Buddhist Ethics - Selections



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1: Definitions and Historical Background

Scope of the Study of Ethics

The term ethics derives from the Greek ethikos, that which pertains to ethos, or character. It is also called “moral philosophy” from the Latin custom. Popularly, ethics is described as “the science treating of morals” but since precise definition of the term is lacking it is necessary to state the ground that a consideration of ethics is intended to cover. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica, refusing to take as adequate a definition of ethics as dealing with “the question of what is good or bad in human conduct,” declares: “I may say that I intend to use ‘ethics’ to cover more than this—a usage for which there is, I think, quite sufficient authority. I am using it to cover the general inquiry into what is good.”

A more detailed description is given by Rev. H. H. Williams: “In its widest sense, the term ‘ethics’ would imply an examination into the general character and habits of mankind, and would even involve a description or history of the habits of men in particular societies living at different periods of time.” Observing the exceptionally wide field that would be so covered, the author concludes: “Ethics then is usually confined to the particular field of human character and conduct so far as they depend upon or exhibit certain general principles commonly known as moral principles. Men in general characterize their own conduct and character and that of other men by such general adjectives as good, bad, right, and wrong, and it is the meaning and scope of these adjectives, primarily in their relation to human conduct, and ultimately in their final and absolute sense, that ethics investigates.”

We are therefore concerned with certain terms as they are used in a particular connection and also with their meaning in the absolute sense. In conjunction with these aspects the opinion of Professor Muirhead may also be borne in mind: “We have two kinds of sciences . . . those concerning themselves with the description of things as they are, and those which concern themselves with our judgments upon them. The former class have sometimes been called ‘natural,’ the latter ‘normative,’ or, as is better, ‘critical’ sciences. Ethics is critical in the sense explained. Its subject-matter is human conduct and character, not as natural facts with a history and causal connections with other facts, but as possessing value in view of a standard or idea.”

The various ethical systems are therefore more likely to show divergence when one comes to consider the standard or ideal that furnishes the value of human conduct rather than the prescriptions for the conduct itself. For example, killing, thieving, and lying are in general considered to be evils, though whether they are at any time justifiable will depend on the terms of the ideal; on the other hand, happiness is invariably associated with good.

The study of ethics as a particular discipline contributing to philosophical inquiry as a whole was due originally to Aristotle, since he distinguished between “first principles,” or the investigation of the ultimate nature of existence as such, and the subsidiary disciplines which, though having the same purpose, themselves dealt with only a particular approach to it. Ethics constituted one such approach and, of the many hundreds of Aristotelian writings, three major works on ethics have come down to us. Aristotle maintained throughout the fundamental doctrine of Socrates and Plato that “virtue is happiness,” a doctrine with which Buddhist thought would, in general, be in agreement, and on two occasions was inspired to poetry concerning this tenet. In the Elegy to Eudemus of Cyprus he praised the man who first showed clearly that a good man and a happy man are the same, and in the Hymn in memory of Hermias he begins: “Virtue, difficult to the human race, noblest pursuit in life.” Two of Plato’s successors at the Academy showed the same belief in the necessity of virtue, division of opinion occurring only with the view as to what good is.

Some two centuries earlier, a learned and eminent brahman expounded his teaching that morality and wisdom are essential to the character of a true brahman—the “true brahman” here representing the ideal. The Buddha then asked the man what morality and wisdom are. The brahman answered: “That is the farthest we have advanced, Gotama. It would indeed be well if the esteemed Gotama would clarify with regard to these words.” The lengthy exposition with which the Buddha replied constituted a standard basis for the development of his teaching and will be referred to in detail in the course of the present text.

