ConfuciusPrecepts of TaoismBuddhist No-SelfBuddhist EthicsIntegral ConsciousnessVedantaUniversal SpiritualityRobert Waxman


Buddhist Ethics

                                          Robert Waxman                                         



     In Ethics of Buddhism, Shundo Tachibana devotes half the book to the discussion of fourteen ethical principles in Buddhism. These fourteen ‘virtues’ are the foundations of Buddhist morality, and represent the essential ethical teachings of the Buddha. In this paper, three important topics are examined relating to Buddhist ethics, 1) the individual’s relationship to the Buddha, 2) the Dhamma (natural duty or law), and; 3) the Sangha (community). Additionally, three other subjects are discussed relating to karma, 1) the five aggregates (forms of karma), 2) the no-self (no individual soul identity) and, 3) the illusory nature of the universe. There is a review of Hindu and Chinese influences affecting the development of modern Buddhism. Additionally, a correspondence is found between the development of ancient Chinese and Greek cultural ethics. On the subject of cultural influences, an interconnection is found relating to Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Included is a discussion of the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Comparisons are made between Theravada’s nirvanic state of ‘the here and now’, versus Mahayana’s mystical tradition of communing with the ‘oneness of all things’. Commentary is offered relating to Theravada’s concept of reaching nirvana in duality, versus Mahayana’s concept of achieving oneness in non-duality. Concluding remarks summarize the benefits and limitations of Tachibana’s book. Finally, the practice of Buddhist ethics is discussed as a pre-requisite for attaining a constant state of nirvanic bliss.    


     Buddhism is known as the most ethical of all religions (2008, Gunasekara).  Buddha’s great contribution to the reformation of Hinduism is his deep understanding of how karma leads to suffering. As a method for preventing the creation of karma, and expending existing karma, Buddha reveals The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Additionally, he concentrates on teaching moral precepts that are as relevant today as they were twenty-five hundred years ago. 


Tachibana discusses fourteen of these principles in Ethics of Buddhism: self restraint, temperance, contentment, celibacy, patience, purity, humility, benevolence, liberality, reverence, gratitude, toleration, veracity, and righteousness (1992). He says that these principles of ethical behavior do not include all of Buddha’s teachings on morality, but they are stressed more than the others. Here are descriptions of the fourteen ethical principles as described by Tachibana.

     Self-Restraint- Tachibana claims that restraining the sense organs is an important moral issue (1992, p. 110). If the Buddhist does not restrain the sense organs, he cannot attain right concentration of mind, “if this is not attained, knowledge and insight which see things as they really are will not be attained” (p. 110). The eventual consequences for not achieving self-restraint, will lead to acceptance of worldly vanity, and being bound to human passions. 


     Temperance: The ethic of temperance relates to sobriety and regarding the drinking of alcohol, as “grave a sin as killing, stealing, adultery, and lying” (Tachibana, 1992). The reason behind this severe warning, is the assumption that “moderate drinking in many cases leads onto drunkenness, the evil and harmfulness of which to individuals and society nobody will deny” 


     Contentment: This feeling relates to an individual who is satisfied with what he obtains or the position in which he finds himself (Tachibana, 1992). Therefore, the individual must feel satisfaction and pleasure while living in poverty or in luxury. Tachibana contends that being satisfied with one’s position in life is a virtue from the standpoint of common sense.  He says, “Everybody, generally speaking, will be ready to commend a person of this nature” (1992).


     Patience: A form of self control that is an important part of the Buddhist self-culture (Tachibana, 1992). “Endurance in the face of hardship, mental suffering or bodily pain, or perseverance in pursuit of a certain aim and end, should be regarded as a highly valuable virtue” (1992). Buddha needed patience to defeat Mara (his ego-self or evil-side) and overcome his fears. Additionally, Buddha considered patience as “the best devotion” (p. 137). He says there is nothing that surpasses patience and one who acquires patience, Buddha considers a Brahman.


