Ethics and Inspiring the Mind

I’ve read a lot in the Buddhist Blogosphere recently on the subject of ethics, as part of the on-going discussion about the secularization of “mindfulness.” The concern for some folks is that as Buddhist meditation moves further into the secular mainstream, it has lost its original ethical component.

I share the concern to some extent, but don’t know enough about the various secular applications of Buddhist meditation to feel confident about wading very far into the discussion. However, I do like to think I am competent to say a few words about “Buddhist ethics.”

Buddhism and Jainism were the first Indian spiritual paths to contain a strong moral element. The Buddhist take was that as suffering was produced by ignorance (avidya), it was necessary to destroy ignorance in order to bring an end to suffering. The state of no-suffering was called awakening, and the Buddha taught that one could not awaken merely through intuition, mystical ritual, or the practice of austerities as other Indian systems had previously maintained. For the Buddha, a progressive advancement in the practice of moral conduct (coupled with meditation) was essential.

An emphasis on morality in other spiritualities, particularly those in the West, has often led to moralizing, which is almost universally viewed as preaching moral values in “a self-righteous or tiresome way.” Buddhism was able to avoid this by focusing on karma (no need to judge or condemn because wrongdoing inevitably results in karmic retribution) and through promoting bhavana or self-development (as one progresses in awakening, ethical behavior arises in an organic way).

Buddhism and Jainism are very similar, and this is the case with Buddhism and Taoism, too. For many, Taoism appears to lack a moral vision, especially when compared to the ethical teachings of the other major Chinese path, Confucianism.

In Mystics and Zen Masters, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who was an ardent student of Eastern philosophy, questioned whether Taoist quietism and “non-action” (wu-wei) didn’t play right into the hands of the totalitarian Chinese communists:

“Theirs is a way of ‘non-action,’ which is falsely interpreted as pure quietism when in reality it is a policy of non-interference and an abstention from useless and artificial action. Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism.” ( 54)

I’m not sure how Merton felt about it, but there are those who feel that ethics in Buddhism should be expressed as social and political action, and since Buddha-dharma seems deficient in this regard, to them it means Buddhism is “absent”. I can’t help but feel this point of view stems from a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Buddhist dharma.

Like Taoism, Buddhism has never been a social action movement. Buddhism is self-help.  As odious and “bourgeois” as that may sound to some, it is nonetheless dead-on. As I pointed out in my March 30th post, bhavana or “self-development” is the word frequently used by the Buddha for meditation. If, because of one’s self-development, a choice is made to engage in social action, it is highly commendable. But it is not the prime point of Buddhism’s ethical thrust.

In The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke offers an excellent explanation for how Taoism conveys the moral ideal:

sage001bTaoism teaches an ‘ethics’ of ‘self-cultivation’ . . . At the heart of this is the idea of the sage who, through mirroring and cultivating himself in the way of nature, the dao, exemplifies but does not specify in law-like terms the way for others; like an artist, his self-creative activity should inspire rather than be imitated.” (95)

You can replace the word “sage” with Buddha or Bodhisattva and arrive at the heart of Buddhism. Imitate means to “take or follow as a model.” Inspire means “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” It seems to me that inspiration must come from a deeper place in one’s being than imitation.

I recently came across a blog post by a fellow who has had a somewhat high profile in Buddhist circles in recent years and he was explaining why he was quitting his blog and stepping away from Buddhism. The reasons he gave included the notions mentioned above: a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action, the self-help/feel-good-about-yourself focus. I’ve seen this often, people get very involved in dharma for a short time and then they burn out. I think now I understand why this happens. They’ve learned the teachings and learned from them, but they haven’t been deeply inspired.

The kind of inspiration I’m referring to should stimulate within us a genuine eagerness to be an example to others of how to live ethically and with compassion. There’s no need to teach ethics or preach morality, yet it is important that we find ways to inspire these values.

But first, we have to be a good example for ourselves.  Like it or not, it is difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself, or you are uncomfortable about your own life. So, again, it all comes down to one’s personal development. Our first and foremost task is to win over ourselves.

This may sound pompous and/or self-serving, but I cannot imagine ever turning back, stepping back, or quitting the dharma because I am inspired. What’s more, I am continually inspired.

Q: Do practitioners inspire their own minds or do others induce their inspiration?

A: It has nothing to do with self and others, it is just a matter of inspiration of the mind through response to an inner sense of contact with truth.

Chih-i, “Mo Ho Chih Kuan” (tr. Thomas Cleary)


10 Comments for “Ethics and Inspiring the Mind”



“a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action”

He got that totally wrong.

One of the reasons buddhism literally took over entire east was because of its “societal focus”…unlike other religions of those times. Bodhicitta (“well-being of all humanity”) was considered the epitome.