Returning to Aristotle, the theory that happiness is activity is contained in two of his most authoritative works, the Metaphysica and the De Anima, as well as in the three ethical treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Eudemian Ethics, and the Magna Moralia, these three proceeding on similar lines up to this point. The Nicomachean then continues to the theory “that the highest happiness is the speculative life of the intellect . . . but that happiness as a human also includes the practical life of combining prudence and moral virtue; and that, while both lives need external goods as necessaries, the practical life also requires them as instruments of moral action.” The treatise concludes with the means of making men virtuous; contending that virtue requires habituation, habituation law, law legislative art, and legislative art politics. Ethics thus passes into politics. The Eudemian Ethics and Magna Moralia continue to considerations of good fortune and gentlemanliness, the latter being regarded as perfect virtue, containing all particular virtues.

Herein lie no indications of an ultimate or transcendental state, and for these one must look to later developments of the science of ethics, whether they arise in logical continuity or exist merely as arbitrary attachments introduced for the sake of convenience. Only the former condition would provide justification for considering ethics as a genuine contribution to the science of philosophy proper. In his article on ethics in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Professor Wolf has this to say of the study: “Ethics is not a positive science but a normative science—it is not primarily occupied with the actual character of human conduct but with the ideal. Many moral philosophers, indeed, have stated explicitly that the business of ethics merely consists in clearing up current moral conceptions and unfolding the ultimate presuppositions involved in them, and that it is not its function to discover any new moral ideas. It may be remarked that even the ethics of Aristotle attempted no more, although he was not bound by anything like this authority, and the traditions of the Christian Church.”Professor Wolf then states that the main problems of ethics “turn chiefly on the following conceptions: (i) The highest good of human conduct, or its ultimate ideal aim, which may serve as the ultimate standard of right conduct; (ii) the origin or source of our knowledge of the highest good or of right or wrong; (iii) the sanctions of moral conduct; (iv) the motives which prompt right conduct. Another problem discussed by moral philosophers is that of Freedom of the Will.”

In a consideration of Buddhist ethics these problems may be rearranged with advantage for two reasons. In the first place, according to Buddhist and other Indian thought, the highest state is one that lies beyond good and evil. In the second place, according to Buddhism there is no break between the moral teaching and that which pertains directly to the ideal state. Humanity, sufficiently advanced in the practice of the moralities, rises and continues to rise above the common limitations of time and space, whether these terms are interpreted from the point of view of the physical sciences or with reference to historical and geographical location. The first of the main problems set forth by Professor Wolf, namely, the ultimate ideal aim which may serve as the ultimate standard of right conduct, relates, according to Buddhist thought, to the supramundane or lokuttara state. The connection between the moralities of everyday life and this lokuttara state is entirely covered by the Buddha’s teaching. This connection is, in fact, known to Buddhists as mārga or magga, the Path or the Road, along which each person must travel for himself, beginning with the practice of the common moralities up to the supramundane state beyond good and evil. From this point of view Buddhism can be said to provide the complete ethical study.

After certain introductory remarks to clarify the position taken up by Buddhist thought, the present consideration will be made under four main headings: (1) origin and source of knowledge of the highest; (2) the sanctions of moral conduct: the Three Refuges; the Precepts; (3) moral principles as possessing value in view of a standard or ideal; and (4) the ultimate ideal aim which may serve as the ultimate standard, namely: the realization of the Four Noble Truths.

Indian Thought in the Sixth Century B.C.E.

It must be emphasized at the outset that recognition of a state beyond good and evil in no way implies that a person who has performed a number of “good” deeds may then relax morally and do anything he pleases; it merely hints at a state described by the Buddha when he was asked: “Where do the four primary elements, earth, water, fire and air, entirely cease?” He replied that the question should not have been put in that way. It should have been thus:

Where do water, earth, fire, air, find no place?
Where do “long and short,” “fine and coarse,”
“pleasant and unpleasant,” not occur?
Where are mind and body, mental and physical states, entirely stopped?

And the answer to this is:

Where the consciousness that makes endless
comparisons is entirely abandoned,
Here “long and short,” “pleasant and unpleasant”
do not occur.