     Celibacy or chastity: An ethical principle of Hinduism that becomes part of Buddhism with slight modifications (Tachibana, 1992). According to Tachibana, the celibacy of a Brahman was mandatory at the beginning and end of life, however, in the middle years it was optional (1992). Conversely, the Buddhist is only obligated to stay celibate during three days of the lunar month and on certain holidays, however, monks must be celibate throughout their lives.


     Hinduism and Buddhism both agree that by observing celibacy, one creates, “a life of perfect holiness or purity” (p. 143). This ethic corresponds to the need for self-restraint.


     Purity: The Buddhist idea of purity differs from that of Hinduism since they are entirely spiritual, and have little to do with rituals or objects outside of one’s self (Tachibana, 1992). Purification for the Buddhist is the work of a lifetime, and he follows the ethical teachings of the Buddha to reach this goal. Buddhism stresses the importance of purity in thought, speech, and deed for attainment of Nirvana. Along with the attainment of spiritual purification comes a natural outpouring of “goodness, justice, worthiness, completeness, and holiness” (1992). The three-fold training of the Buddhist includes, “morality, concentration of mind, and wisdom; the three holy objects are the Buddha (the awakened one), the Dhamma (or Dharma; natural duty or natural law), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community)” (1992). All the efforts of the Buddhist become part of the process of purification, with the attainment of Nirvana being the ultimate form of purity.


     Humility: Acting with humility is held in high regard by the Buddhist and is another important ethical principle in Buddhism (Tachibana, 1992). According to Tachibana, pride and arrogance are “abominable vices from the Buddhistic moral point of view and it is through these expressions that we understand that Buddhism regards humility as a high virtue” (1992). The Dhammapada says, “Abandon anger and pride…anger and pride are twin vices detestable in everybody’s eyes” (p. 179). The individual who has not attained humility is selfish and ambitious and he does not mind if others suffer as a result of his actions. If he cherishes the idea of self, he cannot attain peace of mind or enlightenment. This individual must free himself from the five aggregates (skandhas): form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (sanna), predispositions (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana) (p. 181). According to Tachibana, these five aggregates compose the human being that is controlled by the self – but, this is an illusion. (p. 181). Buddha teaches that through meditation, the individual realizes the concept of self is an illusion. This philosophical principle is essential to Buddhist thought: “there exists no self in the human being, therefore, self should not be pursued or clung to” (p. 182). As anger and pride are released from the false self, a natural outpouring of gentleness, patience, tolerance, love, modesty and humility will follow.


     Benevolence: An ethical behavior understood as comprising “love, kindness, friendship, sympathy, mercy, pity, and other kindred virtuous feelings and actions” (Tachibana, 1992). A Buddhist monk will extend his heart to all living beings and feel as one with the world. According to The Dhammapada: “Let us live happily then, not hating those who hate us! Among men who hate us, let us dwell free from hatred” (1992). Correspondingly, Jesus teaches others to love their enemies and their neighbors. By overcoming hatred and anger, both Buddha and Jesus believe that even the worst of enemies can live in peace. Once an individual overcomes his negative feelings toward others, he feels a sense of equality toward mankind. He also feels an innate sense of responsibility for ‘the other’, and begins to realize that he and ‘the other’ are one. Subsequently, the individual feels a connection between himself and ‘the other’ resulting in an outpouring of love and compassion.


     Liberality: This virtue relates to charitable actions and serving the needs of others (Tachibana, 1992). Tachibana contends that the practical application of liberality is the underlying value that makes benevolence a virtue (1992). Therefore, a feeling of benevolence must be in the heart of the individual before liberality is set into motion. Accordingly, benevolence is the cause of a kind action, and takes the form of liberality when in effect.  Tachibana cites Jesus’ teaching of liberality as being similar to the Buddhist meaning. “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (1992). In Buddhism, the concept of liberality teaches the individual to renounce attachments to material possessions. The Buddha states: 


You should be, O monks heirs of spiritual things, but not of material things….There are, O monks, two gifts. What are the two? Material gifts and spiritual gifts. Of these two gifts the spiritual are pre-eminent (Tachibana, 1992).     


