What is Buddhist Ethics?

Buddhist Ethics is the training in virtuous conduct beloved by the Noble Ones. Its core principle is non-cruelty: the abstaining from all intentional harm.

The most gross forms of cruelty are the ethical precepts common to all Buddhists and to most other religions besides: the renunciation of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxication. The Buddha’s instructions, however, continue far beyond such perennial philosophy: to guarding the senses, the development of positive moral character, and (eventually) to the complete eradication of the underlying tendencies towards greed, hatred and delusion which cause cruelty in the first place.

The Buddha’s teachings on how to live thus outline a system of transformation which is aimed at awakening — powerful tools for us to use to transform our habits of body, speech, and mind so that they might both afford and accord with liberating insight.


Prior familiarity with Buddhism will be helpful but is not necessary for this course.


There are two textbooks for this class: one dry and one wet.

An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues – Peter Harvey
  • This classic textbook covers a surprising breadth of subjects and perspectives in Buddhist Ethics in admirably clear and precise prose.
  • It will supply the “dry” explanations for this course. You can think of Harvey as our lecturer: elucidating the meaning and providing a solid grounding for our course.

Our “wet” textbook is the Sanskrit classic:

  • This epic poem on grasping firmly the intention to awaken has inspired many generations of Buddhists (myself included) to live a more ethical and spiritual life and it captures beautifully the aesthetic of Buddhist ethics. Well worth reading again and again and again.
  • There are a few English translations of this classic of world literature. Steven Bachelor has a translation available online here for free, but I strongly recommend the Padmakara translation published by Shambhala in 2011 for its unparalleled accuracy and force.

The Course

Forget you. This is about waiting

A poem which shakes ‘work’ from its masculine frame and recenters it, not on you, on your brother.

We start the course with this poem by American poet Philip Levine. Go ahead and click the link above now to read the poem. Think about its last line. What is work?

Hopefully this course will help you answer that question.

Part 1: Foundations

A lay follower living at home with these five qualities is self-assured.

Confidence or lack thereof in layfolk is due to their precepts.

The core of Buddhist Ethics is summed up well in this pithy sutta. The five qualities listed here are called “The Five Precepts” and all Buddhists strive to preserve them. Technically, observing these five moral precepts assiduously is sufficient to be considered an ethical person.

  • Indeed, holding to generosity and the five precepts is believed to be a ticket to rebirth in heaven.
  • While failing to uphold them leads… elsewhere in Saṃsāra…

If Buddhist Ethics can be summarized so quickly, why a whole course? What challenges do you see in trying to observe these Five Precepts? Are there any ethical issues you think they don’t cover?

Analyzing the Five Precepts

  • This booklet by a former Supreme Patriarch (think, “Pope”) of Thailand gives a traditional analysis of the Five Precepts, unpacking the many layers of meaning inside each point.

Chapter 1: The Shared Foundations of Buddhist Ethics

The course will follow the sequence of the chapters in Harvey’s Introduction. Go ahead and read Chapter 1 now, and when you’re finished consider this:

  • If you make your living off immorality, it takes a huge toll on your mind, relationships, and health.
  • What kinds of things do liberated beings never do? And why not?
  • Bhante Dhammika demonstrates Buddhist ethical thought for us by examining the question of smoking within—and beyond—the framework of the five precepts.
Early Buddhist Ethics – Bhante Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali (.zip)
  • A lecture introducing Buddhist Ethics, particularly from the perspective of early Buddhism.

Part 2: Cultivating Virtue

Buddhist ethics corresponds to a more generic, act-centered virtue ethics.

In this half of the course, we focus on the cultivation of virtue. What mental states make virtue? What beliefs enable such virtuous mental states?

To help us explore these questions, we’ll turn to the Tibetan Tradition’s favorite poem:

This entire half of the course technically covers only Chapter 2 of Harvey but really centers on The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra.

A free version is linked above, but there are a number of better (copyrighted) translations available, including the Padmakara edition published by Shambhala.

