Do We Have to Talk About Ethics?

The subject of Buddhist ethics usually brings up negative reactions, but Ethan Nichtern proposes a better way forward.

Ethan Nichtern
1 May 2015
Buddhist Ethics Ethan Nichtern The Road Home
Illustration by André Slob.

The subject usually brings up negative reactions, but in this preview of his book The Road Home, Ethan Nichtern proposes a better way forward.

I find that when the conversation shifts to ethics, people tend to have three basic reactions that complicate the exploration. I’ve been guilty of having all of them at different times. They seem impossible to avoid and are each worth examining with two parts seriousness and one part humor and irony.

Often, when we start talking about ethics, we either become (1) apathetic, (2) defensive, or (3) righteously judgmental.

Until a person takes an interest in some basic form of mindfulness and in the cultivation of self-awareness, it’s actually pretty hard to see the point of studying ethics. Without awareness, we can’t see an immediate correspondence between our actions and their effects, or how our choices affect how we experience our life. It’s often hard to see how our choices affect others. When we are caught up in apathy, the world seems like an insurmountable fortress of greed, hatred, and delusion, a dark place where nobody seems to hold themselves accountable for the choices they make. If no one else thinks about the hard questions, why should I?

If you notice yourself getting bored when the conversation turns to ethics, it might be helpful to reconsider what it means to be a contemplative person at all. To be contemplative means we are trying to think deeply about life, to grow more curious about the links between how we experience ourselves and how we act. To be a contemplative is to create a lifelong study of the interdependence between our views and our behaviors. If we want to step onto this path, we need to recapture the original purpose of both human philosophy and human psychology, which is to become a curious person, appreciative of our precious opportunity to be alive, exploring principles that have useful and specific applications. From this standpoint, ethics is no abstraction; there is nothing vague about it. Practicing ethics is about making our lives tangibly better, because if we can learn to live fully in our own heartmind throughout the day, every day will feel infinitely more satisfying.

A discussion of ethics can also make us defensive, as though someone is personally attacking our lifestyle. Somebody starts asking simple questions about why we choose to eat meat, or why we hold the political beliefs we hold, and we don’t even want to hear the question. I am a Buddhist who occasionally eats meat, although I was a longtime vegetarian. If somebody questions my meat eating as a Buddhist, I shouldn’t just shake them off. Each time the question comes up, I should be prepared to explore the question with the person who asks it. As I should if somebody asks at dinner why I keep looking at my smartphone instead of being present with them. I shouldn’t attack the person who questioned me by pointing out that they are often on their phone, too.

We might also become righteous and judgmental as the conversation shifts to ethics. Let’s face it—we’ve all made a ton of mistakes. I could fill other volumes with just a fraction of mine. Our leaders are flawed, too. One of the largest issues we face in the twenty-first century is that it’s become so hard to even trust in the idea of decent and honorable leaders. There is so much going on in this world that we don’t agree with, and we might not even agree with each other about what’s wrong. Because we don’t trust the openness of our own heartmind, when the going gets tough, we lose the flexibility that would allow room for mistakes. Without flexibility, we judge and condemn. Without trust in the goodness of the mind, mistakes cease to be occasions for learning. Instead, every mistake that comes before our Supreme Court of Righteousness becomes a condemnation, a death sentence. With this mistrusting mentality, we don’t allow space for learning from mistakes, and we certainly don’t allow room for the truth that the really hard questions in life almost always fall into gray areas, where righteousness can’t help us.

With righteousness, we try for sterilized perfection. We might expect ourselves and everyone else to become vegan, sober, antiwar, ever-smiling, never-biased, cannot-tell- a-lie, 100 percent ecoconscious consumers, dedicating twenty-five hours a day and eight days a week to charitable causes, willing to give the shirt off our back to anyone who asks for it. When these standards aren’t met, we say things like, “Oh my God, I killed a mosquito—what have I done?” or, “I can’t believe you would wear that shirt and call yourself a Buddhist!” or, “You work at Goldman? I can’t even deal with you.” Or, on the other hand, our friends might learn that we’ve taken an interest in studying meditation, and launch passive-aggressive barbs like, “Well, that’s not very Buddhist of you” when we aren’t doing exactly what they want us to do. I remember, throughout my teenage years, heavily judging my parents after their divorce, feeling, completely unfairly, that because they were Buddhists, they should somehow always be able to work things out. Where were my parents’ halos? Of course, this righteous anger was probably just a defensive posture against resting in the gap, feeling my own sadness that I didn’t have a nuclear family.

In this judgmental trap, we become unfairly angry at others, pissed off at the world, and full of secret shame and guilt toward our own inevitable mistakes. What gets lost? Trust and curiosity. We lose trust in the universe, and we lose curiosity about the process of exploration, which is the basis for any contemplative journey. Eventually, because this kind of righteousness can’t sustain the level of acrid energy on which it runs, we will probably become apathetic and tune out the whole conversation on ethics. Apathy, that cynical “whatever” mentality, is usually what happens after righteousness burns itself out. Sometimes this apathetic burnout happens to a whole generation of commuters.

For any of these three habitual reactions to ethics—apathy, defensiveness, or righteousness—the solution is really the same. If we bring the same outlook that we have to formal meditation—making friends with our experience, while slowly working to cultivate positive qualities over a long period of time—then we can introduce curiosity and a sense of exploration to our life. This path is more about engaging in a learning process, being a lifelong student of cause and effect, rather than always doing the “right” thing.

From “The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path” by Ethan Nichtern. North Point Press, 288 pp., $25.00 (cloth). Reproduced on with permission.

photo of Ethan Nichtern

Ethan Nichtern

Ethan Nichtern is a Buddhist teacher and the author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, and the novella/poetry collection, Your Emoticons Won’t Save You.