Bases for Ethical Behavior

Three Main Areas of Ethics: Refraining from Destructive Behavior, Discipline and Helping Others

When we talk about ethics or ethical behavior in Buddhism, we speak about three different areas. First is refraining from destructive behavior, which means not to act under the influence of anger or greed or selfishness, whether or not we intend to cause harm. Sometimes we act selfishly and we’re not even aware that we’re acting selfishly, and we don’t actually intend to hurt anybody, but actually it causes a lot of harm and problems.

If we only want to get “my way” and “I have to get whatever I want” because we’re selfish – we’re thinking just of ourselves – then we ignore others and, even without intending to do so, we hurt others very much. And if we’re angry, then we lose all self-control, don’t we, and we do and say all sorts of things that later we regret and they’ve caused us a lot of trouble. So that first area of ethics is refraining from destructive behavior.

But, when we talk about ethics we’re talking about being disciplined. And being disciplined means taking control of our lives and not letting ourselves come under the influence of laziness or all sorts of disturbing states of mind that prevent us from accomplishing anything in our lives. So the second type of ethical behavior is actually engaging in something constructive. For example, studying hard and getting a good education. That requires a lot of discipline, doesn’t it – s elf-discipline to study, to learn. But if we want to accomplish anything positive in our lives, we need to have qualifications; we need to train, and this requires discipline. And that’s an ethical area.

Why is it ethical? Because of course we could train to be, let’s say, a really good thief, a really good criminal, or we could train to be someone who makes a positive contribution to our society. So if we’re going to train in something, we need to really decide what will be of best help, based on what I’m good at and what my talents are. And part of that is also what I like, what I enjoy. And when we think in terms of what I enjoy, of course what I might enjoy is just watching television and playing with my friends, but we can’t do that our entire lives, can we? And so when we think in terms of what I enjoy, it’s not just what I enjoy right now, but what will give me happiness in the long term in terms of our lives.

The third type of ethics is the ethics to involve ourselves in actually helping others. It’s not enough to just train ourselves to have good abilities, but we live in society with other people and it’s very important to share all our good qualities and talents and abilities with others. Whatever abilities we have, we can use them to help others. After all, living in a society, our happiness is very much dependent on the happiness of the entire society. So it’s very important when we discuss ethics to have a very broad mind, not just think very narrowly or small. That means not just think in terms of me or my family, but think of much larger society. And not just think in terms of right now, but think in terms of the future and the consequences of what I do.

The Basis for Ethical Behavior: A Caring Attitude

When we ask what is the basis for ethical behavior, the main emphasis in terms of the basis is on what’s known as the “caring attitude.” This caring attitude means that I care about myself, what I’m doing. I’m not just going to act unconsciously, whatever urge or impulse comes to my mind, but I care about what will be the effect of what I do and how I lead my life, what the effect of that will be on me and what the effect of that will be on others.

How will my future be if, for instance, I spend my life now acting in a destructive way, or I’m so lazy I don’t do anything with my life? Especially if we’re a young person, like many of you here, how will I make a living, how will I deal with life, if I don’t train myself now? If we have this attitude of: “Oh, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter” or we feel that “There’s no hope, so why bother getting a good education or learning a trade or learning a profession?” then later on in life we’ll regret very much that we wasted an opportunity that we had.

So it’s very important to take seriously the future, the consequences of how I’m leading my life now. We need to develop this feeling that it’s important – it’s important to me what my future will be. If I don’t care about myself, who will?

Taking the Reins of the Horse of Your Mind in Your Own Hands

We have a term that we use in Buddhism which means to take our life in our own hands; in other words, to take control of our lives. It’s described in terms of an example of a horse. You have the reins of a horse, the ropes that are used to lead the horse that the rider uses, and we say we should take the reins of the horse of my mind in our own hands, not let the horse just run wild or somebody else take control.

Very important to try to take control in terms of what I’m going to do with my life, what kind of person I’m going to be. Am I going to be just a lazy person that does nothing in my life? Or am I going to be someone that leads a life that is meaningful, that is fulfilling? And leading a meaningful and fulfilling life is dependent very much on how do I interact with everybody else. Am I acting like a kind and helpful person, or am I acting like somebody who’s completely selfish and always is getting angry with everybody?

Nobody likes somebody who’s angry all the time and loses their temper; they’re usually quite afraid of such a person. They don’t really want to be with them because… they can get angry at me: “I don’t want to be with this person.” Or somebody who’s always complaining and criticizing, and so on – no fun to be with somebody like that, is it? But if we’re the type of person who thinks of others, is sensitive toward others, is actually interested in others, and who, instead of criticizing others’ faults or mistakes, helps them to grow and improve, then everybody likes us; everybody would like to be with us.

So the type of person that we are and that we will become is very much dependent on ethics. We care about the effect of our behavior and what we do on us – the kind of person we’ll become – and we care about how it’s going to affect others in my interaction with others. This is the caring attitude.

