This is my understanding from study and practice of the Buddha's teaching. If you have followed the study method the Buddha gave for his teaching and you see Wrong View here, please let me know, out of compassion. It is easy to claim one is teaching the Buddha’s Teaching, but to do so with minor, or little reference to what he actually said, is a very foolish and dangerous situation to be in. I am not providing references to all the quotes of the Buddha I refer to below, as I have done that in my book.
It is recorded that the Awakened One said that if another person claims to teach His teaching to compare it with the Discourses (Dhamma/Sutta) and the Discipline (Vinaya). When it comes to understanding ethics [siila], in my six years previously as a monk, no one pointed out to me that ethics is clearly defined in the books of the Discipline at Mv IV.16.12 = V i 172. There it explains ethics as avoiding committing the serious offences. This can be seen as the principle. The specific application of it there for the monks is, i.e. the serious offences for the monks are identified as: 4 defeats [paaraajikaa] and the 13 offences requiring a meeting of the community of monks [sanghaadisesaa]. If a monk commits the four defeats, he is disrobed. Those four are fairly equivalent to the lay person’s "4 vices of conduct" – Sigalovaada Sutta DN 31 etc [see image below]. The mendicant’s next 13 training rules don’t have a layperson’s equivalent. So as far as the layperson would be concerned, the avoiding the four vices of conduct are the only serious offences. So they would define "ethics" for the layperson. That would be why the Buddha calls them "kamma-kilesa" - "defilements of action", which is translated above as "vices of conduct".
The other 210 items for monks not identified in the Discipline as serious and therefore not part of the definition of "ethics", are called “bad habits” and they are to be avoided as much as possible. So not committing them could be called “good habits”, or possibly "right livelihood" [in this case for monks]. This principle seems to be matched for the layperson in the Sigalovaada Sutta DN 31. The four serious offences [the "4 vices of conduct"] are listed first, then many other guidelines for a good life are listed. This second group seems less serious than the first four just mentioned and I'd call them "bad habits" too. This second group could also be seen as defining Right Livelihood for the lay person.
Note that in the discourse above to laypeople, the FIRST item of the second group or level of guidelines, is "avoiding intoxicants". So it would be a bad habit to get drunk, but not unethical. Though it could easily lead to the breaking of ethics. Also the Discourse on Boons [Mangala Sutta] says "to be moderate in intoxicants is a superior boon" ["majjapaanaa ca sanynyamo... etammangalam-uttamang"].
Avoiding "bad habits" is not defined as part of "ethics". So we have two levels of prohibition. Please try to keep these points in mind to keep the Buddha's teaching real, down to earth, practical. Beware of people who justify their superiority as practisioners based on the misunderstanding of Ethics, e.g. promoting that a monk that breaks minor rules is not a true monk, or that his Ethics is broken. If that were the case then only Arahants [fully enlightened disciples] would be true monks and the Buddha didn't teach that. It is a serious offence for monks to create divisions in the Order of Monks [Bhikkhu Sangha]. It is one of the 13 offences requiring a meeting of the community of monks [sanghaadisesaa], mentioned above. To do so, one has broken one's Ethics as a monk.
The “bad habits” are lesser variants of the previously mentioned four serious offences, e.g. lesser variants of the first would be: harming human beings, killing or harming any other sentient life and polluting non-sentient resources, or asking someone else to do any of these. Polluting non-sentient resources is an indirect harming of the beings whose lives depend on those resources. Thus care of the environment is specifically part of the Buddha's discipline for monks. One can see some of the 210 rules regarding "bad habits" are about protecting the environment. If someone does any of these things without direct influence from us, then they are fully responsible not us, it is THEIR Kamma/karma, not ours in any way. [Vegetarianism]
The higher training in ethics is to avoid committing those bad habits as much as possible, within the constraints of the one of the 4 wholesome lifestyles that one has chosen: family oriented layperson, non-family oriented layperson, novice mendicant, full mendicant. The practice of compassion in the Buddha's teaching would cover mental, verbal and bodily action. That is, compassionate thoughts, or the intention to avoid any offences, would be the mental act of compassion [karunaa] and then there is avoiding doing the bodily and verbal actions. Compassion is linked with the action of avoiding killing or torturing living beings at MN 51 = M i 345.
In the Buddha's teaching, the way we think determines [our mental actions determine] our bodily and verbal actions. So please do not underestimate mental action. This also brings up the point of a person's intention for doing seemingly compassionate actions of body and speech. If one has a purely selfish motive, then the internal/immediate results [akaaliko-vipaaka] for oneself will be negative [one will not be experiencing true satisfaction in the act], though the external/time-dependent results for oneself and others may be the same whichever intention. The same goes with the other wholesome emotions of kindness, empathetic-joy and equanimity [mettaa, muditaa, upekkhaa]. Enlightened self-interest is the key here. The Buddha defines wholesome conduct as that which avoids harm to ONESELF and OTHERS.
