Relating to others constructively
Having understood our great potential, we become interested in what we can do to develop it. Which actions are beneficial? Which actions obscure our human beauty and interfere with our spiritual progress, and thus should be abandoned? The answers lie in the subject of ethics.
The Buddhist view on ethics is derived from the link between our actions and their effects. Actions are termed “negative” because they bring unpleasant results and “positive” because they result in happiness for both ourselves and others. Because we want happiness and we don’t want suffering, it’s wise to learn about and to live according to the functioning of cause and effect. Understanding the results which certain actions bring, we are then better able to decide how we wish to act.
As a guideline, the Buddha advised us to avoid ten actions because they destroy the happiness of ourselves and others. Three are physical: killing, stealing and unwise sexual behavior. Four are verbal: lying, slander, harsh words and idle talk. Three are mental: coveting others’ possessions, maliciousness and wrong views.
Three physical actions
Killing refers to taking the life of any living being. This is the most serious of the ten destructive actions, because it’s the most harmful to others. All beings, humans and animals alike, cherish their lives above all else. We may sometimes be presented with difficult situations in which it may seem advantageous to kill: our country is attacked, a person or animal threatens to harm our child, our house is infested with termites. If we think creatively, there are often other solutions besides taking another’s life: diplomacy rather than weapons can stop an aggressor, while trapping a threatening animal or knocking it unconscious stops the danger. As much as possible, we should avoid taking others’ lives.
Euthanasia and abortion are difficult issues. From a Buddhist perspective, they both involve taking life. Nevertheless, a clear-cut answer in a specific situation is rarely available. Such situations challenge our intelligence and our compassion. We must think deeply about the advantages and disadvantages to ourselves and others of all the alternatives, and do what we feel is best.
Stealing is taking what isn’t given. This ranges from armed robbery to borrowing something from a friend and not returning it. Avoiding paying taxes or fees we should pay is another form of stealing, as is taking things from our workplace for our personal use.
With a wish to avoid misusing others’ property, we’ll become more mindful of our attitude and actions towards others’ possessions. This is very useful and helps to prevent much conflict with those around us. In addition, others will trust us and be willing to loan us things. They also won’t be fearful that their things will disappear when we’re around.
Unwise sexual behavior chiefly refers to adultery: we’re involved in a relationship-whether we’re married or not-and have intercourse with someone else. If we’re single but our partner is involved with someone else, this is also unwise sexual behavior. Sexual activity that spreads disease or otherwise harms ourselves or others should be avoided.
Four verbal actions
Lying is deliberately saying what we know isn’t true. Although lying is chiefly a verbal action, it also can be done physically, through a nod or gesture. Not only does lying bring us harm in future lives, it also destroys our present relationships. If we lie, others won’t trust us even when we do tell the truth.
Sometimes we encounter delicate situations when telling the truth would hurt someone’s feelings. For example, our friends invite us for dinner and ask how we’re enjoying the meal. We think the food isn’t very good, but it would hurt them if we said this. However, if we answer by saying, “I really appreciate your care and concern in asking me over for supper. This food is cooked with love,” we’re both expressing our gratitude truthfully and avoiding lying about the taste of the food.
If an angry person with a gun asks us, “Where is Pat?” we would endanger Pat’s life by responding truthfully. Rather, we can avoid the question or give an irrelevant answer. As in all cases involving these ten destructive actions, we have to use our common sense!
Slandering others is frequently done out of jealousy. For example, we wish to get a promotion, so we criticize our colleagues to the boss. Or, if our good friend is now friends with someone else, we may want to break up their relationship. So, we tell each one about bad things the other has said. Words that cause disharmony in others’ relationships or prevent those who are already not getting along from reconciling are considered slander.
The disadvantages of divisive words are apparent. Others will soon discover what we’re up to and will cease being friendly. We’ll have the reputation of being a “trouble-maker,” and others will avoid us.
Harsh words include obvious actions such as shouting with anger, maliciously criticizing others and making fun of them. It also includes teasing if we’re seeking to hurt another or making someone else look foolish. Sometimes harsh words can be said with a smile, such as when we “innocently” say something we know another is sensitive about.
Although part of us may feel we’re justified in using harsh words, if we look deeper, are we happy with ourselves when we do? Although we may out-shout someone and barrage them until we win the argument, do we feel good about ourselves later? What kind of person are we if we’re happy when we embarrass someone or make him/her look stupid or inept? If we closely examine how we speak to others, we’ll discover why others sometimes don’t want to be in our company. However, if we develop respect for others and concern about their feelings, not only are we developing self-respect, but also others will be drawn towards us.