This word (bag-yod, Skt. apramada) that I’m translating as “caring attitude” also is the word that means “to be careful.” So we have to be careful about what we do, what we say, what we think. Because if we get into bad habits, then habits become deeper and deeper and we just automatically act in – let’s say, if we have bad habits – in a bad way.

I’ll give an example: A lot of people, when they speak, use a lot of swear words – very coarse, rough language. This is certainly the case in English and I think also perhaps in Russian. I don’t know about your common language, but I think most languages have swear words, nasty words. And young people very often will get into the habit of using this type of coarse language, and it becomes so much a part of the way in which they speak that later on in life they get into situations and then, just without thinking at all, automatically this nasty language comes out, and it can be very embarrassing.

In order to prevent that, we have to be careful – we’re careful now – about what are the habits that we build up. We have to be careful because we care about what will be the effect of how I lead my life now. And so with discipline we try to be mindful or aware of how am I speaking, how am I thinking, how am I acting, and realize that if I start to get into patterns and build up habits, negative ways of behaving and so on, these are going to be very hard to change later on.

Now when you are young – many in the audience are – this is the time when your habits are formed. So it’s very important to take the reins of the horse of your mind and your behavior in your own hands, take control of what kind of person you’re going to become. Do I want to go in a negative direction or do I want to go in a positive direction? It won’t do to say, “Well, I can’t take control of my life: society is like this and economics is like that,” and just complain, because no matter what our circumstances might be, still the type of person that we are – that’s up to us. Even if we’re living in the worst conditions, we can be a kind person or we can be a very nasty, cruel person; we can be very selfish or we can try to live in harmony with everybody else.

Ethical Behavior Requires Discriminating Awareness: Knowing What Is Harmful, What Is Helpful

So when we talk about ethics in Buddhism, we’re not talking about: “Here are the laws, here are the rules, and I just have to be obedient and follow them.” That’s not the Buddhist approach. We don’t lead our lives like we’re in the army and: “Yes, sir! I follow these rules.” It’s not like that. But rather ethics in Buddhism is based on what we call “discriminating awareness.” We need to discriminate what’s helpful, what’s harmful. And because everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy, then if I want to avoid being unhappy, I need to avoid what is harmful, what will destroy my happiness and others’ happiness. If I want to be happy, I need to do what is helpful, what will bring about happiness.

And the reality is that we live in society; we’re not the only human being on this planet. And so when we think in terms of what scope of happiness do we need to aim for, we need to aim for the scope of happiness of everybody. Now, we could ask, “How could I possibly make everybody happy?” And obviously, just by our own efforts alone, that’s not going to make everybody happy. But, as Buddha said, a bucket of water is filled drop by drop. So we can add our own drop into the bucket. What kind of drop do I want to add to the bucket? Is it going to be a drop of trouble that I add into the bucket that just causes trouble for others? Or do I want to add a drop that is a little bit of help, whatever that help might be? Even if that help is just raising a family of children that also have positive values in life, this is a beneficial drop. Doesn’t have to be something dramatic, does it? So all of this is in our own hands.

The Sense of Values We Have

Another basis for ethics is a sense of values. We need to have respect for good, positive qualities and people who have them. Who do I look up to? Do I look up to some big criminal, or do I look up to somebody who is really an outstanding leader who helps others? Well, that is an interesting question, isn’t it? Do I look up to some rock and roll star? Do I look up to some movie star? Some sportsperson? Some of these people obviously do good things in life – so, fine. But some don’t. Or do I look up to a great spiritual leader – for instance, His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

What are the values that I consider the most important in life? Is it kicking a ball into a net? Or is it actually doing something that helps people with their lives? We can learn to kick a ball into a net. Very nice and it entertains a lot of people, but you could probably also train an animal to kick a ball into a net. So although this might be a nice goal to have, to be a great sportsperson, is there something more that I could train myself to do that maybe an animal can’t do? And yes, sure, we’re human beings, and we can do a tremendous amount because we have intelligence, we have feelings, we have the ability to actually not only entertain others but help them in many further ways.

Now, of course, entertaining others is a way of helping people to relax, calm down, so there’s nothing negative about that. But if we have the ability to do more than that, why not? We could be both a good entertainer – a good sportsperson – and somebody that works to try to benefit society in further ways. This comes down to a sense of values. What will help others? And entertaining is one thing that will help others. If they are sick, taking care of them is yet another level of what will help others. Educating others – another way of helping others. If I’m a successful entertainer or sports person, fine. But what am I going to use my money and my fame for? I could use it just to build a palace for myself to live in, or I could use it to build hospitals and raise money for others. So a sense of values. What is important, living in a palace for myself or helping others?

And if we look at ourselves, we all have many, many abilities, and these abilities can all be used. What is important is to try to know ourselves: What are my abilities? What are my talents? Right? Everybody has some abilities. Could be that I’m a good cook; it doesn’t have to be something out of the ordinary. And then we think, “How could I use this? What use can I put to this talent, to this ability that I have, in order to help others?” And help others… sure, if we can help them immediately, right now, in the present situation – like cook a nice meal for them or entertain them – fine. Nothing wrong with that. But if I could help them in the long-term – not just something right now, like make a nice meal – wouldn’t that be even better?

