Introduction to Early Buddhist Ethics

“To summarize the Buddha’s observations just discussed, unwholesome/ unskillful thoughts are recognizable in terms of the following handy checklist:

They are grounded either in greed, in hatred or in delusion.
When they give rise to actions, those actions generally cause some degree of harm.
They give rise to mis-perception.
They cause personal suffering.
They subvert development along the Path.”


Refraining from every evil,
Accomplishing good,
Purifying the mind,
This is Teaching of Buddhas.
(Dhammapāda 183)

Seeing the complete awakening while seated in meditation as the Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, we often fail to recognize how thoroughly Buddhism is about ethics or virtue or morality. The Buddhist path creates saints before it creates awakened ones. Buddhism begins with ethics. Its preliminary teachings are ethical. Buddhist children learn generosity and harmlessness from toddlerhood. Ethics provides the foundation without which higher development of the mind is unattainable. Without the perfection of virtue awakening is impossible. Starting with ethics, we most easily understand the logic of the entire Buddhist path and of meditation and awakening.

The opening verse above, one of the most quoted from the Dhammapāda, itself the most read presectarian Buddhist text, gets to the heart of the matter. It enumerates the three distinct but interrelated systems of Buddhist ethics, and…

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Categories: Reflections

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