Here are stopped name and form, mental and physical states.
Here with the dying away of consciousness these
things have no place.

In this description the terms “long and short,” “fine and coarse,” “pleasant and unpleasant” carry their customary meaning; the significance of “name and form, mental and physical states” is less obvious since the expression nāmañ ca rūpañ ca has a variety of associations. In the early Upaniṣads, Brahman was the Absolute Reality, while the term nāma-rūpa stood for the things of common experience. According to the ideal of Brahman as niṣprapañca, the things of common experience represent phenomena with Absolute Brahman as the noumenon; Brahman is here the mere ground of subject and object. According to the saprapañca ideal, the things of common experience emerge from Brahman and are later reabsorbed into it. So far Brahman was not personified, but in early Buddhist literature it is the personification that comes under discussion, sometimes as Brahmā, though also on occasion as Brahman, while Brahmā appears also in the early portions of the epic Mahābhārata. In the latter case, however, Brahmā is frequently identified with Prajāpati, a much older concept than Brahmā that at one time represented the creative power of nature. Confusion arose since both Prajāpati and Brahmā were considered, at different times, to be the ultimate sources of all. But in whatever form Absolute Brahman is presented, it is distinguished from the things of common experience, which are nāma-rūpa. Rūpa is the specific form and nature of a phenomenon, while nāma is the word or name serving as its sign; taking the terms together, nāma-rūpa should be understood as the particularity or determinate character of individual things. A further connection between nāma and rūpa is indicated in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad which mentions a triad consisting of nāma, rūpa and karma (action), the implications of which are very considerable; consideration of them is therefore deferred.

Excluding karma for the moment, in Buddhist teaching nāma is also a metaphysical term used to embrace the four mental groups, or khandhas, of feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. These, together with the material principle rūpa, make up the individual person as distinguished from other individuals. Nāma-rūpa thus becomes “individual being” or “individuality.” In the above quotation from the Kevaḍḍha Sutta we understand for nāma-rūpa “mental and physical states,” so that when these cease without remainder the consciousness that makes endless comparisons will also cease and the supramundane state will be attained.

Still one point remains which may have been present in the first linking up of nāma and rūpa and which is again prominent in present-day thought: this concerns the singling out of any one phenomenon from the whole mass of phenomena, an act that in general is called a “discovery.” With nāma closely associated with rūpa, the singling out is not entirely disconnected from those parts of the discoverer’s mentality that could hardly be classified as “perception”; therefore he may look to recognize a closer union between nāma and rūpa than has so far been possible to demonstrate.

If, however, Indian thought looked toward an ultimate state in which pairs of opposites did not figure, considerable distinction has always been drawn between the conventional “right” and “wrong” of the present existence. The idea of a fixed physical law, like the uniformity of nature or the ordered course of things such as the alternation of day and night, was formed at a very early date, probably well before the separation of the Aryan migrants into Indian and Iranian contingents. In the Ṛgveda it was known as ṛta, but the word occurs in Persian proper names as early as 1600 B.C.E. in the form aṛta, and in the Avesta as asha. By the time of the Mantras ṛta had also taken on the significance of a moral order, and expressions such as gopāṛtasya (guardians of ṛta), and ṛtayu (practicers of ṛta), are frequently encountered. The Vedic gods were therefore both maintainers of cosmic order as well as upholders of moral law. In course of time other views appeared, but the main line of development of Indian thought did not lie in a unity of godhead, in the reduction of many gods to one who would be assumed to make and guide the world; but in a monism that traces the whole of existence to a single source. Although the performance of sacrifices was often dominant, since they were taken to be essential to the satisfying of man’s desires, the idea of morality was never superseded. There existed a triad of obligations (ṛṇa-traya) for the fulfillment of which sacrifice was only the first; the second was indebtedness to the culture inherited, and was discharged by handing on the traditions to the rising generation. The third lay in continuing the race. The ideal includes the practice of adherence to the truth, of self-restraint and kindness. Benevolence was particularly praised and meanness deplored. “He who eats by himself will keep his sin to himself,” says the Ṛgveda.