  • Philosopher Jay Garfield talks about how he got into Buddhism from Western philosophy and shares with us what he finds so compelling about this particular text.

Your chosen translation of the text may have a good introduction and, if so, you may want to read that now. But if not, this introduction is good for our purposes:

  • An encyclopedia entry on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism which lays the groundwork for our reading of this beloved classic.

With that by way of introduction, let’s now read Śāntideva himself! Preferably twice! Seriously, it’s that good.

Your first time, I recommend reading it all the way through. Let the poetic language, imagery and structure work their magic on you. After reading it once for feel, go back and reread the book chapter-by-chapter with the additional readings below to put the work into dialogue with the Theravāda tradition.

The Way of the Bodhisattva

  • This, more detailed, introduction to Śāntideva’s work discusses its overall structure and phenomenological approach to ethics and how it breaks the mold of Western ethical categories.
Chapter 1: The Excellence of Bodhicitta

In Buddhism, the highest good is awakening, and in this chapter Śāntideva expresses his devotion to that ideal and honors those who are advanced on the path towards to. This raises two questions:

  • What makes awakening good?
  • How (and why) did the Buddha suggest that we pay him homage?
  • The Buddha famously said that good friendship is the whole of the holy life. This poem from the Buddha explains that point whilst (oddly?) encouraging (?) us to desire fame and fortune.
Chapter 2: Confession

Accepting our faults is a critical starting point for ethical development, and a practice that the Buddha talked much about:

  • The Buddha compares an unethical person to a charnal pit to point out the downsides of unethical conduct.
  • How do you react when someone criticizes you? Can you recognize yourself or someone you know in each of these eight ways?
  • Venerable Mahā Moggallāna lists 16 qualities that make someone easy to admonish.
  • The Buddha points out that even a killer only spends a small amount of their time actually killing, pointing out how hard it is to know ourselves—and how easy it is to delude ourselves!
Chapter 3: Taking Hold of Bodhicitta
  • A Queen gives her King a shockingly honest answer, prompting the Buddha to teach “The Golden Rule”
  • A rather remarkable sutta, in which the Buddha admits that it’s often painful to strictly follow the precepts.
  • Given that following the precepts sometimes leads to pain, why does the Buddha still recommend them?
  • Shantideva wishes in this chapter to become “the very medicine itself” for sentient beings, but here the Buddha tells us not to “give away” ourselves. How do you understand this contradiction?
  • The corner stone of Buddhist morality is generosity, for all other virtues start in its renunciation and care for others. But clearly there are better and worse ways to give, as rich people often demonstrate. What factors make giving better or worse?
Chapter 4: Carefulness
  • How does the Buddha advise that we care for others?
  • The standard for “refraining from taking that which was not given” can be extremely high!
  • From the perspective of the Buddhist path, what is so blameworthy about “stopping to smell the roses?”
  • People often acuse Theravada Buddhism of focusing only on strict, negative ethics, but I find it helpful to know what not to do.
  • But this reputation isn’t wholely deserved, as Ajahn Suchart points out here that there are a number of good things Theravada Buddhism encourages.
  • While these guidelines were delivered to the monastic community, they serve even laypeople with a high bar to strive for in terms of “right speech.”
  • Homework How might you turn a “low” conversation into a “high” conversation?
Chapter 5: Vigilant Introspection
  • Ajahn Jayasaro answers two common questions on the five precepts, including whether it breaks the precepts to have a glass of wine for your health.
  • As we improve our conduct and remove our blemishes, humility might seem to dictate that we don’t acknowledge our increasing virtue. What harm can come from refusing to accurately assess our purity?
  • In one of the most famous similes of the canon, the Buddha encourages his son to constantly watch his own behavior to see what it reveals about his heart.
Chapter 6: Patience
  • The Buddha never condoned anger, but what can we do if anger does arise?
  • We can improve ourselves and the world without anger or guilt.
Chapter 7: Diligence
  • Two of the most important suttas on Buddhist Ethics in the whole canon, translated with helpful notes.
  • Whenever we lose our diligence, it show us where we lack wisdom. Where we have wisdom, we will have ease and prosperity.
Chapter 8: Meditative Concentration
  • Why is Zen so minimalistic? Why take on the practice of celibacy or reduced eating?
  • What kinds of people are better not associated with? What kinds of places are better left behind?
  • And what does all this have to do with enlightenment anyway?
Chapter 9: Wisdom
  • What qualities distinguish the wise?
  • What is the highest external virtue? How can we avoid conflict in this world?
Chapter 10: Conclusion
  • The Buddha summarizes the good things in life and how to get them.

