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Buddhist Ethics

Although significant, the Theravada Buddhist definition of sila as five precepts is limited. Sila acts as a daily practice. A tiny minority of people - murderers, thieves, rapists, liars and addicts – ignore the virtue of ethics due to their conditioning and compelling tendencies. Many people, whether Buddhists or not, might therefore claim to be living an ethical life based on their belief in the five precepts. Subtle depths of the five precepts challenge the depths of our values that there are many explorations through the five ethics, which can trigger various moral dilemmas. Practitioners may have to face dealing with a variety of paradoxes in terms of ethics, kindness and moral decisions. That is part of the practice.

Rules generate conflict among those who obsess about them or pursue a narrow definition of morality. This inhibits a wider level of ethics, for example. The concept of the good gets restricted to an interpretation of the five precepts. Some Buddhists see them as a set of rules to judge individuals. They adopt a name and shame policy. This attitude distracts from an examination of ethics to end suffering.

No one keeps the rules or precepts perfectly. No one observes such a high moral standard. The wrath over neglect of one precept over another depends on the cultural mood or predisposition of those who pass judgement. Ethics then depends on a fragmented sense of self and other, us and them. Uncomfortable with exploring an ethical position, some will transmit the authority of ethics to another source such as The Book, Tradition, Law, Founder or Ethics Committee. The mind makes the ‘other’ the authority for our actions. A personal, social and public debate contributes to knowing the important relationship of ethics to suffering. For example, society needs a ministry for peace, a ministry for non-violent negotiation and public discourse at home, in classrooms and work on the practice of ethics. We need combatants for peace.


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