Buddhist ethics

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The Buddhist king Ashoka built pillars throughout the Indian subcontinent inscribed with edicts promoting Buddhist moral virtues and precepts.

Buddhist ethics are traditionally based on what Buddhists view as the enlightened perspective of the Buddha, or other enlightened beings such as Bodhisattvas. The Indian term for ethics or morality used in Buddhism is Śīla (Sanskrit: शील) or sīla (Pāli). Śīla in Buddhism is one of three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is a code of conduct that embraces a commitment to harmony and self-restraint with the principal motivation being non-violence, or freedom from causing harm. It has been variously described as virtue,[1] right conduct,[2] morality,[3] moral discipline[4] and precept.

Sīla is an internal, aware, and intentional ethical behavior, according to one's commitment to the path of liberation. It is an ethical compass within self and relationships, rather than what is associated with the English word "morality" (i.e., obedience, a sense of obligation, and external constraint).

Sīla is one of the three practices foundational to Buddhism and the non-sectarian Vipassana movementsīla, samādhi, and paññā as well as the Theravadin foundations of sīla, dana, and bhavana. It is also the second pāramitā.[5] Sīla is also wholehearted commitment to what is wholesome. Two aspects of sīla are essential to the training: right "performance" (caritta), and right "avoidance" (varitta). Honoring the precepts of sīla is considered a "great gift" (mahadana) to others, because it creates an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security. It means the practitioner poses no threat to another person's life, property, family, rights, or well-being.[6]

Moral instructions are included in Buddhist scriptures or handed down through tradition. Most scholars of Buddhist ethics thus rely on the examination of Buddhist scriptures, and the use of anthropological evidence from traditional Buddhist societies, to justify claims about the nature of Buddhist ethics.[7]


The source for the ethics of Buddhists around the world are the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Buddha is seen as the discoverer of liberating knowledge and hence the foremost teacher. The Dharma is both the teachings of the Buddha's path and the truths of these teachings. The Sangha is the community of noble ones (ariya), who practice the Dhamma and have attained some knowledge and can thus provide guidance and preserve the teachings. Having proper understanding of the teachings is vital for proper ethical conduct. The Buddha taught that right view was a necessary prerequisite for right conduct.

Karma and Rebirth[edit]

The bhavacakra (wheel of life) shows the realms of karmic rebirth, at its hub are the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.

A central foundation for Buddhist morality is the law of Karma and Rebirth. The Buddha is recorded to have stated that right view consisted in believing that (among other things): "'there is fruit and ripening of deeds well done or ill done': what one does matters and has an effect on one’s future; 'there is this world, there is a world beyond': this world is not unreal, and one goes on to another world after death" (Majjhima Nikaya 117).

Karma is a word which literally means "action" and is seen as a natural law of the universe which manifests as cause and effect. In the Buddhist conception, Karma is a certain type of moral action which has moral consequences on the actor.[8] The core of karma is the mental intention, and hence the Buddha stated ‘It is intention (cetana), O monks, that I call karma; having willed one acts through body, speech, or mind’ (Anguttara Nikaya 6.63). Therefore accidentally hurting someone is not bad Karma, but having hurtful thoughts is. Buddhist ethics sees these patterns of motives and actions as conditioning future actions and circumstances - the fruit (phala) of one's present actions, including the condition and place of the actor's future life circumstances (though these can also be influenced by other random factors).[9] One's past actions are said to mould one's consciousness and to leave seeds which later ripen in the next life. The goal of Buddhist practice is generally to break the cycle, though one can also work for rebirth in a better condition through good deeds.

The root of one's intention is what conditions an action to be good or bad. There are three good roots (non-attachment, benevolence, and understanding) and three negative roots (greed, hatred and delusion). Actions which produce good outcomes are termed "merit" (puñña - fruitful, auspicious) and obtaining merit is an important goal of lay Buddhist practice. The early Buddhist texts mention three 'bases for effecting karmic fruitfulness’ (puñña-kiriya-vatthus): giving (dana), moral virtue (sila) and meditation.[10] One's state of mind while performing good actions is seen as more important than the action itself. The Buddhist Sangha is seen as the most meritorious "field of merit". Negative actions accumulate bad karmic results, though one's regret and attempts to make up for it can ameliorate these results.