We see two different presentations of the Ethics section of the path when we compare the Four Vices of Conduct with the Traditional Noble Eightfold Path. In the Four Vices of Conduct, the first three address bodily conduct [the least subtle] and the next one addresses verbal conduct [more subtle]. Mental conduct [the most subtle] is not addressed. See the picture above. This is the opposite of the Noble Eightfold Path, which has Right View/Understanding and Right Resolve/Thought, certainly addressing mental conduct [I suggest these two should be regarded as the first part of The Training in Ethics - Siila-sikkhaa, since the Buddha taught it is mental action that causes the most suffering - to oneself], then the less subtler is addressed; verbal conduct, with Right Speech, then the least subtle: bodily conduct, with Right Action. [There is some debate as to whether "Right Livelihood" is part of Ethics or not. I see it as the first level of the training in Concentration in everyday life.] I suggest the reason the Four Vices of Conduct lists items from least to most subtle is because it focusses on the effects of our behaviour *on others* and this would explain why mental action is not addressed at all. The following picture compares the Traditional Noble Eightfold Path with other aspects of the Buddha's teaching.
I think it would be unrealistic to expect someone to maintain those trainings in “good habits” continuously and completely, unless they were fully awake. That would be the perfection of higher ethics [Adhisiila - I have not seen the Buddha use this term in his discourses]. The Stream Enterer has [and those further developed have] perfect and unbroken Noble Ethics. [See The Mirror of the Dhamma D 16 : D ii 93-4 and Diighaavu Sutta etc.] It is a basic level of ethics, but it is different from the basic ethics of common people. 95% of people maintain this basic level of ethics, but that is done due to external restraints or conditions. Unbroken Noble Ethics can be maintained under ANY conditions. It is not "situational ethics" and it is based on internal restraint. One could call that inner restraint one's conscience. The Arahant would have developed perfect higher ethics on top of that. That is, I think the Arahant would probably also not commit the “bad habits”, though I have not read that in the discourses of the Buddha. Try to keep this in mind to keep the Buddha's teaching real, down to earth, practical.
I am suggesting here that the 4 Defeats of the Mendicants are probably a more original version of the 4 Vices of Conduct for the Laypeople. I think the first one should be "murder" as it is intentional action that is important in the Buddha's teaching. Regarding laypeople though, one change must be made, that of avoiding any intentional sexual activity, as laypeople are permitted sexual activity. In this respect, one must keep one's sexuality wholesome and the Buddha gave advice to laypeople on how to do that. Few monks know it, apart from the stock standard form of the layperson's third precept: "avoid sexual misconduct".
The principle I see behind the advice given by the Buddha to lay people about sexual activity, which is set in a cultural context, is to avoid non-consensual sex [rape] and non-mutual sex [paedophilia]. Rape or paedophilia would be sexual misconduct for the layperson. As long as sexual contact is respectful and done with clear understanding of consequences, it would be wholesome. Having sex with others when one has already committed to a monogamous relationship, would be lying and not sexual misconduct in itself.
To expect young people to be celibate is very unrealistic and uncompassionate. To allow them a safe space to share sex with a respectful and loving attitude and educate them as to the consequences and the responsible way to have sex, would be compassionate. I think parents do not really want to do this because they are afraid to speak openly and honestly about sex with their children, or they may be envious and don't want their children to enjoy the good things in life that they themselves could not enjoy at the same age.
How avoiding drinking became a part of the definition of ethics for laypeople is as yet unknown. Possibly there was a time early in Buddhist history that drinking was a major problem in one section [?] of the fourfold community that [helped] maintained these texts and in emphasising its avoidance, it got strongly associated with the 4 vices of conduct. Or maybe, due to the common person, with their dependent [situational] ethics being swayed by the effects of alcohol, avoiding drinking was emphasised, so that the 4 vices of conduct would less likely be committed, as they are when common people are under the influence of alcohol.
