Ethics of Life in Buddhism






Sarah Wagner





World Religions 1

Professor Hoisington

10 December 2002


To westerners the emphasis Buddhism places on another’s right to have life, from the smallest insect to other human beings, seems to be as integral to Buddhism as the Buddha himself. Indeed, the ethics of life appear in the eight-fold path, which is, overall, more important than the Buddha. Whether is be the selfless detachment of Theravada Buddhism or the involved compassion of Mahayana Buddhism, life is the basis of the Buddhist ethical system.


In Buddhism ethics are not seen as a way to be obedient to a theistic being. Rather, the Dharma, or natural law of the universe, is Buddhism's ultimate guide to right and wrong. The gods and demons are bound by it, karmic law is determined by it. Buddha himself lived:

as a binder together of those who are divided,
an encourager of those who are friends,
a peacemaker, a lover of peace, impassioned for peace,
a speaker of words that make for peace.

The first of the Five Precepts says “To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings.” This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected. Placing more importance on one's own welfare than the welfare of other beings is often cited as the reason beings continue to circle within the vicious wheel of samsara.

The first basis of Buddhist ethics is that it is non-harming. The Dalai Lama says, “In the vehicle of hearers [hinayana] the main essence is not to harm others... non-violence or not harming is the root.” This means being kind, gentle, considerate and respectful towards self and others. It also means moderation of behaviour. Second, ethics is a means of keeping one's mind and life pure and free from negative influences. Buddhism views its own teachings as a form of therapy for impure minds.

This emphasis on life is expressed in various ways. The Buddha taught an ethic of personal responsibility, in which one assumes full responsibility for one's actions and the results of those actions. With the knowledge that wholesome actions result in happiness and unwholesome actions result in unhappiness unless purified through some type of mitigating spiritual practice.


On the issue of abortion Buddhism has always been staunchly pro-life. According to the Teachings of the Buddha, five conditions must be present to constitute the evil act of killing. They are: a living being, knowledge or awareness it is a living being, intention of killing, effort to kill, and consequent death. Traditionally for Buddhists, the life process of sentient beings begins at the moment of conception, when a being's consciousness enters the conjoined egg and sperm of the parents. Because life begins at the moment of fertilization, there is no qualitative difference between an abortion in the first trimester and an abortion in the last trimester. Although a fetus is not regarded as having a fully developed "personality," in the Western sense of the word, it is regarded as being a "person," complete with the five aggregates that serve as the basis of determining personal identity: form, feelings, perceptions, karmic formations, and consciousness.

On the other hand, not having an abortion may lead to suffering as well. Abortions due to rape, incest, or severe deformity are not addressed by Buddhist law. The Dalai Lama has recently done the radical thing of questioning the orthodox view and saying:

There might be situations in which, if the child will be so severely handicapped that it will undergo great suffering, abortion is permissible. In general, however, abortion is the taking of life and is not appropriate. The main factor is motivation.”

There are no fixed rules here. One has to really do the most compassionate thing in each situation.

Birth control is championed as the way to reduce the number of killings by abortion. Since birth control is only used to prevent the fertilization of the egg, and prevent a being from coming into existence, there is no life, or death, involved. For Buddhists, the most obvious way to prevent the sufferings caused by terminating a pregnancy is to provide education and legal access to safe, reliable, and free or low-cost contraception.


Euthanasia is a related concept. In Japan euthanasia is widespread, with many priest advocating for it. This may be explained because in Japan Buddhism values self-determination and praises those who decide when and how they will die when they do so in order to have a dignified conscious death. However, for most Buddhist’s euthanasia involves the destruction of life, albeit to stop suffering. Euthanasia goes against the first precept.

A positive alternative to euthanasia is palliative care to allow death to be as painless and comfortable as possible. In Buddhism the end of one’s life should be a time of reflection and learning. Once again the need for a compassionate response to each situation is needed.