The earlier gods were upholders of the moral order to the extent of rewarding virtue with happiness in heaven in their company. There is no explicit reference to “hell” in the Ṛgveda, though in the Atharvaveda and in the Brāhmaṇas it is a place of eternal darkness from which there is no escape. The idea of iṣṛāpūrta, however, occurs in the Ṛgveda, iṣṛa standing for the sacrifice to the gods and pūrta the gifts made to the priests, the merit accruing from these acts preceding a person into the next world where it secured him happiness. This merit is not entirely ethical but may become so if the reference to sacrifice is excluded and if the results of both good and bad deeds are assumed to pass on to determine the circumstances and conditions of the next existence. In that case we have an elementary idea of karma. Moreover, in the scale of rewards and punishments corresponding to the good and evil deeds of the present life, the Brāhmaṇas include among their serious punishments punar-mṛtyu, repeated dying, which takes place in some other world. There is no mention of repeated births, though obviously these must occur if there are repeated deaths. In the early Upaniṣads the whole conception was clarified by recognition of a series of births and deaths taking place either in this world or in a realm of better or worse conditions, according to one’s record here. Concern was then principally with the natural fruits of good and evil deeds maturing either in the present life or in some future life, irrespective of deities. What, then, was the position of a “god”?

The Sanskrit word deva, from div, to shine, means god; it is cognate with the Latin deus. It points to an era preceding the Aryan settlement in India, in which the conception of god was associated with the luminous powers of nature. The spirit of veneration with which the early Aryans regarded such powers is also indicated by yaj, “worship,” a root found in many European languages. We have the association with the Vedic yaj, “to sacrifice,” as in the title Yajurveda. But with the development of the idea of karma and consequent lack of authority of the deities over man, the value of deva was modified.

In Buddhism the rendering of deva as “god” is acceptable only in the sense that the being indicated is of a type superior to the average human. Whereas the gods of mythology resemble largely the creations of poetic fancy, taking their status more or less in accordance with the importance of the natural phenomena with which they are associated, the devas exist in definite grades according to their condition of mental development. In the kāmaloka, or world of desire, there exist six grades of devas; in the rūpaloka or world of form there are four; and in the arūpaloka or immaterial world there are also four grades. Beings attain to these spheres in accordance with the doctrine of karma, the spheres corresponding to the degrees of mental concentration and one-pointedness of mind (cittass’ ekaggatā) which, from time to time, have been experienced temporarily in the present existence. In the Indian religions these mental states are known as the jhānas, or jhānic states. They are described frequently in the Buddhist texts, notably in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta, the ninth of the Long Discourses of the Buddha, otherwise known as the Dīgha Nikāya, where the sequence is complete, the theme being that with study and discipline states of consciousness arise and with study and discipline they pass away. The substance of the account is as follows.

Being well practiced in the moralities, having attained a state of mindfulness and awareness, and being accustomed to simplicity of life, the meditator retires to a solitary place. He must overcome, at least temporarily, sensual desire (kāmacchanda), ill will and anger (vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīnamiddha), restlessness and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā). These are the five hindrances (pañcanīvaraṇa) to mental development and vision and, having subdued them, he feels extremely happy. So is born joy, a calming of the body, ease, and the ability to achieve much concentration of mind. He separates himself from sensuous enjoyment but, continuing to apply and sustain his thoughts with regard to external and ideational objects, attains and remains in the joy and ease resulting from his detachment. This is the first jhānic state. The second is attained by withdrawing his thought from the object, thereby attaining serenity of mind and singleness of purpose. Withdrawing his thought from joy, he observes his mental states with equanimity (upekkhā), but always remains alert; this is the third jhānic state. For the fourth he withdraws from all ease and dis-ease, retaining only his equanimity and one-pointedness of mind. These four jhānic states concern the consciousness of the world or sphere of form, rūpaloka or rūpāvacara.

