Buddhist Ethics in Social Service

The role of ethics on the path of social service is a very important topic if we wish to engage in various types of professions for helping others. Whether it is in actual social services or in education or in healthcare, ethics is a very important aspect of it. Obviously, when we’re trying to help others, we need to refrain from causing any harm and try our best to assist them in whatever way we can even though we might not really know the best methods. Because each person that we try to help, of course, is an individual, and what might be appropriate for one person might not necessarily suit another. So working in any type of social, helper profession requires a great deal of knowledge, sensitivity to others, and the basis for all of that is ethics.

Ethical Self-Discipline

Buddhism speaks about ethics in terms of ethical self-discipline. In order to actually put a system of ethics into practice, obviously we need discipline. So the two are intimately connected. And this discipline is not like being a policeman or policewoman in which we are enforcing the discipline or law on others, but rather we are directing that discipline to ourselves, which of course requires overcoming laziness and indifference and all sorts of obstacles to being disciplined. That means that even if we know what are the ethical principles that we need to follow, and we have a motivation to actually follow them, still we need to overcome any difficulties we might have into actually putting it into practice. So this topic of ethics is a very large topic, and there are many, many different aspects that we need to train in in order to effectively put it into practice.

Buddhism differentiates three types of ethical self-discipline. The first is the discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. Destructive behavior is not limited to actual physical actions, but also to our speech – the way we communicate to others – and also includes our attitude, our way of thinking, as well. We could just go through the routine of helping somebody, but in our minds have all sorts of nasty thoughts about them. So that also requires ethical discipline to refrain from that.

The second type of discipline is the discipline to engage in constructive behavior, and this is focused primarily on what we do ourselves in order to train our abilities to be able to help others. This means studying, training, doing all the various things that are necessary in order to be well qualified in our profession. That means that we need to keep up to date in terms of our career and not just rely on what we might have learned many years ago. That requires a great deal of discipline, actually, in order to keep further studies going and keep learning the new methods that develop in our field. That’s actually not so easy, because if we’re working all day and helping others it’s quite exhausting and this keeping-up-to-date work is what we have to do after hours.

The third type of ethical self-discipline is the discipline actually to engage in helping others.

So refraining from destructive behavior, engaging in constructive, educational behavior, and actually helping others. These are the three areas of ethical self-discipline that Buddhism emphasizes, and I think that this is quite relevant to all areas of social service. Let’s look a little bit more in depth about these three.

Refraining from Destructive Behavior and Engaging in Constructive Behavior

Refraining from destructive behavior. What is destructive behavior? Destructive behavior is explained in the Buddhist teachings as a type of action – whether it’s with our body, our speech, or our way of thinking – that is motivated by a disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude. In terms of how it affects others, we can’t really say for sure, because sometimes what we do even with a good motivation might harm somebody else – because we make a mistake, for example; we try to help them, but they don’t really take our advice; this type of thing.

Acting under the Influence of Anger

So really what we can say for sure is that it’s destructive if our motivation is destructive or disturbed. We may, for example, act under the influence of anger. For instance, we are annoyed with how somebody is behaving or leading their life, and so in trying to help them as a social worker, we yell at them: “Don’t act like that! Don’t take drugs!” or whatever it might be. But there’s anger behind our way of dealing with them. This not only prevents us from thinking clearly in terms of what would be of best help to the other, but other people are sensitive, they can sense our anger, and they usually respond very poorly if we’re angry with them. This is not so easy, because social work requires a great deal of patience. We try to help others, we give them good advice, and so on, and they don’t take it. And we get frustrated, of course, because we’re not patient, and in losing our patience it’s very easy to get angry with them and scold them, yell at them. Or if we’re in health services: “Why aren’t you taking your medicine? What’s wrong with you?” This type of thing. Very easy to lose our temper.

Developing Compassion for Others

In such situations we really need to develop compassion – that this poor person is confused; they are in such a difficult state they can’t even take good advice. We can’t force other people to take our advice. The only thing that we can actually work on is ourselves to find a more skillful method, to see how can we actually convince this person to change their ways? But if we are overwhelmed with anger and frustration and impatience, that really becomes quite a big obstacle to thinking clearly what would be a better way of communicating to this person?

Acting under the Influence of Attachment

The second type of disturbing emotion is attachment and desire. We’re all human beings, after all. We have desires. We’re attracted to some people. That could be a sexual attraction to some of the people we’re trying to help as our clients, or it could be a motherly or fatherly type of attraction to a small child: “Oh how sweet, how dear,” and so on. In either case, that could prevent us from being rather strict with this person, which sometimes we need to be when we’re trying to help them. Or because we’re so attracted to this person, in a sense we consciously or unconsciously make them dependent on us so that we can spend more time with them. This we need to avoid. Of course that’s not so easy, because, as I said, we are humans, and of course just as we lose our temper, we also find certain people attractive.

