by Ven. Thubten Gyatso

For those without religious beliefs, such as myself, traditional Western morality received a battering during the sixties when to do good and avoid evil was seen as an unreasonable imposition preventing us from enjoying ourselves. Seeing the apparent miserable lives of our parents, teachers, politicians, and religious identities, we rejected the idea that society could judge what was good or bad for us and we invented our own anti-authoritarian law of behaviour: "If it feels good, do it."

Indulgence in pleasure, however, proved difficult to maintain, and when confronted by the misery of broken relationships and the horrors of ill-health, addiction, mental instability, and death, the love, love, love generation began to question its ethics. The attraction of Buddhism to many Westerners in those days was the teaching that suffering is a natural result of selfish behaviour; this was our direct experience and we could not deny it. Also, within Buddhism, there is no authority saying that one must do this or not do that. Buddha simply explained the way it is and left the decision to modify one's behaviour up to oneself because true morality is a pure state of mind that must come from within, it cannot be imposed by law or force.

In Buddhism, the essential meaning of morality is behaviour free from actions that harm humans, animals, or any other sentient life-form. Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are the common physical actions that harm others. Most frequently, the harm caused by sexual misconduct is to the third person when, through selfishness, we knowingly break up a committed relationship. Lying, slander, abuse, and idle gossip are the main verbal actions that hurt others; and all seven of these actions stem from the three mental actions of covetousness, maliciousness, and holding mistaken ideas.

Self-centred ignorance, attachment, and anger are deeply rooted in our minds and we cannot transform them into virtue overnight, so Buddha taught various ways of attaining pure morality through self-restraint from harmful actions. The foundation of Buddhist morality is to see these disturbing emotions as illnesses and to see the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as the doctor, medicine, and a nurse. Just as a good doctor accurately diagnoses the problem, Buddha explained how suffering comes from actions motivated by the three disturbing emotions. Just as one must take the medicine prescribed by the doctor, the Dharma cures the problem when one abandons harmful actions through cultivating wisdom, loving kindness, and renunciation. And just as one relies upon nurses to recuperate from an illness, one relies upon the Sangha for support and inspiration while practising Dharma.

Thus the beginning of morality is the intention to avoid these ten non-virtuous actions. The next step is to make a promise to avoid them, either for a short period or for the remainder of one's life. Buddha gave five vows for lay-people to take if they wish: to avoid killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants. The first four are naturally non-virtuous actions. Sexual relations with one's own partner, in moderation, is not naturally non-virtuous, nor is taking intoxicants, but one is given the opportunity to avoid intoxicants because when one loses judgment through drunkenness one easily performs the naturally non-virtuous actions. A good indication of our minds is that, initially, most Western lay Buddhists only take the first three vows. Over time, however, they add the next two.

The next level of voluntary restraint from non-virtue is the various levels of ordination. The vows of monks and nuns include complete celibacy and abstinence from alcohol. There is no such thing as a married monk as is commonly supposed, especially here in Mongolia. The word "Lama" means teacher and, in Tibet, it properly refers only to those who are qualified spiritual guides, and Lamas can be either ordained or lay people. Thus Lamas are not necessarily ordained, and ordained people are not necessarily Lamas.

The vows of monks and nuns are mainly to abstain from physical and verbal non-virtue, which is relatively easy compared to abstaining from mental non-virtue. Nevertheless, pure morality must be free from even the thought to do harm, and to achieve this, Buddha gave special instruction to the few who, at the time, were capable of doing so. These teachings are called the Mahayana, the Universal Vehicle. "Universal" refers to bodhicitta, the altruistic attitude of universal responsibility to rescue all living beings from suffering, which is the basis of the next two levels of voluntary restraint.

Bodhicitta vows involve restraint from physical, verbal, and mental non-virtue and are the means by which one emulates the path to enlightenment followed by the Buddha himself. Finally, there are the Tantric vows, mostly to abandon mental non-virtues, the hardest of all to maintain, and the most secret because tantric practice is easily misunderstood, again I have to say, especially here in Mongolia. The secrecy is not a manifestation of selfishness, it is to protect those who are not yet ready to understand from mistaken interpretations that could be extremely harmful to themselves and others.

If any group of people, any society, is to be at peace, there must be the morality of not harming each other. Buddhism is not a doctrine for society, the teachings are aimed at the individual because pure morality can only come from within. Nevertheless, if enough individuals are cultivating pure morality there will be peace and happiness no matter what the economic situation. Wealth, economic growth, and technological advance are not shunned by Buddhism, just as long as our priorities are in order - the inner growth and wealth of morality, wisdom, and altruism must come first.



This teaching is by the Venerable Thubten Gyatso (previously Dr Adrian Feldmann), an Australian monk and old friend now working in Mongolia. One of the senior students of Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche (and also Geshe Roach) he is currently teaching at the FPMT centre in Ulaan Baatar. These teachings originally appeared in his local English language newspaper in Ulaan Baatar and arereproduced with his permission.

Thanks to Diane Olander (, these teachings first appeared on the Internet on the website ( of
The Jangchub Gepel Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies,
6960 Highway 9, Felton, CA 95018, Tel: 01 (831) 335 1217
where you can find many more teachings and other interesting material.

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