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Buddhist Ethics: Selflessness and Self-Transformation

Buddhist Ethics: Selflessness and Self-Transformation


Ethics is one of the most important themes in Buddhist literature, both in philosophical texts and texts that are more practice orientated. The way to conduct

ourselves so that we do not harm ourselves and others, and also how to lead a good life are as prominent in the Buddha’s teachings as are the instructions on meditation and wisdom. In fact, ethics is considered to be the foundation required for success in meditation practice, and meditation in turn is considered a pre-requisite for developing wisdom. This structure of ethics, meditation, and wisdom is found in an eight century text by the Indian Buddhist master Śāntideva, titled A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra). In this essay I will be using this text, which is arguably the most important ethical text in Mahāyāna Buddhism, to emphasize what I consider three of the most important characteristics of Buddhist ethics: (1) that the mental domain is most important, (2) that in the central ethical problem is confusion, (3) and that the solution to this problem is wisdom.

Buddhist ethics and the mental domain

These days in popular culture it is common for people to be judged in a moral light based upon not only the things they do, but also the consequences of these actions. For example, someone who drives recklessly might be thought of as merely irresponsible if his or her actions do not harm anyone. However, if the person driving recklessly happens to injure or even kill another person, then this act of driving recklessly is perceived much more negatively and the driver is seen as a bad person. If a Buddhist ethicist were to be asked to comment on the above scenario he would most probably first ask, “What was the motivation of the driver?” For when it comes to ethical problems, Buddhists are more concerned with motivations behind acts than with their immediate consequences. It matters in Buddhist ethics whether the driver was driving recklessly with intent to harm another or not. While the consequences also are important, it is the mental domain that counts most in Buddhist ethics.

The importance of motivation and mindfulness when engaging in any activity is reinforced again and again by Śāntideva in his A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. For example, Śāntideva states,


The Knower of Reality has said

That even if recitation and physical hardships

Are practiced for long periods of time,

They will be meaningless if the mind is distracted elsewhere. (5:16)


Nowhere else is this more emphasized in the Buddhist texts than in discussion on ethics. The fact that Buddhist ethics prioritizes the mental domain over consequences might be surprising to someone who understands the importance of karmic theory in Buddhist ethics. The Buddhist notion of karma is a type of moral cause and effect. It might be thought that based on the theory of karma, Buddhist ethics is primarily concerned with actions and their consequences. While it is true that consequences are important, a deeper understanding of karmic theory as explained in the Abhidharma texts such as those of Vasubandhu, associates karma primarily with mental action.

The importance placed on the motivation of an act over and above the results is highlighted in the famous verses on generosity found in the Chapter Five of Śāntideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,


If the perfection of generosity

Were the alleviation of the world’s poverty,

Then since beings are still starving now,

In what manner did the previous Buddhas perfect it? (5:9)


Here Śāntideva is making the point that if we think about ethics in terms of the results then we should understand the generosity of the Buddhas to be imperfect, since there are still people today who live in poverty. Śāntideva continues,


The perfection of generosity is said to be

The thought to give all beings everything,

Together with the fruit of such a thought;

Hence it is simply a state of mind (5:10)

Here Śāntideva explains that we can think of the generosity of the Buddhas as perfect in the sense that they would be always willing to give under any circumstance when needed. Śāntideva makes a clear argument for understanding ethical practice such as generosity through the motivation of the ethical agent. Giving is the first of the six perfections, or paramitas, and Buddha encourages disciples to pursue the practice of giving because it is a source of temporal happiness. However, this practice does not just refer to physical acts, but most importantly it is a mental act. For example, if one is practicing generosity without caring, love, and compassion from one’s heart then such giving is not considered true generosity.

In Chapter Six of his A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Śāntideva next turns to another ethical practice, that of patience. He explains that this ethical practice is about restraining the mind rather than making attempts to manipulate the physical world. He uses a powerful analogy to make this point,


Where would I possibly find enough leather

With which to cover the surface of the earth?