The Four Noble Truths[edit]

The Four Noble Truths express one of the central Buddhist worldview which sees worldly existence as fundamentally unsatisfactory and stressful (Dukkha). Dukkha is seen to arise from craving, and putting an end to craving can lead to liberation (Nirvana). The way to put an end to craving is by following the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha, which includes the ethical elements of right speech, right action and right livelihood. From the point of view of the Four Noble Truths, an action is seen as ethical if it is conductive to the elimination of Dukkha. Understanding the truth of Dukkha in life allows one to analyze the factors for its arising, that is craving, and allows us to feel compassion and sympathy for others. Comparing oneself with others and then applying the Golden Rule is said to follow from this appreciation of Dukkha.[11] From the Buddhist perspective, an act is also moral if it promotes spiritual development by conforming to the Eightfold Path and leading to Nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, an emphasis is made on the liberation of all beings. Therefore, special beings called Bodhisattvas are believed to work tirelessly for the liberation of all and are seen as important figures.


In the Zen Buddhist initiation ceremony of Jukai, initiates take up the Bodhisattva Precepts.
Main article: Five Precepts

The foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is The Five Precepts which are common to all Buddhist schools. The precepts or "five moral virtues" (pañca-silani) are not commands but a set of voluntary commitments or guidelines to help one live a life in which one is happy, without worries, and able to meditate well. The precepts are supposed to prevent suffering and to weaken the effects of greed, hatred and delusion. They were the basic moral instructions which the Buddha gave to laypeople and monks alike. Breaking one's sīla as pertains to sexual conduct introduces harmfulness towards one's practice or the practice of another person if it involves uncommitted relationship.[12] When one "goes for refuge" to the Buddha's teachings, one formally takes the five precepts which are:[13]

  1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing;
  2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given;
  3. I undertake the training rule to abstain from sensual misconduct;
  4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech;
  5. I undertake the training rule to abstain from alcoholic drinks, which are the basis for heedlessness.

Buddhists often take the precepts in formal ceremonies with members of the monastic Sangha, though they can also be undertaken as private personal commitments. Keeping each precept is said to develop its opposite positive virtue. Abstaining from killing for example develops kindness and compassion, while abstaining from stealing develops non-attachment.

There is also a more strict set of precepts called the eight precepts which are taken at specific religious days or religious retreats. The eight precepts encourage further discipline and are modeled on the monastic code. In the eight precepts, the third precept on sexual misconduct is made more strict and becomes a precept of celibacy. The three additional rules of the Eight Precepts are:[13]

  1. “I accept the training rule to abstain from food at improper times.” (e.g. no solid foods after noon, and not until dawn the following day)
  2. “I accept the training rule (a) to abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and shows, and (b) from the use of jewelry, cosmetics, and beauty lotions.”
  3. “I accept the training rule to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.”

Novice-monks use the ten precepts while fully ordained Buddhist monks also have a larger set of monastic precepts, called the Prātimokṣa (227 rules for monks in the Theravādin recension). Monks are supposed to be celibate and are also traditionally not allowed to touch money. The rules and code of conduct for monks and nuns is outlined in the Vinaya. The precise content of the scriptures on vinaya (vinayapiṭaka) differ slightly according to different schools, and different schools or subschools set different standards for the degree of adherence to the vinaya.

In Mahayana Buddhism, another common set of moral guidelines are the Bodhisattva vows and the Bodhisattva Precepts or the "Ten Great Precepts". The Bodhisattva Precepts which is derived from the Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra include the Five precepts with some other additions such as the precept against slandering the Buddha's teachings. These exist above and beyond the existing monastic code, or lay follower precepts.[14] The Brahmajala Sutra also includes a list of 48 minor precepts which prohibit the eating of meat, storing of weapons, teaching for the sake of profit, abandoning Mahayana teachings and teaching non Mahayana Dharma. These precepts have no parallel in Theravāda Buddhism.

Key values and virtues[edit]

Giving (Dana) is an important Buddhist virtue. The community of monastics is seen as the most meritorious field of karmic fruitfulness.

Following the precepts is not the only dimension of Buddhist morality, there are also several important virtues, motivations and habits which are widely promoted by Buddhist texts and traditions. At the core of these virtues are the three roots of non-attachment (araga), benevolence (advesa), and understanding (amoha).

One list of virtues which is widely promoted in Buddhism are the Pāramitās (perfections) - Dāna (generosity), Sīla (proper conduct), Nekkhamma (renunciation), Paññā (wisdom), Viriya (energy), Khanti (patience), Sacca (honesty), Adhiṭṭhāna (determination), Mettā (Good-Will), Upekkhā (equanimity).