This whole self-help focus has only been popular since the last ~50 years. Mostly by people who took up buddhism on their own (so in a way they are self-help buddhists).

If you look at early buddhism, it was all about mingling with society and “curing it” – (going for alms rounds, teaching dharma to all). I argue this is the “purest social action” there is, better than any other. And, it had a sound theory, logic and reasoning to boot. Like that english proverb – “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

I believe, Buddha is not suggesting ethics/morality for its own sake, or some god said so. There are logical/practical reasons for it. At the very core, one needs to let go of all attachments/tendencies to transcend suffering. Immorality is a behavioral tendency, like everything else. It is a form of attachment. It builds up inertia, propensity to those actions (aka “karma”). With these inertias in-place, it is impossible for one to have uninterrupted clear focus, concentration (as required by noble eight fold path). You are literally becoming (very slowly) it, any time, every time you “do” something.

And at more mundane level, non-ethical-behaviors/immorality are distractions at the least, and “mental hell” at the worst. They have no benefits, waste-of-time, causes one to loose focus on hand at task (self-observation, curing of suffering).

As far as inspiration goes, what is better motivation than absolute understanding of your own self – Full and absolute understanding of suffering, and its end. Is there any other activity more precious than this ? And I am not even talking about side-benefits like wholesome wisdom, mental strength, clarity, peace of mind, the list goes on.

I echo your “I am continually inspired”



I agree that from the very beginning there was a emphasis in Buddhism on interaction with society, as opposed to withdrawal from society. I am not too sure the idea behind this interaction was to provide a cure. As I understand it, the prevalent notion was that a change in one person would have a ripple effect, and so there was a strong element of solitary-ness, i.e. the Pratyekabuddhas, who realized awakening for themselves and did not really teach dharma to others. Bodhicitta didn’t become an important element until the rise of Mahayana and even then with the Bodhisattva ideal, there was nothing like a movement of social action, except here and there.

I really do have to disagree about “self-help.” To my mind, its always been there.



There is no question, Buddhism is about one’s self. Thus “self-help” is indirectly implied, and was always there. It is usually the main motivation for adherents in the first place. Indeed, Four noble truths is all about one’s self only – not society.

My point was that, over the last 50 years, “self-help” became more selfish… it became a goal in itself, and achievement to achieve. This is totally opposite to the teaching of “no-self”, non-duality. Ultimately, everything is just a practice, a tool. to shape one’s self into a non-self (nirvana, end of suffering).

Social action of buddhism is not so much about “Society” in itself, rather, it is a form of exercise (more precisely, “karma”). This is actively nurtured in one’s self, cultivated, as it help’s one to let go of the selfish tendencies. This may seem selfish, but no matter the intent, the action is done with full heart (one would not get the intended results if not). So ultimately it really results in good social action. This is no conflict here. It actually makes perfect sense, non-dualistically speaking .

I agree bodhicitta was “formally” practiced much later (codified by some mahayana), but I believe the intent/feeling/practice of its essence was always there from beginning , starting with buddha himself.



What is better – Social Movements to steer humans into so called progress (who defines this, anyways), or, plain preaching of dharma (aka “a way to end one’s own suffering”) as social action.

Does going into poor countries and converting them into your religion count as good social action ? particularly when your religion is more about god in the sky, rather than individual suffering. Or does going into poor black neighborhoods in US and seeking their social change (again, definition of this is important), a better social action ? compared to giving them the gift of dharma, and showing the way to end-of-suffering for once and all ?

A genuine compassion is not possible with an agenda.

If i were a poor , unfortunate person, needing help from social action of others, what would I want it to be….Looking back 20 years from now ? Sure, getting me out of poverty is helpful (some poor are more happy than rich, lets forget that for a minute), or better education (some uneducated have better ethics than educated) ??? or may be more material things ?? . I would rather want that social action to be about dharma, educate me on practices that helps me transform my self, force me into good habits (dharma).

In this sense, Buddhism is itself a social movement/action. It was never a religion….until westerners started called it a religion on par with christianity or islam. Any other social actions or movements, that are not about dharma, are ridden with agendas and sometimes cause more damage than help (particularly over longer term).

“give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Eternity is more like it.



Red, I think social movements are necessary and important. All I was saying in the post is that they are not the main focus of Buddhism. The approach of Buddhism is like that famous Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in the world. Buddhists change themselves, and then, they change the world.

And I agree with you that Buddhism was not a religion until Westerners started calling it one. Buddhism was and is a path. Again, a different animal, so to speak.



Even if one wants to do so called social action/movement, I believe there is no better than preaching “dharma”. Everything else seems to fall short (my opinion).

So, in this sense, saying its not the “main focus” of buddhism is not entirely true. I believe the advanced gurus could see no better social movement/action than preaching dharma.

