"Coq Au Vin," 2015. Illustration by Gary Taxali. Original Artwork Collection of Chef Thomas Keller.

Ethical Conduct Is the Essence of Dharma Practice

The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron outline three levels of Buddhist ethical codes and how we can follow them.

By Thubten Chodron

The Dalai Lama
Coq Au Vin, 2015. Illustration by Gary Taxali. Original Artwork Collection of Chef Thomas Keller.

Buddhists accept that human life has a deeper purpose than sensual enjoyments, wealth, power, social status, and praise gained in this life, and that a fortunate rebirth, liberation, and awakening are valuable in the long term. Since afflictions prevent us from actualizing our spiritual purpose, we want to reduce and eventually eliminate them. The various levels of ethical codes guide us to subdue our physical, verbal, and mental actions. Here “ethical code” refers to a set of precepts taken in the presence of a spiritual mentor, and “precepts” refers to the particular trainings set out in that ethical code.

The meaning of mental advancement is that untamed states of mind decrease and beneficial states increase. For obscurations to be removed from the root by the wisdom realizing emptiness, our mind must first be capable of meditating with single-pointed concentration. To subdue the subtle internal distractions that interfere with concentration, firm mindfulness and introspective awareness are necessary. To strengthen our mindfulness and introspective awareness and to gain concentration, we must first overcome the grosser external distractions by developing mindfulness and introspective awareness of our physical and verbal actions. This is done through the practice of ethical conduct.

The foundation of any practice, especially Vajrayana, is ethical conduct.

Ethical conduct means to refrain from doing harm. It applies to both monastics and lay followers because all of us need to refrain from harming ourselves and others in order to progress on the path and to create peace in the lives of those around us. Taking and keeping the various levels of ethical codes aids us in doing this and points out even subtler nonvirtuous actions to avoid. Tibetan Buddhism contains three levels of ethical codes: pratimoksa or individual liberation, bodhisattva, and tantric. The pratimoksa ethical codes focus on abandoning doing harm through body and speech. The bodhisattva ethical code emphasizes abandoning self-centeredness and regulates our mental activities as well as physical and verbal activities. The tantric ethical code helps overcome subtle obscurations, another form of harmful mental activity. Because their focus is more and more subtle, the three sets of ethical precepts are taken in that order: first pratimoksa, then bodhisattva, and finally tantric.

Whether we principally practice the Fundamental Vehicle, Paramitayana, or Vajrayana, ethical conduct is the foundation of the practice. Precepts give form and focus to ethical conduct. Although all Buddhists try to live ethically and abandon the ten nonvirtues, the taking of precepts involves special commitment and thus brings special benefit. Living in precepts makes us more aware of our physical, verbal, and mental activities. It enables us to purify destructive karma quickly because by stopping habitual negative actions, we stop their most harmful result, the tendency to do them again. It also brings a rapid and strong accumulation of merit, for in every moment that we are not breaking a precept, we are actively abandoning that destructive action and thus enriching our mind with merit from acting constructively. Keeping precepts is also a wonderful contribution to world peace. Imagine if every sentient being followed the first precept, not to kill, for just one day. How different life in our world would be!

Keeping the precepts we have taken is the best sign of being a holy being. If we want to do a meditation retreat but ignore ethical conduct in our daily lives, our priorities are confused. The foundation of any practice, especially Vajrayana, is ethical conduct. Without keeping the commitments and precepts we have taken, attaining realization is impossible. Thinking otherwise is a result of not understanding the essence of dharma practice. We shouldn’t cheat ourselves by ignoring ethical living.

Although precepts have such benefits, a person has to feel comfortable taking them and be prepared to assume the responsibility of following them as best as possible. Some people are brave when it comes to taking precepts and commitments—thinking it is their right—but cowardly when it comes to keeping them. We should be the opposite and think well before taking precepts. Then we humbly request to receive them from our teachers and with joy keep them properly.

The Pratimoksa Ethical Code

Within the first level of ethical codes, the pratimoksa, there are eight types: three are for householders and five for monastics. The three for lay followers are the five precepts for male and female lay followers (updsaka and updsika), and the one-day precepts for lay followers (upavasa). All of these are taken on the basis of having taken refuge in the Three Jewels.