An important quality which supports right action is Heedfulness (Appamada), a combination of energy/effort (Viriya) and Mindfulness. Mindfulness is an alert presence of mind which allows one to be more aware of what is happening with one's intentional states. Heedfulness is aided by 'clear comprehension' or 'discrimination' (Sampajañña), which gives rise to moral knowledge of what is to be done. Another important supporting quality of Buddhist morality is Trust or Confidence in the teachings of the Buddha and in one's own ability to put them into practice.

The Buddha promoted ‘self-respect’ (Hri) and Regard for consequences (Apatrapya), as important virtues. Self-respect is what caused a person to avoid actions which were seen to harm one's integrity and Ottappa is an awareness of the effects of one's actions and sense of embarrassment before others.

Giving (Dāna) is seen as the beginning of virtue in Theravada Buddhism and as the basis for developing further on the path. In Buddhist countries, this is seen in the giving of alms to Buddhist monastics but also extends to generosity in general (towards family, friends, coworkers, guests, animals).[15] Giving is said to make one happy, generate good merit as well as develop non-attachment, therefore it is not just good because it creates good karmic fruits, but it also develops one's spiritual qualities. In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of dana and ethical conduct will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower hells is unlikely, even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting one's aims to this level of attainment.[16]

The Four divine abidings (Brahmaviharas) are seen as central virtues and intentions in Buddhist ethics, psychology and meditation. The four divine abidings are good will, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Developing these virtues through meditation and right action promotes happiness, generates good merit and trains the mind for ethical action.

An important value in Buddhist ethics is non-harming or non-violence (ahimsa) to all living creatures from the lowest insect to humans which is associated with the first precept of not killing. The Buddhist practice of this does not extend to the extremes exhibited by Jainism (in Buddhism, unintentional killing is not karmically bad), but from both the Buddhist and Jain perspectives, non-violence suggests an intimate involvement with, and relationship to, all living things.[17]

The Buddha emphasized that ‘good friendship (Kalyāṇa-mittatā), good association, good intimacy’ was the whole, not the half of the holy life (SN 45.2). Developing strong friendships with good people on the spiritual path is seen as a key aspect of Buddhism and as a key way to support and grow in one's practice.

Wisdom and Understanding are important moral virtues in Buddhism. Having an understanding of the true nature of reality is seen as leading to ethical actions. Understanding the truth of not-self for example, allows one to become detached from selfish motivations and therefore allows one to be more altruistic. Having an understanding of the workings of the mind and of the law of karma also makes one less likely to perform an unethical action.

In Mahayana Buddhism, another important foundation for moral action is the Bodhisattva ideal. Bodhisattvas are beings which have chosen to work towards the salvation of all living beings. In Mahayana Buddhist texts, this path of great compassion is promoted as being superior to that of the Arhat because the Bodhisattva is seen as working for the benefit of all beings.[18] A Bodhisattva is one who arouses a powerful emotion called Bodhicitta (mind of enlightenment) which is a mind which is oriented towards the awakening of oneself and all beings.



Japanese illustration of Iyo-no-Kami Minamoto Kuro Yoshitsune and Saito Musashi-bo Benkei, the Buddhist warrior monk.

The first precept is the abstaining from the taking of life, and the Buddha clearly stated that the taking of human or animal life would lead to negative karmic consequences and was non conductive to liberation. Right livelihood includes not trading in weapons or in hunting and butchering animals. Various suttas states that one should always have a mind filled with compassion and lovingkindness for all beings, this is to be extended to hurtful, evil people as in the case of Angulimala the murderer and to every kind of animal, even pests and vermin (monks are not allowed to kill any animal, for any reason). Buddhist teachings and institutions therefore tend to promote peace and compassion, acting as safe havens during times of conflict. [19] In spite of this, some Buddhists, including monastics such as Japanese warrior monks have historically performed acts of violence. In China, the Shaolin Monastery developed a martial arts tradition to defend themselves from attack.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of skillful means (upaya) has in some circumstances been used to excuse the act of killing, if it is being done for compassionate reasons. This form of "compassionate killing" is allowed by the Upaya-kausalya sutra and the Maha-Upaya-kausalya sutra only when it "follows from virtuous thought."[20] Some texts acknowledge the negative karmic consequences of killing, and yet promote it out of compassion. The Bodhisattva-bhumi, a key Mahayana text, states that if a Bodhisattva sees someone about to kill other Bodhisattvas, they may take it upon themselves to kill this murderer with the thought that:

"If I take the life of this sentient being, I myself may be reborn as one of the creatures of hell. Better that I be reborn a creature of hell than that this living being, having committed a deed of immediate retribution, should go straight to hell."[21]

If then, the intention is purely to protect others from evil, the act of killing is sometimes seen as meritorious.


