Venerable Wei Wu's Thursday's Dharma Talk1 & 8 September 2006 (Related in 1 st person)

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1 September 2006 - Today, I am going to start by talking about the ethical teachings of Buddhism. There are two different types of ethical teachings. The first is theological ethics that is based on the concept of the almighty god and everything rests on this god. The second category of ethics is called humanistic ethics. It is based on humanism.

Some of you might have seen a very good film called the Ten Commandments. I saw this film when I was very young. I don't know whether the younger generation had the opportunity to see this film. It was very well made and was based on the Old Testament. In Christianity, the Bible consists of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament belongs to the teachings of Judaism. The New Testaments are the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament recorded how Moses went up to Mount Senai and in the midst of a thunderstorm, God inscribed on two stone slabs the Ten Commandments. After that Moses brought these down to the children of Israel and these become the ethical criteria by which you can judge the action. In fact the word “Commandment” itself suggests that it is a divine command of God. Ethics, as in theological ethics, is always concerned with obeying God. One's action is judged by whether one goes against God, as in the case of doing something against the Ten Commandments.

In the earlier episode of the Old Testament, it was recorded that God created this world and in the Garden of Eden created Adam and Eve. God commanded them not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Of course, Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command. In fact, those of us who have dealings with children understand child psychology. If you tell a small boy or girl not to do something and when you are away, you can almost be assured that they would do the very thing that you told them not to. So Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge and that, we were told, constituted the original sin of man. You might ask in what sense is this a sin? It is very simply because of disobedience. So in theological ethics, there is no allowance for disobedience of God.

I am telling you this because this will help us understand when we compare or contrast it with what I call humanistic ethics. If the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam belong to the first category, that is theological ethics, then the ethical teachings of a lot of religions in the East belong to what we call humanistic teachings, especially the teachings in many far eastern systems, for example, Confucianism.

Confucist ethics deals solely with man and not god. The emphasis is not on god but on man. In the Indian civilisation, Buddhist teachings for example, ethics is also based on man. In fact we can even say that Buddhist ethics is psychological ethics. It is based on our mind. In the Buddhist ethical principle, we have two categories of actions. Actions are of three types: bodily, speech and mental action. The first category of action is described as kusala in original Pali and Sanskrit. Kusala is skillful action and the opposite of that is akusala.

Kusala is skilful, Akusala unskilful. This immediately suggests that Buddhist ethics has to do with intelligence and wisdom, because actions are described as skilful or unskillful. Whether the action is skillful or unskillful depends on the motive. You cannot judge an action by the appearance, but only by the motive behind the action. Actions which are motivated by greed, anger and illusion or ignorance are akusala - unskillful. Conversely, actions which are motivated by generosity, loving-kindness, wisdom are considered skillful actions. So it's not a set of dogmas that you judge an action. The action is judged upon the motive behind that particular action.

Having described the two categories of ethics, theological ethics and humanistic ethics, I like to come back and make an observation about the current state of affairs. In the West, I had the opportunity to study for a long time in New Zealand and after graduation I continued to work there for several years before returning to Malaysia. Even after returning here, I worked with an American company for many, many years. So I understand their values, their religious traditions and the problems they faced in their society.

Of course Western societies are influenced by theological ethics, but many young people and even some older people in the West today are not convinced by theological ethics. They can no longer accept the dogma of the Judeo-Christian tradition. You can see that in the West in terms of morality, it is in a very bad shape because many people, especially the young, no longer accept the traditional teachings of Judaism and Christianity as the basis of morality or ethics. Although they no longer accept this dogmatic approach, deep in, what psychologists call, their sub-consciousness, they still understand ethics to be something which falls upon them by an external power that they could no longer accept.

It is no wonder that there is an earlier moral degradation in the Western society. This is not necessarily a bad thing. This allows the people in the West to have a greater reflection of ethical teaching and hopefully, after a thorough reflection, something clearer and more acceptable emerges. You can see that in the West, many young people, when they are against the traditional dogmatic system, rebel against the system with unethical behaviour and bad morality. On the positive side, some of the Westerners, including some very young ones, after they no longer accept the Judeo-Christian teachings, start to search for alternatives and they come across different systems, e.g. Buddhism and many of them quickly embraced Buddhism.