And, this is exactly what the “buddhists” were doing for the past ~2500 years. What else would we expect from somebody like, say, Nagarjuna or Shantideva ? Start a half-baked socialism movement ? They know too much (wholesome wisdom)…they have a working “theory of everything”, thats just mindbogglingly logical, and practical. Kind of, “cure for all” (my opinion).

Even if they were successful partially, that is like giving a gem of a gift. Any other kind of social movement/action results dont even come close.

We can argue the efficiency of this whole approach, and I would agree it was (and is) not the effective in reaching more folks….BUT, they had a good run. Just imagine conquering entire east without a single weapon. And this is exactly what Buddha achieved. And the future only looks bright, as more people get free info on the internet, and freedom to think/make-up-their-mind.



As far as I know, up to this moment, I think there isn’t any religion is more involve to help the social development better than Buddhism. The goal of buddhism is to accomplish the fact of “Oneness” since the first enlightenment moment of the Buddha in 2800 years ago. He said the true nature of all sentient beings are the same, we all carry the same compassionate buddha nature, everyone is part of the creator of the universe. If you are the true mindfulness practitioner, you should be able to see “oneness” clearly, because mindfulness practice is to help us to “See thing as it is” from the true nature point of view. If not, that means you might not be following the right meditation method.

The principle of Buddha’s teaching is about following the “Truth” of how universe & life works in order for us to live in harmony. A society came from individuals, every individual is the root of a society, buddhism is always looking to solve the problem from the root cause.

The foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is The Five Precepts: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, and no intoxicants.

If every individual is able to follow the five precepts, not only they can live happily in peace, the society and the whole world will be in peace as well.

BTW, how could you count on any words that came from someone like Thomas Merton who is the believer of the creator “god” to talk about the science based Buddhism, Zen or Taoism?

Please note:

1. “non-action” (wu-wei) means “pure quietism”, means follow the way of how nature works instead of against it.

2. Bhavana literally means “development” or “cultivating” or “producing”. When used on its own bhavana signifies ‘spiritual cultivation’ NOT self-development.



Hi Ying. Thanks for leaving the comment. I am in complete agreement with you that Buddhism is the one spiritual path best able to help us cure our social problems. I hope that as Buddhist teachings continue to enter into our collective consciousness, more individuals and social action groups will draw on the teachings for inspiration and direction.

I also tend to think as you do regarding comments about Buddhism and Taoism from people who believe in God. As far as I’m concerned God is a delusion and as long as someone clings to this delusion, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see things “as they truly are.” In previous mentions of Merton on the blog, I believe I had said that I can’t find myself in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern philosophy. Nonetheless, he was an important figure as he helped popularize Eastern thought in the West. In respect to the quote in this post, all he’s saying is that the communists falsely interpreted the concept of wu-wei, and I think that’s a reasonable comment.

And you are right about bhavana. I probably should have explained why I tack “self” onto it, and the reason is that since the context of the cultivation is subjective, I think it helps to clarify what we’re talking about.


I wonder if perhaps both phrases – self help and social movement – have a modernist tinged sense to them that does not apply to medieval and ancient societies.

“self help” in the 21st century applies to a “self’ that most likely didn’t exist before the modern era – 500 years ago, much less 2500 years ago (something of this can be seen in the fact that things like “borderline personality disorder’ probably couldn’t have existed more than 70-80 years ago – in fact, mental health workers at the time were speculating about a new kind of disorder they were seeing – something to do with the breakdown of modern society which led to a fragmentation of the ‘ordinary” self that is unique to our times.

Similarly, ‘social movements” of the last 100-300 years are interdependent (they ‘inter-are” as Thay might say) with the radically unbalanced nature of modern Western civilization (about which Gandhi said, “my opinion of Western civilization? I think it would be a good idea”). Older, (wiser?) societies had an intermixing of self (atta) and society in a way almost inconceivable to us moderns, who are experiencing the aftermath of the breakdown of culture and family (and think that “nuclear family” is some kind of goal as opposed to a radically pathological reflection of the larger breakdown of civilization).

I’m not sure about the Theravadins, but the later Tantric Buddhists certainly “saw” (in a radically non-materialistic way) that it is impossible to even manifest one positive thought without affecting the entire cosmos. How does one even begin to talk about such a thing with the modern social change Buddhists, many if not most of whom think Stephen Batchelor understands Buddhism.



Don, I think attaching new meanings to old terms is unavoidable, and always has been. What the Mahayanists meant when they used certain terms did not always coincide exactly with what a Theravadin meant. On the other hand, some people can get carried away, like Mr. Batchelor does sometimes. And then on the other other hand, people get too hung up on the meanings of words, and ultimately, the meanings are meaningless. Now, I do think it is easier to talk about a single thought affecting the entire universe because there is social change. Robert Kennedy expressed it well using the metaphor “Ribbon of Hope.”

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