Statue portrait of 5th Dalai Lama who waged wars against Bhutan and Ladak.
Main article: Ahimsa § Buddhism

The Buddhist analysis of conflict begins with the 'Three Poisons' of greed, hatred and delusion. Craving and attachment, the cause of suffering, is also the cause of conflict. Buddhist philosopher Shantideva states in his Siksasamuccaya: "Wherever conflict arises among living creatures, the sense of possession is the cause". Craving for material resources as well as grasping to political or religious views is seen as a major source of war. One's attachment to self-identity, and identification with tribe, nation state or religion is also another root of human conflict according to Buddhism.[22]

The Buddha promoted non-violence in various ways, he encouraged his followers not to fight in wars and not to sell or trade weapons. The Buddha stated that in war, both victor and defeated suffer: "The victor begets enmity. The vanquished dwells in sorrow. The tranquil lives happily, abandoning both victory and defeat" (Dhammapada, 201). Buddhist philosopher Candrakīrti wrote that soldiery was not a respectable profession: "the sacrifice of life in battle should not be respected, since this is the basis for harmful actions."[23] The Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra states that those who take the Bodhisattva vows should not take any part in war, watch a battle, procure or store weapons, praise or approve of killers and aid the killing of others in any way. In his Abhidharma-kosa, Vasubandhu writes that all soldiers in an army are guilty of the killing of the army, not just those who perform the actual killing. [24] Modern Buddhist peace activists include The 14th Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, A. T. Ariyaratne, Preah Maha Ghosananda and Nichidatsu Fujii.

While pacifism is the Buddhist ideal, Buddhist states and kingdoms have waged war throughout history and Buddhists have found ways to justify these conflicts. The 5th Dalai Lama who was installed as the head of Buddhism in Tibet by the Mongol Gushri Khan the Mongol invasion of Tibet (1635-1642), praised the acts of the Khan and said that he was an emanation of the great Bodhisattva Vajrapāni.[23] Buddhist warrior monks in feudal Japan sometimes committed organized acts of war, protecting their territories and attacking rival Buddhist sects. During the late Heian Period, the Tendai school was a particularly powerful sect, whose influential monasteries could wield armies of monks. A key text of this sect was the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, which contains passages allowing the use of violence for the defense of the Dharma.[25] The Ashikaga period saw military conflict between the Tendai school, Jōdo Shinshū school and the Nichiren Buddhists. Zen Buddhism was influential among the samurai, and their Bushido code.

During World War II almost all Japanese Buddhists temples (except the Soka Gakkai) strongly supported Japanese imperialism and militarization.[26][27][28][29][30][31] The Japanese Pan-Buddhist Society (Myowa Kai) rejected criticism from Chinese Buddhists, stating that "We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of 'killing one in order that many may live' (issatsu tashō) and that the war was absolutely necessary to implement the dharma in Asia.


Main article: Buddhism and abortion
Jizo statues at Zojo-ji temple in Tokyo

There is no single Buddhist view concerning abortion although traditional Buddhism rejects abortion because it involves the deliberate destroying of a life and regards life as starting at conception. Although some Buddhism can be interpreted as life beginning before conception because of the never ending cycle of life.[32] Those practicing in Japan and the United States are said to be more tolerant of abortion than those who live elsewhere.[33] In Japan, women sometimes participate in Mizuko kuyo (水子供養 — lit. Newborn Baby Memorial Service) after an induced abortion or an abortion as the result of a miscarriage; a similar Taiwanese ritual is called yingling gongyang. The Dalai Lama has said that abortion is "negative," but there are exceptions. He said, "I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance."[34]

Capital punishment[edit]

Buddhism places great emphasis on the sanctity of life. However, there is disagreement among Buddhists as to whether or not Buddhism forbids the death penalty. The first of the Five Precepts (Panca-sila) is to abstain from destruction of life. Chapter 10 of the Dhammapada states:

"Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill".

Chapter 26, the final chapter of the Dhammapada, states "Him I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures. He neither kills nor helps others to kill". These sentences are interpreted by many Buddhists (especially in the West) as an injunction against supporting any legal measure which might lead to the death penalty. However, almost throughout history, countries where Buddhism has been the official religion (which have included most of the Far East and Indochina) have practiced the death penalty. One exception is the abolition of the death penalty by the Emperor Saga of Japan in 818. This lasted until 1165, although in private manors executions conducted as a form of retaliation continued to be conducted.


In Theravada Buddhism, for a monk to praise the advantages of death, including simply telling a person of the miseries of life or the bliss of dying and going to heaven in such a way that he/she might feel inspired to commit suicide or simply pine away to death, is explicitly stated as a breach in one of highest vinaya code regarding prohibition of harming life, hence it will result in automatic expulsion from Sangha.[35] In caring for the terminally ill, no one should subject a patient to treatment designed to bring on death faster than it would if the disease were simply allowed to run its course.[citation needed]

Animals and the environment[edit]

The Buddha, represented by the Bodhi tree, attended by animals, Sanchi vihara.

Buddhism does not see humans as being in a special moral category over animals or as having any king of God given dominion over them as Christianity does.[36] Humans are seen as being more able to make moral choices, and this means that they should protect and be kind to animals who are also suffering beings who are living in samsara. Buddhism also sees human as part of nature, not as separate from it. Thich Naht Hanh summarizes the Buddhist view of harmony with nature thus:

We classify other animals and living beings as nature, acting as if we ourselves are not part of it. Then we pose the question ‘How should we deal with Nature?’ We should deal with nature the way we should deal with ourselves! We should not harm ourselves; we should not harm nature...Human beings and nature are inseparable.[37]

Early Buddhist monastics spent a lot of time in the forests, which was seen as an excellent place for meditation and this tradition continues to be practiced by the monks of the Thai Forest Tradition.


The first precept of Buddhism focuses mainly on direct participation in the destruction of life. This is one reason that the Buddha made a distinction between killing animals and eating meat, and refused to introduce vegetarianism into monastic practice (see Vegetarian section of Buddhism). While early Buddhist texts like the Pali Canon frown upon hunting, butchering, fishing and 'trading in flesh' (butchered meat or livestock) as professions, they do not ban the act of eating meat. Direct participation also includes ordering or encouraging someone to kill an animal for you.

The Buddhist king Ashoka promoted vegetarian diets and attempted to decrease the number of animals killed for food in his kingdom by introducing 'no slaughter days' during the year. He gave up hunting trips, banned the killing of specific animals and decreased the use of meat in the royal household. Ashoka even banned the killing of some vermin or pests. His example was followed by later Sri Lankan kings.[38] One of Ashoka's rock edicts states:

Here (in my domain) no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice...Formerly, in the kitchen of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.[39]

Many Buddhists, especially in East Asia, believe that Buddhism advocates or promotes vegetarianism. While Buddhist theory tends to equate killing animals with killing people (and avoids the conclusion that killing can sometimes be ethical, e.g. defense of others), outside of the Chinese and Vietnamese monastic tradition, most Buddhists do eat meat in practice.[40] There is some controversy surrounding whether or not the Buddha himself died from eating rancid pork.[41] While most Chinese and Vietnamese monastics are vegetarian,[40] vegetarian Tibetans are rare, due to the harsh Himalayan climate.[40] Japanese lay people tend to eat meat, but monasteries tend to be vegetarian.[40] The Dalai Lama, after contracting Hepatitis B, was advised by doctors to switch to a high animal-protein diet.[42] The Dalai Lama eats vegetarian every second day, so he effectively eats a vegetarian diet for 6 months of the year.[43] In the West, vegetarianism among Buddhists is also common.

The first lay precept in Buddhism is usually translated as "I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures." Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is a divergence of views within Buddhism on the need for vegetarianism, with some schools of Buddhism rejecting such a claimed need and with most Buddhists in fact eating meat. Many Mahayana Buddhists - especially the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions - strongly oppose meat-eating on scriptural grounds.[44]

In the Pali version of the Tripitaka, there are number of occasions in which the Buddha ate meat as well as recommending certain types of meat as a cure for medical conditions. On one occasion, a general sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. The Buddha declared that:

Meat should not be eaten under three circumstances: when it is seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); these, Jivaka, are the three circumstances in which meat should not be eaten, Jivaka! I declare there are three circumstances in which meat can be eaten: when it is not seen or heard or suspected (that a living being has been purposely slaughtered for the eater); Jivaka, I say these are the three circumstances in which meat can be eaten.

