The Noble Eightfold Blog

Virtue, Ethics and Morality

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

for free distribution

You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever without the author’s permission, provided that: (1) such copies, etc. are made available free of any charge; (2) any translations of this work state that they are derived herefrom; (3) any derivations of this work state that they are derived and differ herefrom; and (4) you include the full text of this license in any copies, translations or derivations of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved.

Table of Contents


The English word "morality" and its derivatives suggest a sense of obligation and constraint quite foreign to the Buddhist conception of sila; this connotation probably enters from the theistic background to Western ethics. Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics, not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony. In fact, the commentaries explain the word sila by another word, samadhana, meaning "harmony" or "coordination."

- [Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, Chapter IV: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood]

As noted in the Introduction, in the Buddha's system of teaching virtue - ethics and morality - comes first. But we have a lot of cultural baggage associated with the term "morality", so I have left this topic until now. The Four Noble Truths includes a partial discussion of virtue in the Noble Eightfold Path: right speech, right action and right livelihood. Now we will give it our full attention.


If beings knew, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would the stain of miserliness overcome their minds. Even if it were their last bite, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared, if there were someone to receive their gift. But because beings do not know, as I know, the results of giving and sharing, they eat without having given. The stain of miserliness overcomes their minds. - [Iti 1.26]

The foundation of the Buddha's teachings is generosity.

In Buddhist countries like Thailand, the first thing that children learn is the practice of generosity. Monks go on daily alms rounds, and the children put food into the monks' bowls. This is the only food that the monks will get that day; they are not even allowed to store food. So the children are doing something very important. And because monks are so revered in those countries, the children get a great deal of happiness and joy from the act of giving.

I once read that the practice of generosity is both the beginning and the end of the path. It took me a while to understand what that means. But as we have seen, the cause of our dukkha is craving. Craving is something we want. Generosity is something we give. It is the perfect antidote for craving.

Many years ago I had a conversation with my mother about giving. We were talking about what we do when we are sad or depressed. Curiously we had both come up with the same solution: do something for someone else. When we are depressed, it is like being in an emotional phone booth. We are self-absorbed; everything seems tight and constricted. But when you do something for someone else, it forces you outside of yourself. It is a way to open up the heart.

Joseph Goldstein says that we often think of things to do for other people, but we hardly ever follow through on them. So when you think of something generous to do, do it. Turn generosity into a good habit.

Unfortunately generosity is something that we often feel that we have to do, not something we want to do. We must train ourselves to feel the joy that comes from generosity. When you do something generous, don't just skip over the joy and satisfaction. Open up to it.

In Pāli there are two closely related words about generosity. The most commonly heard one is "dana" (pronounced like the name "Donna"). "Dana" literally means "the act of giving". The other related word is "caga". "Caga" is a "heart bent on giving".

A common misunderstanding about generosity is that it is about giving money or things. Traditionally in Buddhism, the most generous act is sharing the teachings. This is the generosity provided by monks and nuns. They don't have any material possessions, but what they give is the teachings and their effort in cultivating the path. This is important to remember when you are meditating. As the Buddha said, the best way to meditate is for yourself and others, so when you are meditating it is a gift of generosity. You are cultivating your mind so that you can cause less mischief and do more good.

One of the greatest ways that you can be generous is with your attention. When you are talking with someone, give them your full attention. Be aware of all the invisible people in the world, like the person who bags your groceries or cleans your motel room. I am often amazed at how uncomfortable this makes some people feel. They are so used to being invisible that if you pay them common courtesy they don't know how to respond. Be on a mission to give the gift of your full attention and respect to everyone.

There is also a wisdom aspect to generosity. As we learned in the Noble Eightfold Path, the most important aspect of karma is our intention. We want to give with a full and open heart. This is "caga". But we should also use some discernment. There are charities that are not very effective. They give exorbitant salaries to their managers. And you don't want to give money to people who will just misuse it, like addicts or chronic gamblers.

There will be times when you do something with the best of intentions, and then later realize it was unskillful. That is not a problem. When you did it, you did it with the wisest intentions that you could muster at the time. That is all we can do. But then learn from that. The Buddhist path is all about learning. We learn, and that is how we develop and progress. As Larry Rosenberg says, in Buddhism, we learn our way out of suffering.

In Buddhist countries the greatest form of giving for lay people is to the monks and nuns. This brings more "merit". (Of course there are some quite mischievous monks, so that is no guarantee, either.)

