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Morality forms part of Buddhist teachings and there is no division of Buddhism that falls short of underlining the significance of the moral life. The writings of Buddhism speak clearly of virtues frequently related to morality such as non-violence and compassion, and the Buddhist adaptation of the Golden Rule advices us not to do anything to others that we would like done unto us.
Even though newcomers to Buddhism are frequently amazed by the variety of Asian traditions, as different in form as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the various traditions are almost similar when it comes to their teachings on morality. There is a common core fundamental to all the different cultures, norms, and philosophical teachings of the diverse schools.
This core is made up of the principles, guidelines, and the virtues as stated by the Buddha in the 5th century BCE (Rāhula, pp. 32). These teachings continue to guide and control the behavior of more than 300 million Buddhists found around the world.
The purpose of this paper is to expound on the concept of morality in Buddhism, and how the various Buddhist teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths, have enhanced my morality in me and in relating to other persons, Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
The Four Noble Truths and Morality
The Four Noble Truths were delivered by the Buddha in his first sermon. They are as following:
- Suffering is part of our life on earth (dukkha);
- Suffering is caused by a hunger for something (samudaya);
- Suffering can be brought to an end when the hunger or desire stops (nirhodha);
- The means to cassation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. (magga).
Although there have been differing interpretations, the concept of morality is evident in the truths, and even extending to the Eightfold Path (Allan, para. 4). The first section teaches followers to recognize suffering in all its forms. In Buddhism practice, suffering has a much wider meaning that that associated with the general usage of the word.
In its widest use, it informs followers of the reality of death in the end. The dukkha has influenced my daily responses to sufferings such as hunger, thirst, and sickness which are naturally painful conditions, or joblessness, economic hardships or family conflicts.
Dukkha informs that whenever suffering sets into our lives, we should realize that it is a part of life and should strive to end it through moral was.
For instance, when we encounter common sufferings such as joblessness or family conflicts, the first step should be to recognize the truth of suffering, and this opens the eyes to finding solutions to the source of suffering, rather than acting without deliberation, which frequently leads to immoral actions. The Buddha taught that before we comprehend life and all that relates to it, we must understand ourselves first.
The second noble truth mentions that the origin of suffering is a desire (tanha) for something. We continually look for happiness from external objects, frequently material things, however, regardless of how successful we are, we always search for more.
This is a major cause of suffering. We not peg our happiness to material things, but also on opinions and ideas about ourselves and the environment surrounding us. And when the world does not behave according to our expectations, it leads to us being frustrated and hence suffering. Buddha warned against this hunger and instead advised us to understand ourselves for it is the first step to ending suffering.
Samudaya teaches Buddhists to avoid unnecessary desires, which in itself is not moral, and that we should live a life full of value. In order to have a life full of value, we should understand ourselves, and our purpose on earth. Obviously, this practice will ultimately to us leading a moral life as we will have a deeper comprehension of ourselves, and hence can help us discern what really makes us happy.
The third noble truth is an expansion of the second truth; it informs us of the fact that suffering ends when the hunger or desire for objects ceases. The Buddha, in his sermons regarding the Four Noble Truths, asserted that through diligent practice, we can end the desire to have or possess certain objects or traits. After this satisfaction with oneself, a Buddhist becomes enlightened (Rachels and Rachels, pp. 78).
The last noble truth mentions that the Eightfold Path is the ultimately ends the ring of suffering and is a way of creating insight into realism and to wipe out greed, abhorrence, and delusion.
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The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path has traditionally been viewed as a set of principles for moral conduct among Buddhist adherents, and it is very easy to see why this is so. The eight items in the eightfold path and are normally grouped into three. These are “right view, right conduct, and right practice” (Rachels and Rachels, pp. 77).
This arrangement assists in remembering and comprehending the nature of each item in the list. These guidelines are not a chain of successive steps, rather, each item is a path in itself. The eightfold path, while initially aimed at enlightening us, serves also as behavioral guidelines and can successfully inspire moral conduct and promote social accord.
Right View (Prajna)
The first item in this category is right understanding. Recalling that the first step to suffering is ignorance, it is very plain why the Buddha mentioned it first. Having good understanding entails comprehending that life is temporary and that a person’s delusion of a separate and individual self leads to discontent in one’s life.
The second item is right thought and in this teaching, Buddha informs us that right thought involves shunning unhealthy states of mind that can lead to suffering, for example, greed, anger, and suffering. This item sets us on the right path to a moral life as it not only calls for avoidance, but also involves proactively cultivating compassionate thoughts and hopes for others.
Under right speech, Buddha mentioned three items. These are “right speech, right action, and right livelihood” (Rachels and Rachels, pp. 77). Right conduct is considered as a leading principle towards having moral discipline, which ultimately leads to moral conduct and supports other items of the eightfold path (Allan, para. 6). The significance of speech under Buddhism is quite plain: words can break or save lives, result into foes or allies, and initiate a war or create peace. To lead a moral life, we must cultivate a compassionate speech.
Right action refers to the avoidance of actions prohibited by the five precepts: deceit, stealing, murder, using strong substances, and sexual misconduct. Rather, Buddha advised that we must act with revere, generosity, self-discipline, sincerity, and kindness.
All of these dos and don’ts have often led to a mutual co-existence between my neighbors and me. Right livelihood guidelines teach us that we must earn our livelihood in a righteous manner that is both legal and not oppressive of others. To me, right livelihood is one that meets my needs and improves other people’s well-being.
Right practice entails “right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration” (Rachels and Rachels, pp. 76). Following Buddha’s teachings is not simple and one must put in a lot of effort. However, this does not mean that we should strain or struggle, rather, we should try to develop a deeper understanding and practice tirelessly. In addition, we should be conscious of our thoughts, feelings and actions so that they do not control us. Buddhists are required to have right concentration, or avoid distractions towards their pursuance of fruitful actions, i.e. total focus on positive thoughts and actions. The Buddha taught that this can be attained through various forms of meditation.
Buddhist teachings on morality are founded on cosmic law rather than laws handed down by a supernatural being. In leading a moral life, we attain the embodiment of Dharma, and anyone who lives according to the precepts and virtues can have good karmic outcomes, such as happiness, a good reincarnation in the next life, and finally the attainment of nirvana, characterized by the end of suffering and desires.
Allan, John. The Eightfold Path. 2008. Web. <http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/8foldpath.htm>
Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart. The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral
Philosophy, 5th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. Print.
Rāhula, Walpola. What the Buddha taught. London: Oneworld. 1997. Print.