The meditator may now proceed to the consciousness of the formless, arūpāvacara citta, of which there are four states. In this case there is no gradual suppression of the factors of consciousness, which have already been reduced to the two mentioned. There is, however, progressive change of the plane of thought, and the meditator is always directing his own mind. The first stage is the jhāna-consciousness dwelling on the infinity of space (ākāsānañcāyatana) or noncollision of objects, the second on the infinity of consciousness (viññāṇañcāyatana) or noncollision of ideas, the third on nothingness (ākiñcaññāyatana), and the fourth, in which cognition is so extremely subtle that it cannot be said whether it exists or not (nevasaññānāsaññāyatana).

Of the whole succession of jhānic states, the first two may be wrongly assumed from causes producing a temporary joy and ease that has no moral foundation whatever. If from such a state of mind it is not possible to proceed to the equanimity and alertness of the third jhānic state then the assumption that the joy and ease had any connection with jhāna is entirely wrong and harmful in the extreme. With regard to the arūpāvacara jhāna, the third consciousness, “nothingness” has been reached (if one may judge by the descriptions of practiced meditators of a variety of theological beliefs, Christian mystics included), so that the progress through the jhānas is genuinely one of increasing mental concentration and is independent of creed. But whatever values are attached to the jhānic states, to the Indian mind they are connected with the general structure of their cosmology. The deva realms, for example, represent states or types of existence into which are born beings who in the present existence have attained various jhānic states. The five physical senses do not necessarily persist through all the grades of devas since presumably they are replaced by finer perceptions. The Ābhassara devas, for example, who correspond to beings with experience of the second jhāna, retain only sight and hearing. However, all devas are subject to birth and death. Therefore, for Buddhism the highest state, which constitutes complete emancipation, is beyond any of the devas; it is that of the Buddhas who are forever tranquil and stable and who see all things yathābhūtam, according to absolute truth. This view has been expressed in the following verse: “There is no track in the sky, externally there is no recluse. Conditioned things are not eternal; there is no instability in the Buddhas.”

At the other extreme, below the level of mankind, are the denizens of the demon world (asuranikāya), of the ghost realm (petaloka), the animal creation (tiracchānayoni), and hell (niraya). The whole range represents, therefore, a structure of grades of intelligence on either side of the human state as we know it at present, the higher grades being dependent on putting away the five hindrances to mental development and vision, which is to say, dependent on the moralities. The devas have no control over this mental development and vision of man; they merely represent states to which man may aspire with increasing morality and developing intelligence. But they can be no more than incidental, and to a person intent on the final goal they are of little interest.

The doctrine of karma was not known to the Vedas, but was accepted in principle and had been so for some time before the Buddha’s day. This is clear from the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndog ya Upaniṣads, and since, according to much modern scholarship, these are the only two pre-Buddhistic Upaniṣads, further development of the karma concept may be due to either Brahman or Buddhist influence. Common to both, however, is the clear distinction between karma and karmic effects, for karma literally means action in the abstract, while karmic effects are effects of particular actions. In fact, the doctrine of karma was elaborated and developed by non-Vedic traditions such as Jainism and Buddhism. Buddhism briefly defines meritorious and demeritorious volition (cetanā) as karma. The Buddha said: “It is mental volition, O monks, that I call karma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech or mind!” The expressions “good karma” and “bad karma,” used frequently in the West, have therefore no logical significance, though obviously karmic effects may be either good or bad. Nor has karma anything whatever to do with “fate.” The outstanding karmic effect for all Indian thought lay in the round of rebirths, and with the postulated means of breaking these rounds were associated the various developments of religious and philosophic thought. For the Brahmans the ideal came to be realization of the union of Ātman, the inner self of man, with Brahman, Absolute Reality or its personification, and this represented the impossibility of further rebirths. Stress was laid on theories that involved a transmigrating essence of the “soul” (jīva), which continued as long as the ideal remained unrealized. Buddhism recognized the karmic effect of the round of rebirths, but developed the doctrine of karma in conjunction with the anatta doctrine, or absence of a permanent indwelling self, and so presented life and the series of lives as a stream of consciousness. The form of this presentation may be seen in the following gāthās (verses) taken from the anthology of the earliest Buddhist literature or teaching, the Dhammapada.

