The Basis of Buddhist Ethics
For common Buddhists, the Five Precepts form the foundation for an ethical behaviour. These Five precepts are :
- Prevent taking life of beings. Every living being has a right to life and it should be honoured by one and all.
- Prevent taking things not given. One should neither steel nor accept things meant for someone else.
- Prevent sensual misconduct. One should not only refrain from sexual misconduct but also avoid excessive sensual pleasure of any kind (like gluttony)
- Prevent making false statements. This not only includes lying but also slander and speech that might cause harm to others.
- Prevent taking substance that cause intoxication. This precept is important in the sense that it could be the cause of other four precepts being broken.
In addition to these, the Theravada Buddhists also observe three more precepts on special holy occasions. The three rules are followed by the members of Sangha on a regular basis.
- Prevent taking food at unsuitable time from noon one day to sunrise next day
- Prevent any form of entertainment as well as items used to beautify oneself.
- Prevent the use of high beds.
Buddhism and War & Violence
As per the first precept, Buddhists should absatin from taking the life of other living beings. There has been never been an instance where violence was adopted in order to spread Buddhism. This is not to say that wars have not been fought by Buddhist nations, however, most of these have economic or other similar reasons behind them. The Dalai Lama has always favoured a peaceful solution for the problem of Chinese occupation of Tibet. Similarly, Venerable Maha Ghosananda of Cambodia has called upon his fellow countrymen to abandon their resentment for genocide of the Khmer Rouge. He has stressed the need to unify to re-establish their nation.
However, not all Buddhists are non violent. For example, Phra Kittiwutthi, a Buddhist monk from Thailand, is not averse to the idea of taking up arms to safeguard Buddhism. He believes that it would not amount to a breech of the first precept if he resorts to violence to keep the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians from spreading communism in Thailand.
Marriage in Buddhism
In Buddhism, marriage is a personal choice and has nothing to do with religion. In Buddhist countries, marriage is carried out as the civil laws of te country. If afterwards the couple desires to seek blessings in monasteries, they can do so.
Sex in Buddhism
Improper sexual activity, adultery, rape and child abuse do not break just one rule but many. To begin with, they break the precept of refraining from improper sexual conduct. Secondly, they also amount to stealing from the other person his/her self respect and dignity, breaking the second precept. Also, such acts are also harmful to others and thereby break yet another precept.
Abortion in Buddhism
The first precept refrains a Buddhist from taking the life of other living being. Also, the Buddhists believe that conscious life begins prior to birth. As such abortion is traditionally not favoured by the Buddhists. However, the Buddhist world is not unanimous on the issue. Buddhists from Japan and United States have more liberal views regarding abortion than those of other countries. The present Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama states that :
"Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance".
Homosexuality in Buddhism
The third precept refrains Buddhist from indulging in improper sexual activity or sexual misconduct. However, none of the Buddhist schools ever considered homosexuality as sexual misconduct before 17th century. In Buddhism, monks and nuns of majority traditions need to refrain themselves from any kind of sexual activity but homosexuality in lay person is accepted. Buddhist leaders from Asia have even sanctified homosexuality.
The first precept emphasises the need to respect every living beings right to life. Also, chapetr 10 of the Dhammapada states that since everyone is scared of punishment and death, one should not kill nor become a cause to kill. Together, these make Buddhists believe that death penalty is against the Buddhist rules. Despite this, what is seen and observed is that all Buddhist dominated countries have had a history of death penalty in law. Even today, death penalty is practised in countries like Sri lanka, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
For a monk of a Theravada Buddhism, to highlight the misiries of life and benefit of death in a manner which encourages a person to commit suicide is breaking the highest vinaya code. Such an act leads to an ouster from Sangha itself. Even if the person is critically ill, he is not to be treated in a manner that will bring death fast.
Though the first precept refrains from killing, the Buddha himself, never prohibited his disicples from eating meat. In practical life, most Buddhists eat meat. In Theravada countries, a monk seeking food from common people has to accept what is given to him. In Tibet, it is very difficul to find a monk who is vegetarian. In some Mahayana countries, however, vegetarianism is insisted on.