Developing Equanimity

What’s always emphasized in Buddhist training is to develop equanimity, which means not being under the influence of either attraction or repulsion toward anyone that we’re trying to help, or ignoring some people that do need help (that’s the third variant here), but rather to have an open, equal attitude toward everyone. That means open, equal attitude to those that are easy to help, those that are difficult to help, those that are quite nice to be with, those that are unpleasant to be with. The method for being able to develop that is to see that we’re all equal: Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy, the same as me. Everybody wants to be paid attention to, taken care of, just as I do. Nobody wants to be ignored.

Actually, what came to my mind is that there are some people that just want to be left alone. They don’t want our help. These are the most difficult. And that’s very challenging, not to feel rejected and taking it personally. Particularly I’m thinking of old people in nursing homes that aren’t very cooperative in terms of taking their medicine or doing various other things that they need to do. But even if they don’t want our help and they want to be left alone, still we need to have that equal attitude toward them and not just ignore them.

Even stronger than just thinking: “Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy” is to look at everybody as if they were our relative or closest friend. This person in the nursing home could be my mother or my father, and I wouldn’t want to ignore them or treat them badly. We can also think in terms of: “Someday I’m going to be in the nursing home and I wouldn’t want somebody to ignore me or treat me badly.” Or if we’re dealing with children, “This could be my child.” Or if it is somebody our own age, “This could be my brother, my sister, my close friend.” This helps us to develop more of an equal, open attitude that everybody is equally important.

Acting under the Influence of Naivety

Another disturbing state of mind is naivety. Naivety means that, for example, we’re too busy to really find out all the details about someone that we are working with, and so, because of our unawareness, our naivety about their situation, we really don’t handle them very well. Remember, everybody is an individual and everybody has their own story, their own background, and it’s not very easy when we have to deal with so many clients during the day that we don’t really have time to pay attention to any one of them. However, whatever type of work situation we’re in, however much time that we have to deal with each individual, it’s important to try to learn as much about this person as possible. The more we learn about somebody, the better able we are to help them. But if we don’t care, or we’re too tired, or we’re lazy, then our ability to help somebody is very, very much limited. That means that while we’re working we need to not always think in terms of me and my own personal problems, but really be concerned about the other person. So that involves refraining from thinking and so on in a way that is going to make our work ineffective, in a sense that’s destructive, that’s harmful to our work. If I just am thinking, “Oh, I have a problem at home with this and that,” and then you don’t pay attention to your client.

Acting When Overemotional and Overwhelmed

There are many states of mind and emotional states that can render our work less effective. Aside from these disturbing emotions that I just mentioned, there’s also a situation that some have of being overemotional. If we are overemotional and just overwhelmed with strong feelings, let’s say when we’re dealing with people who have been injured in an accident and so on, and we ourselves start crying and so on, we can’t possibly help this person. That requires a very delicate balance between not going to two extremes. One is being emotionally cold, not feeling anything. And the other is overemotional reaction to things, that we can’t actually do our work then.

To help us from just going to the extreme of being cold and not feeling anything, we need to remember that everybody responds warmly to human contact. They don’t want to be treated by somebody that’s like a machine. A smile, just holding their hand, let’s say, if they are in a hospital bed – these sort of things add a human, warm touch that is very important for helping others.

On the other hand, if we are overemotional then we need to realize that being overemotional really is being concerned just about me: “Oh, I can’t take it. It’s too much. This is so awful.” Basically we’re thinking in terms of me. We’re not really thinking of the other one. We’re thinking about how I feel in response to it. If our child gets hurt and we become hysterical and are just crying and crying, we can’t even help the child, and in fact it frightens the child. We need to keep calm in order to be able to calm down our child and think clearly what we need to do to help them (let’s say they cut themselves and they’re bleeding very badly).

All these points that I’m mentioning now fit in the category of the ethical self-discipline to engage in constructive behavior. In other words, we need to train ourselves in these methods that will help us to not go to these types of extremes that we’ve just been discussing. Constructive behavior is not just continuing education but also working on ourselves to be able to develop the emotional skills as well, to be able to help others in an effective, balanced way. And Buddhism offers a wide variety of methods that can help us in this area.