This idea is supported by the discourse to laypeople [Sigalovaada Sutta DN 31] that mentions the 4 vices of conduct and then goes on to list what seem to be the "bad habits" laypeople should avoid. The FIRST of which is drinking. Drinking is not included as a vice of conduct, which matches the Discipline of the mendicants, which has drinking alcohol, apart from medicinally, as one of the lesser faults. All of the Buddha's followers should abstain from the relevant version of "FOUR VICES OF CONDUCT" that suits their wholesome lifestyle and there are other "bad habits" which we should avoid as much as possible. There are TWO levels of proscriptions, "ethics" and "bad habits". Avoiding the Four Vices of Conduct, would be identified as ethics for the layperson by applying the principle found in the Books of the Discipline. Taking drugs and alcohol for the purpose of intoxication is not one of the "Four Vices of Conduct". Therefore it would be part of "bad habits" not "ethics". [The Drunken Stream Enterer]
Understanding or thinking correctly is a necessary prerequisite for progress on the path the Buddha taught. It involves giving up essential wrong ways of thinking that would prevent progress, therefore Right Understanding, could be seen as ethics in the realm of thought. It is not the same as Noble Wisdom or Insight, which is based on personal experience, not just good advice from others which is understood theoretically.
The purpose of Ethics is to make society a reasonably safe place to live and to avoid remorse in an individual, which would be a hindrance to calming the mind, the next phase on the path - meditation.
The Buddha did not say we have to receive the training precepts from monks, but that is a religious ceremony that has developed since the time of the Buddha. If one asks a monk for the precepts, one should be clear that it is the training precepts that one is asking for, not ethics [siila]. Ethics [siila] cannot be given or received, it is developed by an individual [kamma-patisarano]. That is the first phase of the practice that a person undertakes on the Buddha's path.
In the Thai tradition a slight change in the Pali, which is reflected in the Thai, can easily lead one to think that one is receiving ethics from a monk via a religious ceremony. I suggest that the Pali word "siila" was not originally plural, but we now sometimes find "siilaani" [the plural of siila] in the later texts in the place that precepts [sikkhaapadaani] would be. In the Thai tradition people ask for the five "siilaani", but at the end of the administration of them, the monk says: "These are the five training precepts [sikkhaapadaani]. Through ethics [siilena - singular] one goes to heaven, through ethics one has wealth, through ethics one realises coolness [liberation], therefore purify your ethics."
In the spirit of the Buddha's teaching, specifically 'one's-actions-as-one's-refuge' [kamma-patisarano] one should ask for the five precepts and modify the traditional request to: "Aham bhante wisum-wisum rakkhanataaya, tisaranena saha pancha sikkhaapadaani [not siilaani] yaachaami." Then the letter and the spirit of our practice would be compatible.
I hope this gives an accurate understanding of the first phase of the path - ethics. The next phase is meditation.
Back to: The Gift of the Buddha - A Happy Life.
Siila: I translate this as "ethics", as "ethics" has less of a religious connotation. Non-religious people can be ethical and often ARE more ethical than religious people. I see ethics as coming from one's own conscience. Whereas I understand "morality" to be enforced from the outside, usually from some religious regime or super-human being. "Virtue" also has a strong religious connotation for me.
Vegetarianism: Vegetarianism is based on this causal link: eating meat causes [the market, which causes] the death of the animal. This omits completely the motivations of the individuals responsible for all actions involved, bodily and mental. When there is meat prepared to eat in front of me, I see the causal links in this way: these are definitely the actions which brought the meat to this place: cooking. Buying and selling are likely to have taken place, but that is not definite. Now as to how the animal died, I also do not know. Mostly animals would be killed by the butcher, but it is possible the animal died of natural causes too. In any case, now the action of eating is to be contemplated. That is what I am doing and responsible for right now. If I eat with greed, I do not promote the cooking, marketing or killing of meat, but I act in a way in which I am suffering. If I THEN go, with my greed and praise the cooked meat, then I am promoting the cooking of meat. If I go to ask the butcher for more of that meat, THEN I am promoting the marketing of meat, but I am not yet promoting the killing of animals. If I ask for an animal to be killed, THEN I am promoting the killing of animals and I am responsible. Each of those bodily actions is separate from the other and has its own motivation [mental action] and it is up to the individual to check what their motivations are, if they are pure or impure. They are responsible for their actions [including the mental action of motivation], not I. They are responsible for any greed, hatred or delusion in those motivations, not I. To transfer responsibility to me is irresponsible and is from a view that does not recognise motivation and responsibility in each action. We are interrelated, but not co-dependent. If a person cannot see that the intention to kill an animal and the intention to eat meat have opposite foundations, the first to end life and the second to prolong life, then the original teaching of the Buddha is not for that person.
Sex guidelines for laypeople: Avoiding sexual misconduct is defined in the Sevitabbaasevitabha-sutta [M 114 : M iii 46-47] as: having intercourse with “such women as are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, and even those who are garlanded in token of betrothal.” This is a cultural definition to me and would have been spoken to a heterosexual male. The principle I see is that those under some form of protection should be left alone. Consensual sex between independent adults would seem to be in agreement with this definition and this of course would be based on the “Right Thought” not to harm oneself or others – goodwill.