Ethical Values

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The basic code of ethics of Buddhism consists of the Five Principles (Pali: pañcasīlāni, Sanskrit: pañcaśīlāni), which aim to regulate how the mind behaves.

These are:

1. To abstain from taking a life.

(in Pali: Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)

2. To abstain from stealing.

(in Pali: Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)

3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.

(in Pali: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)

4. To abstain from false speech.

(in Pali: Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)

5. To abstain from addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs.

(in Pali: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi)

The endorsement and observation of the five ethical rules is based on the principle of non-harm, non-violence and non-cruelty (Pāli and Sanskrit: ahiṃsa). The Buddha recommends comparing ourselves to others, and based on that, abstain from harming others. In his own words, all beings are the same in that they want to be happy, not to suffer, and in that they fear death. By comparing ourselves to others, we should abstain from harming others, because we would not want anyone to harm us. In this teaching, the Buddha describes a kind of “golden rule” of comparing ourselves to others.

Furthermore, compassion and the belief in the karmic consistency of voluntary actions are the foundation of the five ethical rules. They are part of regular Buddhist practice, both at home and at the temple. A layman who observes them is described by the Buddha as a “jewel among the people”, meaning that he shines and adorns society.

Moreover, these five rules and other, higher rules of Buddhist ethics are described as a means for the creation of good karma (of good actions).

The five ethical rules are part of the right speech, the right action and the right livelihood of the Noble Eightfold Path, the central teaching of Buddhism. They have been described as social values that bring harmony to society, and the violation of these rules is described as opposing a harmonious society. Similarly, in Buddhist texts, the ideal, just society is one in which people adhere to the five ethical rules. These rules have also even been compared to human rights, due to their universal nature; some scholars argue that they can complement the concept of human rights. The founder of Peace and Conflict Studies, Johan Galtung, describes the five rules as “the main contribution of Buddhism to peace”.

According to the principle of free will and the gradual standards of Buddhist ethics, the five rules are formulated and understood as “undertakings” and “exercises” instead of commands imposed by a moral authority. They are forms of restraint expressed in the negative terms of “abstinence”, but are also accompanied by virtues and positive behaviours, which are cultivated through the practice of these rules.

When observing or violating the five rules, the intention is vital. A rule is violated when the person who violates it finds the object of the violation (e.g. a stolen object), is aware of the violation, has the intention to violate, actually acts with that intention and succeeds to do so.

The five rules are also regarded as principles that define a person as human in body and mind. The Buddha describes the five rules as a means of avoiding harm to ourselves and others, but also as gifts for ourselves and others. Furthermore, he says that the people who observe them will feel confident in any gathering of people, will have a good reputation and will die peacefully, reborn in a pleasant plane of existence. On the other hand, living a life that violates the rules leads to rebirth in an unhappy plane of existence.

This text was written by the Reverend monk Nyanadassana (Ioannis Tselios) in August 2019.