Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism

1. Morality and immorality are both built-in to nature. A human can choose to become moral or immoral. This is because a human has a mind that can grasp right from wrong; on the other hand, an animal does not have a developed mind that can sort out good deeds from the bad most of the time.

2. In Buddha Dhamma, which describes nature’s laws, the foundation of the moral code is the set of ten moral actions (dasa kusala), which are to avoid the ten immoral actions (dasa akusala); see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)” and the follow-up post.

3. If one does not follow this fundamental moral code, one becomes indebted to other humans and also to the nature (which means all living beings, from which we “see” only a small fraction) in general. In this life as well as in previous lives, we have become indebted to other beings.

  • Thus getting out of that debt, as well not to get into new debts, is also a part of the moral code in Buddha Dhamma; see, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation” for more details.
  • This is in the “vinaya pitaka” of the Tipitaka; it is also described in the suttas in the sutta pitaka. The third section of the Tipitaka, Abhidhamma, describes the ten moral/immoral actions in depth.

4. Now let us see how most of our conventional moral code(s), comes from these two foundational aspects of Buddha Dhamma.

  • Of the ten immoral actions three are done with body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The basic difference with “conventional code” is that killing of animals is not considered immoral in many societies.
  • There are four immoral actions done with speech: lying, slandering, harsh speech, and frivolous talk, of which the latter is not taken seriously as immoral in most cases; but one can experience the benefits of avoiding it for oneself.
  • Those seven immoral actions and speech ARISE due to the three kinds of  immoral thoughts: greed for other’s belongings, ill will or hatred, and established wrong views (lobha, dosa, moha). In a way the last one is the root cause for all other nine, because one would not violate any of them if one knew the true nature of the “wider world” (of 31 realms of existence and the rebirth process therein): that it is unfruitful to engage in any of those nine immoral actions (called “avijja” or ignorance).

5. Then there is the other aspects of morality that comes from abstaining from getting into new debt and paying off old debts (from the vinaya).

  • As one can easily see, giving (dana) in general is an excellent way of “paying off debt”. Since we do not know who we have becomes indebted to in this long cycle of rebirths, giving can be to anyone, including animals. For animals, the best giving is of course abstain from killing; not to take their lives. Even though they cannot think like us, they do have feelings.
  • This point of “being debt free” incorporate many of our “conventional moral actions”: helping out others, being considerate to others, etc.
  • A big part of this is also making sure to fulfil one’s responsibilities. All our associations have, at the root, “long term debts” in play even though we do not realize it. The biggest debts are those to our families and especially to children (and parents in return).
  • We constantly benefit from the actions of innumerable others living in this complex society; we depend on each other for survival. Our food, energy needs, infrastructure needs, are hard to sort out. The best way to pay off such debts is to do “one’s own part”, honestly doing one’s own job and being a “good citizen”.

6. But the most important thing is to understand the true nature of this “wider world”. When one has that understanding it will become automatic to follow the moral code. One does not have to make an effort, because one’s mind clearly sees what is right and what is wrong. There are then such meritorious actions (punna kriya), which cultivate the “moral code behavior” and also purifies the mind; see, “Ten Moral Actions (Dasa Kusala) and Ten Meritorious Actions (Punna Kriya)“.

  • The goal of this website is to clarify how people engage in immoral actions because their inability to REALLY understand the true nature of this “wider world” (anicca, dukkha, anatta) and thus to help get rid of such wrong views.
  • If one understood the “long term consequences” (and unfruitfulness) of acting with extreme greed and hate, then one becomes automatically moral.

7. Finally, morality is not a one street. Unfortunately, the nature has both morality and immorality built-in. Even though we think, “how one can do a highly immoral act like killing another human and have a peace of mind?”, there are some who do ENJOY such acts. People like Hitler and Pol pot, as well as serial killers, are good examples. They PLAN and carry out such vicious deeds with pleasure.

  • Thus the nature, at least on the surface (because the consequences are hidden and time-delayed), is neutral on the matter of morality and immorality. One can go the moral route or the immoral route. Humans have the ability to sort out which route is the correct one. However, it is not easy for children to figure that out. This is why the guidance of the parents and teachers is CRITICAL to point a child in the right direction.

Related Post: What Does Buddha Dhamma Say about Creator, Satan, Angels, and Demons?

Next, “What does Buddha Dhamma say About Birth Control?“, ………….

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