It is not enough to feel benevolence in one’s heart. Without corresponding actions to carry-out feelings of love and compassion, there is no giving or receiving of goodness:


     Reverence: An emotion expressing our respect toward others and toward objects we believe are sacred (Tachibana, 1992). By acting with reverence, we feel gratitude and a form of benevolence. In early Buddhism – as in Taoism – reverence toward the community is of primary importance. Additionally, reverence toward elders and the social welfare of the community is an essential condition. This virtue teaches mutual respect among the members of the community bringing harmony and balance into daily life. A special form of reverence is directed toward parents. The parents are ready to sacrifice everything on behalf of their children. Buddha believes: 


They [the parents] restrain the child from vice, they exhort him to virtue, they train him to a profession, they contract a suitable marriage for him and in due time they hand over their inheritance to him. (Tachibana, 1992)


Therefore, reverence toward parents is of utmost importance in a material and spiritual sense. The child is indebted to his parents for their sacrifices, tolerance and guidance. According to Buddha:


We may carry our mothers on one shoulder, and our fathers on the other, and attend on them for a hundred years, doing them bodily services in every possible way, and establishing them in the position of universal sovereignty; still the favour we have received from our parents will be far from requited (Tachibana, 1992)


The child reveres his parents for their love and affection and believes everything he owns belongs to his parents. Therefore, this virtue affects family dynamics and close relationships.   


     Gratitude: In Buddhism, gratitude relates to a feeling of indebtedness that Buddhists feel toward each other (Tachibana, 1992). Again, Tachibana explains that the most important form of gratitude is linked to reverence toward one’s parents, and matricide and patricide are among the worst crimes committed (1992). Therefore, Buddhist gratitude takes the form of how a dutiful child feels towards his parents. This same type of gratitude exists in Buddhist society. Each person is grateful to ‘the other’ in the same way they are grateful to their parents.


     Tolerance: An essential attribute of the Buddhist, “The Buddha, himself, was a person of a wonderfully tolerant nature” (Tachibana, 1992). Therefore, Buddhism is among the most tolerant of all religions, and is “the freest from prejudice or exclusiveness or even from bigotry” (p. 237). While teaching or instructing others in the ways of Buddha, the Buddhist is always tolerant of other’s opinions and behaviors. As an example, on a certain occasion the Buddha’s disciples were being too forceful while trying to convert others to the Faith, so Buddha gently explains:


This will not do for converting the unconverted, and for augmenting the number of the converted, but it will result in the unconverted being repulsed from the faith – and many of the converted being estranged. (Tachibana, 1992) 


The Buddha does not use harsh language when speaking to his disciples about their offensive behavior. He displays tolerance and patience in the same way a concerned father treats his child:

     Veracity: Speaking the truth at all times with sincerity. According to Tachibana, Buddhists of all classes receive teachings in childhood to specifically avoid lying (Tachibana,1992). In Buddhism, lying is one of the most common types of unethical behavior. The Buddha classifies lying as, “hypocrisy, treachery, dishonesty, double-tongues, false testimony…and he believed it was the root of every mortal sin” (1992). Conversely, speaking the truth is considered a virtue and Buddhism is considered a religion of truth. Understanding and knowing the truth are supreme goals in Buddhism. Living one’s truth leads to salvation, and in Buddhism a high value is placed on attaining the truth. The first words Buddha spoke after attaining enlightenment were, “The true nature of things have been revealed to me” (1992). Finally, truth is a moral duty and a non-negotiable ethic to live by in Buddhism. Early Buddhism does not allow any exceptions to this rule – it requires everyone to speak the absolute truth.

     Righteousness: The early Buddhists equate righteousness with the cosmic Brahmanical concept of Rita (order in life, nature and the cosmos) (Tachibana, 1992). As nature moves in cycles, a form of order unfolds. Similarly, the flow of human consciousness moves in cycles as morality progresses. Since nature is an orderly aspect of the cosmos, it is identified with the individual’s orderly, moral behavior in society. This orderly correspondence between the progression of nature and the ethical nature of the individual is defined by Dhamma. This concept is also closely related to the concept of natural law and righteousness (1992). According to Bhikkhu (2008):

The Dhamma, the truth taught by the Buddha, unfolds gradually. The Buddha made clear many times that Awakening does not occur like a bolt out of the blue to the untrained and unprepared mind. Rather, it culminates a long journey of many stages. 