Engaging in Helping Others

Overcoming Laziness

In order to engage in the third type of ethical self-discipline, of actually helping others, we need to, of course, overcome laziness. Laziness has many aspects to it. One is being distracted by other things. “My favorite television program is on, so I would rather watch that, because I really like it, than getting up and helping you,” for example. Or being distracted by things that are fairly trivial is a form of laziness. “I’d rather lie in bed a little bit longer than get up and go to work.” This is laziness, isn’t it?

Then another form of laziness is procrastination, putting things off till later, not doing them now. If we’re involved in any type of work, I think that you know that work tends to pile up. More and more comes. It doesn’t stop. If we don’t take care of things when they come in – let’s say to our computer, whether it’s email, or onto our desk, or whatever – then it just piles up more and more and more, and afterwards it’s almost like a tsunami of work sweeps over us and overwhelms us because there’s just so much to do. If we are going to be in a busy, demanding profession, we can’t put things off till tomorrow. We need to take care of things day by day by day.

Now of course this requires what we call enthusiastic perseverance. Perseverance – to just continue, even if we are tired; we have to finish. But there’s a certain point where we really have to take a rest, because we’re no longer dealing with our work or with others effectively; we’re just too tired. One of the important principles in being able to sustain our efforts over a long time is to know when we need to take a rest and actually take that rest without feeling guilty. But that of course means not going to the extreme of treating ourselves like a baby and taking too much rest. That’s a form of laziness: just taking a rest because it’s more pleasant than working.

Taking a rest also requires knowing ourselves well enough to know what will help us to relax and regenerate our energy. For some it may just be taking a nap or going to sleep. For others it might be going outside and getting a little bit of fresh air, a little bit of a walk. For others it might be watching a film or television. For some it might be cooking. There are so many things that each of us might find relaxing – reading, whatever it might be. It doesn’t matter. The point is to know ourselves and to know when we need to take a rest and what will help us to relax, and in addition, when we’ve rested enough, to have the discipline to get back up and go back to work.

One of the things that prevents us from going back to work is that: “I just don’t feel like it.” For that we need to work on our motivation. We are trying to help others. What we are doing is of help to others. If we were in need of help, we wouldn’t like it if the person that we were relying on was too busy, or too tired, or had to finish watching the television program before they came to help us. Just as we wouldn’t like for somebody else that we relied on for help to act like that, everybody feels the same way with respect to us if they’re depending on us. This is a very important Buddhist method, which is to put ourselves in the other person’s place and see how we would like it if somebody treated us the way that we were treating them.

We’ve dealt with two of the forms of laziness, the laziness of just being distracted to trivial things, laziness of putting things off till later. The third type of laziness is feelings of inadequacy: “I’m just not good enough. I can’t do this. It’s too much.” This is a big obstacle. Now in fact we might not know what to do to help somebody. That happens. In fact it might happen quite frequently when we are in social services, for example. But to feel that: “I’m inadequate. I’m no good” and to beat ourselves psychologically and emotionally, this is not going to help at all, because this is actually a form of laziness. It’s lazy in the sense that we don’t even try harder; we just conclude: “I’m not good enough.”

We are not Buddhas, at least not yet, and so of course we don’t know what is best for others. We make mistakes. We’re humans. But the point is to keep trying, not to give up out of laziness. And consult others, if others are available, to give us advice on how to help if we can’t come up with something that’s effective. Although we need to take responsibility to help the others in our care, we also need to avoid the extreme of feeling that: “I am the holy savior and I’m going to save everybody.” Because that easily deviates into an unconscious drive to make everybody dependent on me and grateful to me because I have saved them, and we become jealous and envious if somebody else helps them and it wasn’t me who did that. But if our motivation is really that the other person be benefitted and helped, then it doesn’t matter who helps them. The point is for them to get over their problem. And if we find that we are not – I mean objectively that we’re not – really able to help this person, it’s very important not to feel proud and let our pride prevent us from recommending them to go to somebody else that we think could help them better than we can.

So reaffirming our motivation is a very important method emphasized over and again in Buddhism. Here our motivation in being in any type of social work is that the other person be helped with their problem, be free from whatever their problem might be. And it doesn’t mean me, that I have to necessarily be the one to do that, although, as I said, we do take responsibility: “I’m going to try as best to help as I can.”

Developing a Caring Attitude

Ethics depends very much on having what we call a caring attitude: “I care about the effect of my behavior on others.” It’s not that I’m just doing a job and earning a salary and I don’t care, really, about others or about whether what I do is helpful or not. And we also have to care about the effect of our behavior on ourselves. This caring attitude is based on really understanding, and taking seriously, cause and effect. We act in a certain way, with a certain type of motivation – it’s going to have a certain type of effect, and we are fully convinced that there is an effect. That’s what it means to be serious about it and to care. What we do really does have an effect on others and it has an effect on me as well.

