Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition founded in India around 500 BCE by Prince Siddartha Gautama, later to become Gautama Buddha (‘Buddha’ meaning “awakened one” in Sanskrit). Most Buddhist traditions (the main two being Theravada and Mahayana) share a common ethical code for lay followers, while monastic codes tend to vary by region and tradition.

The common ethical principles of Buddhism were articulated by Gautama Buddha. They include the Five Precepts (or virtues) and three of the eight points on the Noble Eightfold path to enlightenment. These imperatives are not to be construed as commandments as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but more as guidelines for attaining enlightenment. Enlightenment, or Nirvana in Sanskrit, is a state of mind or being in which one simultaneously realizes one’s true identity (which is infinite and eternal), the illusory nature of the world, and perfect bliss and equanimity. In mainstream Buddhism there is no separate “God” who is the judge or arbiter of ethical action. Rather, it is a general psycho-spiritual “law” that certain behaviors promote enlightenment and abate suffering while others impede enlightenment and bring about suffering. It is in these terms that an act or series of acts is generally deemed ethical or unethical. Ethical behavior both leads to and flows from an enlightened mind.

In the Five Precepts Buddha advises abstinence from: (1) harming living beings, (2) taking things not freely given, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) false speech, and (5) intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness (Knierim). While there are up to ten precepts for lay practitioners and sometimes hundreds for ordained monks, these five are the most basic and important.

The Noble Eightfold path to enlightenment consists of cultivating the following : (1) Right View, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration. These virtues generally fall into three categories. The first two tend toward cultivation of wisdom, the middle three toward ethical conduct, and the latter three toward mental development.

Buddha viewed Right Speech as abstinence from lying, deception, slander, and idle chatter. Said in a positive way, he advocated speaking only when necessary, and with honesty, mindfulness, and loving kindness. Right Action generally entails the first three points of the Five Precepts listed above. The emphasis is to behave so as not to harm any sentient being physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Right Livelihood follows from Right Action in that one ought to make their living in a peaceful way. Buddha listed four occupations which ought be avoided for their promotion or condonance of harmful behavior. These are (1) weapons dealing, (2) dealing in living beings (including slavery, prostitution, and raising animals for slaughter), (3) meat production such as butchery, and (4) dealing in intoxicants and poisons.


Knierim, Thomas. thebigview.com. 1995 – 2010


Easwaran, Eknath (translator and editor). The Dhammapada. Nilgiri Press.

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