The five lay precepts are to abandon killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, lying, and taking intoxicants (alcohol, illegal drugs, and misuse of prescription medicines). At the time of formally taking refuge in a ceremony, you can also take one or more of the five precepts.

The eight one-day precepts are the above five—the third precept being celibacy—plus to abandon (6) sitting on high or luxurious seats or beds; (7) singing, dancing, or playing music (entertainment), as well as wearing perfumes, ornaments, or cosmetics; and (8) eating at improper times—that is, between midday and dawn of the following morning. In ancient times, people went to their local monastery on new and full moon days to take these precepts and practice with the monastics. Nowadays, many people receive the transmission for the one-day precepts from their teacher and subsequently take them at home before a Buddha image. Some monasteries ask monastic aspirants to reside in the monastery and take the eight precepts for a period of time (many months or a year) before receiving monastic ordination. Some lay followers take the eight precepts and live at home.

The five ethical codes for monastics are for (1) fully ordained monks (bhiksu), (2) fully ordained nuns (bhiksuni), (3) training nuns (siksamana), (4) novice monks (sramanera), and (5) novice nuns (sramaneri). Monastic aspirants begin with taking the five lay precepts. When both they and their spiritual mentor think they are ready to assume more precepts, aspirants request and then take the novice ordination. This ethical code has ten precepts: the eight as above, including celibacy, plus not handling money or precious substances. The seventh precept is divided in two: one to abandon entertainment such as music, dancing, and singing, the other to abandon wearing perfumes, ornaments, or cosmetics. In Mulasarvastivada, novices receive ten precepts and must abandon three degenerations: (1) failure to formally request the abbot to be your abbot, (2) failure to abandon the signs of a layperson, and (3) failure to uphold the signs of a monastic (such as wearing robes and shaving the head). In Tibetan Buddhism, the ten novice precepts have been further divided to make thirty-six.

Nuns also have a two-year training ordination that involves six, twelve, or eighteen precepts, depending on the vinaya tradition. Bhiksus and bhiksunis have the full ordination, with many more precepts. While the number of precepts may vary, in substance and meaning, these vinaya traditions are very similar.

Some people mistakenly think that purity in ethical conduct involves changing their external behavior to conform to the rules and win others’ approval.

The bhiksu and bhiksuni ethical codes were not present during the first twelve years of the Buddha’s teaching. When monks began to misbehave, doing naturally negative actions or engaging in rude or unbecoming behavior, the Buddha established precepts. The vinaya contains stories describing the origin of each precept and the adaptations and exceptions that the Buddha made as new circumstances arose.

Many levels of the pratimoksa ethical code exist because people have different levels of ability. For those capable of remaining celibate for the duration of their lives, monastic precepts are suitable. For those who are not interested in being, or not able to be, celibate, taking some or all of the five lay precepts is appropriate. For those who are uncertain if they can keep the five precepts for their entire life and those who want to expand their ethical conduct, taking the eight precepts for one or more days is worthwhile.

As the Buddha’s life story shows, when Shakyamuni saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse, he reflected that worldly life has no essence. He then saw a religious mendicant and was inspired to engage in spiritual practice to be free from cyclic existence. For that reason, he left the householder’s life and became a monastic. Similarly, as his followers, we generate the actual aspiration to attain liberation, and to that end follow the pratimoksa ethical code of either a householder or a monastic. We choose to take precepts because we know that following them will help us purify negativities, accumulate merit, and reduce the afflictions that impede liberation.

A base motivation to become a monastic—such as wishing to escape debts, avoid caring for sick or elderly relatives, or not be responsible for children after a divorce—will not do. Neither is wanting a place to live or free food a suitable motivation. Our motivation must be to free ourselves from samsara or to become a buddha in order to best benefit others.

The pratimoksa precepts concern abandoning harmful actions of body and speech. To do so, we need to restrain the source of these actions, the mind. Some people mistakenly think that purity in ethical conduct involves changing their external behavior to conform to the rules and win others’ approval. However, genuine ethical discipline involves subduing the mind, which motivates the physical and verbal behavior.

The Benefits of Practicing the Pratimoksa Ethical Conduct

The practice of vinaya—the monastic code—helps to increase contentment. Monastics are limited in the food they can consume—no solid food is taken from midday until early dawn the next morning. Monastics do not have the right to demand this or that food; whatever they receive, they must accept. Monastics in East Asia who also follow the bodhisattva ethical code are vegetarian; Tibetan monastics who also follow the bodhisattva ethical code may or may not be vegetarian.

