. The rules for the monks and nuns are very strict. It makes sure they have the time, energy and peace to work toward Enlightenment. He taught it as Karma, cause-and-effect. Some acts have become known as "good" because over the years people noticed they have good results. Nothing metaphysical about it. But he NEVER taught that you can reach Enlightenment by being good! In ways, it may even be easier for the bad guys. At least THEY don't fall into the trap of saying "I deserve to be awarded Enlightenment. Haven't I always tried to be nasty?"

The first 5 precepts usually taken by all Buddhists, are;

I undertake the training to refrain from

  • killing
  • taking that which is not freely given
  • harmful speech
  • harmful sensory indulgence
  • drugs which cloud the mind

First, notice the difference between "I undertake the training to refrain from..." and "Thou shalt not...". The precepts are not being imposed on you. Finding loopholes would be nothing more than a clever way to get yourself into trouble. The same goes for finding harmful acts that aren't covered. Also when you fall short of perfection on any of these rules, that doesn't mean you are sinful and in need of forgiveness. It means you are unskillful and in need of practice. But aren't we all?

Killing includes animals. When Buddhist monks and nuns spread from India into China, where there was not a tradition of laymen feeding them, they had to grow their own food. To avoid killing animals they adopted a vegetarian diet.

Killing in self-defense is still killing, but at least you're still alive. It's a trade-off. Make your own decision and live with it.

Taking that which is not freely given includes finding things and not making an honest effort to return them to the owner. Also swindling and accepting things under false pretences.

Harmful speech includes lying, misleading, harsh speech, spreading tales that would get someone in trouble, and even, for advanced practitioners, wasting your time chattering.

Sensory indulgence is sometimes translated as "sexual misconduct" or even "adultery". It includes these, of course, but if you let yourself get carried away driving too fast so that you endanger yourself and others, isn't that harmful sensory indulgence? You can no doubt find lots of other examples in your own life. At least I can.

Drugs which cloud the mind includes alcohol, most recreational drugs, and if you happen to be hypoglycemic, can even include a candy bar.

As you can see, all of these are guidelines that have to be applied to your own situation. No one else can determine the finer points of how they apply to you, and you can't say how they apply to someone else. Also. you can probably never practice any of them perfectly. They are a direction in which to go, not a goal to reach.

I doubt that anyone who practices morality with this Buddhist attitude would want to legislate morality beyond protecting ourselves. There is no good karma in not being allowed to do something wrong any more than there is exercise in having someone else carry your load.

Instead, I urge you to practice morality, to aid and encourage others in doing so, then to give them the freedom to make their own decisions about it.

And finally, never forget that the goal of Buddhism is not morality. It's Enlightenment.

May all beings attain Perfect Peace.

In Tibetan Buddhism, being involved with evil is called

"being bound by a steel chain",

whereas being excessively hung up on goodness is called

"being bound by a golden chain". ;o)



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