Awakening the Heart: Ethics


Part 2 in a series of posts about improving any type of relationship by practicing basic Buddhist teachings, based on a retreat taught by the lamas at the Buddhist temple where I work. The six basic Paramitas (a word which means ‘going beyond’): generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. For this series of posts, I will be writing about the first three Paramitas, which focus on our relationship with others (the second three Paramitas, equally important, have more to do with our inner selves). [Read Part 1, Generosity, here]


Merriam-Webster defines “ethics” as such:

ethics: an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior | a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong

That’s a pretty general description. How, then, does the topic of ethics apply to interpersonal relationships? Buddhism has a few things to say about that.

Ethics in this context is not about judgment between right and wrong, good and bad, and whether someone is or isn’t. In Buddhism, ethics is more about refining, sort of like editing a piece of writing. We take a closer look at our conduct, how we relate to others, and noticing both of these things. After that, ethics refers to what we do about it.

In doing so, we develop a vigilance about our behavior. This does not mean that we nit-pick or brow-beat ourselves for every mistake. Mistakes are useful for us because we learn from them! A rather obvious concept, one I’m sure you’ve heard before, but so difficult for us to embrace.

Of course there are different levels of “mistakes.” One could say that consuming caffeine before bedtime is a mistake. One could also say that driving drunk and causing someone’s death is a mistake. In that case, “mistake” is a tremendous understatement, but one would hope that those responsible for such a tragedy would learn from it, at the very least. There are unfortunately those who don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it is because they have not developed a vigilance about their behavior. Learning from mistakes usually requires changing our behavior, and some people (of those who have the ability to do so) choose not to.

When we take a closer look at our behavior, the refining part of ethics also teaches us to adopt what is beneficial and reject what is harmful. We let go of what doesn’t serve ourselves or others. It sounds lofty – “what doesn’t serve ourselves or others” – but how does that translate in the real world?  Certain emotions spring to mind – jealousy, anger, resentment. Gossiping fits the bill. Excess TV-watching. These are not “bad” or “wrong” things, as the dictionary defines ethics. But if we are refining our behavior, we might question how these things are serving us.

On the flipside, beneficial behavior would be acceptance, forgiveness, and motivation. Don’t be jealous because your co-worker bought a new car. Look at your behavior (spending vs. saving, industriousness to increase your income vs. excess TV-watching) and be motivated. If she can afford something she really wants, you can too. Refine your behavior. Adopt what is beneficial.

As there are different levels of mistakes, there are different levels of difficulty in letting go of what does not serve you. For example, if you had been abused as a child, of course you have the right to be angry and resentful. You have every right to feel that way. But, ultimately, how do those feelings affect you? Does continuing to be angry make the pain go away? If anything, it only adds to your pain to hold onto it. Letting go of this level of pain requires much work and/or professional help, but it is worth it for your well-being. Reject what is harmful.

Everything we do affects the world around us, including ourselves. Our lives are interdependent, which is why refining our behavior, adopting what is beneficial, and rejecting what is harmful are decisions worth making. And actions worth taking.

One thought on “Awakening the Heart: Ethics

  1. What a nice summary. I have cut and pasted it to my partner because you express so simply what it takes me years to say :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *