Ethical Behavior: Key Element of Buddhist Teaching

Ethical behavior occupies a central role on the Buddhist path to awakening. Yet often, modern presentations of Buddhist teaching skip over these fundamental principles. These teachings may sound boring or like a list of restrictions. And perhaps they do not arouse as much interest as deep meditation practices or perceived mystical experiences. In our hurry to jump to the “good stuff,” however, we may be missing some crucial points.

Teachers in all Buddhist traditions often quote verse 183 from the Pāli Dhammapada to summarize the teachings of the Buddha:

Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ kusalassa upasampadā
Sacittapariyodapanaṃ etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.

“The non-doing of any evil,

the performance of what’s skillful,

the cleansing of one’s own mind:

this is the teaching of the Awakened”.1Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

However, many of us don’t take the time to really consider the first two of these lines. We may be interested in meditation or in ritual practices, but how can we practice either of these successfully if we are not practicing ethical behavior? When we do behave ethically, our meditation can then truly flourish, our compassion can flow naturally, and our wisdom will shine forth!

Buddhist Art and Ethics

Jataka of the Buddha as a monkey king saving his subjects from certain death

In Buddhist countries, artistic reminders of ethics are important teaching tools.

People regularly see paintings and sculptures depicting the Buddha’s own virtuous behavior. Tales of the Buddha’s past lives, known as jatakas, decorate the walls of temples, monasteries, and monuments. These serve to regularly remind viewers of exemplary conduct. Such visual cues can plant deep seeds and instill a strong sense of ethics. Artworks entertain or delight us, but also inspire us to perform good deeds.

Khenpo Gyaltsen Teaches on Virtue

Khenpo Gyaltsen gives an excellent introduction (or refresher) of this topic in his book A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation. In this blog, we encourage you to read or review excerpts from Khenpo’s writing. Kyabgon Phakchok Rinpoche also frequently asks us to return to these teachings. Rinpoche reminds us that his own meditation master quizzed him on the ten non-virtues. Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche pointed out that if one did not know these by heart, then one could easily make the mistake of committing one of these actions.

Khenpo begins from the positive aspect. He introduces the topic of ethics by emphasizing the cultivation of virtuous behavior. Therefore, in this post, we present his explanation of the virtues.

The Ethics of the Ten Virtues and Ten Non-virtues

Without the ethical discipline of the ten virtues and the ten non-virtues, there is no way that peace and well-being will come about in our world in general or in our countries, communities, businesses, and families in particular. Therefore, we should certainly consider and make a careful examination of what constitutes positive and negative actions.

The Ten Virtues

Any actions we do that cause both oneself and others to experience happiness as a result are known as virtuous actions. The classification of virtuous actions is:

  1. Not taking the life of living beings
  2.  Not taking what is not freely given
  3.  Abstaining from sexual misconduct
  4.  Speaking truthfully
  5.  Not engaging in divisive speech
  6.  Speaking gentle words
  7.  Not gossiping  
  8.  Not coveting the wealth of others
  9.  Giving up holding ill-will towards others
  10.  Right view

Whoever maintains practices such as these, in both dharmic and worldly affairs, is recognized as a respectable person with proper conduct. Thus it is extremely important.  

The Benefits of the Ten Virtues

In the short term, you will be happy, joyful, and get along with everybody. Not only will others esteem your elegant behavior, but also your life will not stray from the ways of courtesy and honesty. You will consequently be able to act as a competent guide showing the path that will eliminate the suffering of many hundred millions of sentient beings.

In the long term, practicing the virtues in this way will aid you in attaining the ultimate state of mental peace and happiness – enlightenment itself.  

Reflection Exercise

In the next several months, spend a few moments each day thinking about virtuous behavior. How can you act with more ethical behavior in your daily life? We often ask how we take our practice off the cushion — and this is a great way to start!

You might want to keep a journal: note the particular virtues where you might make more effort. As you work with these repeatedly, do you see yourself making new habits? Which areas cause you the most difficulty? 

And think about what visual cues or reminders you might use to inspire you. Some people find post-it notes on their desks effective. Others might be inspired by beautiful artwork illustrating virtuous behavior. What works for you?