-- Jivaka Sutta

The Buddha held that because the food is given by a donor with good intentions, a monk should accept this as long as it is pure in these three respects. To refuse the offering would deprive the donor of the positive karma that giving provides. Moreover, it would create a certain conceit in the monks who would now pick and choose what food to eat. The Buddha did state however that the donor does generate bad karma for himself by killing an animal. In Theravada Buddhist countries, most people do eat meat. However

While there is no mention of Buddha endorsing or repudiating vegetarianism in surviving portions of Pali Tripitaka and no Mahayana sutras explicitly declare that meat eating violates the first precept, certain Mahayana sutras vigorously and unreservedly denounce the eating of meat, mainly on the ground that such an act violates the bodhisattva's compassion. The sutras which inveigh against meat-eating include the Mahayana version of the Nirvana Sutra, the Shurangama Sutra, the Brahmajala Sutra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, the Mahamegha Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra, as well as the Buddha's comments on the negative karmic effects of meat consumption in the Karma Sutra. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents itself as the final elucidatory and definitive Mahayana teachings of the Buddha on the very eve of his death, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of Great Kindness", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals found already dead) is prohibited by him. He specifically rejects the idea that monks who go out begging and receive meat from a donor should eat it: ". . . it should be rejected . . . I say that even meat, fish, game, dried hooves and scraps of meat left over by others constitutes an infraction . . . I teach the harm arising from meat-eating." The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and lyingly claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact he says he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha speaking out very forcefully against meat consumption and unequivocally in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion that a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. In several other Mahayana scriptures, too (e.g., the Mahayana jatakas), the Buddha is seen clearly to indicate that meat-eating is undesirable and karmically unwholesome.


Forests and jungles represented the ideal dwelling place for early Buddhists, and many texts praise the forest life as being helpful to meditation. Monks are not allowed to cut down trees as per the Vinaya, and the planting of trees and plants is seen as karmically fruitful. Because of this, Buddhist monasteries are often small nature preserves within the modernizing states in East Asia. The species ficus religiosa is seen as auspicious, because it is the same kind of tree that the Buddha gained enlightenment under.

In Mahayana Buddhism, some teachings hold that trees and plants have Buddha nature. Kukai held that plants and trees, along with rocks and everything else, were manifestations of the 'One Mind' of Vairocana and Dogen held that plant life was Buddha nature.

In pre-modern times, environmental issues were not widely discussed, though Ashoka banned the burning of forests and promoted the planting of trees in his edicts. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada monk, has been outspoken about the issue of environmental crisis. Bodhi holds that the root of the current ecological crisis is the belief that increased production and consumption to satisfy our material and sensual desires leads to well being. The subjugation of nature is directly opposed to the Buddhist view of non-harming and dwelling in nature. Buddhist activists such as Ajahn Pongsak in Thailand and the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement have worked for reforestation and environmental protection.

Gender issues[edit]

Main article: Women in Buddhism
Buddhist nuns from the Tibetan tradition, volunteering in Kyegundo (Tibet Earthquake zone).

In pre-Buddhist Indian religion, women were seen as inferior and subservient to men. Buddha's teachings tended to promote gender equality as the Buddha held that women had the same spiritual capacities as men did. According to Isaline Blew Horner, women in Buddhist India: "commanded more respect and ranked as individuals. They enjoyed more independence, and a wider liberty to guide and follow their own lives."[45] Buddha gave the same teachings to both sexes, praised various female lay disciples for their wisdom and allowed women to become monastics (Bhikkhunis) at a time when this was seen as scandalous in India, where men dominated the spiritual professions. The two chief female disciples of the Buddha were Khema and Uppalavanna. The Buddha taught that women had the same soteriological potential as men, and that gender had no influence on one's ability to advance spiritually to nirvana. In the early Buddhist texts, female enlightened Arhats are common. Buddhist nuns are however bound by an extra 8 precepts not applicable to Buddhist monks called the The Eight Garudhammas. The authenticity of these rules is highly contested; they were supposedly added to the (bhikkhunis) Vinaya "to allow more acceptance" of a monastic Order for women, during the Buddha's time but can be interpreted as a form of gender discrimination.[46][47] Alan Sponberg argues that the early Buddhist sangha sought social acceptance through 'institutional androcentrism' as it was dependent on material support from lay society. Because of this Sponberg concludes: "For all its commitment to inclusiveness at the doctrinal level, institutional Buddhism was not able to (or saw no reason to) challenge prevailing attitudes about gender roles in society."[48] The pre-Mahayana texts also state that while women can become Arhats, they cannot become a Samyaksambuddha (a Buddha who discovers the path by himself), Chakravartins (Wheel turning king), a Ruler of heaven, a Mara devil or a Brahama god.[49]