Another quality we are trying to cultivate is an internal motivation with an internal result. Of course, people like to be thanked for their gifts. But it is useful to learn to detach yourself from any result. I once read about a practice where when you do something generous you make it a point not to tell anyone about it. It is amazing how difficult this can be. If we do something nice, we want people to know about it. But it is also a very good practice to keep it to yourself. Learn to make your own sense of satisfaction the reward. Try it and see what the results are.

Having said that, in Buddhist countries it is a tradition to recognize people for their gifts. Temples have the names of the benefactors carved on them. The 19th century engineer James Prinsep was able to decipher an ancient Indian script by recognizing that the writing on ancient temples was a donor list. [Charles Allen, The Search for the Buddha] It is perfectly proper and perfectly within the Buddhist tradition to be recognized for your generosity and to feel joy and happiness in that generosity.

These are all ways in which we learn skillful giving, and we cultivate the joy of generosity.

The Five Lay Precepts

Traditionally when a lay person formally becomes a Buddhist they do two things. First, they take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha (specifically the monastic Saṅgha and the Noble Saṅgha). The Three Jewels are a safe haven, like a good harbor that shields ships from a storm.

The other thing you do to become a Buddhist is to take the five precepts.

Buddhism is creed-less. To formally become a Buddhist, you do not have to agree to believe anything. (Although you won't get very far if you do not believe that your actions have results.) But you do have to agree to behave in a certain way. The word for this is "orthopraxy". An "orthodoxy" is a system of belief; an "orthopraxy" is a system of behavior.

The principle behind the five precepts is that, as the Buddha says, wholesome actions lead to wholesome results and unwholesome actions lead to unwholesome results. The precepts give a more precise definition of what wholesome actions are.

There are two reasons why the precepts cause problems for Westerners. The first comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage. We are afraid that if we break a precept we are going to go to hell. That is a stark way to put it, but that cultural conditioning is usually lurking in the background.

When I was in India the person who led the trip wanted everyone to take the precepts. There was one woman who really had trouble with that. She kept using the word "vow" when discussing the precepts. She came from a Catholic background where a vow is something that you cannot break under any circumstances. Once you break a vow, you are defeated, and there is no way to undo the damage.

But that is not the spirit of the precepts. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term "trainings" rather than "precepts". That is a better way to describe the principle. Again, we are cultivating and developing our minds. The precepts give us a sense of direction. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the "trainings" to the North Star. When you follow the North Star you don't expect to get to the North Star, you expect to go north. The precepts are a way for us to head north.

So we start with the precepts as objectives. When we break one, we reflect on our actions, and see if we can do better the next time. We contemplate how to do that; we come up with a strategy. We turn it into a problem solving exercise.

The other problem Westerners tend to have is guilt about what they have done in the past. Misunderstandings about karma can feed that. But what has happened has happened. There is no point in feeling guilty about the past. In fact, guilt can keep us from moving forward. What matters is the choices we make now and in the future. We want to nurture our mental development in a certain way, a way that is more skillful. We have decided to run a marathon, but we have never run more than a 100 feet. So we have some work to do. But if you spend all your time lamenting that you have never run in the past, it is a complete waste of time.

The First Precept: not killing

Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.

As discussed in the chapter on the Four Noble Truths, the canonical definition of killing extends to living beings that have "breath and consciousness". This includes people and all animal life, including insects, but not plant life. The Pāli word for "killing" also implies more generally harming". Thus this first precept is also sometimes called "basic non-harming".

The precepts are one of several formulations of virtue in the Buddha's teachings. We have already seen one formulation. and that is steps 3, 4 and 5 of the Noble Eightfold Path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood.

A second formulation is what we are discussing here, the Five Precepts.

Another formulation of virtue is in the teachings on the wholesome and the unwholesome. We will discuss this in a later chapter.

A still different formulation of the teachings on virtue comes from the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Here the Buddha teaches the precepts as a gift that we give to the world:

There are, bhikkhus, these five gifts, great gifts, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which are not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. What five?

Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. - [AN 8.39]

This is another doorway to virtue. Now the practice of ethics, morality and virtue is not a burden, or something where we suffer terrible consequences if we don't "follow the rules", it is a gift that we give to the world. By not killing we give the gift of life, we give "immeasurable beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction". In turn we enjoy "immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction". This is a gift that is "long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated":

The Aṅguttara Nikāya mentions five great gifts which have been held in high esteem by noble-minded [people] from ancient times (A.iv,246). Their value was not doubted in ancient times, it is not doubted at present, nor will it be doubted in the future. The wise recluses and brahmans had the highest respect for them. These great givings comprise the meticulous observance of the Five Precepts. By doing so one gives fearlessness, love and benevolence to all beings. If one human being can give security and freedom from fear to others by his behavior, that is the highest form of dana one can give, not only to mankind, but to all living beings.

