Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 8

Part 7 here.

The fourth fold of the noble eight-fold path is the most explicit ethical commandment in Buddhism.
And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.  (Saccavibhanga Sutta)
Some consider the fourth fold to be the "Five Precepts" of Buddhism:
  1. Refrain from destroying living beings.
  2. Refrain from stealing.
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. Refrain from false speech.
  5. Refrain from intoxicants, which lead to heedlessness.
Abstaining from taking life has myriad ramifications.  Buddhists generally agree that killing a living thing that breathes is to break this precept.  The following activities are therefore prohibited:
  • Killing insects, rodents, etc.
  • Eating meat.  Though contradictions and qualifiers abound (see here for details).  Neither the historical Buddha nor the current Dalai Lama are known to be vegetarians.
  • Engaging in violence which could be fatal, even defensively.  In other words, to be a Buddhist is to be a pacifist..  One cannot shoot to kill, so becoming a policeman or a soldier is to violate this precept.
  • Abortion
  • Euthanasia
Regarding euthanasia, I found a rather deluded (as it considers the effect it has for future lives) argument by a Buddhist teacher.  Notice the word "temporarily" in the first sentence, which I found quite amusing because it so boldly assumes reincarnation.
"'Mercy killing' temporarily reduces a being's level of misery, but it might interfere with his or her spiritual evolution toward enlightenment. Such actions are not real compassion, but what I would call sentimental compassion. Even if a person asks us to help in her suicide, unless this would promote her spiritual development, it would not be appropriate for us to assist her. And who of us has the ability to see whether such an action would in fact be conducive to to a person's greatest welfare?" (Reb Anderson)
Abstaining from stealing is not very controversial and communities all over the world prohibit taking without permission what belongs to someone else.

Abstaining from illicit sex means complete celibacy for monks (as is usual in most religions), and abstaining from premarital or extra-marital sex for householders:
He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.  (Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta)
 Abstaining from lying is already covered in the third fold ("Right Speech").

Abstaining from consuming liquors and drugs because they cause "heedlessness" is perhaps good advice.   Consuming alcohol has become an essential aspect of social life in the west, especially if one is trying to find a mate, though one can infrequently find an individual who does not drink at all.

Like all religions, Buddhism has its set of do's and don'ts.  Unlike most religions, however, Buddhist precepts are rather more suited to monastic life than to worldly life.  Buddhist states (like Tibet) have been easily annexed by invaders because of their pacifism.

Without a firm belief in reincarnation and the validity of the concept of Nirvana, it is going to be an uphill battle for an individual to follow such strict rules for living.

Many Buddhist regions allow monk-hood for a minor child, who is then indoctrinated about desires being bad etc and about celibacy being the right path.  I consider that child abuse, one which can lead to severe neurosis when that child grows up to be an adult.

I believe that the Buddhist conception of all desires as born of ignorance rather than serving useful evolutionary or social purposes is the rationale behind these precepts.  The noble eight-fold path is also sometimes called the "middle path" which avoids the extremes of extreme sensuality and extreme self-mortification.  It is an improvement upon both extremes, but it is still quite rudimentary and firm-edged.

Situational intelligence is far more important.  Modern Buddhist teachers do stress upon compassion as being the guiding force of one's acts.  However, the fact remains that the fourth fold of the noble eight-fold path lists specific prohibitions which in some cases are not compassionate at all (say, the prohibitions on euthanasia and abortion), and which are in some cases quite silly (e.g. the prohibition on killing insects).

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