The System of Buddhist Ethics

19 June 2524

Buddhist social ethics will be understood more adequately if we understand its place in the whole system of Buddhist ethics. As mentioned earlier, the whole of Buddhist ethics is based in the Noble Eightfold Path and its prerequisites. The Noble Eightfold Path is well known, but what are its prerequisites? In the Buddha’s own words: “Monks, there are these two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? These are inducement by others and systematic attention” (A.I.87; cf. M.I.294).

The first condition, or factor, is generally represented by association with good people or having good friends (kalyāṇamittatā) and is regarded as the external or environmental factor, whereas the second is the internal or personal one. The importance of these two factors as prerequisites of the Eightfold Path is often stressed:

Just as, monks, the dawn is the forerunner, the harbinger, of the arising of the sun, so friendship with good people is the forerunner, the harbinger, of the arising of the Ariyan eightfold way. (S.V.28, 30)

Just as, monks, the dawn is the forerunner, the harbinger, of the arising of the sun, so systematic attention is the forerunner, the harbinger, of the arising of the Ariyan eightfold way. (S.V.29,31)

As the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Ariyan Eightfold Way, is known as the magga, we may term these two prerequisites of the Path the pre-magga factors. The system may then be outlined as follows:


1. Association with good people (kalyāṇamittatā)

2. Systematic attention or reflection (yonisomanasikāra)


Paññā (wisdom)

1. Right View (sammā-diṭṭhi)

2. Right Thought (sammā-saṅkappa)

Sīla (morality)

3. Right Speech (sammā-vācā)

4. Right Action (sammā-kammanta)

5. Right Livelihood (sammā-ājīva)

Samādhi (mental discipline)

6. Right Effort (sammā-vāyāma)

7. Right Mindfulness (sammā-sati)

8. Right Concentration (sammā-samādhi)

The eight magga factors are segments of the individual’s path toward perfection, and the two pre-magga factors are the means by which the individual deals with the world and environment. The magga factors are classified into the three categories of paññā (wisdom), sīla (morality), and samādhi (mental discipline). The category of paññā includes especially an enlightened world view based on insight into the impermanent, conflicting, and not-self nature of things, and the dependent origination of all phenomena, that is, that all changes are subject to causes and conditions. Buddhist ethics is rooted in knowledge and effort based on this knowledge, not accidentalism or fatalism. This paññā or wisdom, serves as the keystone. The category of samādhi consists in the development of mental qualities and is responsible for the earnestness, resolution, and steady progress in treading the ethical path.

The third category of sīla, or morality, is an expression of social responsibility on the part of the individual. The two pre-magga factors indicate the conditions for the arising and the support for the development of all the magga factors. Though the sīla factors of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are directly concerned with society, they are of the character of social responsibility of the individual toward society rather than vice versa. The two pre-magga factors, by contrast, deal with the influence and effect the world and society can have on the individual. They stress what one can get from one’s environment, natural and social, through one’s dealings and relations with it. Of these two pre-magga factors, emphasis is here placed on the first, that is, association with good people.

As mentioned earlier, the importance of friendship with the good is stressed in Buddhism both at the level of individual perfection and at the level of the daily life of the common people:

It is the whole, not the half, of the holy life—this friendship, this association, this intimacy with the good. Of a monk who is a friend, an associate, an intimate of the good we may expect this that he will develop the Ariyan eightfold way, that he will make much of the Ariyan eightfold way.

Owing to me who is a good friend, beings who are subject to birth … to old age … to death … to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, become free from (these things). (S.V.2)

Some friends are bottle-comrades; some are they
Who (to your face) dear friend! dear friend! will say.
Who proves a comrade in your hour of need,
Him may ye rightly call a friend indeed. (D.III.184)

Not to follow fools, to associate with the wise, to honor those who are worthy of honor, this is the highest blessing. To live in a place of favorable environment …, this is the highest blessing. (Kh.V.3: 5n.259)

Thus, association with the good embodied in good people is a prerequisite of the good life not only in Buddhist social ethics, but in Buddhist thought and practice more generally. We can say that in Buddhist social ethics a good society is a society of good friends, or a society in which people are good friends to one another.12

Training (sikkhā) for further progress in morality, mental discipline, and wisdom is especially prescribed for the monks and is usually known as the Threefold Training, namely, adhisīla-sikkhā (training in higher morality), adhicitta-sikkhā (training in higher mentality), and adhipaññā-sikkhā (training in higher wisdom) (e.g., A.I.229).

To the laity, however, the triad of giving, liberality, or charity (dāna), morality (sīla), and mental development (bhāvanā) is more widely taught in Theravāda countries such as Thailand as the popular Buddhist practices, or ways of making merit. In the Pāli Canon it is also stated in synonymous terms as the triad of giving, self-control regarding other beings, and taming, refinement, improvement, or development.

These are collectively called the three bases of meritorious action (puññakiriyāvatthu), or the threefold training in the good (puñña-sikkhā) (It.15, 51). They may be called the lay version of the Threefold Training, as they are merely a restatement or rearrangement of the first monastic triad to suit the laity.