So when we’re engaged in this ethical discipline to help others, the third type of ethical discipline, then here most importantly we need to have this caring attitude. But the caring attitude is also behind engaging in constructive behavior, this type of ethical discipline. “I care about being effective in my work, therefore I will have the discipline to continue my education and training,” for example. And this caring attitude is also behind the ethical discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. “Because I care about the effect of my behavior on others and myself, I don’t want to cause harm.” More specifically: “I don’t want to cause harm by acting under the influence of anger and attraction and naivety and jealousy,” and all these sort of things; or pride: “Even though I don’t know how to help, I pretend that I do.”

To have this caring attitude, we need to have a basic sense of values, ethical values, and a sense of respect for good qualities and those who have them. In other words, we look up to those who are excellent in our field of helping others – whether we think of Mother Theresa, or whoever we think – and we have great admiration and respect for such a person, and this is our model. It’s very important to have some sort of figure that gives us inspiration in our field, that we can look up to and acts as our model. It doesn’t matter whether or not we’ve actually met the person. But we look up to this person because we have a sense of values. We consider the way that they have lived their lives is something that is valuable, that I respect. And in addition, we realize that we have all the basic working materials to become like that. This is what is referred to as Buddha-nature factors in the Buddhist teachings. “I have a body. I have an ability to communicate. I have a heart, feelings. I have an intellect: I can understand things, figure things out. I have abilities. I’m able to learn.” So we have all these qualities within ourselves. These are our working materials. And so we realize that we can actually become like these inspiring figures. So we have respect for ourselves, a sense of self-dignity, and that enables us to really care about the effect of how we act and to exercise ethical self-discipline. It’s this feeling that: “Of course I can always do better. Of course I can help.” And we consider that a positive value.

So these are some of my thoughts, based on the Buddhist teachings, of the role of ethics on the path of social service. If this is the type of field that you’re going into in your studies, this is a wonderful opportunity to really do something positive, to make a great contribution with your life. Doing this type of work makes life very meaningful and worthwhile because we’re actually benefitting others. Back in Berlin, in Germany, where I live, I have a few students who are engaged in this type of work. One of my students works in a home, a facility for people who are extremely mentally disabled – Down’s syndrome, these type of children – taking care of these children, helping them with their lives. Another one of my students is a nurse taking care of elderly disabled people. And these are wonderful occupations. They require, of course, a great deal of patience, a great deal of discipline, but very worthwhile. And, of course, a strong sense of ethics. So I admire you very much if this is the direction that you’re going in in your lives.


Are there any Buddhist methods that can help us to deal with such destructive states of mind as suspiciousness?

Being suspicious of others is similar to paranoia, always thinking: “People are against me. I wonder really what are their intentions?” and so on. There are two aspects here. One is the insecurity that drives us to always be worried that somebody is against me, somebody is going to hurt me. It’s based on insecurity. And the other aspect is hypersensitivity, overreacting.

Now, to overcome insecurity, there are many levels at which we can deal with that. One would be just generally having confidence in our ability to deal with whatever happens in life. What I find very helpful is the example of Buddha Shakyamuni. “Not everybody liked the Buddha, so what do I expect for myself? Do I expect that everybody is going to like me?” That’s totally unrealistic. It’s impossible to please everybody. “Buddha couldn’t do it, so I shouldn’t expect that I’m going to be able to please everybody and everybody is going to like me. I try my best – I have a good intention – and whether they like it or they don’t like it, that’s their problem.” I find that that’s very helpful. And of course the more that we train, the more experience we get as you get older, and in general you feel a little bit more secure. When you are a young person, a teenager, it’s quite natural to be even more insecure in terms of wanting to get approval, people liking you, and so on.

We need to reaffirm the good qualities that we have. That doesn’t mean denying or ignoring shortcomings that we have, but if we overemphasize these shortcomings then we get very, very insecure. But nobody has only shortcomings; we all have some good qualities, and it’s important to always remind ourselves of them. It doesn’t mean to be proud about it and arrogant, but it means to have some self-confidence.

Being oversensitive, overreacting, getting so upset about this or that – again, we need to think in terms of: “This is of no help to anybody.” It disables us from being able to deal with life, and it makes everybody around us very uncomfortable. The more that we think of others, in any type of situation that we have, the more considerate we’ll be, the more calm we’ll be, in terms of the way that we respond emotionally to things. The example that’s often used is a mother. A mother can be very upset about something, but if the children need to be taken care of – you have to make dinner for them – you overcome being so upset and you actually do what you need to do to help them.

Original Audio from the Seminar