Buddhist Ethics



30 Kushan Buddha

There are all sorts of precepts, rules of behavior, in different schools of Buddhism. Some are just for monks, others for nuns, and these are further pared down for laypersons. The basic formulation of the “four truths” that appears in early sutras include the eight fold path of “rights;” not legal rights as in the constitution, but these “rights” are about the right way to proceed, like right livelihood, right effort, right speech, etc.

But those are not the crux, the heart, of Buddhist ethics.

Nyogen Roshi says that Maezumi taught that no matter how smart and good, however benign, we will cause pain if we come from our unenlightened personal agenda. You can’t just memorize the rules. That might be ok as a guide, something to fall back on when in doubt, when you know you are in a confused state and can’t see clearly, but if it isn’t coming from you, from your very being, if you have an agenda, it won’t stick.

Zen teachings say we don’t pick and chose. No aversion or desire/grasping. That doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate. Our school teaches no self-deception, take responsibility. You know a kitten from a rattlesnake, as Nyogen Roshi says. Trust your mind to function.

We don’t ascribe to precepts and decisions about behavior as being driven from above, as is the case in many religions. It isn’t about guilt, praise and blame, standards of good and bad by fiat from the heavens. We aren’t concerned about some dictate about purity versus sin. It is about compassion, it’s about not letting our egos dictate the limits of our universe.

We can start by not indulging in the poisons: greed anger and ignorance. Buddhist ethics is about not being run by your desires and fears, your conditioning. That takes care of it. You do that, you come from that place, just pay attention without trying to fit your life, other people, the Universe, into your idea of how you want it to be, you will be ethical.

You wont justify and rationalize doing bad shit. You will do good shit.

Robert Lanza, one of the authors of the books “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism,” gave a talk at the Hazy Moon Zen Center. He pointed out that there is no separation. No dualism. We are all one. As taught in Buddhism, no self and other. If you believe that, if you really get that, he said, why would I hit you? When I  hit you, I am hitting me.


Without greed, without fear or anger, why would you hurt others, why would you not care about the environment, why would you cheat, what would you do that would be unethical? Why would you be a republican?

‘Pay attention’ is the ultimate Zen teaching according to some. Be awake. No self-deception, no agenda. If you do that, you will function as a Buddha. A Buddha knows how not to cause suffering.

One thing I have noticed is that we often think our own suffering is the exception. Not necessarily worse than the suffering of other sentient beings, but somehow just different enough, special enough, that we and our suffering are exceptional in the sense of being exempt. Justified.

I do not mean to blame the victim. You probably did get hurt. We all live lives mired in samsarra, the relative material world of self and other, surrounded and embedded in delusion. Sometimes a firm hand, a strong stance is in accordance with the Way, with dharma. There are people who do very bad things out there, and we need to stand up to them. We need to be strong and brave in the face of injustice.

But more often than not, if it all seemed to go wrong when you thought you were doing the right thing, if it isn’t flowing (the great Way has no difficulties we are told by the ancients) you were likely indulging your delusions, delusions that we all often have a blind spot for, which is why they are called delusions.

When we decide that we have a good reason to not to be constrained by the niceties of avoiding anger and being responsible when we are causing others to suffer, we open the gates to hell. Look carefully next time you fall down and have to lift yourself up. See whether you somehow justified it, rationalized your behavior. This one was so different…it wasn’t fair…I just had to…

Yes sometimes we do just have to. That’s the practice. Being clear enough to know the difference between doing it because of our ego needs or because it is Dharma, the Tao, the Way. Having no agenda that blinds us. We discriminate, not because we want it this way or that, not out of desire/aversion, but because that’s how a Buddha functions.

That’s who we are  without delusion.

Or at least, so I am told by those who seem to know. I’m thinking it’s true. It fits what I see, anyway.

Nyogen Roshi says the ground of Buddha Mind, that is, our minds undistorted by the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance, our minds not limited by our ego driven need to protect ourselves against our fear, by our dualistic delusion of self and other, is compassion.


Avalokiteshvara, who became the female Guan Yin in China, hears the crying of those who suffer. That’s what the name means. She goes down into hell to comfort the suffering. She embodies compassion.

That’s old school Buddhism.




It’s All About Mind at Play; That Is, It’s All About You


From the book “ A Beautiful Question” by Nobel Prize winner for physics Frank Wiczek:

“The human mind is our ultimate sense organ.” p. 159

This is true. Buddhism has had the mind as the sixth sense as a given truth for a couple of thousand years plus. Note Wiczek wrote “our” and that’s why “human brain.” It would also be true of any sentient being, brain or no brain.

This is also consistent with Biocentrism, as described in the two books by Bob Lanza and Bob Berman, “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism.”

There is no separation, no out there. Sentience is all that exists. Beyond sentience, how can we talk about existence? What right, what warrant, as the logicians say, would we have for postulating something or nothing outside of sentience?

All our sense organs do is register changes in energy, but that is meaningless without sentience. In Lanza and Berman’s most recent book “Beyond Biocentrism” Berman writes about how it blew his mind and he had an enlightenment experience just contemplating that the whole universe he experiences is only what is in his head. This occurred when he was studying for an undergraduate biology course!

Savor that. He went satori reading a college level science textbook, usually thought to be the most intellectual, materialistic, uninspiring, boring thing anyone can read! Go figure! This is a valuable lesson: don’t limit your universe with your preconceptions.

Of course, that’s exactly what we do!