     In Buddhism the word Dhamma replaces the Vedic word Rita. Both words are used to express a semblance of order in the universe and in life. However, Dhamma has a broader meaning of moral behavior relating to duty and allegiance to community. An individual living ‘on Dhamma’ is known as “a person who is just or upright in action and living respectfully” (p. 260). As an example, the Buddhist says, “I am the genuine son…One who makes righteousness his body…One who is identical with righteousness” (p. 269). Here we can see a similarity between Buddhist and Christian beliefs. The Buddhist is declaring that he is a ‘son of perfection’, in the same way that Jesus is being called the ‘Son of God’. In the New Testament, Jesus is not referring to himself as the ‘Son of God’, but rather as the Son of Man. The "Man" he is referring to - is the ‘perfect Man’ - or the perfect form of man being created on the Sixth Day of Genesis. Nevertheless, the meaning of the Buddhist and Christian phrases, stress the importance of living righteously for the person wanting to become a perfect human being. By understanding that righteousness is the path to perfection, the individual lives in strict accordance with Buddhist ethics. He understands that living an ethical life is leading him to his awakening.      

     In addition to the fourteen ethical principles in Ethics of Buddhism, Tachibana explains The Five Precepts:

1) Do not kill;

2) Do not steal;

3) Do not commit adultery;

4) Do not tell a lie and;

5) Do not take intoxicating liquors (Tachibana,1992)

These five ethical principles are seemingly identical to Taoism’s Five Precepts. The ‘wording’ is slightly different, but the meanings are the same. Consequently, these Five Precepts can be interpreted as Chinese cultural ethics as well as religious ethics. Although Buddhism is originally influenced by Vedic teachings, Chinese culture has an immense influence on later developments of Buddhist ethics:

Buddhism, as a foreign culture, had undergone mainly three stages of the development in China: with its dependence upon the traditional Chinese culture---Confucianism and Taoism at its early stage, in conflict with the latter later on and to merge with the traditional Chinese culture at its last stage. A process of the development of Buddhism in China is somehow the process of Buddhism Chinalization, or to say localization. Buddhism was so well accepted by China, it is not only because the character of open-minded and all-inclusive of the Chinese nation, but also because that Buddhism has itself a rich and colorful connotation which serves a supplement to the Chinese traditional culture (Jiahua, 2008).

     It can be argued that if religion had never existed in China, The Five Precepts would have evolved anyway as an outgrowth of community living. Kohn (2004) examines the early Chinese community and the continuation of ancient cultural rituals:

Priests underwent ordinations which retained the patterns of early initiations as well as the formalities of blood covenants from Chinese antiquity. 

The three major Chinese religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, feel the influence of ancient Chinese culture. Since the I-Ching (circa. 2800 BCE) is written over two-thousand years before Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha, these three religions are heavily influenced by Chinese religious philosophers of the past. When Buddhism arrives in China in 67 CE, Taoism and Confucianism have already been taught there for over five hundred years. Consequently, Buddhism is seen as an extension of Chinese religious thought by both Taoists and Confucianists. 

When Buddhism was just introduced into China, it was regarded as a kind of Taoist practice. This is because the foreign Buddhist monks attempting to propagate Buddhism in China, adopted both Taoist and Confucian theories to interpret Buddhism. (Jiahua, 2008)

     In the same way that Greek ethics begin with Homer, Chinese ethics begin with the I-Ching. Early Greek ethics are passed down to Thales, Pythagoras and Socrates, as Chinese ethics are passed down through Lao-Tzu, Confucius and Buddha. Therefore, the continuing advancement of ancient ethical ideals paves the way for later philosophers and religious reformers. These progressive thinkers continue to refine and improve upon the ethical teachings of the past (2008). Although little is known about ancient Chinese religions, an early belief in the Godhead along with a hierarchy of pantheistic gods begins during the Bronze Age in 2250 BCE:

