Morality in Buddhism

by Luke Wayne
3/31/16

While in Christianity man's primary problem is his sin and guilt before a Holy God, Buddhism teaches that, in reality, there is no right or wrong, and therefore no such thing as sin or moral guilt. "Good and evil" is said to be a false duality that one must transcend in the quest for enlightenment and seeing the world as it really is. As one Buddhist publication explains:

"People make a distinction between good and evil, but good and evil do not exist separately. Those who are following the path to enlightenment recognize no such duality, and it leads them to neither praise the good and condemn the evil, nor to despise the good and condone the evil" 1

 It goes on to say at another point:

"It is a mistake for people to seek a thing supposed to be good and right, and to flee from another supposed to be bad or evil" 2

Buddhism teaches that morality is something we create for ourselves based purely on what is found to be beneficial rather than objectively right or good. There can be no standard outside ourselves and no one to hold us to it. As Buddhist scholar and activist Thich Nhat Hanh says:

"Right and wrong are neither moral judgments nor arbitrary standards from outside. Through our own awareness, we discover what is beneficial ("right") and what is unbeneficial ("wrong")." 3

The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism agrees when it states:

"There is no discrimination between right and wrong, but people make a distinction for their own convenience" 4

American Theravada Buddhist instructor Rodney Smith even chooses to express the Buddhist "eightfold path", traditionally communicated in terms such "right view", "right speech", and "right action" as instead being "wise view", "wise speech" and "wise action" so as to avoid "right" being mistakenly interpreted in a moral sense.5 As one scholar on Buddhism explains of Buddha's moral philosophy:

"The Buddha approached truth more ontologically than morally. He considered deceit more foolish than evil"6

Walpola Rahula gets to the crux of the matter when he insists that:

"The idea of moral justice arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is law-giver and who decides what it right and wrong" 7

Rahula therefore calls the concept of justice "dangerous"8. The Japanese Buddhist Masao Abe observes:

"There is no Buddhist equivalent to the Christian notion of justice. Instead, Buddhism talks about wisdom."9

Abe goes on to concede that, "Buddhist history shows indifference to social evil, with a few exceptions"10 and even that Buddhists need to, "learn from Christianity how to solve the problem of society and history at large"11 though, of course, his desire is that they would "interpret this in the terms of the Buddhist standpoint of wisdom."12

One cannot, however, build Christian ethics on a Buddhist foundation. Buddha certainly made a lot of ethical statements that a Christian would wholly agree with, such as that you should not kill, steal, or commit adultery.13 As we noted above, Buddhism discourages these things purely on pragmatic considerations rather than on moral grounds, but the rules themselves are ones that any Christian would affirm wholeheartedly. The problem is that Buddhism necessarily stops at what you should not do to your neighbor. One is discouraged from murder, theft, lying, frivolous talk, etc. One is told there is merit in abstaining from these things14 The eightfold path to enlightenment tells us all sorts of things we should not do in regard to others, including our words, our actions, and even our career choices.15 While Buddhism puts great emphasis on cultivating a sense of compassion, and indeed holds this up as one of the two core values of Buddhism alongside wisdom16 when it comes to what this actually looks like in practical ethics, they can only point to teachings to abstain from harmful action.17 While the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana schools of Buddhism has always encouraged Buddhists to be concerned with the enlightenment of their fellow creatures, to press all beings toward Nirvana,18 socially engaged Buddhists who are concerned about taking positive action to provide practical help for the well-being of their fellow man, or even to promote simple acts of kindness toward others as part of one's daily life, is a modern trend influenced by western values and is an extremely small movement within the larger Buddhist world.19

This is not difficult to understand, as Buddhist doctrine provides no foundation of compassion as an outward, active, sacrificial giving to the needs of another. Buddhism teaches that there is no personal self, and therefore also no personal other selves.20 In fact the very idea of personal selves is the foundation for desire and the source of all the world's suffering.21 If this is true, one cannot alleviate suffering by personally giving of oneself to help another person in need. Indeed, such an idea would logically perpetuate suffering rather than alleviate it on the Buddhist conception of reality. Further, Buddhism teaches that we must relinquish all desire:

