The cultivation of Buddhist Ethics

by Richard Gilliver, The Buddhist Channel, June 10, 2012

London, UK -- We are fortunate as Buddhists to have such a well developed ethical system in place which promotes the cultivation of such a positive and rewarding outlook and the ability to respond with such clarity and measure to difficulties that may arise both in our practice and situations that may arise in every day life.

I would like to touch upon what I believe are the advantages of the Buddhist ethical standard over secular viewpoints but first I want to make a brief comment about translation relating to our ethical guidelines.

I noticed this recently when I was thumbing through an older translation of the Anguttara Nikaya, and it struck me how someone new to the practice might, if they were reading one of these earlier texts misinterpret the meaning based on their westernised understanding of the work.  Personally speaking I prefer in many instances the older copies of the canon in English but I have the advantage of having many years of study behind me relating to the texts, as such I am not prone (although admittedly, not immune) to the occasional ‘blunder’ when it comes to reading the works.

As far as the differences in style go the newer translations on the whole appear to be much more stylised, but this tends to make them more accessible, and as a consequence, more readable.  In contrast the antiquated language of some of the older transcriptions seems to appear ‘stuffy’ and long-winded.  I think in the interests of balance though we can say that the early texts were pioneers, without which Pali language resource would still be in its infancy.  Some of the early translators themselves acknowledge such difficulties. I.B. Horner in the introduction to her 1938 edition of the Sutta Vibhanga (Published by the Pali Text Society as the Book of the Discipline Volume 1) notes that when revising her own work she made significant changes to the way she translated certain words.  I think these pioneers of the Pali texts were, as were many translator of their time, more inclined to put a philological spin onto words that may have been difficult, that is to say, they were more inclined to put words into the context they themselves understood.  It is with this in mind that I will speak about the ethical standards the Buddha implemented, with the occasional reference to the interpretation of the translation.

The Buddha was quite straightforward in the implementation of his ethical instruction.  The follower of the Buddha was to develop skilful qualities and abandon those qualities that were unskilful.  These qualities are to be developed in line with the backdrop of Buddhist meditation, that is, concentration with the directed analysis of thoughts as they arise and fall away.  It is with this simple, yet effective mindfulness technique that one can be aware of attributes that arise that are a benefit to the path and cultivate them, while attributes that are a detriment to the path may be observed as such and avoided.  The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this process, quite beautifully, as watering the good seeds of the mind.  In the Buddhist system those qualities indicated as skilful relate to the ‘path’ the Buddha set out.  He told his followers not to engage with metaphysical questions which would detract from the practice.  This is a very important point, and relates both to the translation difficulties I touched on earlier and the advantages of Buddhist ethics over secular ethics.

The Buddhist ethical practice does not relate to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ethical behaviour, that is, in our western society where our ethical system developed largely from Christian ethical standards which were based on innate ‘good and evil’ qualities.  The Buddha’s path did not rely on these ethical boundaries and instead related to those qualities that would aid one in attaining Nibbana (Nirvana).  Thus the skilful qualities one develops on the Buddhist path don’t directly relate to the ‘good’ qualities one would associate with normal ethical standards.  If I may refer to the afore mentioned metaphysical questions to demonstrate.  In the western ethical model questioning the nature of the universe would not be deemed unethical, as it doesn’t infringe on our ethical ‘good/bad’ position.  In the Buddhist model such questions would be deemed unskilful, that is they would distract one from the task at hand, that is, the attainment of Nibbana.

In relation to some of the earlier translations of the texts this could prove problematic, as what has been translated in modern texts as skilful/unskilful respectively was, in older translations described as good/evil. For the casual observer, or those new to the practice this can cause great difficulty in ascertaining the context of the text, if I am conditioned to view good and evil in the western sense then reading it in a Buddhist text would automatically lead me to think the same ethical viewpoint is being propagated.  Notwithstanding the early translations are valuable resources and should be treasured as such, it is prudent that one is mindful when reading them to bear in mind there age and the style of the translation.

When we stand Buddhist ethics and western ethics side by side in our every day life what can we take from Buddhism that will allow us to benefit from them in day to day living?  The development of skilful qualities is paramount to achieving Nibbana.  As with all of the Buddha’s teaching it is the subtlety that is the beauty.  We develop Buddhist ethics against the backdrop of meditation, yet it is those qualities that allow us to attain deeper levels of concentration.  In short, the Buddha’s ethical teaching is not a see saw of balancing good against bad.  It is a wheel that when set into motion becomes a self fulfilling entity, the more you practice Buddhist ethics the more concentration and insight develops, the more concentration and insight develops the clearer Buddhist ethics become, the clearer they become the subtler the level of concentration and insight.

The Buddhist system of ethics is quite simple in comparison with many other systems, and yet through the Buddha’s insight the wheel he set in motion can achieve such subtleties that it will eventually put an end to suffering – and that, in itself, seems to me a goal worth practicing for.

Richard Gilliver is founder of "The Foundation of Interreligious Harmony and Education", an interfaith organisation seeking to promote better relations between religions. Please view his site at:

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