Ti was in charge of all the gods and spirits in the pantheon. The Chinese had spirit gods that represented things found in nature, from specific mountains and streams to the stars in the sky. There were also two gods of the earth, "the God of the Soil," and "Sovereign Earth." They were subject to Ti. (McGill, 2002)

The inclusion of ‘nature gods’ in the spiritual thinking of ancient China forms the basis for later religious thought. From this beginning of pantheistic worship, there is a progression into believing that ‘all of nature’ is one. Therefore, ‘oneness in nature’ becomes a fundamental belief in Chinese religion, leading to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. This foundational principle influences Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Similarly, a progression of spiritual and ethical principles occurs in ancient Greece. Their ‘nature gods’ are also part of a pantheistic hierarchy including the Godhead and a belief in the unity of all things. These beliefs are later adopted by the Romans and become the basis for Paganism:

As Rome's power grew and its sphere of influence expanded, the Roman Empire encountered the older and richer religious beliefs of the Greeks. As a result, Romans began to adopt various foreign gods and religious customs. In many cases, gods and heroes from foreign cultures were given temples in Rome. The acceptance of Greek gods had the biggest influence on Roman religion. (Jiahua, 2008)

This phenomenon of creating pantheistic gods and expressing an appreciation of nature is essential for understanding the basis of religious ethics in the ancient world. A correspondence between the Chinese concepts of Yin-Yang and Pythagoras’ need for balance and oneness, demonstrate a universal human desire to identify with the perfection of nature. Consequently, the goal of ancient Chinese and Greek religion is to reflect the divine unity within the constructs of nature. This unifying feeling of living in harmony with nature is revealed to Siddhartha, who subsequently discovers The Middle Way:

He [Siddhartha] overheard a teacher speaking of music. If the strings on the instrument are set too tight, then the instrument will not play harmoniously. If the strings are set too loose, the instrument will not produce music. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce harmonious music. This chance conversation changed his life overnight. The goal was not to live a completely worldly life, nor was it to live a life in complete denial of the physical body, but to live in a Middle Way. (Hooker, 1996)

     Subsequently, Siddhartha tranforms into the Buddha and establishes The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as a comprehensive set of moral and ethical principles for overcoming suffering. Additionally, it is said that Buddha taught a mystical doctrine to his disciples. It is interesting to note that two of these schools - Theravada and Mahayana - offer two distinctly different approaches for the Buddhist who is seeking to experience enlightenment.   

     Theravada Buddhism teaches a path to enlightenment that is different from the mystical teachings of most religions. Other mystical traditions stress the importance of experiencingtran scendence by communing with the oneness of the Ultimate Reality. The teaching of Theravada Buddhism, however, leads the individual to attaining a state of transcendent calm in ‘the here and now’. Consequently, Theravada’s path to enlightenment does not follow the methodology of Hinduism’s Advaita-Vedanta. Whereas Vedanta teaches that duality does not exist between the individual and Brahman, Theravada teaches that duality does exist between samsara (cycles of re-birth) and nirvana (free of selfish desires, suffering and rebirth). Therefore, if ‘traditional mysticism’ is defined as experiencing the non-duality of The Godhead, we can say that Theravada is not a mystical tradition. Alternatively, Mahayana Buddhism agrees with the mystical traditions of Vedanta, Sufism, Kabbalah, and Taoism, by positing that ‘true’ mysticism is a non-dualistic experience. Unfortunately for the Mahayana school, there is no evidence to support the proposition that Buddha taught a non-dualistic doctrine. In fact, it seems unlikely that he would have done so, based on his pragmatic philosophy of life. It seems much more likely that Mahayana is an outgrowth of Vedanta that arrives in China after Buddhism is embedded within Chinese culture. However, students of the Mahayana school are undeterred and cannot conceive of a dualistic approach to mysticism:             

The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. (Bodi, 1994)

     At this point, rather than pursuing the differences between Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism, it seems prudent to re-direct the discussion to the relationship between Buddhist ethics and the attainment of the nirvanic state of Theravada. Regardless of whether the transcendent experience is based in duality or non-duality, the Buddhist must still prepare himself for the goal of attaining nirvana. He does so by following the fourteen ethical principles of Buddhism as described by Tachibana. According to Teasdale (1999):

Morally, nirvana is the decision to abandon desire, or selfish craving; it means embracing the Dharma and thus following the Eightfold Path that leads to nirvana . . . Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, unborn, and unbecome, that is power, bliss and happiness. 