What did you think going through The Way of the Bodhisattva a second time? Was anything new? How does it compare to the philosophy of the Pali Suttas? Did you notice any significant differences?

At this point you should now have a firm grasp of Buddhist Ethics. For our “Midterm Exam”, write an essay comparing Buddhist Ethics to the popular ethics of your own culture. What do they agree on? Where do they diverge?

Part 3: Engaging the World

Now that we’ve finished Parts 1 and 2, we’ve covered the core of Buddhist Ethics and can revisit Philip Levine:

  • Rereading the poem now, has your understanding changed at all since we started the course? How would you now explain what work is?

I give you back 1948.

A poem about what time can do to a person.

In Part 3 we return to Peter Harvey’s Introduction and, chapter by chapter, engage in a number of topical, ethical debates, starting with the Mahayana’s twist on Buddhist ethics already alluded to earlier in our comparison of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra to the Pāli Canon. As we go through this part of the course, please keep in mind the radical openness of our second Philip Levine poem, “You can have it.” How can we use our heart to check our intellect and our culture’s typical way of doing things?

Chapter 3: Mahayana Adaptions

  • An introduction to Mahayana Ethics from within the tradition, and an excellent set of caveats to keep in mind as we ethically navigate our own lives.
  • A Theravada response to the Mahayana assertion of the existence of compassionate killing.
  • Ven Pandita tackles the famous “Trolly Problem” from the perspective of Theravada Ethics, and illuminates a way in which Theravada and Mahayana ethics might agree more than you think.

Chapter 4: Natural World

  • An interview about carnism and the importance of mindfulness in living green and ethically.
  • Mindfulness practices may be essential for facing climate change.
Climate Change, Ethics, and the Field of Greed – Victor von der Heyde (.pdf) (.pdf)
  • Especially as Buddhists can use their practice to set a good example for others.

Chapter 5: Economics

  • In which the Buddha compares attachment to wealth to a dung beetle proud of her dung.
Buddhist Approach to Economics – Ajahn Jayasaro (.mp3)
  • A Buddhist monk who rejects money has a lot to say about economics, perhaps because of the objectivity that distance affords.
  • In which the Buddha thoroughly rejects the ancient Indian caste system.
  • The Tamil reformer who turned to Buddhism as a refuge from the current Indian caste system.
  • There is a profound connection between internal states of delusion and macroeconomic problems.

Chapter 6: War and Peace

  • An argument between two highly respected Theravada monks on the subject of whether war can ever be justified, Bhikkhu Bodhi wonders out loud, “War: what is it good for?” and Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds with, “Absolutely nothing!”
  • What do you make of the King’s behavior here? Is he a sincere Buddhist? And what do you think of the Buddha’s reaction?
  • Bhante Sujato replies to Bhikkhus Bodhi and Thanissaro, reminding them that the Buddha’s ethical tetralemma avoids such harsh dualities as “should” and “must not”
  • An African American law professor gives a master class in nonviolent communication.

Note: Sadly, Harvey’s Introduction doesn’t include a chapter explicitly on racism — a notorious blind spot for Buddhists both East and West which the Buddha himself pulled no punches in denouncing.

Chapter 7: Suicide

  • An early Buddhist perspective on suicide.
  • A Theravada answer to the question of euthanasia.

Do you agree with their answers? What do you think makes the subject so uncomfortable?

