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Articles Taken from LUMBINI magazine, November 1998, volume 1:

Buddhist Ethics
Peter Harvey, University of Sunderland

The Buddhist path essentially comprises cultivation of three aspects of one's character:

i)      bodily and verbal conduct, so as to act in a more morally and spiritually wholesome or skilful way: virtue
ii)     the way one's mind or heart works, which can be refined and calmed by meditation: meditation
iii)    one,s understanding of the nature of reality, which is seen to improve as progress in meditation develops, and insights based on this can arise: wisdom.

Each of these helps in the process of gradually overcoming greed, hatred and delusion, the key roots of suffering in the human psyche. Virtue is seen as a good foundation of the other two aspects of the path, though it is also strengthened and deepened by them. This is because unwholesome actions strengthen the hindrances to meditative success: desire for sense-pleasures, ill-will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and vacillation. Behaving in a more skilful way helps to restrain such hindrances, so aiding meditative development, which in turn weakens the hindrances, and so aids virtuous behaviour.

The key elements of 'virtue' (sila) are the cultivation of generosity, so as to be more open-hearted, and seeking to follow the 'five precepts'. The precepts are in the form of five undertakings, or promises to oneself, which are often formally chanted, e.g. in the Pali language, on a daily basis: 'I undertake the rule of training to abstain from'

1. injury to living beings.

2. taking what is not given.

3. misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.

4. false speech.

5. unmindful states due to alcoholic drink or drugs.

These are guidelines for anyone seeking to live in a harmonious way, seeking to avoid harming others. The key rationale given for them is: you would not like such behaviour inflicted on you, so do not inflict it on any other being, as all, like you, wish to be happy and free from pain.

In seeking to follow the precepts, a practitioner is not encouraged to 'feel guilty' when falling short of them. Rather, it is better to mindfully notice the effect of doing so, and resolve to try and do better in the future.

A form of meditation which directly works on one's attitudes is that which seeks to cultivate lovingkindness to oneself, others, and all living beings. This focuses on overcoming any antipathy towards any being, and rousing the deep aspiration for their true happiness. To aid this process, certain reflections are recommended to help undermine ill-will and aversion:

a) In a situation of hostility, two people are likely to wish each other harm and discomfort. But if one bears resentment to another, or reacts with anger to their acts, one is oneself bringing immediate harm to oneself by the mental and physical tension, disquiet and pain of these emotions. They tighten up the stomach, agitate the heart and disperse any calm that is there, throwing one off balance.

b) Think of an angry reaction in the following ways:
- it is like picking up a stick to hit someone with, but finding it is alight and smeared with cow muck, so one burns oneself (with anger) and gets a bad smell (inner tension, which one radiates to one's environment).
- it is like throwing dust at someone, when the wind is blowing towards one: some might fall on them, but one certainly gets covered oneself!

c) While another person can directly injure your body, they can only injure your mind indirectly. They provide a stimulus that you may choose to respond to. That is, for someone to 'make' you angry, you have to co-operate with them to some degree. It is possible, though, to learn to take more responsibility for one's emotions, and learn not to respond with anger, but retain one's centre of balance (but try to avoid doing so in a smug way: 'you can't wind me up - so there!').

d) The Buddha taught that anger could be conquered and dissolved by lovingkindness: a mind with strong lovingkindness cannot be raised to anger any more than one can set fire to a river! Once, he was abused by a man who was irritated that his wife was not at home as she was listening to the Buddha speak. After a torrent of abuse, at which the Buddha remained calm, the man asked why he did not respond in kind. The Buddha replied that, while the man had brought him a generous 'gift' (anger), he had all he wanted, so the 'gift' should return to the donor! At another time, Devadatta, the Buddha's jealous cousin, tried to kill him by getting a bull elephant drunk and getting it to charge down a road towards the Buddha. The latter fearlessly stood his ground, though, radiating lovingkindness to the charging elephant.
In response, it came to a halt and bowed its head, for the Buddha to stroke.

e)   In reflecting on a 'hostile' person, one can reflect that, if they did something against you, say, last week, they are a somewhat different person now, in a different frame of mind, for the mind and moods change all the time. Thus, in a certain sense, the person you dislike no longer exists.

f) On the other hand, one might draw on the idea of past rebirths (seen as countless), and reflect that everyone one comes across has, in some past life, been a close relative or friend and been very good to one: so 'remember' this and return kindness now.

g) One can also reflect that every person and being you will ever come across is like you in wanting to be happy and free from suffering. In this respect, we are all the same. So bear this in mind, and wish a 'hostile' person what you wish yourself.

h) In reflecting on those who irritate you, focus on their good side, not their bad side. If you cannot find any good side, then have compassion for them: they must be really screwed up, and will suffer accordingly.

i) The Buddha once said that 'this mind/heart is brightly shining, but it is defiled by defilements which arrive (from mishandling how we respond to objects of the senses and mind)'. He then went on to say that the slightest development of lovingkindness is of the greatest benefit. This seems to imply that the seeds of lovingkindness are already latent in the shining depths of the heart. They are there for us to develop, and also in others, however apparently deeply buried by bad attitudes and faults.

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