Yet (wearing) leather just on the soles of my shoes

Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.


Likewise, it is not possible for me

To restrain the external course of things;

But should I restrain this mind of mine

What would be the need to restrain all else? (5:13-14)


As a Buddhist, one cultivates the wish to give or share one’s belonging and merits with others, even though it will never be enough to meet the needs of the countless people who need help and assistance. Similarly, one cannot control the destructive acts of all others in the world, but one can work on controlling one’s own mind and one’s ensuing responses to the world. For example, it would be impossible to find enough leather to cover the entire world that is filled with thorns and sharp rocks, but if one wears a leather-soled shoe, then one’s feet are protected as if one had covered the entire world. So, although one cannot restrain all external phenomena, if one controls one’s mind then it is like controlling the acts of others. Thus, in Buddhism, it is more important to watch one’s mind than to attempt the fruitless effort to control our environment. As seen in Śāntideva’s discussion of the ethical acts of generosity and patience, time and again in Buddhist ethical texts it is emphasized that cultivating the qualities of our own mind is most important.

Confusion as the Buddhist ethical problem

If Buddhist ethics is primarily concerned with controlling the mental rather than the external domain, then the question of what causes destructive emotions, and why we have immoral intentions becomes important to answer. The Buddhist psychological texts answer this question by saying that all the destructive emotions which cause us to act in wrong and immoral ways come about because we are confused. We are confused about the source of genuine happiness. These texts take it as self-evident that everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer. However they explain that the things we think will make us happy actually brings us suffering. Śāntideva says,

Although wishing to be rid of misery,

They run towards misery itself.

Although wishing to have happiness,

Like an enemy they ignorantly destroy it. (1:28)


From a Buddhist perspective there is nothing wrong with desiring to be happy. The problem is that we are confused, or as Śāntideva puts it in the above verse, we are ignorant. He explains that even though we make efforts to be happy, these efforts actually bring us suffering because we act based on ignorance. That we act from confusion is an ethical problem because destructive behaviour according to Buddhism is rooted in destructive emotions which themselves are based in the more subtle afflictions of desire, aversion, and ignorance. When people harm others, it is not only from a place of mental disturbance, but also from confusion that thinks that somehow harming others will benefit themselves. On the relationship between confusion, afflictions, and ethics, Śāntideva says,


Thereby, through not having realized

That I shall suddenly vanish,

I committed so much wrong

Out of ignorance, lust and hate. (2:38)


In this way one commits many bad deeds out of attachment, hatred, and ignorance, and rather than bringing happiness this brings pain and discomfort. People believe that fulfilment of their desires will bring happiness. They believe that aversion is justified in that it is a source of protection. However, Buddhist psychological texts explain that the source of desire and confusion is ignorance. Since, desire and aversion is based in confusion acting upon them will not bring about happiness or the end of suffering. It is like drinking salty water. If one fails to correct the mind and destructive emotions, one will never see the cessation of suffering because negative actions cause all forms of pain and human anxieties. Without eliminating the negative emotions from the mind, the negative actions will never stop because these actions are caused by the mind and negative emotions.

Wisdom as the Ethical Solution in Buddhism

It might be thought that since negative deeds are based upon desire and aversion, then Buddhist ethical practice might focus on making efforts at restraining from engaging in deeds based upon these two forms of afflictions. This is true to a certain extent, and we find Śāntideva explaining practices of restraint in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. However, the ethical solution for Buddhists does not rest solely on the strengthening of the will, but relies primarily on developing wisdom. This makes sense since, as described above, the core ethical problem for Buddhists is confusion. Śāntideva explains,


Even those who wish to find happiness and overcome misery

Will wander with no aim nor meaning,

If they do not comprehend the secret meaning of the mind—

The paramount significance of Dharma (5:17)