- [Lily de Silva, "Giving in the Pāli Canon"]

Often in the world we feel helpless in the face of so much turmoil, pain and suffering. The precepts are a very personal way in which we can make a difference.

You may know this story. It is called "Starfish":

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean".

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die".

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one.”

- [Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe]

We meet life where it touches us, and in those moments we make a difference, even if it is just in the simple act of fully acknowledging the person who is cleaning our motel room.

The question often comes up as to whether eating meat breaks the first precept. That is a difficult one, especially in our modern world where we are so disconnected from our food sources.

It may surprise you to know that in southern Buddhism - and this was true in the Buddha's time as well - monks and nuns are not forbidden to eat meat. This requires a little context. Because monks and nuns eat alms food, they take all that is given. It is an act of gratitude. Thus it has less to do with what one eats than accepting the generosity of the people who are giving you food. In some cases, the people who are feeding you have very little themselves, and it would be unkind to refuse what they give.

There is an extended set of monastic rules called the "dhutanga" ("ascetic practices") that monks and nuns may undertake, and these include adhering to a vegetarian diet. But refraining from eating meat is not in the standard monastic code.

Having said that, over time it has become a convention to only give vegetarian food to monks and nuns. In eastern Buddhism (China, Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam), vegetarianism is the rule. Mahāyāna Buddhists take the Bodhisattva vows that forbid the eating of meat. In Tibet, where it is nearly impossible to grow anything, the eating of meat is the norm.

However, we live in an era where being a vegetarian is easy. There are so many options that do not include meat. Conversely, the raising and killing of animals creates a lot of suffering. It is extremely destructive to the environment, and vegetarian diets are usually healthier. So if you are not a vegetarian, you might consider making a difference to a starfish or two.

The Second Precept: not taking what is not freely offered

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi
I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

As mentioned in the chapter on The Four Noble Truths, the phrasing of the precept on stealing comes from Sakyan civil law. It is usually phrased as shown above, although it is also common to say, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not freely given". This makes it clear that you should avoid even subtle forms of coercion.

The monastic code devotes a lot of attention to subtle coercion. Monks and nuns are not allowed to ask for anything except water. This may seem a little extreme but the Buddha was very sensitive to how religious people abuse their power and authority. He went to great lengths to keep the monastic Saṅgha "pure". Thus, monks and nuns are not allowed to make their preferences known in even the most subtle ways.

This is an important point. Sadly, there is as much abuse in Buddhism as in any other religion. There are many instances of Buddhist leaders taking advantage of their students, materially and sexually. Some of the most famous are Richard Baker, who was Shunryu Suzuki's heir at the San Francisco Zen Center, Chogyam Trungpa, who was a sexual predator, heavy drinker and smoker, and more recently Joshu Sazaki who was “groping and sexually harassing female students for decades", according to the New York Times. Sazaki even tried to break up the marriage of one of his students, and encouraged him to have an affair.

The writer Natalie Goldberg wrote a book called The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth about discovering that her teacher - Dainin Katagiri - sexually abused his students for decades.

Thus the monastic code - which is something like the lay precepts on steroids - exists to protect both the Saṅgha and the laity.

The goal of the Buddha's teachings is to reduce suffering, to do good when possible, and to do so with love, compassion, and wisdom.

So this precept is very important. We are trying to be happy with what we have.

This precept is particularly impossible to keep. By our very existence we take what is not freely offered. The land and the animals on which our lives depend do not freely offer what we take. So we take as little as possible. Everything that we use has a cost associated with it, and the less we take, the farther north we get.

The Third Precept: abstaining from sexual misconduct

Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to avoid sensual misconduct.

(Note: In Pāli the same word is used for "sensual" and "sexual".)

Anyone who is a true Dharma follower cannot rationalize the abuses of people like Richard Baker, Chogyam Trungpa, Joshu Sazaki and Dainin Katagiri. The Buddha devoted a lot of attention to the dangers of sexual energy; it is not possible to call people like these disciples of the Buddha.

I have heard many rationalizations about sexual abuse by teachers. The one that still sticks in my throat is when a "Buddhist" I knew said that the "precepts are empty". "Emptiness" is sometimes used as a way of excusing atrocious behavior. As we will see when we discuss non-self and emptiness, this is a complete misrepresentation of those teachings. Emptiness is not nihilism. The universe is a realm of causes and conditions. The law of karma is ethically based, and it is the quality of our intentions that determines the karmic results of our actions. Thus, to rationalize unethical behavior based on "emptiness" is something diametrically opposed to the Dharma.