The Therigatha is a collection of poems from elder Buddhist nuns, and one of the earliest texts of women's literature. Another important text is the Therī-Apadāna, which collects the biographies of eminent nuns. One such verses are those of the nun Soma, who was tempted by Mara when traveling in the woods. Mara states that women are not intelligent enough to attain enlightenment, Soma replies with a verse which indicates the insignificance of gender to spirituality:

"What does womanhood matter at all
When the mind is concentrated well,
When knowledge flows on steadily
As one sees correctly into Dhamma.
One to whom it might occur,
'I'm a woman' or 'I'm a man'
Or 'I'm anything at all' —
Is fit for Mara to address."[50]
The Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya is the largest statue of a woman in the world.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas such as Tara and Guanyin are very popular female deities. Some Buddhist Tantric texts include female consorts for each heavenly Buddha or Bodhisattva. In these Tantric couples, the female symbolizes wisdom (prajna) and the male symbolizes skillful means (upaya). [51] The union of these two qualities is often depicted as sexual union, known as yab-yum (father-mother).

In East Asia, the idea of Buddha nature being inherent in all beings is taken to mean that, spiritually at least, the sexes are equal, and this is expressed by the Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala sutra. Based on this ideal of Buddha nature, the Chinese Chan (Zen) school emphasized the equality of the sexes. Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) of the Chinese Linji school said of women in Buddhism: "For mastering the truth, it does not matter whether one is male or female, noble or base." [52] The Japenese founder of Soto Zen, Dogen wrote: "If you wish to hear the Dharma and put an end to pain and turmoil, forget about such things as male and female. As long as delusions have not yet been eliminated, neither men nor women have eliminated them; when they are all eliminated and true reality is experienced, there is no distinction of male and female."[53]

The attitude of Buddhists towards gender has been varied throughout history as it has been influenced by each particular culture and belief system such as Confucianism (which sees women as subservient) and Hinduism. The Theravadin commentator Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) for example, seems to have been influenced by his Brahmin background in stating that rebirth as a male is higher than rebirth as a female.[54] Some Mahayana sutras such as the ‘Sutra on Changing the Female Sex’ and the ‘Questions of the Daughter Pure Faith’ also echo this idea. For various historical and cultural reasons such as wars and invasions, the orders of ordained Buddhist nuns disappeared or was never introduced in Southeast Asia and Tibet, though they slowly started being reintroduced by nuns such as Ayya Khema, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Tenzin Palmo and Thubten Chodron. Until very recently, China, Taiwan and Korea were the only places where fully ordained bhiksuni lineages still existed. An international conference of Buddhist nuns was held on February 1987 at Bodh Gaya and saw the formation of 'Sakyadhita' (Daughters of the Buddha) the International Association of Buddhist Women which focuses on helping Buddhist nuns throughout the world.[55]


The Buddha placed much importance on the cultivation of kindness and good will towards one's parents, spouse and friends. Buddhism strongly values harmony in the family and community. Keeping the five precepts and having a generous attitude (Dana) is seen as the foundation for this harmony.


The Third (or sometimes Fourth) of the Five Precepts of Buddhism states that one is to refrain from "sexual misconduct", which has various interpretations, but generally entails any sexual conduct which is harmful to others, such as rape, molestation and often adultery, although this depends on the local marriage and relationship customs. Buddhist monks and nuns of most traditions are not only expected to refrain from all sexual activity but also take vows of celibacy.


