During the 1960s, traditional notions of morality received a battering in the Western world from young people swept up in the era of free love. I was among those who sought to redefine ideas of good and evil. In view of the authoritarian and often hypocritical ways of parents, teachers, politicians, and religious identities, we rejected the belief that society could judge what was good or bad for us, and we followed our own law of behaviour: “If it feels good, do it.”
Our indulgence in pleasure proved difficult to maintain. When confronted by the misery of broken relationships and the horrors of ill-health, addiction, mental instability, and death, we began to question our ethics. It was from such questioning that an interest in Buddhism developed. Apart from its atheistic stance, which met our approval, the attraction of Buddhism to many Westerners in those days was the teaching that suffering is a natural result of selfish behaviour. This was our own experience. We had gone to the extremes of
self-indulgence, and those who were sufficiently honest with themselves could not deny that we were mostly responsible for our own problems. Buddhism also appealed to our antiauthoritarian attitudes. Buddha did not say you must do this and you must not do that. He simply explained the way it is, and left the decision to modify one’s behaviour up to oneself.
True morality must come from within; it cannot be imposed by law or by force. Morality in Buddhism means avoiding harm to humans and animals and doing things to help them. The worst types of physical immorality are harming others through killing, stealing, or sexual activity, motivated by desire, anger, or ignorance. Examples of killing out of desire and anger are obvious. An example of killing out of ignorance is to sacrifice animals, or humans, with the belief that this is good for both oneself and the sacrificed person or
Stealing is taking by stealth or device that which is not freely given. We can easily think of examples of stealing out of anger or desire; stealing out of ignorance would be cheating on our tax return with the belief that, because everybody does it, there is no fault. Harmful sexual activity is causing harm to others, directly or indirectly, through sexual behaviour. Most often, the harm caused by immoral sexual activity is to a third person. This happens when we knowingly break up a committed relationship through selfish desire. Other examples of immoral sexual activity are rape and sexual relations with a minor. Immoral sexual activity motivated by ignorance would be, for example, a man selfishly indulging in sexual relations with the attitude that all women are like ripe fruit that is free to be eaten.
Lying, slander, abuse, and idle gossip are the main types of verbal immorality. Lying can be denying something we know to be true or pretending to know something we don’t. It includes knowingly misleading others, purposely giving bad advice, and inventing faults about others or denying their good qualities. Through ignorance we might lie because we think it is amusing or because we believe there is no fault in lying. Slander involves saying things about others that will cause a division amongst friends or widen a split that has already occurred. Out of desire we can turn the person we desire against their partner; out of hatred we can turn somebody against our enemy; and out of ignorance we can turn followers of a religion against their teacher in order to convert them to our own misguided view. Harsh speech arising from ignorance involves speaking sarcastically or ridiculing someone, thinking that it is clever and fashionable to do so and that it doesn’t matter if we hurt their feelings. Ignorant idle gossip includes talking about the weather, sport, or fashion with the belief that these things are really important.
These physical and verbal immoralities all stem from the three mental immoral actions of covetousness, maliciousness, and holding mistaken ideas. Living within morality does not just involve avoiding these ten immoral actions; it includes practising their opposites by saving lives, acting honestly, speaking truthfully and kindly, and so on. Self-centred ignorance, desire, and anger are deeply rooted in our minds and cannot be
transformed into virtue overnight, so Buddha taught various methods for attaining pure morality through restraint from harmful actions. The foundation of Buddhist morality is seeing our disturbing emotions and harmful behaviour as illnesses. Buddha, like an expert doctor, accurately diagnosed the problem and prescribed the medicine of pure morality.
Choosing to live within pure morality is like taking the medicine, and relying upon a qualified teacher is like depending upon a nurse to help us recover. Thus the beginning of morality is the intention to achieve happiness by abandoning the ten immoral actions. The next step is to make a promise or vow to avoid them, either for a short period or for the remainder of one’s life. Buddha gave five vows for laypeople: to avoid killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants. The first four are naturally nonvirtuous actions. Sexual relations with our own partner, in moderation, is not naturally nonvirtuous; nor is taking intoxicants, also in moderation. We are given the opportunity to avoid intoxicants because when we lose judgement through drunkenness we are likely to engage in the naturally non-virtuous actions without restraint. A good indication of the current state of our minds is that, initially, many Western lay-Buddhists only take the first three vows. Over time, however, they usually add the next two of abandoning sexual misconduct and
The next step in voluntary restraint from non-virtue is to take the various levels of ordination as a monk or nun. These vows include complete celibacy and abstinence from alcohol. Many Mongolians have the incorrect belief that a monk can drink alcohol and have a wife. They also refer to all monks as lamas, but this title is properly given only to those who are qualified spiritual guides. A qualified lama need not necessarily be an ordained person, and an ordained person is not necessarily a lama, but Buddhist monks and nuns are
The vows of monks and nuns are mainly to abstain from physical and verbal non-virtue, which is relatively easy compared to abstaining from mental non-virtue. Nevertheless, pure morality must be free from even the thought to do harm. To achieve this, Buddha gave special instruction to those who, at the time, were capable of cultivating altruism. These teachings are called the Mahayana, the Universal Vehicle. “Universal” refers to bodhicitta, the altruistic attitude of accepting universal responsibility to rescue all living beings from
suffering. This is the basis of the next two levels of voluntary restraint: bodhicitta and tantric
Bodhicitta vows involve restraint from physical, verbal, and mental non-virtue, and are the means by which one emulates the Bodhisattva’s path to enlightenment that was followed by the Buddha himself. A Bodhisattva is a person who does not seek nirvana but remains within the wheel of life for a vast number of births working for sentient beings and gradually accumulating the causes for buddhahood. Instead of turning away from pleasure, with the aid of their vows, Bodhisattvas transform mundane existence into virtue.
Tantra is the method through which buddhahood can be attained much more quickly. Tantric practice requires supreme renunciation and mental control. These are achieved with the aid of the tantric vows, which are mostly to abandon mental immorality. Controlling our thoughts is most difficult, and these vows are the hardest to maintain. They are also the most secret because tantric practice is easily misunderstood, especially here in Mongolia. Tantric secrecy is not elitism. There are those who are not ready to understand tantra, and the secrecy is to protect such people from mistaken interpretations that could harm themselves and others.
If any group of people, any society, is to be at peace, the individuals within that group must voluntarily follow the morality of not harming others. Even so, Buddhism is not a social doctrine. The teachings and practices are given for individuals because pure morality can only come from within. Nevertheless, if enough individuals are cultivating pure morality, there will be peace and happiness no matter what the economic situation. As long as our priorities are in order, Buddhism does not shun wealth, economic growth, or technological advance. What is most important is that the inner growth and wealth of morality, wisdom, and altruism come first.
If, during the 1960s, somebody had told me that I would spend most of my life as a celibate Buddhist monk living more or less according to the Ten Commandments, I would have died laughing. Come to think of it, that is how I shall die.