Idle talk is one of the principal ways in which we waste our time and create disturbances in others’ minds. Although we may lack time to attend a Dharma talk or to visit an irritable relative who is sick, we hardly ever lack time to talk about movie stars, sports, what the neighbors are doing, the latest cars and fashions. In the evening we’re too tired to meditate or to pay serious attention to what our child or spouse confides in us, but we can stay up late chatting about this and that.
Sometimes the more we talk about a problem, the more solid it becomes. What started out as a small difficulty becomes big in our minds after our friend has vouched for our position and assured us the other person is wrong. Then, when our friend tells someone else who in turn tells others, the small problem becomes enormous.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t discuss our problems or confide in others. Many times it’s helpful to get another person’s view on a situation. But when we seek our friend’s “advice” merely to validate our own position rather than to explore compassionate solutions to the problem, then the conversation has deteriorated into idle talk.
Nor is this to say that joking, laughing and having a good time are “bad”. Not at all! Discouraging idle talk is a call to develop good motivations for talking with people. If we laugh and chat only for our own amusement, we’re not using our life to its fullest. On the other hand, with concern for someone who is depressed, we can try to lift his or her spirits by laughing and talking about this and that. Sometimes we need to relax so we can engage in serious work again. At this time, we can chat with friends, still being conscientious not to disturb anyone’s mind with what we say.
Three mental actions
No one necessarily knows when we commit any of the three destructive mental actions. Nevertheless, they leave negative tendencies on our mindstreams. Coveting others’ possessions occurs when we notice someone’s desirable possession, and plan how to get it. We may think, “I’ll drop a hint about how nice this is and maybe she’ll give it to me. Or, I could flatter her and she’ll want to give me a gift.” Coveting makes us restless and may lead us to act or speak destructively. We would be happier if we trained ourselves to be content with our possessions and to rejoice at others’ fortune.
Maliciousness is cultivating ill will and the thought to harm another. We’re quite good at this. We may devise an intricate plan to revenge a wrong done to us, or we consider what to say to hurt someone and “put him in his place.” Sometimes we’re not even aware that our minds are engaged in malicious thoughts. We need to observe our thoughts carefully to know when we’re wishing others harm or rejoicing at their misfortune.
Having wrong views is denying the existence of something that exists or asserting the existence of that which is nonexistent. This applies to important topics that mold our entire outlook on life. For example, if we firmly think, “There is no rebirth,” and closed-mindedly refuse to listen to others’ opinions, then we have fallen into wrong views. Our present doubt about rebirth isn’t a wrong view, for we’re exploring new ideas and are open to others’ arguments. Wrong views occur when someone emphatically and antagonistically holds an erroneous philosophical or ethical view.
When we refrain from engaging in the ten destructive actions, we’re automatically practicing the ten constructive ones. As we become more aware of our behavior, our lives and the lives of the people around us will become much more peaceful. The world’s religions share a similar view of ethical conduct which revolves around abandoning these ten destructive actions.
It takes time to change our behavior. First we must learn to recognize the specific destructive action we do. Often, we aren’t aware of what we think, say and do, because we’re busy, distracted, proud or careless. Sometimes we don’t recognize until years later that we hurt someone.
After recognizing the destructive actions, effort is needed to refrain from doing them again. This is harder than it seems, for if we habitually act in a certain way, will-power alone isn’t sufficient to change our behavior. We must deeply understand the disadvantages of this behavior and repeatedly be attentive and try to avoid it. Many techniques for changing our destructive attitudes are found in Buddhist teachings. It’s useful to study and practice these in daily life. At first we may not be very successful, but with consistent yet gentle effort, we can change. In this process of self-cultivation, it’s important to be patient with ourselves.
Some people want to attain spiritual realizations, but they don’t want to change their daily actions. They lie and cheat others when it’s convenient, they gossip about irrelevant subjects and criticize the people they don’t like. Yet, they want to do advanced meditational practices and gain extraordinary powers.
In fact, they aren’t creating the causes to have realizations. If we can’t control our grossest actions-what we do and say to others-how can we expect to change our minds, which are the source of all of our actions? It’s much easier to control what we say and do than to control our negative emotions and attitudes. Thus we start by eliminating the three physical negative actions and the four verbal ones. Simultaneously we’ll put effort into avoiding the three destructive mental actions. With this as a foundation, we’ll be prepared to engage in more advanced practices. The Buddha said:
Benevolent and ethical,
With the positive potential from what they do,
The wise always find happiness
Here and in the beyond.