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"Who is not naturally endowed with the Dharma-nature?"

I have heard some people say that since Zen says we must be grounded in the place where there is no right and wrong, it follows that Zen has no ethical application. But such logic is very limited. Zen Buddhist experience reveals the harmony and the precious individuality of all beings. If this experience is not applied in the world, then our practice collapses upon itself."  -  Robert Aitken Roshi

    Ethics are important in both psychotherapy and Buddhist practice.   Our fundamental nature is ethical in itself.   "This is, because that is," the Buddha declared.  Similarly, a Tibetan verse says, "Unalterable are the laws of karma -  cause and effect cannot be escaped".   In the Buddhist teachings, the sphere of action that we call 'intention', is a special case of the universe's laws of cause and effect.   Joseph Goldstein, a buddhist teacher, says that the Buddha called this fact "the light of the world", because it illumines why things are the way they are.  At the same time it awakens us to our connectedness to all beings.

    Things are the way they are because we think the way we do -  intentions are present in all actions.  Consider, then, the pleas of "I didn't mean it", or "I didn't mean to hurt you", and so on -  but just how can an act exist without an intending consciousness present, no matter how dim?   Impossible.  Consciousness always carries a movement toward some effect.   What might be a more appropriate response might be  "I don't know why I did, said or thought X".  The understanding of karma (to the extent that it is ever understood) helps us greatly, and gives us inspiration to let go of self-destructive ways.  It is a teaching about life's creativity, and the possibility of constantly "beginning anew" in the process of awakening to what has never been far away -  Universal Creativity. 

    It's important to stress about Buddhist ideas of karma, then, that they do not mean that our happiness or suffering is predetermined.  These teachings stress the freedom that we have to change our lives, to make them more harmonious and free of suffering.  Of course, every act of body, speech and thought is the universe unfolding what is enfolded, and each act is a folding back into the weave of the universe.   Another concept in Tibetan Buddhism is that we have been acting in the ways we do -   with greed, hatred and igorance -  "since beginningless time".  I think this gives a flavour of this immeasurable process of karma, but also of Universal Creativity.  Also, if we have no vision of karma, then we have no dependable basis for ethical action.  (Zen students can to refer to the 2nd case in the Mumonkan for a vision of this).

    On a more general note, the origin of the word 'evil' is instructive from the point of view of the Practice of the Self:  it means, 'exceeding due limits'.  I find it useful myself to think of this as meaning not being in harmony with the way things are -  that is, with the Dharma, the Logos, the Tao, or God, or the Univeral order of things -  whatever you name it.  What is not in the order of things, whatever goes against the kosmic harmony as it expresses itself in the depth of our human life -  that is 'evil'.  To understand the true relation of ethical practice, then, is to penetrate to the heart of human life, not to be caught up in the mere shadows of social conventions, or ancient instinctual reactions.   To act harmfully is to go against our own nature.  So: are precepts, commandments and so on, mere social control?

    Speaking from the point of view of Zen, some people say that Zen is beyond ethics, and that therefore precepts are not relevant to Zen practice.   I suggest that this is incorrect understanding -  between practice and Truth there isn't a hairs-breadth of difference. The relationship of morality to Zen practice is better expressed by Zen master Dogen, that "To avoid mistakes, and keep off evils, constitutes the study and practice of the Way.  Indeed, [Tsung-che's] saying that the precepts be given priority is already the treasury of the true Dharma eye."  And he says:  "Who is not naturally endowed with the Dharma-nature?  Yet you must follow the sutras and teachers as far as you realise the fruit of wisdom." 

    Buddhist practice, then, like psychotherapy, doesn't require slavish adherance to moral rules, but it does require a precise inner discipline,  both in the commonly recognised sense of 'voluntary restraint' -  a letting go of actions, speech and thoughts that are harmful to the happiness of beings -  and also in the sense in which the word 'discipline' means 'learning'.  A flexible, clear, unburdened mind is one that can learn about the totality of the human condition.



    I include in this site some possible models of ethical guidelines in case readers are developing such in their community, and/or if you are in need of a framework to help you think about spiritual community, and/or if you are evaluating a spiritual guide that you are presently practicing with, or intending to practice with.   Do not be afraid to assess your teachers -  help them be better teachers by witnessing their teaching practice.

     Certainly, even if one disagrees with the specifics of the models or guidelines that I include here, the spirit of openness and non-harm that is evident in these documents is crucial. May all human beings find the support they need to know themselves fully.


Some Models of Ethical Guidelines.  The following documents are just a few that I have found on the net -  each offering a slightly different emphasis on ethical guidelines. 

At the end of 1999 the Diamond Sangha Teachers' Circle formulated a statement on teachers' ethical responsibilities -  Ethics Agreement -  as a guide for their Zen communities.

Institute for Buddhist Analysis and Psychotherapy (IBAP) Code of Ethics  I've included their compaints procedures, though it's not as directly relevant to this page's immediate theme, but interesting just the same. 

Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides This text has been taken from the web site for the 'Council on Spiritual Practices' ( I don't know anything about the Council, so I'm not in a position to recommend them, but this document is useful in that it speaks for the welfare of spiritual practitioners. If you are thinking about how we may protect spiritual practice from misuse and abuse, and how we might hence preserve these support systems, then I commend it to you, hoping that you find something of value here.

images/tnh.jpg (9636 bytes)The Five Wonderful Precepts for the Welfare of All Beings.  These are commentaries by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, on the Buddhist Five Precepts, or Five Mindfulness Trainings, :

The first precept - Reverence for Life;
The second precept - Generosity;
The third precept - Sexual Responsibility;
The fourth precept - Deep Listening and Loving Speech;
The fifth precept  - Diet for a Mindful Society

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist Monk whose work as a peace activist in Vietnam during the war led to his exile from his homeland.   For his work for peace he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.  He now lives in the south of France, and leads meditation and mindfulness retreats throughout the world.  His teachings emphasise the importance of mindfulness of breathing during our daily activities.   Thich Nhat Hanh also lays special emphasis on these five Buddhist precepts for protection and nurturance of our basic human goodness.  He has translated into English many texts of fundamental importance in Buddhist practice.  These are published by Parallax press.

Thich Nhat Hanh started a Buddhist community (or 'Sangha') named "Order of Interbeing" to provide an environment for lay-people to practice some form of engaged Buddhism. The 14 Precepts of that community are profound and beautiful and can be found on the following page: The Order of InterBeing.

See also: Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Open Letter to the Buddhist Community concerning ethical standards of Western Buddhist Teachers.


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