The most elementary Buddhist exposition of karma reads as follows: “He who speaks or acts from a mind defiled, that one suffering follows as a wheel the foot that leads it,” and “He who speaks or acts from a pure mind, that one happiness follows as his shadow that never leaves him.”

Many passages exist in the Buddhist texts to the effect that for an evildoer “when his body is destroyed the fool arises in hell,” but the statement is merely a generalization about worlds inferior to the present one and indicates the nature of the relationship between action and the results of actions. More precise indication is given in the Dhammapada chapter on “Pleasant Things”: “Just as a traveler who has been long absent and comes back safe and sound is greeted on his return by his kinsfolk, friends and comrades, in the same way when a man passes from this world to another after a life of merit, so his good deeds welcome him as dear kinsmen on his return.” Further: “Therefore amass good deeds for the other world; for men, everything in the other world rests on merits.” Correspondingly we have: “If in committing evil acts the fool does not awake to understanding, he is burnt by his own actions as by fire.” These quotations represent the more specific attitude of Buddhism towards action and the results of actions, the indication being more a running on of the deeds themselves than a distinct break, as might be inferred from specifying an act and its results to the performer. The idea is expressed, in particular reference to hatred, in the early verses of the Dhammapada: “Surely in this world enmities at no time cease through hatred; they cease through lack of hatred. This is the primeval law. Not having formerly perceived ‘In this matter we touch the realm of death,’ those who perceive this connection thereupon cease from strife.” The Sanskrit Dharmapada and Rockhill’s translation from the Tibetan Udānavarga contain the first sentence of this; the second is peculiar to the Pali. Here we have the suggestion of the running on of the action, the effect being continuity of that particular action.

These quotations represent, however, only the latter part of the chain of events relating to an act, and for its whole history the origin of the act must also be taken into account. Regarding this origin we have the first lines of the two Dhammapada verses just quoted in part. They are identical in both cases: “Mind precedes all things; all things have mind foremost, are mind-made.” Here we have the key to Buddhist ethics and, in fact, to the whole Buddhist teaching, for Buddhism is essentially a mind-culture. Any improvement or retrograde step must occur initially in the mind of the person concerned, whether it proceeds to external manifestation immediately or at a later date, so that the importance of being aware of and of controlling one’s thoughts is continually stressed. Each of the Dhammapadas has its chapter on mind, and each deals at length with the difficulty of achieving control. We have, for example: “Just as the arrow maker straightens his arrow, so does a wise man make straight his mind, which is agitated, fickle, difficult to keep guard on, difficult to hold back.”The simile is a very old one in Indian literature and furnishes the subject of a bas-relief at Bharhut. It shows an arrow-maker seated at the door of his house; he has heated an arrow in a pan of coals and has made it wet with sour rice-gruel; closing one eye, he is looking down the length of the arrow and is making it straight. Standing by are a mendicant, formerly the king Janaka of Banaras, and his former queen, Sīvalī, who has followed him against his will. The ex-king asks the arrow-maker why he closes one eye, and is told that with both eyes open the vision is distracted whereas with one eye open the vision is true. The moral is that one’s mind should be made pliable, subject to control, with the vision kept clear, and concentrated on the main aim.

