Buddhist morality-it’s all about karma and skillful means

Steve Goodheart Essay

For those of us who grew up in fundamentalist or authoritarian religions, the word “morality” can be like a red flag in front of a bull.  Words like “morals” and “morality” can sometimes evoke powerful childhood images and feelings of a wrathful god making arbitrary rules and punishing the wrongdoer—forever!  The words may also evoke painful memories of parents who said, “Do what I say, not what I do!”

As we begin to think for ourselves and question authority, we can see all around us the truth of Mark Twain’s observation: “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

But just maybe we need to be careful not to throw out the “baby” of morality with the dirty “bath water” of benighted, punitive religiosity and moralism. As Theravada teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes in an article:

“The [Buddha’s] Awakening also tells us that good and bad are not mere social conventions, but are built into the mechanics of how the world is constructed. We may be free to design our lives, but we are not free to change the underlying rules that determine what good and bad actions are, and how the process of kamma works itself out. Thus cultural relativism — even though it may have paved the way for many of us to leave our earlier religious orientations and enter the Buddhist fold — has no place once we are within that fold. There are certain ways of acting that are inherently unskillful, and we are fools if we insist on our right to behave in those ways.”

Challenging words, but the “fools” refers to this teaching of the Buddha:

Monks, these two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn’t see his transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn’t rightfully pardon another who has confessed his transgression. These two are fools.

“These two are wise people. Which two? The one who sees his transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his transgression. These two are wise people.” — AN 2:21

In Buddhism, morality is better understood as awakened virtue—something that is universally true, yes, but which appears in our individual hearts as we wake up to what works and what doesn’t work in terms of happiness.  The Buddhist term for this awakened virtue is sīla, and it is an essential part of the spiritual path. Numerous places in the Pali canon the Buddha indicates that without sīla, one can’t develop deep concentration and discernment. In traditional Buddhism, meditation is not even taught until the moral precepts and virtues are explained and understood by students.

Is this “moralism” on the part of “old school” Buddhist teachers? No! Actually, it’s the Buddha’s first important teaching on karma—that our actions, skillful or unskillful, filled with grasping and selfishness or not, largely determine our happiness. Sīla is the compassionate and wise outcome of understanding the importance of karma, of how we act and don’t act, in the spiritual path.

Ajahn Chah

Every genuine spiritual path teaches the importance of moral actions and thus that some actions promote happiness and good relations with others, and that other actions don’t.

As the great Thai Forest teacher Ajahn Chah says in his characteristically simple and down-to-earth way:

“It is only natural that when we put on dirty clothes and our bodies are dirty, that our minds too will feel uncomfortable and depressed. However, if we keep our bodies clean and wear clean, neat clothes, it makes our minds light and cheerful.

So too, when morality is not kept, our bodily actions and speech are dirty, and this is a cause for making the mind unhappy, distressed and heavy. We are separated from right practice and this prevents us from penetrating in the essence of the Dhamma in our minds. The wholesome bodily actions and speech themselves depend on mind, properly trained, since mind orders body and speech. Therefore, we must continue practice by training our minds.”

However, there are those who argue that morality is an “illusion” because they’ve adopted the mental stance that everything, finally, is an illusion. Because of its inseparability from karma, the Buddha never taught that morality is an illusion. But this is a classic error often made by theoretical non-dualists—an error, by the way, that all the great non-dual teachers avoid.  Calling morality an “illusion,” one fails to see that as we grow spiritually we transcend and include what might look like, from the outside, conventional morality.

A “moral” person may have little spirituality, but a truly spiritually-minded person will almost always act morally? Why? Because to see what is moral—to see what has virtue—is to see what causes suffering and what doesn’t cause suffering.  It is to discern what burdens the mind and what frees the mind. If we have gained any degree of awakening, it’s been through working with karma—understanding the cause and effect of our actions  So developing sīla can’t be skipped over on our way to nirvana!

