QUESTION: Other religions derive their ideas of right and wrong from the commandments of their god or gods. You Buddhists donít believe in a god, so how do you know what is right and wrong?
ANSWER: Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving, love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good.
To know what is right and wrong in god-centred religions, all that is needed is to do as you are told. But in a man-centred religion like Buddhism, to know what is right or wrong, you have to develop a deep self-awareness and self-understanding. And ethics based on understanding are always stronger than those that are a response to a command.
So to know what is right and wrong, the Buddhist looks at three things Ė the intention, the effect the act will have upon oneself and the effect it will have upon others. If the intention is good (rooted in giving, love and wisdom), if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving, and wiser) and helps others (helps them to be more giving, more loving and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and moral. Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes I act with the best of intentions but it may not benefit either myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but my action helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress to others. In such cases, my actions are a mixed Ė a mixture of good and not-so-good. When intentions are bad and the action helps neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others, then the deed is wholly good.
QUESTION: So does Buddhism have a code of morality?
ANSWER: Yes, it does. The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. The first precept is to avoid killing or harming living beings. The second is to avoid stealing, the third is to avoid sexual misconduct, the fourth is to avoid lying and the fifth is to avoid alcohol and other intoxicating drugs.
QUESTION: But surely it is good to kill sometimes. To kill disease-spreading insects, for example, or someone who is going to kill you?
ANSWER: It might be good for you. But what about that thing or that person? They wish to live just as you do. When you decide to kill a disease-spreading insect, your intention is perhaps a mixture of self-concern (good) and revulsion (bad). The act will benefit yourself (good) but obviously it will not benefit that creature (bad). So at times it may be necessary to kill but it is never wholly good.
QUESTION: You Buddhists are too concerned about ants and bugs.
ANSWER: Buddhists strive to develop a compassion that is undiscriminating and all-embracing. They see the world as a unified whole where each thing and creature has its place and function. They believe that before we destroy or upset natureís delicate balance, we should be very careful. Just look at those cultures where emphasis is on exploiting nature to the full, squeezing every last drop out of it without putting anything back, conquering and subduing it. Nature has revolted. The very air is becoming poisoned, the rivers are polluted and dead, so many beautiful animal species are extinct, the slopes of the mountains are barren and eroded. Even the climate is changing. If people were a little less anxious to crush, destroy and kill, this terrible situation may not have arisen. We should all strive to develop a little more respect for life. And this is what the first precept is saying.
QUESTION: Buddhists should be vegetarians, shouldnít they?
ANSWER: Not necessarily. Buddha did not teach his disciples to be vegetarians and even today, there are many good Buddhists who are not vegetarians.
Out of loving kindness and compassion, Buddhists should try to be vegetarians. One can do this progressively by reducing the quantity and variety of meat consumption each day.
However, if becoming a full vegetarian is not possible or not possible for the time being, Buddhists should avoid the following 3 types of meat:
1) Meat of animals killed personally;
2) Meat of animals killed in the presence of you;
3) Meat of animals killed especially for your consumption.
These 3 types of meat will cause heavy bad karma if consumed.
QUESTION: But if you eat meat you are indirectly responsible for the death of a creature. Isnít that breaking the first precept?
ANSWER: It is true that when you eat meat, you are indirectly and partially responsible for killing a creature but the same is true when you eat vegetables. The farmer has to spray his crop with insecticides and poisons so that the vegetables arrive on your dinner plates without holes in them. And once again, animals have been used to provide the leather for your belt or handbag, oil for the soap you use and a thousand other products as well. It is impossible to live without, in some way, being indirectly responsible for the death of some other beings. This is just another example of the First Noble Truth, ordinary existence is suffering and unsatisfactory. When you take the First Precept, you try to avoid being directly responsible for killing beings.
QUESTION: The Third Precept says we should avoid sexual misconduct. What is sexual misconduct?
ANSWER: If we use trickery, emotional blackmail or force to compel someone to have sex with us, then this is sexual misconduct. Adultery is also a form of sexual misconduct because when we marry we promise our spouse we will be loyal to them. When we commit adultery we break that promise and betray their trust. Sex should be an expression of love an intimacy between two people and when it is it contributes to our mental and emotional well-being.
QUESTION: Is sex before marriage a type of sexual misconduct?
ANSWER: Not if there is love and mutual agreement between the two people. However it should never be forgotten that the biological function of sex is to reproduce and if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant it can cause a great deal of problems. Many mature and thoughtful people think it is far better to leave sex until after marriage.
QUESTION: But what about lying? Is it possible to live without telling lies?
ANSWER: If it is really impossible to get by in society or business without lying, such a shocking and corrupt state of affairs should be changed. The Buddhist is someone who resolves to do something practical about the problem by trying to be more truthful and honest.
QUESTION: Well, what about alcohol? Surely a little drink doesnít hurt.
ANSWER: People donít drink for the taste. When they drink alone it is in order to seek release from tension and when they drink socially, it is usually to conform. Even a small amount of alcohol distorts consciousness and disrupts self-awareness. Taken in large quantities, its effect can be devastating.
QUESTION: But drinking just a small amount wouldnít be really breaking the precept, would it? Itís only a small thing.
ANSWER: Yes, it is only a small thing and if you canít practise even a small thing, your commitment and resolution isnít very strong, is it?
QUESTION: The five precepts are negative. They tell you what not to do. They donít tell you what to do.
ANSWER: The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. They are not all of it. We start by recognising our bad behaviour and striving to stop doing it. That is what the Five Precepts are for. After we have stopped doing bad, we then commence to do good. Take for example, speech. The Buddha says we should start by refraining from telling lies. After that, we should speak the truth, speak gently and politely and speak at the right time. He says:
"Giving up false speech he becomes a speaker of truth, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Giving up malicious speech he does not repeat there what he has heard here no does he repeat here what he has heard there in order to cause variance between people. He reconciles those who are divided and brings closer together those who are already friends. Harmony is his joy, harmony is his delight, harmony is his love; it is the motive of his speech. Giving up harsh speech his speech is blameless, pleasing to the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, liked by most. Giving up idle chatter he speaks at the right time, what is correct, to the point, about Dhamma and about discipline. He speaks words worth being treasured up, seasonable, reasonable, well defined and to the point."