"Those who seek enlightenment must first rid themselves of the fire of all desires. Desire is a raging fire, and one who is seeking enlightenment must avoid the fire of desire as a man carrying a load of hay avoids sparks." 22

This includes in it that we should dispense with all attachments, even attachments to people we care about.23 We are not talking here about only harmful desires and unhealthy attachments, but desire and attachment on whole and in total.24 Therefore, when a Buddhist advocates love or compassion, he is not advocating personal commitment to another person or desire for the well-being of other persons. These concepts are antithetical to everything Buddhism teaches. The Buddhist does not see his suffering as personal and distinct from another's suffering, and so in this sense ought to feel an inner sense of "compassion" or a sense that all suffering anywhere is one.25 But the Buddhist is also told not to view painful experiences as distinct from pleasurable ones, or to prefer comfort to suffering. They are not to "lean into" one kind of experience or "away from" another.26 It would thus be inconsistent to rush to the aid of oneself or of another alike. Besides, there is no actual person who is suffering that we can have any specific, active compassion on, as the classic Theravada text reads:

"Misery only doth exist, none miserable
No doer is there, naught save the deed is found
Nirvana exists, but not the man who seeks is
The path exists, but not the traveler on it"27

Buddhism also teaches that any act of volition, any action of the will regardless of whether the motivation is positive or negative and whether the result is helpful or harmful, is to be avoided. Such actions are called "karma" and have the effect of rebirth and future life. Some may have relatively "good" effects and some "bad", but all rebirth is suffering, and the goal of Buddhism is not a better future birth but rather no rebirth at all. The Buddhist does not seek "good" karma, but rather no karma at all. Nirvana is reality without karma, without will, without desire, and without suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth.28 The doctrine of karma, then, like the other doctrines we have seen, certainly discourages harmful actions, but it does nothing to promote helpful actions. If anything, it hinders them.

Buddhism, therefore, strongly encourages an ethic of restraint. It upholds the ideal of not doing to others what you would not want them to do to you. Buddhism has no foundation, however, for an ethic of self-sacrificial love for another person, because it allows for no self and no other person. On Buddhism, I can have no duty to my fellow man. I cannot be commanded to positively do for others what I would have them do for me. There is no foundation to love my neighbor as myself. The Bible gives us these. Jesus gives us these. A just and holy God and the merciful sacrifice of Jesus Christ give us these. Buddhism cannot.

On Buddhism, nothing is truly good or truly evil. There is no injustice. There is no sin, no ultimate wrong. There also is no right; no true virtue or good for which to aspire. There is no justice for which to hope. All that matters is the practical benefit of an action, and one is only to be practically concerned with enlightenment and Nirvana. This does not mean that Buddhist individuals never do kind, generous, and helpful things to meet the needs of others. What it does mean is that, when Buddhists do so, they are not acting from the foundation of their Buddhism, but rather from their innate, God-given knowledge that Buddhism is wrong on this point. They are doing what they know to be good and right to do, even while following a way that denies that there actually is a "good" and a "right." 

  • 1. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 62
  • 2. "ibid, 64
  • 3. Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" (Broadway Books, 1998) 11
  • 4. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 53
  • 5. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 12-15
  • 6. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 43
  • 7. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 8. ibid
  • 9. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 193
  • 10. ibid, 147-148
  • 11. ibid, 193
  • 12. ibid, 193
  • 13. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 44
  • 14. Steven T. Asma, Buddha for Beginners (For Beginners LLC, 2008) 92
  • 15. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 42-45
  • 16. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 5
  • 17. ibid
  • 18. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 69
  • 19. ibid, 42-49
  • 20. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 5
  • 21. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 4
  • 22. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 120
  • 23. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 24. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 16
  • 25. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 36
  • 26. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 6
  • 27. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 21
  • 28. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3