Western students, seeking to avoid the hypocrisy and moralism of conventional religiosity, often want a “morality free” spiritual path. But if you look deeply into karma, you’ll see there is no such thing. The sīla taught by the Buddha is an indispensable skill that one needs to unbind from those very things that obscure and defile the mind and heart. As the Buddha taught:

“This is the way leading to discernment: when visiting a brahman or contemplative, to ask: ‘What is skillful, venerable sir? What is unskillful? What is blameworthy? What is blameless? What should be cultivated? What should not be cultivated? What, having been done by me, will be for my long-term harm & suffering? Or what, having been done by me, will be for my long-term welfare & happiness?’” — MN 135

The Buddha did teach moral precepts—not as a Buddist “ten commandments” but as skillful means to liberation. That’s why all schools of Buddhism teach that deep concentration and insight are impossible without developing sīla and living by life-tested moral precepts. We may not like moral precepts if we are not living in accord with them, but we are always free moral agents to see for ourselves, in our own lives, what works and doesn’t work.

However, if we believe and act as if morality is an illusion, then we are a danger to ourselves and to others. Why? Let’s take a simple example. How about honesty? If honesty is an illusion, then what difference would it make if we were dishonest with ourselves and others? If dishonesty is an illusion “because everything is an illusion,” then dishonesty would have no karma. We would never reap the consequences of being dishonest with ourselves or others. If morality is an illusion, why not live as you want, without regard to any moral precepts, since it’s all “just an illusion” anyway?

Well, how does being dishonest with ourselves and others work out in life practice? When we face temptation to do something harmful, (and yes, we all eventually learn that some actions are harmful!) are we helped in our aspiration for a happy life to believe that right and wrong are illusions, so we can behave any way we want?

Do you like to be around a person who you can’t trust and is always lying and deceiving? Do you like to be around a person who sees you as an object to be used and consumed by him or her? How does that feel?

When a friend betrays your trust, does it heal your heart to argue, intellectually, that the person did nothing wrong to you, because, “after all, morality is just an illusion?” When a parent or relative has emotionally or sexually abused you, do you want to hear that “there is no right or wrong” and that the abuse was “just an illusion?” That’s certainly great news for all those priests who sexually abused thousands of children!

Clearly, the belief that morality is an illusion is the path to moral idiocy, the inability to discern right from wrong. In all the great spiritual traditions, the path to freedom from harm is being able to say to yourself, “I can see that what those actions are wrong!” And then doing the often very hard work of facing up to the consequences of wrong doing and sorting all the damage that was done by the wrong actions of ourselves or others.

Until a person has begun to glimpse there is indeed good and evil, right and wrong, skillful actions and unskillful actions, a person only has the karma of suffering to teach him or her. And suffering can be a very powerful teacher!  But isn’t it amazing how long we can continue to act in harmful ways and fail to see cause and effect at work?

The Buddha taught a Noble Eightfold Path that included sīla—ethical conduct that awakens and develops virtue.  The Buddha definitely maps out what thoughts and actions are skillful and what aren’t.  He made clear what develops awakened virtue and what doesn’t.  If we are interested in the Buddha’s path, it is our job to test this map in our own lives and see for ourselves what thoughts and actions lead to the end of suffering and what thoughts and actions bring lasting happiness.

In  a way, the Buddhist path is very simple.  It can be summed up in one verse that embodies the three stages on the noble, happy path that leads to total freedom:

To refrain from all evil,
To do what is good,
To purify the mind,
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Ajahn U Silananda


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza


  1. Meditation is About Our Whole Life, not Just the Inner Workings of the Mind « Metta Refuge - 2010/12/15

    […] See: Buddhist Morality—It’s All About Karma and Skillful Means […]

  2. Yes, Karma Can Be a Real Bitch When It Comes “Back Around” « Metta Refuge - 2010/05/03

    […] Buddhist morality-it’s all about karma and skillful means […]

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