Morality is a funny thing. What is right for one person is wrong for another. What is wrong for one can be perfectly acceptable by another. This especially comes into play when you move from culture to culture. In one culture it can be perfectly acceptable for a man to have multiple wives, for example, in another it is totally unacceptable and even against the law. In Europe people show up at the beach and then change into their bathing suit, right there on the beach! Women often go topless at the beach and nobody seems to care or notice. In America women that are breastfeeding their baby at a restaurant get the evil eye from some of the other patrons. They cannot believe that a woman would expose their breast in a public place, how shameful! Morality plays an important part in all the major religions as well. While in many sex or nudity is a terrible thing but taking an eye for an eye is acceptable. One thing for sure is that morality from religion to religion is a very different thing. So what gives? Why is morality such a difficult thing to pin down? It should be black and white right? What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong, simple huh?
When it comes to western Buddhism there seems to be an equal but totally opposite split on the view of Buddhist morality. On one hand you have what I would casually term as the Hollywood Buddhist (sorry California!). On the other side you have the ex-Christian (Western) Buddhist or at least the Buddhist who grew up in a Christian home and became a Buddhist later in life. These two see Buddhist practice through a completely different lens. The Hollywood Buddhist have a revulsion for Christian morality. They do not like to be told what is right or wrong or be judged on their actions. They seem to be attracted to Buddhism under a false notion that within Buddhism everything is essentially OK. So they can be a Buddhist and not actually have to change their life or their behavior. Since there isn’t a God in Buddhism they believe that there is no one to judge their actions in the way they perceive Christianity is doing. They can just strap on a Mala bracelet and go to some meditation center and do some mindfulness meditation and everything is great. No changes needed in their personal life at all.
The ex-Christian Buddhist comes with a different view of Buddhist morality. In fact they bring their Christian morality, intact, with them! If you do something wrong you will surely go to some Buddhist hell just as it is taught in Christianity. There is good and there is evil everyone knows that. They preach a very dogmatic rigid view of Buddhist morality based on a Christian model. They just assume that the word morality has the exact same definition from one religion to another. Well the 5 precepts are pretty much the same as 5 of the Ten Commandments right? So if I see another Buddhist not living up to the precepts then I should condemn them and say that they are not really a Buddhist or at least they are not as good a Buddhist as I am. If I point out their flaws it will show everyone how I am a good Buddhist and they are well, bad Buddhist!
The problem here is that both groups are missing some very important points.
Zen Master Dogen said:
“To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.”
So these two groups need to stop making assumptions and find out what Buddhist morality is really about, what is its function is within Buddhism. In both groups what they accept or reject is the notion of a Christian based morality. Where does Christian morality come from? Well it comes from God and Christians are commanded to follow it, hence the name 10 Commandments (of course the Ten Commandments are not the only moral tenets that they follow). God decides what is right and what is wrong. Not to offend any Christians but this form of morality is based on a system of fear of punishment (hell) if it is not followed, or the joy of reward (heaven) if it is. There is an external power that both delves out the punishment and the reward. So in essence you do not have a choice to follow. If you believe in Gods authority then when you act you are just choosing between receiving a punishment (going against God) or a reward (Following Gods Command). The Buddha is not a God and his teachings are not commanded in any way. The Buddha, like a doctor, has diagnosed the human condition and has provided a prescription for the cure. It is totally up to you to follow it or not there isn’t a punishment or reward delved out by him. If you follow his prescription you gain a true understanding of reality. If you don’t you stay in the human condition (Dhukka) you are in.
The Hollywood crowd mistake the idea that there isn’t a God commanding them for the idea that they don’t really have to do anything or conversely that doing anything they want is just fine! I once saw something in a Buddhist magazine about a group of Gay monks and how happy they were that Buddhism was accepting of their lifestyle. Seeing how the majority of monastics are celibate being a Gay monk is a bit of an oxymoron! J But Buddhism is tolerant of many things that other religions are not. That is because Buddhism sees the universe in a non-dualistic way. The Middle way says that the truth lies in the middle between two extremes. In the Buddha’s life he lived in extravagance as a Prince and then as an Ascetic but found that the truth was in the middle. Not in either extreme. More importantly he found out the importance of understanding our true “self”. Buddhist are completely tolerant of sexuality, race, gender, and of other religions. This of course is a very good thing. But this openness can obviously cause a bit of confusion. It does not mean that Buddhist practice does not require some changes in your life. You can choose not to make them but you have to realize that if you do you will likely not get very far in your Buddhist practice. It is your choice.
So what is Buddhist morality really about? Well as Zen Master Dogen says it is about the same thing that all Buddhist practice is about, understanding our true “self’. All of the precepts are designed to teach us about the nature of the self. Why do you steal? To enrich the “self”. Why do you lie? To protect your “self”. Why do you kill? To protect or to enrich your “self”. Why do you have improper sexual relations? To pleasure your “self”. Does that mean sex or certain types of sex are evil? No improper sexual is when someone else is hurt in the process. Why would you hurt someone else? Because you only care or are only thinking of your “self”! Sex is natural and not evil in any way. You might ask then why are monks generally (Some Japanese monks can marry) celibate? It is because the sexual urge is one of the strongest human drives there is. Buddhism is designed to allow us to have control of our minds and therefore control of our actions. It is a distraction from the monks training and very powerful if they can control it. There is a precept against drinking or becoming intoxicated. Is it because alcohol or drugs are evil? No it is because when you are intoxicated you do not have control of your “self”.
Buddhist morality isn’t about good and evil in the Christian sense. Moral action in Buddhism is selfless in nature. It is a part of the overall Buddhist practice designed to Enlighten us on the true nature of the “self”. Compassion which also plays a big part in Buddhism is also selfless by nature. To be compassionate and show empathy you are putting the welfare of others before your own. In the Metta sutta there is a verse:
“Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings”
Isn’t the model of a mother’s protection of her child the epitome of selflessness? That she would lose her own life for the protection of her child’s. But we as Buddhist are asked to have that same selflessness for all living beings. It is a mighty tall order for sure.
Buddhist are not commanded to practice or follow Buddhist morality. We choose to practice and follow it as a part of our training to come to a realization of our true nature and our relationship to all things in the universe. It is totally voluntary and there is no punishment for not practicing except continuing in our sleep and not waking up to know our true “Self” Giving up selfish practices and practicing selfless ones is a way to open our eyes to the reality of our interconnectedness of all things and to shine a light on our Universal “Self”. But we have to realize that to progress we have to understand why we are practicing and break out of our habitual way of living our lives.