When this precept is violated, a human being is violated. The potential damage is extremely high. I live in New Mexico where 1 in 3 women on Navajo Reservations have been raped or are victims of attempted rape. In the United States a woman's chance of being raped is 1 in 5. Think about that the next time that you walk down the street. Every fifth woman you see will be a rape victim.

And as we have just seen, being a practicing Buddhist is no guarantee of safety, even from your teacher.

While there are women who violate this precept, it is mainly men who do. This is where the precepts as a gift are particularly powerful. Using your sexual energy in a responsible and respectful way is a gift that men can give to women. It is the gift of safety. It is a way to be a son, a brother, and a father to women, and not a threat. I think of the women in my life as Dharma sisters, to be loved, cherished and protected.

For women who use their sexual energy in a way that is ultimately demeaning, like promiscuity or even prostitution, have respect for yourself. Show yourself the same love, compassion and wisdom you have for your dearest friend.

The Fourth Precept: abstaining from false speech

Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.

As we have discussed already, there are four different types of wrong speech:

And what, bhikkhus, is wrong speech? False speech, malicious speech, harsh speech, and gossip: this is wrong speech. - [MN 117.19]

And right speech:

And what, bhikkhus, is right speech... partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions? Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from gossip: this is right speech - [MN 117.19]

In the "Abhayarājakumāra Sutta: To Prince Abhaya" [MN 58], the Buddha gives a different and more detailed teaching on right speech.

So too, prince, such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to use such speech. Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter. Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has compassion for beings. - [MN 58.8]

Here the Buddha is using a different way to determine whether or not something is right speech.

The first criteria is, is it true and correct?

The second criteria is, is it beneficial?

The third criteria is, is it welcome and agreeable?

In order to be right speech, it must be true and correct. It must also be beneficial. However, if the first two criteria are true, then the third criteria may or may not be true. Thus speech that is true and correct and beneficial, can either be welcome and agreeable or not. It doesn't have to be easy to hear.

Conversely, if it is not beneficial, even if it is true and correct, and either welcome or not, there is no point in speaking. In other words, don't waste your breath.

You may see by now that one of the characteristics of the Buddha's teaching is how practical it is. That doesn't make it easy. Keeping all this in mind while speaking requires considerable training. Our habits when it comes to speech are deeply ingrained. On the other hand, this isn't rocket science. We "keep in mind" what right speech is, and we examine the consequences of our actions. It is always a case of cause and effect. And that is how we learn our way into greater skill, greater happiness, and greater usefulness as human beings.

The Fifth Precept: refraining from the use of intoxicants

Surā meraya majja pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from the use of intoxicants to the point of heedlessness.

The fifth precept causes a lot of consternation in the West, and different people deal with it in different ways.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using intoxicants. The problem is that they tend to lead to breaking one of the other precepts. As this precept says, it is a problem of heedlessness. I never did anything under the influence of intoxicants that I was proud of. The converse is, sadly, true. I regret many things I did while intoxicated. So I think that is all pretty straightforward.

(I am currently sitting on a grand jury, and about 11 out of every 10 cases we hear involve alcohol or drugs.)

The literal meaning of this precept is abstinence. A lot of people say to that, well, what is the harm in a single glass of wine? Thich Nhat Hanh says to that... if you skip the first glass, then you never get to the third one. That is the traditional, hard-line response. In Buddhist countries like Thailand, alcohol is not even available. (That is changing with Western tourism, and there are the inevitable loopholes.)

However, in some of the Buddha's discourses, there are only the first four precepts, so this one was probably a later addition. (It is hard to know what "later" means. The Buddha could have added it.) That does not make it any less important, it is just worth noting. And a somewhat different interpretation is that the fifth precept only applies to intoxication, not to simple consumption.

I cannot answer all of those questions for you. Clearly, if you choose to consume intoxicants, you must be careful about what you do. This applies particularly in our modern world where the Internet makes it so easy to engage in wrong conduct. The simplest route is complete abstinence. But at least be wary of your actions if you have consumed an intoxicant.


The ground for virtuous behavior is generosity. This provides the basis for the five lay precepts:

  1. Abstaining from killing.
  2. Abstaining from taking what is not freely given.
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct.
  4. Abstaining from false speech.
  5. Abstaining from the use of intoxicants.

Cultivating virtue is not just following some rules. It is about cultivating a wholesome state of mind. When the Dalai Lama is asked what his religion is, he says, "My religion is kindness". Without kindness, compassion, patience, understanding and wisdom, the rest of this practice is almost meaningless. If you only do one thing in this practice, cultivate virtue:

The scent of virtue

Is unsurpassed

Even by sandalwood, rosebay,

Water lily, and jasmine.

- [Dhp 55]