Other religions derive their ideas of right and wrong from the commandments of their god or gods. You Buddhists don't believe in a god, so how do you know right from wrong?
Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving, love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good.
To know what is right and wrong in god-centred religions, all that is needed is to do as you are told. But in a man-centred religion like Buddhism, to know what is right and wrong, you have to develop a deep self-awareness and self understanding. And ethics based on understanding are always stronger than those that are a response to a command.
So to know what is right and wrong, the Buddhist looks at three things - the intention, the effect the act will have upon oneself and the effect it will upon others. If the intention is good (rooted in giving, loving and wisdom), if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and moral. Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes I act with the best of intentions but they may not benefit either myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but my actions helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress to others. In such cases, my actions are mixed - a mixture of good and not-so-good. When intentions are bad and the action helps neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others, then the deed is wholly good.
So does Buddhism have a code of morality?
Yes it does. The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. The first precept is to avoid killing or harming living beings. The second is to avoid stealing, the third is to avoid sexual misconduct, the fourth is to avoid lying and the fifth is to avoid alcohol and other intoxicating drugs.
But surely it is good to kill sometimes. To kill disease-spreading insects, for example, or someone who is going to kill you?
It might be good for you. But what about that thing or that person? They wish to live, just as you do. When you decide to kill a disease-spreading insect, your intention is perhaps a mixture of self-concern (good) and revulsion (bad). The act will benefit yourself (good) but obviously it will not benefit that creature (bad). So at times it may be necessary to kill but it is never totally good.
You Buddhists are too concerned about ants and bugs.
Buddhists strive to develop a compassion that is undiscriminating and all-embracing. They see the world as a unified whole where each thing and creature has its place and function. They believe that before we destroy or upset nature's delicate balance, we should be very careful. Just look at those cultures where emphasis is on exploiting nature to the full, squeezing every last drop out of it without putting anything back, conquering and subduing it. Nature has revolted. The very air is becoming poisoned, the rivers are polluted and dead, so many beautiful animal species are extinct, the slopes of the mountains are barren and eroded. Even the climate is changing. If people were a little less anxious to crush, destroy and kill, this terrible situation may have not arisen. We should all strive to develop a little more respect for life. And this is what the first precept is saying.
The Third Precept says we should avoid sexual misconduct. What is "sexual misconduct"?
If we use trickery, emotioal blackmail or force to compel someone to have sex with us, then this is sexual misconduct. Adultery is also a form of sexual misconduct because when we marry we promise our spouse that we will be loyal to them. When we commit adultery we break that promise and betray that trust. Sex should be an expression of love and intimicy between two people and when it is it contributes to our mental and emotional well-being.
Is sex before marriage a type of sexual misconduct?
Not if there is love and mutual agreement between two people. However, it should never be forgotten that the biological function of sex is to reproduce and if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant it can cause a great deal of problems. Many mature and thoughtful people think it is far better to leave sex until after marriage.
But what about lying? Is it possible to live without telling lies?
If it is really impossible to get by in society or business without lying, such a shocking and corrupt state of affairs should be changed. The Buddhist is someone who resolves to do something practical about the problem by trying to be more truthful and honest.
Well, what about alcohol? Surely a little drink doesn't hurt!
People don't drink for the taste. When they drink alone it is in order to seek release from tension and when they drink socially, it is usually to conform. Even a small amount of alcohol distorts consciousness and disrupts self-awareness. Taken in large quantities, its effects can be devastating.
Drinking a small amount wouldn't be really breaking the precept, would it? It's only a small thing.
Yes, it is only a small thing and if you can't practise even a small thing, your commitment and resolution isn't very strong, is it?
The five precepts are negative. They tell you what not to do. They don't tell you what to do.
The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. They are not all of it. We start by recognizing our bad behaviour and striving to stop doing it. That is what the Five Precepts are for. After we have stopped doing bad, we then commence to do good. Take for example, speech. The Buddha says we should start by refraining from telling lies. After that, we should speak the truth, speak gently and politely and speak at the right time. He says:
"Giving up false speech he becomes a speaker of truth, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Giving up malicious speech he does not repeat there what he has heard here what he has heard there in order to cause variance between people. He reconciles those who are divided and brings closer together those who are already friends. Harmony is his joy, harmony is his delight, harmony is his love; it is the motive of his speech. Giving up harsh speech his speech is blameless, pleasing to the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, liked by most. Giving up idle chatter he speaks at the right time, what is correct to the point, about Dhamma and about discipline. He speaks words worth being treasured up, seasonable, reasonable, well defined and to the point".