Recently, we organised the academic conference, in which many of you had contributed in one way or another to its success. You saw many Western scholars presenting their research work on Buddhist studies. You might be surprised that so many Westerners have gone so deeply into learning about Buddha's teachings. Actually, amongst the presenters, there are two categories. One of which is that they are not only scholars, but have also taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. More and more Western scholars belong to this category. There is another category of pure scholars. They are very good in studying Buddhism in depth, but they don't necessarily consider themselves to be Buddhist. They don't take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.

In fact at the very beginning in the West, many scholars were Christian missionaries. When they came to Asia and in order for them to spread Christianity, they wanted to learn the philosophy here. They wanted to learn the religious system here. So many of them started with that motive and then they became the pioneer batch of Buddhist scholars. But this category is the exception. You don't find them today.

I am sharing all of this with you because from here we can learn especially in modern times, especially with younger people that you cannot teach morality with a dogmatic approach. The youngsters would not accept this type of moral teachings any more. Unfortunately, many of us do not understand this. Many of us continue to teach the Buddhist ethics as if it has all to do with just dogma. For example, in Judaism there are the Ten Commandments. In the Buddha's teachings, we are also taught the Five Precepts, the Panca Sila. In fact, the early translators in the West, when they don't understand Buddhism very well, translated the Panca Sila as the Five Buddhist Commandments. This is a very serious mistranslation. The Sila has nothing to do with divine command. In Buddhism, we also have these Five Precepts. Are they not like the Ten Commandments? For that, Shifu will continue to explain next week.

8 September 2006 – This is going to be an addition of what we covered last week.

Last week, we raised the question about the Five Precepts. We must understand that the Five Precepts, in its spirit, are very different from the Ten Commandments. I mentioned that early translators, translated Buddhist precepts as the Five Buddhist Commandments, because of their strong influence by the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is no question of commandment; to translate Sila as commandment is wrong. You can see the phrase is not “Thou shall not kill”, but “To abstain from killing or harming sentient beings”.

The Five Precepts are the criteria the Buddha set for being a human. In fact, the Buddha set a very high standard for all of us. What the Buddha is essentially telling us is, in order to be called a human our actions (bodily, verbal and mental), will not be against the Five Precepts. This is the very high standard given. It has to be understood in the proper context. The precepts observed by the members of the monastic order can be roughly categorised into two. One is something similar to the Five Precepts. Another one has to do with certain rules to be observed so that a harmonious community life can be established. During the Buddha's time, there was an old monk who felt very restricted by the Vinaya. This elderly monk was very happy, when he knew that the Buddha would soon enter Parinirvana, because he said that after the Buddha's Parinirvana, he would be free. This is an example of how even a monastic student or disciple of the Buddha failed to understand the spirit of Buddhist ethical teachings.

We have to understand these are not a set of rules imposed by the Buddha. Rather it is a criterion that we imposed on ourselves because from the Buddha's point of view, if we go against the Five Precepts, we cannot even consider ourselves human. To be human, this is the criterion. The Five Precepts is a guideline that will allow us to achieve the state of being a human. Let me use an example to explain this. There are three variables of practising ethical teaching. In this case, we take the example of not stealing or to abstain from stealing. For most people, practice at this level is out of fear for the law. Every country has law and without exception, in many countries stealing is a crime punishable by the respective law of the country. Many people do not steal out of fear of the law. If they know that the act of stealing would not be discovered, the temptation to steal will be very strong.

When we go to the second level of ethical practice, then one follows the religious teachings. Believers of any great religion in the world are asked not to steal or to abstain from stealing. This second category of people is of course better than the first. Due to their religious faith, they would not steal even in cases when the act of stealing would not be discovered. Truly speaking when we talk about the Five Precepts, to be truly human, it is the third level that we are striving for, i.e. to strive for freedom from the desire to steal altogether. In the case of the third category, one will have no desire to steal whatsoever. This is what we mean by reaching the standard that the Buddha had set down in the Five Precepts. It is also similar for the other four precepts.

