Q: What is the role of morality in Buddhist practice?

A: In the most fundamental sense, morality means action that is based on intentions reflecting love and compassion for yourself and others. The philosopher George Santayana said morality is the desire to lessen suffering in the world.

From the Buddhist point of view, morality is about living in harmony with insights or understandings that we've gained through clear seeing--say, from insight we might get into our interdependence, that our actions do matter and have consequences. Through Buddhist practice, we can come to see that when we act based on greed or anger, there is a negative vibratory tone that permeates the action and its consequences, whereas when we act from intentions based in love or compassion, the outcome is very different.

The Buddha's teachings on morality were completely revolutionary in the context of the social structure of India during his life. The worldview up to that time was based on a caste system where everything and everybody belonged to a certain category. So it was the duty--or what was referred to as the "dharma"--of Brahmin males to study scripture and impart religious teachings, while it was the dharma of other people to produce food. What was morally appropriate for one caste or gender was considered inappropriate and immoral for someone of another. It was deemed forbidden for most people to even study religious teachings.

Then the Buddha came along and said the thing that determines what's moral or immoral is not wealth or birth or gender but the intention behind an action--as he said, "Brahmins are known not by birth but by deed." The only status that matters is personal goodness. That challenged the entire social structure of India. And it's a challenge to us.

Intention is a hugely important thing for us to understand. It is said to be the seed of karma, the juice, the potency, the energy of an action. Only we ourselves can know the intention behind our actions. One action could be coming from any number of different motivations within us and only we, with mindfulness and honesty, can really know which it is the source.

Say I reached down, picked up a book and gave it to you. An observer would only see a hand moving an object and know that the action was originated with me. But I might be motivated by the thought, "You have a book I really want and if I give you this one, you might give me that one." Or I might be standing in front of a room full of people and want them to think I'm a generous person. Or I might really like you and really like the book and want to give it to you. Giving is not just a matter of a hand moving forward with an object.

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The Buddhist code of ethics--in particular, the five precepts of 1) not killing, 2) not stealing, 3) not engaging in sexual misconduct that results in harm to self or others, 4) not engaging in wrong speech (namely lying), and 5) not taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness--is seen not as a set of laws or commandments, but rather as a set of training tools for awareness. In Buddhism, morality is considered the basis for the path of liberation. If we live cleaner, clearer lives, we won't be beset by guilt and self-recrimination. In that sense, the teachings on ethics are also guidelines for developing self-esteem.

People wonder what the relationship between morality and meditation is. If you practice morality, it will help your meditation practice inestimably. We are not divided beings. We are the same people on the cushion that we are in the marketplace. It's just not possible to tell lies all day and come and sit on the meditation pillow and believe you're following the path of seeking truth. Living by the precepts enables us to create a spaciousness inside, and allows us to stop fretting about what unskillful things we might be doing.

At the same time, meditation helps immensely with moral expression. It helps us get in touch with ourselves and to use restraint without feeling repressed. For instance, we can learn to keep from opening our mouths before saying something harmful. When we feel the urge to use harsh speech, we watch it and let it go. As the Buddha said, if you truly loved yourself, you'd never harm another. The pairing of meditation and moral practice is a great act of coming into harmony with your love of yourself.

Even if you're not using morality and the precepts as means to liberation, as the Buddha would say, "Try it out." So many of us like to take risks and skirt the edge, but we rarely do it when it involves behaving in a more moral fashion. When I returned to live in the States after studying in India, we brought one of our teachers over to instruct several hundred students.

We were all very excited about the Dharma taking root in the West. But the teacher's reaction was that many Dharma students in the West were like people sitting in a rowboat, rowing with great sincerity and enthusiasm for a journey, but who were unwilling to untie the boat from the dock. They wanted a transcendent experience, but were not willing to look at how they must change their lives in order to do so.

Sometimes I suggest to my students that they take any one of the precepts and see how it works, how it infuses their life and that it's really a tool for greater awareness. Experiment and see what happens when you fumble, how it feels if you break the precept. What are the consequences? How does it feel when you recommit to the precept? It's a powerful and interesting exercise.

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