How does this practice of having limits create contentment? Contentment is an internal feeling that arises when craving is absent. As we practice releasing our craving and being satisfied with the present situation, contentment naturally arises. From our own experience we learn that contentment comes not from having all our desires fulfilled but from freeing ourselves from being under the control of those desires.

Monastics also have limits regarding their clothing. We cannot keep more than one set of robes with the thought, “This is mine.” Extra robes must be regarded as belongings shared with another monastic. We also cannot wear expensive robes.

Monastics limit the time spent with family to avoid being emotionally dependent on them and getting involved in family dramas. Family activities consume much time and take us away from dharma study and practice. Adopting the name our preceptor gave us at the time of ordination signifies leaving our old identity as relatives or friends of others and beginning a new life as a monastic.

Practicing vinaya helps us to develop mindfulness and introspective awareness. By being mindful of our precepts and checking if our behavior is proper when we are awake—whether we are walking, sitting, standing, or lying down—our mindfulness becomes stronger. Well trained monastics can catch themselves and abstain from negative actions, even in a dream.

The practice of vinaya also helps to develop fortitude (patience) and tolerance. The Pratimoksa Sutra says:

Fortitude is the first and foremost path.
The Buddha regards this as supreme in his teachings;
one who has left the household life yet annoys others
is not called a renunciate. (Dharmaguptaka Vinaya 43)

The Buddha taught that fortitude leads not only to the ultimate happiness of nirvana but also to happiness in this very life. In this regard, he taught four means of refining virtue. Although he taught that practicing these four is the way to become a genuine monastic, they refine the virtue of everyone who practices them. They also bring harmony to our relationships and to society in general:

If others are angry with you, do not react with anger but with fortitude.
If others hit you, do not attack them back.
If others criticize you, do not criticize them in return.
If others embarrass or insult you, do not respond by embarrassing or insulting them.

These are real ascetic practices that will increase our fortitude. I tell people that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be put in two sentences: When possible, help others. When that is not possible, at least don’t harm them. These four means of practicing fortitude embody that principle.

People who grew up in a theistic religion and later became Buddhist may think of precepts as nonnegotiable rules propounded by an authority. Naturally, this makes them uncomfortable. Two types of rules exist. One is the troublesome kind—those that are only rhetoric and lack a constructive purpose. The other consists of helpful guidelines that lead to happy results. For example, if we want to be healthy, we voluntarily adopt new eating habits and avoid activities and foods that cause illness. Similarly, when we want to abandon the mental diseases of ignorance, anger, and attachment, we voluntarily curtail the actions motivated by them and the objects that trigger them. We undertake the precepts voluntarily because they help us live according to our values and attain our spiritual aims; they are not forced on us by an external authority.

Some monastics choose to keep the precepts exactly as written in the vinaya, and that is commendable. However, because of changes in society, I believe the way we keep some of the precepts needs to be adjusted. We must look at the Buddha’s intention in establishing each precept: what mental state is that precept designed to subdue? If societal conditions are not suitable to keep a particular precept literally, how can we implement the meaning of that precept in our lives?

At the first council after the Buddha’s parinirvana, the question arose of changing the precepts, since the Buddha had said that minor precepts could be changed when circumstances necessitated it. But no one asked what the minor precepts were, so the council of five hundred arhats decided not to change any precepts. Yet the Buddha’s injunction to abandon actions that are in line with those he said to abandon, and to do actions concordant with those he prescribed, remains. Monasteries have thus developed their own internal rules and guidelines to match present conditions. For example, had digital devices, television, and the internet existed in his time, the Buddha surely would have established many precepts regarding them. If climate change had been an issue twenty-five centuries ago, he would have established precepts to limit monastics’ carbon footprint and to require recycling.

The pratimoksa ethical codes are common to both the sravaka and bodhisattva paths. Bodhisattvas, whether they practice the Paramitayana or Vajrayana, must respect the pratimoksa ethical codes. Thinking they are inferior or irrelevant is a transgression of the bodhisattva and tantric ethical code. The thirteenth root bodhisattva precept is “abandon causing others to discard completely their pratimoksa ethical code and embrace the Mahayana.” Being negligent of one’s pratimoksa precepts is explicitly forbidden in the bodhisattva and tantric precepts.