So all of that is within our own hands in terms of: “Now, what kind of discipline am I going to have? Am I going to have no discipline? Weak discipline? Or am I going to really have self-discipline on the basis of ethics?” And all of that, as I said, is based on a caring attitude, and then of course being careful, taking control of our lives, being discriminating between “What’s going to be helpful? What’s going to be harmful?” and then just doing it: Train ourselves – build up positive habits; try to overcome negative habits. Try to be mindful and aware of “How am I acting? How am I communicating? How am I thinking?” And don’t be satisfied with some level of these that really is not making my life very happy; we can always do better.

Leading an Ethical Life Is a Way to Be Happier

But when we talk about doing better, that doesn’t mean beating ourselves – “I’m no good” – and feeling very negative about ourselves, so that following some sort of ethical life becomes like a punishment. It’s not a punishment. We need to recognize that following an ethical life, or leading an ethical life, is a way to be happier. And it helps us to bring more happiness to others, which will then just reinforce our happiness.

So our futures are all up to us. What kind of person we’re going to be now and be in the future – i t’s all up to us. So whether we are a young person now at school, or we’re an adult or an old person, we can all follow this course.


What should we do in order to develop a sense of values?

To develop a sense of values, we need to recognize within ourselves that we have positive qualities: We all have a body, so we’re able to act with others, do things. We all have the ability to communicate. We all have a mind, so we can understand things; we can learn things. And we all have a heart – we have feelings – we are capable of warm, kind feelings. So these are things that everybody has, no matter who we are. And we realize that these are my working materials. What I do with them is really up to me. And if we recognize that we have these basic working materials, then we have a sense of self-worth, self-esteem – “There’s nothing wrong with me. I can do something positive with my working materials” – that gives us this sense of value.

How to evaluate our good qualities and apply them for the benefit of others?

How do we evaluate our good qualities is really a function of looking within ourselves. These basic working materials… we don’t have to look very far to realize that I have them – that I have a mind, I have a body, I can speak, etc. These are not hard to identify. And we need to examine: “Have I learned anything in my life?” And no matter how young we are, we certainly have learned things in our life: we learned how to walk, we learned how to talk… very basic things. And in order to see what direction I go in, in terms of using my basic qualities, then you see: “ What has come easy to me? What is easy for me to learn to do?” Some of us are very good with language and not very good with mathematics. Some people are good with math and science and are not very good with writing.

So we need to examine ourselves, see: “What am I good at?” And also part of this is: “What do I enjoy? What do I like?” We have to experience our lives ourselves. What I do with my life… well, I’m the one that’s going to experience my life: Am I going to be happy? Am I going to be unhappy? Ideally, we try to do something with our lives that we really love doing and we feel that it’s meaningful. And if it in some way helps somebody else and others, that makes it meaningful. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, on a global scale.

So evaluating our good qualities is dependent on seeing: “What have I done up till now?” and “ What comes easy to me now and I like doing it?” Let me give an example that some people might overlook. Some people, their good quality is that they like to speak to other people: they’re not shy, and they can speak very easily with everybody; they feel comfortable with others. Now, we might not think that’s a terribly good quality or a spectacular quality, but actually that’s a great quality. Because, for instance, let’s say you work in a store. You might think, “Oh, that’s not a very dramatic profession.” But if you’re able to speak nicely with the people who come into your store and deal with them in a friendly way – you’re not shy and cold (you might as well be a robot working in the store) – people will like you, they’ll like to come to the store, they leave the store with a smile on their face. This is a good quality, something to value. It helps people.

What to do when we are with a person who is very selfish?

Everything really depends on whether or not this person is receptive to any help. I am thinking of the example of one person that I know in Berlin, where I live, who’s always thinking of herself – quite self-centered, talks nonstop only about herself, and mostly complaining and criticizing. You have lunch with her and she spends most of the time complaining about how she couldn’t find the right cloth for making a new curtain in her room. So how do you deal with somebody like this? And the basic realization that one has to have with such a person is that they are extremely unhappy and very lonely. And so she’s constantly talking when she meets anybody, basically to get some attention. So her intention is certainly not to make it very unpleasant and boring for me to have lunch with her, but her intention is to get some attention and some sympathy. And so in such a situation in which I can’t really say something strong to her (she would get very offended) – “Stop complaining, and let’s talk about something more meaningful than curtains” – what I can do is practice patience with her, and listen to her with an open mind, and give her a little bit of sympathy, which can help her to calm down. Because actually speaking like that and criticizing, she’s very tense.

So I think that these are characteristics of most selfish, self-centered people. They are unhappy, they are very tense, and they just talk constantly and want to have attention. So I think it’s very difficult to do more than just help to calm them down and be a bit sympathetic and not just intolerant. And then slowly they come to realize that you’re there too, not just as an audience but as a participant in an interaction.

Original Audio from the Seminar