This description of ‘everyday nirvanic bliss’ occurs when the individual is living in accordance with the fourteen ethics established by the Buddha. Once the individual learns how to liberate himself from selfish desires, he experiences a mystical feeling of liberation and enlightenment.  Consequently, he is living in ‘the here and now’ of nirvana. For the individual wanting to live in a constant state of nirvana, he must purify his five skandhas (karmic forms, feelings, perceptions, will and consciousness). He must avoid unethical conduct, cultivate good deeds, and train his mind. He must understand: 1) the fundamental precepts of the Buddha’s teachings, 2) the concept of ‘reality’ as an illusion (the temporary nature of all things), 3) the rejection of a God-object and; 4) the acceptance of the ‘no-self’ (no existence of a personal soul and impermanence of the individual identity).

     Once the individual awakens, he is always thinking with his Buddha-mind. His natural way of ‘being’ is by living in a transcendent state of happiness, tranquility, and love. Therefore, he is always communing with the ‘oneness of all things’ – and is therefore - living the mystical life.                                   


     In Ethics of Buddhism, Tachibana presents his views on the most important ethical principles in Buddhism. In the first few chapters, he offers insightful information about Siddhartha and his spiritual journey before becoming the Buddha. Tachibana explains the need for reform in Hinduism, and the reasons for Siddhartha’s dissatisfaction with prevailing Hindu thought. Tachibana describes the links between Hinduism and Buddhism throughout the book, and cites the shared teachings of these two religions. The details of Buddhist life are presented in a comprehensive manner, and Tachibana covers important moral and ethical frameworks. These include The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Dhammapada, The Five Precepts, Precepts for Monks, and The Ten Good Actions.

     This is an excellent book for understanding the basis of Buddhist ethics. Much credit should be given to Tachibana for his thorough explanations and concise writing style. He makes the point that Buddhism is practiced by individuals seeking to perfect themselves. These individuals do not need to live in a Buddhist community or adhere to any man-made regulations. The Buddhist can live alone on an island and still live in the nirvanic state. Conversely, the Buddhist can live in any type of community, and recognize his natural duty to help others. Although Tachibana explains that Buddhism is a religious philosophy of ethics, he also stresses the importance of community, family and relationships.

     The book is lacking, however, in several respects. There are few ‘real-life’ examples of the fourteen principles in action as described by Tachibana. Such specifics would clarify when Buddhist ethics are needed, missing, or being applied properly or improperly. At times, Tachibana is repetitive, and uses previously defined ethics to describe a new ethic under discussion. This leads to overlapping definitions and confusion about whether certain ethics are just sub-sets of others. If Tachibana cited more examples of how the fourteen ethics are related to each other, he would have stronger and clearer definitions. Additionally, he does not comment on the difficulties of applying these ethics in ‘real world’ situations. He misses an opportunity to address ‘real-life’ dilemmas when an individual is ‘being taken advantage of’, abused, or ridiculed. Finally, he does not discuss the immense challenges that the individual encounters while cultivating each ethic.  

     In this paper, other religions have also been discussed. Similarities are described between the teachings of The New Testament and Theravada Buddhism. Both religions teach that each person is a divine ‘child’ - trying to improve moral behavior and move closer toward perfection. Therefore, before the Buddhist attains nirvana, he must first assimilate the fourteen ethical principles of Buddhism into his natural way of being. 

     In terms of mysticism, the transcendent goals of Theravada, when compared to the mystical beliefs of Mahayana, become the subject for the writing of another research paper. Theravada’s nirvana of ‘the here and now’, versus the non-dualistic mystical experience of Mahayana, are fascinating subjects for further discussion. Attempting to argue the validity of a dualistic, or non-dualistic, mystical experience in an illusionary world, is a metaphysical enigma that challenges the far reaches of the intellect.