Bodhisattvas must set a good example for others and inspire their faith; otherwise, they will not be able to benefit sentient beings. The ninth auxiliary bodhisattva precept is to abandon “not acting according to one’s vowed trainings when it would generate or sustain faith in others,” the fifteenth is to avoid “not abandoning negative actions that cause one to have a bad reputation” and the sixteenth is to abandon “not correcting one’s own deluded actions or not helping others to correct theirs.” The second root tantric precept is to abandon “contemptuously disregarding the (pratimoksa) trainings and precepts”; the tantric pledges, recited daily in the Six Session Guru Yoga, include “I shall abandon the four roots, intoxicants, and unsuitable activities” and “maintain the ten virtues.” An auxiliary tantric commitment is to abandon “needlessly going beyond the pratimoksa or bodhisattva precepts.” Assuming higher ethical codes necessitates that we become even more diligent in keeping our pratimoksa precepts.

Bodhisattva and Tantric Ethical Codes

The bodhisattva ethical code is part of Mahayana practice and is taken with the wish to attain awakening in order to benefit all sentient beings. In Tibetan Buddhism, the bodhisattva ethical code contains eighteen root precepts and forty-six auxiliary ones. In Chinese Buddhism, the bodhisattva ethical code for monastics has ten root precepts and forty-eight auxiliary ones, whereas the bodhisattva ethical code for laypeople has six root and twenty-eight auxiliary precepts. No matter how they are enumerated, all these precepts focus on subduing self-centeredness, which is the main obstacle to generating bodhicitta and engaging in the bodhisattvas’ deeds.

The tantric ethical code found in Vajrayana Buddhism is undertaken with a more intense bodhicitta motivation—wishing to attain awakening very quickly in order to be capable of benefiting sentient beings sooner. Bodhisattva precepts and tantric precepts emphasize ethical conduct predominantly on the mental level, although certain behaviors are also regulated. Here, motivation and attitude are foremost. Based on this, some scriptures mention that all actions can become dharma actions; that is, if our motivation is pure and sincere, we can turn all actions into dharma actions. However, this does not imply an exceptional ethical perspective whereby everything a person does can indiscriminately be seen as virtuous.

According to the vinaya, where the main emphasis of the practice is on decreasing attachment, monastics are not allowed to touch money, gold, or other precious objects. However, according to the bodhisattva precepts, which presupposes some degree of control over attachment and emphasizes the welfare of others, if the donor would be hurt or feel deprived of the opportunity to create merit if we refused her monetary gift, then we should accept it. Although these actions may superficially seem contradictory, they both involve ethical precepts that apply to one person at different times in her training, according to what she is capable of at the time.

Tantric texts discuss certain behaviors that reflect a person’s having overcome polarities and preconceptions regarding such things as cleanliness or beauty. The conduct of very advanced tantric practitioners may reflect this. It is often said that their behavior cannot be spoken of in terms of precepts because their level of spiritual realization is beyond the preconceptions of inherent good and evil. We must properly understand what this means. Such people are no longer under the influence of ignorance and other afflictions; it is in that sense that they are beyond good and evil. It does not mean that they may transgress precepts at will, with no harmful results. Rather, because they have profound wisdom of ultimate reality, their minds are so thoroughly disciplined that the very purpose of precepts—to tame the unruly mind—has already been fulfilled. Having understood emptiness and dependent arising, they have great respect for ethical conduct. Although such practitioners may act unconventionally on occasion and outwardly appear to be acting contrary to precepts, no mental defilement is involved, and their actions do not harm others.

For practitioners who are not at that level—and that includes the great majority of us—we need to keep our precepts with mindfulness and introspective awareness to prevent the arising and the acting out of our afflictions. As long as we remain vulnerable to the afflictions and their latencies, ethical conduct is relevant and necessary because there is danger of causing harm to ourselves and others.

Making Mistakes and Rectifying Them

We take precepts because we are imperfect beings who are trying to tame our minds. We do our best to keep the precepts purely so that we can benefit from having them. But we also know that we’re not perfect and will make mistakes. If we could keep the precepts perfectly, we would not need to take them. The Buddha set up many ways whereby we can make amends when we transgress precepts, and by following these, we restore the purity of our precepts. In this way, we learn from our mistakes. However, if monastics transgress a root precept—such as killing a human being, stealing something of value, having sexual intercourse, or lying about spiritual attainments—with all factors complete, he or she is no longer a monastic and must return to lay life. Lay followers may retake the five precepts if they have broken them.