Among the Buddhist traditions there is a vast diversity of opinion about homosexuality, and in interpreting the precedents which define "sexual misconduct" generally. Though there is no explicit condemnation of homosexuality in Buddhist scripture, be it Theravada, Mahayana or Mantrayana, societal and community attitudes and the historical view of practitioners have established precedents. Some sangha equate homosexuality with scriptural sexual misconduct prohibited by the Five Precepts. Other sangha hold that if sexuality is compassionate and/or consensual and does not contravene vows, then there is no karmic infraction, irrespective of whether it is same-sex or not.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gethin (1998), p. 170; Harvey (2007), p. 199; Ñāamoli (1999), pp. 3 passim; Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "sīla"; Thanissaro (1999); and, Warder (2004), p. 100.
  2. ^ Gethin (1998), p. 170.
  3. ^ Gombrich (2002), p. 89; Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "sīla"; and Saddhatissa (1987), pp. 54, 56.
  4. ^ Bodhi (2005), p. 153.
  5. ^ Horner, I.B. (trans.) (1975; reprinted 2000). The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part III): 'Chronicle of Buddhas' (Buddhavamsa) and 'Basket of Conduct' (Cariyapitaka). Oxford: Pali Text Society. ISBN 0-86013-072-X
  6. ^ Living This Life Fully: Teachings of Anagarika Munindra, by Mirka Knaster Ph.D., Shambhala Publications, USA, 2010. Pg. 67
  7. ^ Damien Keown The Nature of Buddhist Ethics Macmillan 1992; Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000
  8. ^ Keown, Damien; Buddhist Ethics A Very Short Introduction, pg 5.
  9. ^ Keown, Damien; Buddhist Ethics A Very Short Introduction, pg 5.
  10. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 19.
  11. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000
  12. ^ Stewart McFarlane in Peter Harvey, ed., Buddhism. Continuum, 2001, pages 195-196.
  13. ^ a b "Bodhi Monastery: the Five Precepts". Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  14. ^ Bodiford, William M. (2008). Soto Zen in Medieval Japan (Studies in East Asian Buddhism). University of Hawaii Press. pp. 22–36. ISBN 0-8248-3303-1. 
  15. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 62.
  16. ^ Stewart McFarlane in Peter Harvey, ed., Buddhism. Continuum, 2001, pages 195-196.
  17. ^ Carl Olson, The Different Paths of Buddhism p.73
  18. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 130.
  19. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 239.
  20. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 135.
  21. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 137.
  22. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 240.
  23. ^ a b Goodman, Charles, "Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/ethics-indian-buddhism/>.
  24. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 254.
  25. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 265.
  26. ^ Gier, Nicholas, F. Buddhism and Japanese Nationalism: A sad chronicle of complicity
  27. ^ Victoria, Brian Daizen (2006), Zen at war (Second ed.), Lanham e.a.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 
  28. ^ Victoria, Brian Daizen (2010), "The "Negative Side" of D. T. Suzuki’s Relationship to War" (PDF), The Eastern Buddhist 41/2: 97–138 *
  29. ^ Stone, Jaquelin (2000). Japanese Lotus Millennialism. In: Wessinger, Catherine, Millennialism, Persecution and Violence, Syracuse University Press, p.265
  30. ^ Otani Eiichi, "Missionary Activities of Nichiren Buddhism in East Asia", in: "Modern Japanese Buddhism and Pan-Asianism", The 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Tokyo, March 28, 2005, pp.21–22 PDF
  31. ^ Kawase Takaya, "The Jodo Shinshu Sectś Missionary Work in Colonial Korea"; in: "Modern Japanese Buddhism and Pan-Asianism", The 19th World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Tokyo, March 28, 2005, pp.6–7 PDF
  32. ^ "Abortion: Buddhism." BBC Religion & Ethics. Retrieved January 15, 2008.
  33. ^ Barnhart, Michael G. (1995). Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 5. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  34. ^ Claudia Dreifus (November 28, 1993). "The Dalai Lama". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2012. 
  35. ^ Pruitt & Norman, The Patimokkha, 2001, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, Defeat 3
  36. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 150.
  37. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, pg 151.
  38. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 158.
  39. ^ The Edicts of King Asoka an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika © 1994, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/dhammika/wheel386.html#rock14
  40. ^ a b c d Dharma Data: Vegetarianism
  41. ^ Vegetarianism and Buddhism
  42. ^ Dalai Lama (1991). Freedom in exile: the autobiography of the Dalai Lama. HarperOne. pp. 184–185. ISBN 0-06-098701-4. 
  43. ^ Phelps, Norm. (2004). The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights. Lantern Books.
  44. ^ Buddhist Resources on Vegetarianism and Animal Welfare
  45. ^ IB Horner, Women Under Primitive Buddhism, 1930, 82.
  46. ^ On the Apparent Non-historicity of the Eight Garudhammas Story
  47. ^ Gender Discrimination and the Pali Canon
  48. ^ Sponberg, Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism, 1992, http://www.nku.edu/~gartigw/teaching_files/Sponberg,%20Alan%20%20(1992)%20-%20Attitudes%20toward%20Women%20and%20the%20Feminine%20in%20Early%20Buddhism.pdf
  49. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 371-72.
  50. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi, Discourses of the Ancient Nuns (Bhikkhuni-samyutta) © 1997, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bl143.html
  51. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 363.
  52. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 366.
  53. ^ Francis Harold Cook, Francis Dojun Cook, Eihei Dogen; How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, page 105.
  54. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 370.
  55. ^ Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics Cambridge University Press 2000, page 400.

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