Mercy Killing

Mercy killings are also viewed the same way. According to Buddhism mercy and killing can never go together. Even putting an animal to sleep is seen as incorrect. Although one may be trying to alleviate suffering, the evil act of killing will bring about unwholesome results. A being, whether man or animal, may suffer owing to his bad karma. If by mercy killing we prevent the working out of one’s bad karma the debt will have to be paid in another existence. All a Buddhist can do is to help to reduce the pain of suffering in others.

Killing for Self-Defense

In the case where a person’s life is threatened, Buddha says even then it is not advisable to kill out of self-protection. For a Buddhist the weapon for self-protection is loving-kindness. During the struggle to protect himself, if he happens to kill his opponent although he has no intention to kill, then he is not responsible for that action. On the other hand, if he kills another person under any circumstances with the intention to kill, then he is not free from the kammic reaction; he has to face the consequences.

What Buddhism teaches is that one must kill the will to kill. One must not kill because they simply want to. Killing is only justified if, out of moral imperative, we must kill. Killing still results in karmic consequences, as always, commensurate with the intent or motive of the action. It is not how the killing occurs that is important, but the fact that a life of one being is terminated by another. No one has any right to do that for whatever reason.


For a Buddhist taking one’s own life under any circumstances is morally and spiritually wrong. Suicide is repeatedly condemned in canonical and non-canonical sources and goes directly "against the stream" of Buddhist moral teachings. A number of reasons why suicide is wrong are found in the sources but no single underlying objection to suicide is articulated. In general, taking one’s own life owing to frustration or disappointment only causes greater suffering. A person cannot commit suicide if his mind is pure and tranquil. If one leaves this world with a confused and frustrated mind, it is most unlikely that he would be born again in a better condition. Suicide is an unwholesome or unskillful act since it is encouraged by a mind filled with greed, hatred and delusion.

There are cases in Buddhism were a priest or monk will commit suicide and is believed to suffer no consequences. There is documented cases of priests burning themselves alive or starving themselves to protest political actions and wars. This is not seen as wrong because the motivation is not based on personal despair but for a greater good. The suicide of Arahants is not seen as wrong because they have mastered the self. Therefore they can do what they please as regards the life and death of their carcass.


Buddhists believe that the only way to fight force is by applying more force has led to the arms race between the great powers. And this competition to increase the weapons of war has brought mankind to the very brink of total self-destruction. If nothing is done about it, the next war will be the end of the world where there will be neither victors nor victims, only dead bodies. The Dhammapada says, “Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat.” It is only because of our senses and our cravings that we cause suffering. Buddha said:

Verily, O monk, due to sensuous craving, kings fight with kings, princes with princes, priests with priests, citizens with citizens, the mother quarrels with the son, the son quarrels with the father, brother with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend.

Buddhism doctrine teaches the rather biblical maxim of “turn the other cheek.” Some people believe that Buddha’s advice to return good for evil is impracticable. However, Buddhists believe it is the only correct method to solve any problem. This method was introduced by Buddha from his own experience. Buddha also said, “Hatreds never cease by hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”

Rather than lashing out at our enemies, we are to treat them well. Peace cannot exits on this earth without the practice of tolerance. To be tolerant, we must not allow anger and jealousy to prevail in our mind. The Buddha says, “No enemy can harm one so much as one’s own thoughts of craving, hate and jealousy.”

Just war is also an unjustified use of violence. A Buddhist should not be the aggressor even in protecting his religion or anything else. Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is of the view that:

Preserving Buddhism does not mean that we should sacrifice people's lives in order to safeguard the Buddhist hierarchy, monasteries or rituals. Even if Buddhism as such were extinguished, when human lives are preserved and when human dignity and freedom are cultivated towards peace and loving kindness, Buddhism can be reborn in the hearts of human beings.

Buddhism itself never uses violence to protect itself, its religion, or its political situation. This is because a Buddhist must take advantage of oneself or others but remain neutral on all things so they may focus on enlightenment.


To a Buddhist, the right to have life is paramount. This is because it is only through life that a person can work toward a release from samsara. The love and compassion for all beings, as fellow journeyers on the path of release, is great. Regardless of the basis for their compassion, their way of carrying out their ethical system has a lot to teach the world about the futile and nonsensical culture of death we embrace.















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