Let me elaborate on this freedom from desire to steal as the objective. Sometimes we distinguish between an end and the means to an end. The observation of the Five Precepts is the means to an end. It is not an end by itself. I remember in this context, many years ago when I taught at the Buddhist Free School, a student asked me an interesting question. He said that before he came in contact with the Buddhist teachings, he felt that he was free to do many things. After that he felt restricted. He said the purpose of studying/practising Buddhism is to eradicate suffering and to attain happiness. He felt what happened to him was exactly the opposite. After coming into contact with Buddhism, he felt that because of the “restriction” he was less free so he raised this interesting question. Some of you might also wonder sometimes.

I explained to him that he had taken the means to an end as the end itself. If we observe the precepts out of our own free will, then you understand that one day you will be able to behave naturally in conformance with the Five Precepts. Let me use an example of learning a language. To learn a language, first of all, we have to put quite a bit of effort into learning the grammar. Learning grammar, however, is not the final objective. The final objective is to be able to speak and write the language well. After you have mastered the grammar, you will not go against the grammatical rules when you speak or write. There will be no grammatical error.

Those of you who had studied English, will most likely fail the high school English grammar test, if you are asked to go and sit for it. That is because you would have forgotten about the rudiments of grammar. However, if you had already mastered the language, when you speak or write, you will naturally not go against the grammatical rules. Learning grammar is like being honest to oneself. You know that you can't even reach the standard of the Five Precepts and that is true for many of us. However, naturally conforming to the Five Precepts, we learn and train ourselves to observe the precepts that will eventually make us reach the very high standard as set down by the Buddha. So I hope this analogy may be useful for you.

We also have to understand that the precepts, or morality, are not an end by itself. In the Buddhist teachings, we talk about the three-fold practice of Sila, Samadhi and Prajna, meaning morality, concentration and wisdom. In fact, the words, concentration and wisdom are not very good translation for Samadhi and Prajna, but for our current purpose, we provisionally use these translations. In order for us to practise spiritually, we must start with morality and then cultivating the mind to achieve stillness or concentration and then through contemplation or insight, develope wisdom.

There is a four-line verse about the Buddha's teachings:

Cease to do all evil,
Learn to do good.
Purify the mind.
This is the Teaching of all Buddha.

In the first two lines is the moral aspect. Even that takes quite a lot of effort, but the foundation is quite important. Only after that can we talk about spiritual practice. Then it goes into training the mind – practice Samadhi and Prajna. In the Buddhist tradition, great importance is placed on morality as the foundation of spiritual practice.

There was a certain method of meditation being taught, although I don't hear of this so often now. I remember ten to fifteen years ago, there was one meditation being taught called TM, transcendental meditation. People, who went there, came back and said that they advocated no need for any religion. You don't need to have any precept to follow.

In the Buddhist teachings, we don't even need to apologise for the need for a moral foundation because the mind is a very powerful thing. A distracted mind cannot do much good, but it also cannot do great harm. A concentrated mind, if used in the wrong way, can be very harmful, so the Buddhist practice of the mind always rests on the foundation of Sila or morality.

The Five Precepts are the basic precepts that help prevent us from indulging in bodily akusala or unskillful acts of harming beings or killing, in taking the not given or stealing, and sexual misconduct, false speech and finally from taking intoxicants. Taking of intoxicants is not by itself directly indulging in akusala, but when we are drunk or under the influence of drugs (nowadays a very common problem for our society), we may end up being very unmindful and indulge ourselves in killing, stealing, sexual misconduct or false speech. This is what we mean by ceasing to do all the evil or unskillful.

The Ten Precepts, although described here as an extension from what seem to be quite similar to the Five Precepts, actually encourage us not only to just ceasing to do all evil and learning to do all good. Instead of just abstaining from killing to protect all beings; instead of abstaining from stealing to practise dana and so on. You may find that the Ten Precepts can be divided into three categories. In the first category are the three bodily actions, then the category on speech of not only abstaining from false speech but also from slander, harsh speech and undesirable speech. This is to help us watch our speech. Finally to guard our mind, is the mental action to abstain from coveting, from malaise and from wrong views. This has to do with the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. In the Tibetan teachings, the category of Ten is described as dark action or dark karma when we indulged in killing and so on, and conversely as white karma when we cultivate the opposite.