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.




Ethics 101 and Louis CK



 Bowl by Rengetsu, a Japanese Buddhist Nun who lived in the late 18th and the 19th century. She was a poet, artist and as a youth learned ninja martial arts.


I am reading a great book called “Altruism” by the Tibetan Buddhist Monk, a former scientist, Matthieu Ricard. I highly recommend it. It is 700 hundred pages not counting notes (it is well referenced). I’m about a third through it, but I have already learned a lot.

There is a vast literature on the biology of ethics and morality in humans and other animals going back to Darwin.


There is a vast literature on the philosophical, psychological, political, professional, religious and social aspects of ethics and morality as well. Ricard covers a lot of that ground, but even at 700 pages by necessity he just skims some topics.

But we don’t need all of that to function (thank goodness).

Today I ran into a great summary of how to be, really all you need to know about morality and ethics, in Judd Apatow’s book “Sick in the Head.” In the book he interviews the comedian Louis C.K., who relates how on his show Louis once told his TV kid:

“don’t look into your neighbor’s bowl unless it is to check if they have enough.”

Louis C.K. says he tells his real life kids that “the reason we cut sandwiches in half is so your can offer somebody a piece of your sandwich. You don’t need the whole sandwich. Everybody in your line of sight, your offer it to them and if nobody wants it, then hey, you get a whole sandwich..”

Regarding the political and social aspects of ethics and morality, I’m not a liberal. There is much I do not see exactly the same way as many self-described liberals. But I often find myself on the liberal side of things because being liberal is most often about being fair. And kind.

I can even be kind of conservative about some things, though I am certainly not a political or religious conservative, because that viewpoint seems to me, at least in practice if not political philosophy, most often about greed, fear, and control and quite egotistically delusional. Conservatives generally seem to have an anal view of fair, a selfish view, and kindness seems an afterthought at best.

The conservative religious agenda is also often colored by some form of belief in the End Times, and justifies hate and greed by a appealing to a Father Deity who wants you to exploit non-believers and apostates and the earth with the same hard assed agenda he (or sometimes they) seems to have. What bitter irony.

Some Native Americans taught that we should act in accord with what will create lasting benefit for seven generations. Now that’s ethics.

So look into your neighbor’s bowl. If they have more, don’t get jealous, and don’t harass them either. As I have recently written, comparisons are poison. That’s not why you are looking.

If they have less, well, you’ll know what to do. Maybe it will be nothing, just allow them their dignity. But if you can do something, anything, however indirect, however little, then go ahead do it.

Get quiet and be kind. That sums it up.

And forgive yourself when you blow it. That will make it easier to really forgive others when they do.


 Love the earth and its magnificent living presence. Photo courtesy of Susan Levinson.








Darwin, Huxley, Ethics, Atheism, Buddhism and the Dreams Stuff Is Made Of



Charles Darwin’s Office

After I graduated from medical school Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley became my intellectual heroes and my mentors. I admired both of them in part for their scientific achievements, but even more for their honesty and integrity.

Charles Darwin was not a revolutionary or a proto-hippie. Quite the opposite, he was an English countryside gentleman, a member of the bourgeoisie. But Darwin was an intelligent and sensitive man, one who cared deeply about justice. That was part of his family heritage. Both the Darwin side of the family and Charles’s maternal grandparents, the wealthy Wedgwoods of ceramic fame, were staunchly anti-slavery at a time when some of our country’s founding fathers owned slaves and some self-righteous clergy were justifying slavery using the Bible. Charles Darwin carried on his family tradition, writing eloquently about the suffering of slaves. Charles Darwin wrote in a letter in 1833:

“Hurrah for the honest Whigs! I trust they will soon attack that monstrous stain on our boasted liberty, Colonial Slavery. I have seen enough of slavery and the dispositions of the negroes, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies and nonsense one hears on the subject…. Thank God, the cold hearted Tories”  “who.. have no enthusiasm, except against enthusiasm.” Continue reading