Chapter 8: Abortion

Speaking of uncomfortable!

  • A Theravada monk gives an important clarification on the early Buddhist perspective on abortion and IVF, which later (conservative) texts have muddled in their quest for clear, crisp lines.

Chapter 9: Sexual Equality

  • Not Buddhist per se, but a contemporary classic, this essay shows exactly what casual sexism feels like.
  • Bhikkhuni Subha comes up with an extraordinary (if not recommended!) way of handling more serious sexual harassment, showing that women have long had to deal with the same problems.
  • But that doesn’t mean that things can’t or don’t get better. This letter celebrates one such step towards gender equality taken in recent years.

Chapter 10: Sexuality

  • The story of a pioneering, transgender Buddhist, and a word on how Buddhism’s attitude towards transgenderism differs from that of the monotheistic religions.
  • Buddhists are mostly accepting of homosexuality: especially in comparison to other religions.
  • A refreshingly humble and non-dogmatic essay on everyone’s favorite topic, embodying the spirit of generous orthodoxy.
  • A reminder that what we say matters.


Ajahn Brahm concludes by reminding us that between all the ethical debates and traditions and forms, there is a common core of good sense which we can rely on:

Ajahn Brahm returns to the origins of Buddhism to help us understand the intentions and practice of “original” Buddhism.

Further Reading


If we have learned one thing from the #MeToo campaign, apart from just how pervasive sexual violence is, it is that we as a society do not have a clear, uncontested idea of what sexual consent looks like, and that we do not all universally and equally value it.

As for the question of suffering in the future—in this life or the next—don’t overlook your heart that’s suffering right now.

My favorite translation of the Dhammapada, including accurate summaries of the stories that traditionally accompanied the verses—some of the most beloved commentarial stories in all of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a middle course, a via media; pragmatic and innovative

This book is intended to provide an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha which will shed some light on a subject that, to non-Buddhists, can appear both unexpectedly rational and exotically strange.

[In Buddhism, morality] is not concerned so much with the result of one’s actions on other people as it concerns the result of one’s actions on one’s own mind.

Canonical Works

A magisterial compendium of good advice for lay people.

We ask Gotama, the Eye that has arisen in the world:
Is one a brahmin by birth, or by action?
Explain to us what we do not understand –
how to know a brahmin.

I’d hold his head with my left hand, and take [the stone] out using a hooked finger of my right hand, even if it drew blood.

… you should ignore that person’s impure behavior

Just as, Kassapa, gold does not disappear so long as counterfeit gold has not arisen in the world, but when counterfeit gold arises then true gold disappears, so the true Dhamma does not disappear so long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma arises in the world, then the true Dhamma disappears.

… if sentient beings only knew, as I do, the fruit of giving and sharing, they would not eat without first giving

Mendicants, don’t fear good deeds. For ‘good deeds’ is a term for happiness…

Take a golden mountain,
made entirely of gold, and double it—
it’s still not enough for one!

Bhikkhus, it is good for a bhikkhu from time to time to review his own failings. It is good for him from time to time to review the failings of others. It is good for him from time to time to review his own achievements. It is good for him from time to time to review the achievements of others.

The grass, sticks, branches, and leaves of India would run out before that person’s mothers and grandmothers.


… this paper aims for a philosophically more nuanced discussion of the case for and against eating locally. I assess, in turn, locavore arguments based on environmental preservation, human health, community support, agrarian values and political concerns

There is no single “swiss-army knife” technique that works equally well at all times; instead, we must carefully examine our present conditions and determine what practice is most relevant.

We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need.


Advanced Courses

The Buddha's Words
Continue reading and studying the Pāli suttas with Bhikkhu Bodhi himself.
The Practice of Buddhism
If you haven't taken it already, this course outlining the purpose of Buddhist practice is very much worth checking out. We'll cover ethics within the context of practice and more firmly connect ethics with the development of wisdom. I highly recommend it.
An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy
An overview of Theravada Philosophy structured around the three jewels and four noble truths.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.