The difference between the two versions of the Buddhist training lies in the points of emphasis. In the monks’ version the emphasis is placed on individual perfection, whereas in the laymen’s the social aspects of life are given a more important place, as lay people are expected to be more concerned with good social relationships and more concrete actions for social good. Thus, moral conduct (sīla), the single factor of the monks’ general social responsibility, is in the lay version split into the explicit and more tangible social acts of giving (dāna), and virtuous conduct (sīla). The two inner and more individual factors of training in higher mentality (samādhi) and that in higher wisdom (paññā) are, for the laity, broadly stated in the single more generalized factor of mental development (bhāvanā). Again, mental development on the part of the laity, with its focus on the cultivation of loving-kindness, together with giving and virtuous conduct, is mainly intended for bringing about happiness in the realization of a world free from malice (It.15, 51). Moreover, as the monks’ triad lacks an explicit factor of giving or charity, it is a corruption for a monk to accumulate wealth, whereas the layman’s industrious amassing of wealth is to be justified and glorified by the factor of giving, benevolence, or charity.

Another way to summarize Buddhist ethics as a system is to speak of Buddhism as dhamma-vinaya, or the doctrine and the discipline. The dhamma consists in the domain of ideas, ideals, truths, and principles, while the vinaya covers the domain of legislation, regulation, and social organization. As far as social ethics is concerned, the vinaya is of great importance, as it deals especially with social life and the putting of ideas, ideals, and principles into practice. The dhamma is a natural law and as such enters directly into the developmental process of the individual. The vinaya, by contrast, is human law, being laid down for the good of society. The vinaya is consistent with the dhamma as the social good is compatible with individual perfection; the rightful vinaya has to be based on the dhamma just as what is good for society is favorable also to individual development and perfection.

The vinaya for the monkhood has been fixed and rather closed, but that for lay society is, to a large extent, left open for temporal regulation to suit the specific time and place. The vinaya for the community of monks has been laid down by the Buddha. The vinaya for the laity is left open for able and righteous people like enlightened monarchs to formulate based on the general ideas and principles enunciated by the Buddha. In principle, this lay vinaya should enjoin the kind of social organization that maintains a society of “good friends” in which people live together for their mutual benefit, where all environmental conditions are favorable also to individual development and perfection.

Four aspects of Buddhist thought and practice of special relevance to a consideration of Theravāda ethics should, furthermore, be emphasized:

I. General standards and criteria

a. The criteria of means can be represented by the three fundamental admonitions of the Buddha, viz.,

1. Not to do any evil

2. To cultivate good

3. To purify the mind

b. The criteria of goals can be represented by two sets of three goals, or benefits, that people should realize as fully as possible taking into account differing personal circumstances. The first set of goals comprises:

1. The goals or benefits for the here and now, or temporal welfare (diṭṭhadhammikattha), e.g., wealth, health, honor, position, good name, good friends, and happy family life

2. The goals or benefits for the beyond, or spiritual welfare (samparāyikattha), i.e., peace and happiness of mind, a blameless life, and confidence regarding future lives

3. The highest good, or the final goal (paramattha), i.e., the supreme peace, bliss, and freedom of nibbāna13

And the second comprises:

1. One’s own welfare (attattha)

2. Others’ welfare (parattha)

3. Welfare of both oneself and others (ubhayattha)14

II. The relationship between mental and character virtues or virtuous acts. (Ignorance of this interconnection can lead to confusion and inappropriate action. This can be illustrated by two sets of virtues which occupy a central place in Buddhist social ethics.15)

a. The first of these sets is that of the Four Sublime States of Mind (brahma-vihāra):

1. Loving-kindness (mettā)

2. Compassion (karuṇā)

3. Sympathetic joy (muditā)

4. Equanimity (upekkhā) (D.II.196; D.III.220)

b. And the second set, the Four Bases of Social Harmony, or the Four Principles of Social Integration (saṅgaha-vatthu), consists of:

1. Giving, distribution, and charity (dāna)

2. Kindly and beneficial words (piyavācā)

3. Acts of help or service (atthacariyā)

4. Equality, impartiality, and participation (samānattatā) (D.1I1.152, 232: A.II.32, 248; A.IV.218, 363)

III. The centrality of the virtue of mindfulness. A virtue that plays a focal role in Buddhist ethics is appamāda, rendered as heedfulness, diligence, and earnestness. It is found among the last words attributed to the Buddha: “All component things are subject to decay, work out (the goal or one’s own and others’ benefits) with earnestness” (D.II.120). It is also regarded as the basis or common ground of all virtues (S.V.44). Traditionally, it is defined as the presence of mindfulness (sati) (e.g., D.A.I.104). In fact, it can be seen as a combination of mindfulness and effort, energy, or exertion (viriya). In a sermon to the king of Kosala the Buddha enjoined this virtue of mindful exertion as part of the practice of having good friends for the good and security of his country (S.I.86–87). This virtue may be defined as responsibility for the good. It should be brought into a more prominent place in considering the nature of Buddhist social ethics.

IV. The issue of motivation. There are, in short, two kinds of desire or motivation (chanda). One is wholesome and the other is unwholesome. The former is called the desire for the good or the desire to do good (kusala-chanda, dhamma-chanda, or kusaladhamma-chanda) (A.III.440). The latter is the better-known taṇhā or akusala-chanda, which can be defined as the desire for indulgence or the desire to gratify the self, often rendered as craving. Kusala-chanda, or wholesome desire, is encouraged in Buddhist ethics (as in the Four Bases of Success, D.1I1. 221). The two kinds of desire should be clearly distinguished from each other, and the wholesome one should be studied more closely, brought into prominence, and encouraged.

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