Friday, March 18, 2011

Yes Virginia there is right and wrong

Within Buddhist circles, you eventually hear someone say that there is no right and wrong, that these terms merely represent a dualistic form of thinking that creates imaginary categories that are empty.

On one level, I believe that to be true. On another level, I believe such talk is total nonsense. And it is this type of Wrong Thinking that in my view leads others to conclude that Buddhism is amoral.

There is right and wrong in Buddhism. In fact, the Buddha made a list to show us that there is right and wrong. He called this list The Noble Eightfold Path. Because in order to have Right View, you must abandon Wrong View; if you want to develop Right Intention, you must abandon Wrong Intention; if you want to develop Right Speech, you must abandon Wrong Speech; to develop Right Action, you must abandon Wrong Action; to engage in Right Livelihood, you must abandon Wrong Livelihood; to develop Right Effort, you must abandon Wrong Effort; to develop Right Mindfulness, you must avoid Wrong Mindfulness; and to achieve Right Concentration, you must abandon Wrong Concentration.

That’s the Buddha’s rap folks – there is Right and Wrong.

These items in The Noble Eightfold Path are further categorized by the Buddha pertaining to how an item in the path relates to one of the three basic elements of the Buddhist practice: Panna, or wisdom; Samadhi, or concentration; and Sila, or virtue. That’s right! Virtue is a key element of the Buddhist practice. It’s what following the Five Precepts is all about – developing virtue!

Where the confusion arises is in the way we Westerners tend to view these terms right and wrong. While these terms are synonymous with “correct” and “incorrect,” when speaking about human behavior, these terms are generally imbued with moralistic tones that derive from our shared monotheistic background. Something is morally right or morally wrong because an action is considered morally right by the assertion that it is a directive from a higher power or that it pleases a higher power, and if an action is contrary to that higher power’s directive or displeases that higher power, then that action is deemed morally wrong.

But that’s not the way these terms work in Buddhism. Whether an action or other phenomenon can be consider “right” or “wrong” is not determined by a third-party entity, but rather by the results created by that phenomenon. The phenomenon is “right” when it results in the alleviating one’s own suffering, the suffering of others, or one’s one suffering and the suffering of others. The phenomenon is wrong when it results in increased suffering for self, increased suffering for others, or increased suffering for both self and others. And yes, the Buddha also spoke of morally neutral actions, actions that neither alleviate nor cause suffering for self or others.

Results are not always just immediate. We can engage in actions that bring us the immediate result of diminishing our own suffering. But actions set in motion many things, and there may be later results that lead to us suffering more. So while an action may look “right” in the short term, that same action may later be revealed to be quite wrong.

It’s not that difficult to grasp. The Buddha taught his son Rahula this when the boy was just 7 years old. But again and again, discussions about morality veer way off into the very highest limbs and the remotest leaves of the tallest simsapa trees.

Now granted, it is important for us to understand why a wrong action is a wrong action. It’s important to understand why it’s wrong so that we can stop committing that action. But not understanding why something is wrong should never hinder us from stopping that action. And even if I never fully understand why something is wrong, if I’m convinced it is by other reasons, then I am doing something very skillful by ceasing that action. I will get good results regardless of whether I understand why a former action was wrong. And for many people, that’s good enough.

While Buddhism is pretty simple, it is also quite subtle. While a wrong action will often bring immediate or near term bad results, the Buddha taught a theory of karma that diverged significantly from the dominate theory in India at the time. Despite the fact we may commit a wrong act in the present, we have the opportunity to diminish its continual negative influence over time through engaging in Right Action. While the Buddha, for example, told soldiers that by developing proper mental attitudes during battle would reduce the karmic impact of their actions – killing people – he was quite clear that the soldiers would never escape those karmic consequences. With the simile of the salt crystal, the Buddha explains if we’re lucky enough and have enough time, we can correct and change future outcomes for previous bad acts. He says this also to Angulimala when he tells the former robber and murderer to quit his whining: by suffering now Angulimala can avoid the torment of eons in a hell realm.

This is why I have lately said that there is no moral right to do anything, but there are consequences for everything. We may feel that we “deserve” to react to someone or something in a particular way, and we may opt to follow on our impulse or belief. As Clint Eastwood classically said in “The Unforgiven,” “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”

But no matter how we rationalize our action later, no matter how vehemently we seek to justify our action, our action creates consequences, both short and long term. We could, for example, feel great at the moment, but later feel remorse and guilt for years. Do what you will, but you shall reap what you sow. You are where you are because you went there.


  1. We do not live in the ultimate. Even if *technically* right & wrong are dualities we must maintain the ethical dimension within our relative existence. Otherwise we just do more harm. And it is rather arrogant to attempt to foist an ultimate viewpoint on others who have not realized that. It is rather like taunting. "I see it. You don't" And if someone would taunt in that manner have they actually realized anything or are they merely bolstering their own ego at the expense of others. The minute someone tells me right & wrong don't exist I become suspicious of their actions and motivations. They are often trying to justify or excuse their own self indulgence and harmful behavior and especially trying to avoid taking responsibility for it. Trying to short circuit karma in other words.

  2. Thanks NellaLou, I have often had trouble with the "ultimate reality v mundane reality" dichotomy, which ironically creates a dichotomy analogous to the dichotomy of good and bad that these same folk seem to denigrate. Where is that French queen when you need her?

  3. Am currently reading Geshe Tashi Tsering's book Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth which is part of a series on foundations of Buddhist thought. Perhaps that's why it came to my mind. The point seems to be, thus far, that in order to understand emptiness we have to understand the relative/ultimate situation thoroughly.

    They are not a real dichotomy, only perceived as such. Hence even the most highly realized do not dwell strictly in the ultimate-it is not possible as long as one is partaking in this life. So skillfully handling the relative, including with applicable ethics is necessary.

    The good and bad dichotomy seem to relate to that relative skillfulness.

    [It's quite a good book. I hope to get others in the series too]

  4. @David, I am so mindless in the morning. I read your comment in my email and I clicked the incorrect button and your comment was deleted. Please reply again and leave your comment! Sorry for the inconvenience, it was not my intention to delete, it was just my careless mouse click.

  5. Dear Richard, thanks for your comments on my blog. I'd really appreciate it if you included my in your Resources bar. Bhante Dhammika

  6. Yes, I can do that, but are you sure the Web address is correct? When I click on the link, I go to a dead page, the page does not exist.

  7. @Shavrasti Dhammika, I have the correct link and the website has been added to my resources list!

  8. Richard, I just said that I thought your analysis was good. I also commented that in my opinion we do live in the ultimate. The ultimate and the relative are just two aspects of the same reality. When people say there is no right or wrong, they are interpreting the relative from the ultimate without taking into consideration that the ultimate is arrived at only through the relative.