The Bharhut inscription and its theme of the king turned mendicant draws attention to another basic difference between Indian thought and Greek ethics from Aristotle onwards. Where the Nicomachean Ethics allows external goods to be necessary in the practical life of combining prudence and moral virtue as instruments of moral action, and in the highest life of the intellect as a means of physical subsistence, Indian thought offered nothing so accommodating. Though the value of the present life is emphasized as providing essential opportunities for realization of the ultimate truth—it is, in fact, a stage of development through which one is obliged to pass— Indian thought held that this truth lies beyond the present state and is not to be considered as merely an improvement on present conditions with those conditions persisting in principle. The renunciation of one’s social status, as in the case of King Janaka of Banaras, was a natural preliminary step to the renunciation of the whole round of rebirths. From early days, even when the Brāhmaṇas were in process of compilation, certain people had left their homes to live in the forests; vivid pictures of this life are given in the Rāmāyana, and other facts concerning the hermits are found in the Dharma Sūtras. By the time of the early Upaniṣads there were several classes of people who had adopted the homeless life, some because they objected to the authority of the Vedas, some because they wished to conduct their inquiries into the truth with as little disturbance from the outside world as possible, and others who were said to have already attained the truth. Originally the hermits were known as vaikhānasas, from Vikhanas, the traditional originator of the Rule, but later the term vānaprastha, forest dweller, came into use. In course of time the leaders of the homeless life were wanderers (parivrājakas), wearers of matted hair (jaṭilas) or finders of subsistence (ājīvikas). Extreme forms of asceticism were often resorted to, but the Buddha, from his own experience of them, considered them to be useless or even harmful unless they were accompanied by, or came as the result of, a very high degree of mental development. Still, detachment from the things of the present life formed an essential part of his teaching.

Returning to the question of breaking the round of rebirth, if for Buddhism there was to be no Brahman, no god, no inherent self, did the whole spell complete annihilation? This the Buddha repudiated entirely, classing a doctrine of annihilationism along with other speculations concerning the future, happy or otherwise. The goal is completely unconditioned, and to attempt to describe it in terms of the conditioned state that we know at present is as futile as to attempt to describe a “happy” state. The point is illustrated in a conversation held by the Buddha with the well-known wandering mendicant of the day, Poṭṭhapāda:

There are, Poṭṭhapāda, some samaṇas and brahmans who hold and expound the view: Certainly the self is completely happy and healthy after death. I went to them and said: “Venerable Sirs, I have heard that you teach the certainty of a happy and healthy self after death. Is this so?” They acknowledged that it was so. I asked: “Is the world, as you know it and see it, completely happy?” “No,” they said. I asked them: “Have you produced for yourselves complete happiness for one night or one day, or even for half a night or half a day?” They replied, “No.” Then I asked: “Do you, Venerable Sirs, know a path or a method by which a realm of complete happiness may be reached?” They replied that they did not. “Have you heard of gods, who have arisen in a completely happy world, saying: ‘There is a path, O Sirs, which, entered on and followed thoroughly and exactly, will lead to this world of complete happiness?’ We, Sirs, by following this path, have been reborn in a completely happy world.” They replied: “No.”

The Buddha compared this state of affairs to that of a man who declared himself in love with a beautiful woman whom he had never seen and whose appearance and lineage he knew nothing whatever about; alternatively he likened it to that of a man building a flight of steps to a palace whose location and details of construction he did not know.

If then we have no details of the state of happiness, other than that it is happy, it remains only to consider what things give rise to unhappiness and to avoid them. Hence the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths: “Suffering, the Origin of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering, and the Way to the Cessation of Suffering.”Beginning with the seemingly simple practice of the ordinary moralities of everyday life, the teaching continues unbroken to the transcendental state known generally as nirvāṇa. There is no modification for any particular person or class of persons, lay or otherwise, and, if the progress is sufficient, nirvāṇa is obtainable in the present life. “Cut out the love of self as you would an autumn water-lily with the hand; develop the way to peace, to nirvāṇa, taught by the Happy One (the Buddha).”There is no other training for the attainment of the highest state.


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© Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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