Ethics Notes

The Great Debate 5 mins per precept=33mins

To give you a better idea of these precepts we’re going to have a debate! We’re going to hear 5(?) people talk for 5 mins each about their favourite precept, and each is going to tell us why they think this is the most important one of the lot. Then we’re going to ask you to vote on which is in fact the most important.

[People need to talk about these in their own words. They need to both argue why their precept is the most important, and more importantly they need to cover the basics of what the positive and negative aspects imply. Introducing Buddhism might be helpful in knowing what needs to be covered, and we also have some ‘short talkettes on the precepts on the computer. Below I’ve tried to list the main points that need to be covered. This needs to be given to the people giving talks.]


Kindness, not cruelty

Positive: deeds of loving kindness

  • Expresses interconnectedness
  • Need to act, not just feel good to others
  • Starts with those closest, moves out from there

Negative: I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings.

  • As far as possible not killing or causing suffering, physical or mental.
  • Usually taken to rule out certain professions for Buddhists – fighting in armed forces, trading in arms, trading in meat products
  • Also professions which cause more subtle harm, advertising, promotes unnecessary craving, and causes suffering
  • Animals as well as humans.
  • Vegetarianism

Generosity, not grabbiness

Positive: with open-handed generosity

  • “The characteristic Buddhist virtue”
  • Can start with very small gifts – a lot of this in the Sangha
  • Includes giving time and energy
  • At its highest an expression of an overall approach to life – to see what is important in life as being how we can make a contribution, rather than what we can grab for ourselves.

Negative: I undertake the training principle of not taking the not-given

  • Includes stealing but goes beyond it
  • Includes any way we get from others what they don’t freely want to give
  • Could include using cunning, emotional manipulation, outwitting others, driving a hard bargain, exploiting others’ weakness
  • Might rule out many business practices that are accepted as quite normal!
  • Ultimately means avoiding a grasbbing mentality, always being about what we can get for ourselves.

Contentment, not craving.


Positive: with stillness, simplicity, and contentment

  • About freeing ourselves from ‘neurotic craving’
  • Neurotic craving vs healthy desire: craving for things that cannot satisfy the need we are experiencing, vs healthy desire for things that are real needs, like water, enough food, friendship, meaning in life.
  • Eg comfort eating because you don’t feel good about yourself – doesn’t satisfy the need, makes things worse
  • Epitomised by drug addiction – getting what we want just increases the craving
  • Treadmill analogy – the carrot can’t be caught, because happiness comes from inside
  • Buddhism tells us to step off the treadmill: cultivate contentment, value a simpler life
  • Often an attempt to fill an inner sense of emptiness, we experience unless our life is meaningful, and we are expressing our spiritual potential
  • Craving fuels the consumer society; getting beyond it is the solution to our environmental problems

Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from sexual misconduct.

  • Sex is singled out because it is the strongest craving for many people, and affects others; but really is about all craving
  • Buddhism is not judgemental about sexual activity, except insofar as it harms us or others
  • Does not say sex is ‘bad’, or make judgements about masturbation, sex ‘out of wedlock’ or homosexuality
  • But we should avoid harming ourselves by stoking up our sexual craving – will prevent us experiencing peace of mind; (sometimes said men think about sex every 2 mins (or so) – if this were true, men could never experience any contentment, stillness or peace of mind!)
  • For this reason abstaining from sex can be a useful practice – permanently for monastics, or for periods of retreat for ‘lay’ Buddhists
  • We should also avoid harming others by our sexual activity – for example by having sex with a member of a settled couple, or by entering into relationships where there are very unequal expectations (eg where you want casual sex and the other wants a life partner, or vice versa)
  • The precept includes all forms of craving, not just sex; indulging neurotic craving for food, drink, drugs, tobacco, fashionable clothes, gadgets, consumer goodies, bigger houses or more glamorous cars.
  • We need to free ourselves from a lifestyle of craving, of looking for satisfaction where it cannot be found, in external things; we need to see the beauty and value of a simple life; this is the solution to the worlds environmental crisis.

Honesty, authenticity and straightforwardness, not concealment

Positive: Truthful communication

  • If we watch our speech, we see that we often carry on a public relations campaign for ourselves; we are our own pr agent, spinning the facts to make us look good, or victimised or interesting, or right; and to avoid blame, or ever being in the wrong
  • This forces us to wear a mask, which is stressful, and cuts us off from others; a lot of our unhappiness comes from the fact that we are not being genuine
  • Dropping the mask is a great relief, and makes for deeper relationships – nobody can be friends with a mask, no matter how perfect!

Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from false speech

  • Not just about telling whoppers
  • Includes all the exaggeration, distortion and spin we use as our own pr agent
  • Main point not about ‘white lies’ – most of our distortion is just about our own ego
  • Demands a lot of moment-to moment awareness – often our snap response is to avoid blame etc – so good starting point for 5th precept
  • Sounds risky, but people respect and trust those who admit faults, have integrity, and can be trusted

Awareness, not escapism

Positive: With mindfulness clear and radiant

  • Mindfulness a Buddhist term for being present in our experience, present to the world – could just be called awareness
  • Buddhism is about increasing awareness; without awareness we cannot be in the gap, we are on automatic pilot, not in charge of our own life
  • We need awareness to practice any of the other precepts
  • We cultivate awareness by meditation, by paying attention to our bodies, our minds, other people, and the world around us

Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from becoming intoxicated by drink and drugs that cloud the mind

  • If we want to cultivate awareness, we need to avoid the things that destroy awareness
  • In the Buddhas time the main ways of destroying awareness were drink and drugs – now we have invented many more!
  • So drink and drugs are singled out, but they are just part of it
  • Buddhism does not necessarily demand complete abstinence, although many people take this as a practice
  • But we need to accept that habitual use of drink or drugs will dull our awareness, and limit our progress
  • Social drinking a big feature of our society, and the precept doesn’t mean that unless we become abstemious teetotallers right now we cannot practice the dharma – the precepts are not absolutist commandments, they are training principles, which we take at our own pace.
  • The significance of the precept should extend to everything we use to escape from reality: it could include habitual mindless TV, internet surfing, and excessive input of all sorts

Tell Vajratara’s hermit/girl/goat/beer story? (Part of the oral tradition.)