A collage whose pieces comprise an abstract human face

Dukkha as a Doorway to Liberation

Scott Tusa on how Buddhist ethics transcend mere morality and help us to realize awakening.

By Scott Tusa

“Flayed 8,” by Jesse Draxler. Analog collage.

Having been both a householder and a monastic Buddhist practitioner, I’ve come to see Buddhist ethics as more than moralistic guidelines. Rather, they serve as tools to cultivate mindful awareness and uncover our deeper awakened nature. After all, the core of the Buddhist path, as I see it, isn’t about becoming a “good Buddhist” or attaining Western-style ideals of virtue. The buddhadharma is primarily concerned with comprehending (and remedying) the root causes of suffering—for ourselves and for others. By working diligently to alleviate and ultimately eliminate these causes, we pave the way for the blossoming of buddhahood, or awakening.

Buddhist ethics encompass more than what might initially meet the eye. Within Tibetan lineages, we organize them into three distinct categories. The first comprises the Pratimoksha, or individual liberation vows. These are followed by precepts associated with Mahayana conduct, driven by bodhicitta, the aspiration to awaken for the benefit of all beings. Finally, specific ethics and samayas, or tantric precepts, exist for those practicing Vajrayana, or the tantric path of Buddhism.

Here, we’ll focus solely on the first category: Pratimoksha vows. These vows exist in two forms: for monastics (monks and nuns) and for householders, or those living a nonmonastic life. The two are more interconnected than most realize. 

Monastic vows essentially build upon the foundation established by the four or five core precepts of householder Pratimoksha vows. These core principles emphasize avoiding the taking of life, abstaining from stealing (taking what isn’t given), avoiding harm through sexuality, and refraining from deception or lying. We also often encounter a fifth precept—avoiding intoxication, as the Buddha, in sutras discussing householder precepts (see the Sigalovada Sutta), frequently highlighted how intoxication increases the likelihood of transgressing the other four. 

These five precepts, then, serve as the guiding light for householders. (Monastic vows expand upon this foundation by incorporating more intricate and profound elements of practicing these principles. For example, within the precept of avoiding sexual misconduct, a monastic would commit to an additional vow of celibacy, completely abstaining from sexual activity.)

It’s crucial to move beyond simply viewing these principles as rules or commandments. While a straightforward “don’t do this” approach has its place, particularly when considering the immediate negative consequences of actions like taking life, Buddhist ethics offer a deeper perspective: such actions not only harm others, but also negatively impact our own minds. This connection between action and mental state might not be immediately apparent, but with consistent dharma practice and meditation, we begin to see how our choices can create mental unease and hinder our progress.

And of course, Buddhist teachings acknowledge the principle of karma, emphasizing the concept of cause and effect that extends beyond our immediate perception. We come to understand that engaging in harmful actions has repercussions that will unfold beyond the blip in time we call this life.

“By observing our mind and how it reacts to dukkha, we begin to learn about its true nature. This exploration, in turn, paves the way for understanding the third mark of dharma: emptiness (nonduality).”

Avoiding the “what-not-to-do’s” allows us the space and perspective to cultivate  their opposites: preserving life, practicing generosity, and so on. This shift fosters a more open, compassionate mind, benefiting ourselves and others and paving the way for a more nuanced understanding. 

Buddhism, at its core, is a path—a journey filled with skillful means designed to help us uncover our buddhanature. (This is part of why I prefer the term “ethics” over “morality.” Ethics, in my view, carries a more path-oriented connotation.) Mahayana teachings emphasize the potential for every being to awaken and attain liberation. We may not all subscribe to Mahayana philosophy, but the idea that suffering arises because we fail to recognize and cultivate inherent awakened potential is a core tenet of Buddhist principles. 

Once we’ve established a healthy relationship with avoiding harmful actions toward ourselves and others, perhaps even actively cultivating their positive opposites, we’re ready to delve deeper. This is where we can begin to explore the nature of how Buddhist ethics intersect with the three marks, or seals, of the dharma: impermanence, dukkha (often translated as suffering, but really implying a much wider and subtler scope of dissatisfaction and unease), and emptiness (nonduality). These aren’t merely theoretical concepts. They serve as lighted gateways, illuminating the path toward liberation from suffering.

Let’s delve into dukkha here, exploring its connection to Buddhist ethics, particularly the householder precepts. For example, consider the desire for intoxication, altering and clouding the mind. This desire often arises from dual causes: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of something unpleasant. This “something unpleasant” could manifest as boredom, a pervasive form of dukkha in itself, or a deeper, more nagging pain. Instead of confronting these challenges head-on, we use intoxication as a form of distraction. 

This is where Buddhist ethics transform into a powerful mindfulness practice. It’s not about achieving some unattainable state of perfection, but cultivating an awareness of those moments when we’re tempted to bend or break our precepts because we are unwilling to be with our present experience. 

Another example lies in the nonvirtue of gossip. Engaging in gossip can be harmful to others, and it can also be a way to distract ourselves from facing our own pain or dissatisfaction. Practicing the ethic itself is what makes a real difference. By being mindful of the urge to gossip, for instance, and investigating its underlying motivations, we cultivate a deeper understanding of the arising dukkha within us. This self-awareness empowers us to confront these challenges directly, fostering more insight into the nature of dukkha, which, again, encompasses a far broader range than simply pain or suffering. It’s a pervasive force in our lives, yet it also holds our key to liberation. 

Using dukkha as a doorway to liberation can be challenging, as it requires us to move beyond knee-jerk reactivity and cultivate a desire to meet the rawness of each moment. By observing our mind and how it reacts to dukkha, we begin to learn about its true nature. This exploration, in turn, paves the way for understanding the third mark of dharma, emptiness (nonduality). 

While the Buddhist path challenges our natural tendency to avoid pain, it doesn’t advocate for self-flagellation; rather, it encourages us to understand the nature of pain, its origins, and the resistance that arises in response to it. In my experience, dukkha often manifests as a form of resistance. While there may be inherent pain, it often gets compounded when we resist.

So here’s some practical advice: Reflect on those areas in your life where you encounter resistance. Consider how this resistance might be linked to ethical conduct. We might engage in behaviors harmful to ourselves or others, both in the immediate and long term, simply to avoid facing our situation. This avoidance stems from an unwillingness to be open and present with our experience. We essentially become slaves to our resistance. 

Of course, integrating these practices requires ongoing exploration and dedication. Deep reflection, engagement with Buddhist teachings, and a strong meditation practice are necessary to cultivate the mindful awareness needed to allow and observe the nature of our resistance and dukkha.

Begin with subtler forms of dukkha. Annoying experiences can be a great place to start. Notice the feeling in your body, and the resistance that builds up. For example, tension in the chest can be a sign of resistance. By bringing awareness to these experiences, we begin to learn from them.

Through this process, Buddhist ethics become more than just a set of rules for good behavior. They become tools for uncovering our deeper awakened nature. This awakened nature lies in being present with what we consider to be dukkha. Remember, dukkha is sandwiched between impermanence and emptiness. This suggests that dukkha is both impermanent and empty of inherent existence. It arises in dependence on causes and conditions, not as a solid and independent entity.

And remember: nonduality and emptiness in Buddhism don’t imply nonexistence; they emphasize the interconnected and interdependent nature of reality. It’s our resistance to this interdependence that creates the illusion of separation and fuels our suffering.Buddhist ethics are more than just a moral code about being a “good person” or avoiding “bad” actions. From the dharma perspective, avoiding harmful actions also helps us avoid negative karmic consequences. But for practitioners, a more subtle view is beneficial, too. We cultivate openness to the impermanent and interdependent nature of our dukkha, remaining aware and nonresistant. This approach leads to a more natural and sustainable way of working with Buddhist ethics, ultimately fostering a more mindful, ethical, and awakened way to live.  

Headshot of author Scott Tusa

Scott Tusa

Scott Tusa is a Buddhist meditation teacher and practitioner with over two decades of experience in the exploration and embodiment of the Buddhist path. Ordained by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at twenty-eight, Scott spent nine years as a Buddhist monk. Since 2008, he has been sharing his knowledge and guidance, teaching Buddhism and meditation worldwide, in person and online.