When we transgress a precept, it is important not to conceal it, but to reveal it and use the methods taught in the vinaya to purify both the destructive karma and the infraction of the precept. There are many stories in the sutras of people who obstinately held wrong views or refused to follow the training but later regretted their misdeeds. They went to the Buddha to reveal and confess their errors: “Venerable, a transgression overcame me, in that like a fool, confused, and blundering, I did [that behavior]. Venerable, may the Bhagavan forgive my transgression seen as such, for the sake of restraint in the future.” The Buddha then agreed that the person indeed committed a transgression and spoke of the consequences of having done so because he wanted to make sure the person understood the faults of the action. When the Buddha was sure that the person comprehended this and that his confession was genuine, he said, “Since you see your transgression as such and make amends in accordance with the Dhamma, we forgive you. For it is growth in the ariya’s discipline when one sees one’s transgression as such and makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma by undertaking restraint in the future.”

It is essential that monastics help one another by giving and receiving advice and admonishment. When a monastic misbehaves but does not acknowledge his error, individual monastics or the sangha community should advise him with a compassionate motivation so that he can correct his ways. When we receive admonishment, we must listen respectfully and contemplate what those who are senior in ordination or wiser in the precepts say. After the root precepts, the second category of precepts—the remainders (samghavasesa, sanghadisesa)—are the most serious to keep well. Many transgressions of the remainders are tied to defiantly refusing to heed advice and admonition.

Such behavior creates many hindrances to our practice. In some cases, the behavior a person is being warned against may not be naturally negative and thus itself would not create a big hindrance. However, when someone is defiant, stubbornly defends himself, and refuses to listen to wise advice, he creates obstacles to spiritual progress. For example, when the Buddha recommended that monastics eat only before noon, the monk Bhaddali told the Buddha he was not willing to do that and announced to the sangha as well that he refused to undertake that training (MN 65). While eating after noon is not naturally negative, Bhaddali’s attitude of clinging to his own ideas created the obstacle. Although it can sometimes be hard to listen to others when our self-centered attitude is strong, for our own benefit we should try to take in the compassionate counsel that those wiser than us offer.

If we keep our precepts well and take the essence of our precious human lives, our minds will transform and we will be able to accomplish much that is of benefit to ourselves and others. How is this to be done? Sariputta recommended the following:

Here disciples of the Teacher who live secluded train in seclusion; they abandon what the Teacher tells them to abandon; they are not luxurious and careless; they are keen to avoid backsliding and are leaders in seclusion. (Majjhima Nikaya 3.7)

Sariputta goes on to say the real evil is greed and hatred, anger and revenge, contempt and domination, envy and avarice, deceit and fraud, obstinacy and presumption, conceit and arrogance, vanity and negligence. In other words, “seclusion” means isolation from afflictions, destructive actions, and the eight worldly concerns. Seclusion from self-centeredness and self-grasping ignorance are best. Someone could live in seclusion in a remote place far from other living beings and still have a mind filled with negativities and distractions. Genuine seclusion entails conscientiousness, mindfulness, introspective awareness, integrity, and consideration for others. In short, seclusion is to train our minds so they become one with the dharma.

Precepts give structure to our physical and verbal actions and stimulate us to examine our minds, for only by working with our views and emotions can we keep the pratimoksa precepts well.

Adapted from Following in the Buddha’s Footsteps, by the Dalai Lama with Thubten Chodron (Wisdom Publications, October 2019)

Thubten Chodron

Thubten Chodron

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron is the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington, and the author of Don’t Believe Everything You Think. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 and received full bhikshuni ordination in Taiwan in 1986.
The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Unique in the world today, he is a statesman, national leader, spiritual teacher, and deeply learned theologian. He advocates a universal “religion of human kindness” that transcends sectarian differences. The Dalai Lama is universally respected as a spokesman for the peaceful and compassionate resolution of conflict. He has also been actively involved in bringing together Western scientists and Buddhist meditators, and is a founder of the Mind & Life Institute where such meetings of the minds can take place.