And how is that consistent with ‘no out there, no separation’? A couple of analogies or thought experiments might help:

Cut off one of your fingers (do it under local anesthesia, don’t be cruel). Keep it alive in some nutrient broth. You may experience phantom sensations, still experiencing that finger as being at the end of your hand. Like you did before you cut it off. Those feelings are all in your brain; the finger’s in a vat in another room. The finger was always an experience in your head. And later burn the finger. Did you feel it burn? That finger was you; it is you…right? Maybe not when your head doesn’t feel the pain? The finger has nerves that were kept alive, and they are certainly firing away, but how can we speak of pain as it burns in another room, separated from your brain? All we can speak of is the energy from the fire causing electric field changes in a tissue due to ion fluxes.

A current in the ocean appears to be separate from the water around it. It has different energy, that is, different momentum (it moves in a different direction and speed and may have different density from the water around it due to temperature differences i.e. a different mass/volume of space. Momentum is mass times velocity; velocity is speed with direction. Momentum, along with potential energy, is how we describe the total energy of a system in mechanics). The local differences in momentum are why it is experienced as a current. But it’s all water. It’s all one ocean, no matter how we divide it up with different names based on our limited experience, our local sampling of conditions, and our perceived needs in our subjective time and space. The energy of the current will dissipate and equalize with the rest of the ocean unless energy is pumped in by the sun and mediated by temperature changes, kinetic energy from storms, etc. Either way, nothing is lost, nothing is gained. Just energy transformations in One Ocean.

These analogies sound dualistic, so this and that, here and there. All those fingers, brains, oceans and currents. But that’s just the limited nature of analogies and language. What does Buddhism say about this? We chant “The Identity of the Relative and Absolute,” a Zen poem by Sekito Kisen from the Song dynasty about a thousand years ago that I have written about on this website before. He wrote: “the relative and absolute fit together like a box and its lid.” The ancient Zen master grasped this apparent scientific conundrum of what seems like duality in what must be non-duality (must be; how can there be something else? Again, by what warrant do we come up with such a silly concept as dualism?), and wrote a poem that holds up a millennium later. Gotta love it.

There is symmetry in the identity of the relative and absolute. The key word is identity; that is what a symmetry is. Change that keeps an identity. A circle is rotated; it changes but is still identically the same circle. It is symmetric to rotation.

As I have written about here before, symmetry is at the core of the mathematical formulations of modern physics. Wiczek writes about symmetry, describing it on p. 166 of his book as “Change Without Change.” He goes on to write that this is “a strange inhuman mantra for the soul of creation. Yet its very unworldliness presents an opportunity: we can expand our imaginative vision by making its wisdom our own.”

But while I agree about its wisdom, I think it is actually very human and not really unworldly, except in our limited day-to-day quotidian experience of our world; it’s just not limited by our humanity, by our “worldly” experiences in the illusion of time and space.

Change without Change. The identity of relative and absolute. That’s as hard-core, old school Buddhism as it gets.


Science’s best model (quantum physics) says it’s all energy fields, throughout space and time. But as Lanza and Berman point out in their books on Biocentrism, time and space are dicey concepts. We invent time and space post hoc and ad hoc, to try to bring it all down to size, to grasp it all for what seem in our delusion to be ‘practical purposes,’ to fit our conditioned ideas of reality, our beliefs. Yet we know that relativity says time and space are part and parcel of each other, without independent foundation, at best fluid and relational and elastic, and quantum mechanics says time and space have absolutely no relevance to such basic observations as entanglement and two slit experiments, that reflect the behavior of particle or sets of particles, the most basic of basic entities science can grasp, and by extension, all that is.

Or as the Zen master Dogen wrote almost 800 years ago: Being-Time. Time as our lives. Time is Being, Time is sentience, time is Mind. Space is just the same.


So we have quantum fields without beginning or end, bottomless and topless, because there is no “where” and “when” until we chose to define it. Fields are described by magnitude and direction wherever you look. A particle is a concentration of the energy of that field, a local manifestation, in the sentient perception of space and time.

That’s all there is folks. In quantum mechanics there is no difference between here and there, other than how energy manifests as field or particle when perceived (measured, which is perception), then transforming itself in response. Like Indra’s net of the Avatamsaka sutra, where every jewel instantly reflects the light of every other jewel, which then reflects the light of every other jewel, which then…

And in all this, energy is conserved. Energy is symmetric. Nothing ever added or lost, just self-transformed. Science only understands energy by its perceived transformations. Can’t define or measure it directly. Can’t say where it came from or where it is going (no beginning no end).

As written in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Fields (undefined, without limit, without substance, without inherent separate reality) are particles, particles are fields. Mind is stuff, stuff is Mind. Relative and absolute are an identity.


Or as our ancestors said, as our Zen teachers who know what they are talking about teach, and as Lanza and Berman in their Biocentrism details, it’s all Mind, Consciousness. And keep in mind, mind is Mind, consciousness is Consciousness. Your mind, my mind, our mind, all is relative/local/particle (if you will) manifestations of absolute Mind. Your mind and Buddha Mind, you and the Buddha Field. Like particle and field, or particle and wave if you prefer, as identical as the identity of relative and absolute of ancient Sekito’s poem. Don’t get hung up thinking the words that pop into your head, the concepts you are conditioned to believe, are the limit of your mind.


Red Pine writes in his translation of the Diamond Sutra that the Tang dynasty Zen master Huang Po said: “Buddha and beings share the same identical mind.”

Mind is Buddha, the ancients said. OK, they also said Buddha is a turd. Or the cypress tree outside. And they meant it. Literally.

Nyogen Roshi likes to remind us that the Buddhist sutras, the reports of the saying of the Buddha, are about us, our lives. Lanza and Berman, in their books on Biocentrism, say the same thing. It is you. Always was, always will be, to whatever extent we can talk about always. In all ways.

As the late Stephen Gaskin titled one of his books: it is all “Mind at Play.”