Here Śāntideva explains that confusion, the source of afflictions and immorality, is a characteristic of those who have not cultivated their minds. To cultivate one’s mind means to develop wisdom. The particular wisdom being talked about here is insight into the causes of suffering and the genuine sources of happiness. The Buddhist teachings help us to understand that the nature of things is that they are impermanent and selfless. This has definite ethical implications. The understanding that things are impermanent counteracts that belief that if we can obtain the things that we desire then we will be happy, and also explains why our desires, when focused on external impermanent things, can never be fulfilled. From this knowledge comes the understanding that if our happiness relies upon these things, then it too will be impermanent and unsatisfactory. The teaching on selflessness helps to reduce our self-grasping, which is the seed for mental afflictions such as pride, jealousy, and the view that divides the world into me and other.

This knowledge transforms the way we see the world from a world in which happiness is dependent upon external things and wherein I am in competition with others for these limited resources, into a world in which I understand happiness as an internal resource to be developed. This is also a world in which I feel a much closer connection with others, and also have insight into why they suffer and hurt others. As Śāntideva says,


Whatever joy there is in this world

All comes from desiring others to be happy,

And whatever suffering there is in this world

All comes from desiring myself to be happy. (8:129)

It is only through practice of love and compassion and wanting honestly to work for the happiness of all others that we ourselves can be happy. When someone works to obtain happiness in their own self-interest, they never truly experience happiness and only those who dedicate themselves to the happiness of others enjoy genuine happiness, free of expectations for themselves.

Buddhist texts explain that since we are so habituated to the confusion which engenders within us pride, jealousy, anger etc., becoming a moral agent requires a total transformation of the way we see ourselves in the world, and particularly how we see ourselves in relation to others. Śāntideva says,


Hence virtue is perpetually feeble,

The great strength of immorality being extremely intense,

And except for a Fully Awakened Mind

By what other virtue will it be overcome? (1:6)

In Buddhism, one is encouraged to abandon selfishness and cultivate the mind of awakening because we can observe in our lives that people who possess a strong attachment to self undergo much suffering. Thus, if one gives rise to bodhichitta or the mind of awakening, one is able to not only overcome the problem of selfishness, but also one automatically gains the respect and love of those around us.

Śāntideva explains the foundational attitude that is central to the type of wisdom which results in a transformation of the way we see ourselves in relation to others. He says,

First of all, I should make an effort

To meditate upon the equality between self and others.

I should protect all beings as I do myself

Because we are all equal in (wanting) pleasure and (not wanting) pain. (8:90)


First we dissolve the division we have mentally created between ourselves and others by thinking that we are all the same in that we do not want to suffer and we wish to be happy. This attitude creates the foundation so that we can start to relate to others and start to shift our focus from concern for ourselves to concern for others. With practice we can expand our self-cherishing so that it encompasses all beings. In this way, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the insights gained into the interdependent and selfless quality of things in the world are put into practical application by training the mind to think in ways that counteract the confusion, which is the source of both our unethical behaviour and our personal suffering.


The discussion of Buddhist ethics is intimately connected with the Buddhist soteriological project, which is the liberation from suffering. As with the Buddhist concern in general, the primary concern of Buddhist ethics is the mental domain. Buddhist ethicists are most interested in motivations for acting rather than the outcomes of their acts. As we saw, Śāntideva interpreted the highest form of generosity not in terms of the effectiveness of the act of giving, but in terms of the intention behind the giving. People’s motivations can give us insights into the level of concern for themselves in relation to their concern for others. A high level of concern for ourselves is an indication of a specific type of confusion about the source of suffering and happiness. I have argued in this paper that confusion is a moral problem because it is the fuel for people’s selfishness and other destructive emotions. Moreover, since the moral problem for Buddhists is confusion I have further argued that the moral solution is wisdom. This wisdom is an insight into the nature of things that understands them in such a way that our mistaken conceptions about the sources of suffering and happiness are corrected. It is in this way that our new view of the world transforms us into moral agents who, rather than feel competitive with others, consider their concerns as our own.

Work Cited

Śāntideva. (2005) A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Trans. Stephen Batchelor. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.