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Download an E-book in *.epub FormatDownload in Mobi Format for Kindle/NookBhikkhu Pesala

Ethical Dilemmas

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(Includes “The Problems of Life” by Venerable Mahāsi Sayādaw)



Is Abortion Always Wrong?

Is Disability the Result of Kamma?

Are True Buddhists Vegetarians?

Are Tantric Practices the Buddha's Teaching?

Does Hell Really Exist?

Free Speech versus Right Speech


People ask questions for many different reasons. What I call a genuine question is asked because some­one wants to clarify their doubts. Many people ask questions merely to state their own opinion. I am often caught out by such people because I assume that they want to know what the Buddha taught. Whatever people ask, I always give my candid opinion based on what I have read, and what I have heard from wise teachers, which is the best that any­one can do.

Buddhist monks should not misrepresent the Buddha, so I always check if I am doubtful about something. If anyone does not agree with my opinions they should carefully study the texts and Commentaries and come to their own conclusions. No one should state their own opinion as the teaching of the Buddha. They can express their opinion, but they should say, “This is what I think.”

Only the Omniscient Buddha knows the precise cause of any particular result. A wise person should study the Buddha’s teaching carefully before coming to any firm conclusions. Since we alone are responsible for our own actions, we should decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, after carefully considering the advice of respected teachers and religious leaders.

Is Abortion Always Wrong?

Is abortion always wrong?

What if a woman is the victim of rape?

Surely she shouldn’t have to bring up a rapist’s child?

Abortion means the deliberate destruction of a human life, which is a serious un­whole­some kamma, whatever the justifica­tion. Let us first be clear about the Buddha’s teaching on causing abortion. If a Buddhist monk speaks in praise of causing abortion, or prescribes medicine to cause an abortion, and if a woman following his advice has an abortion, he is guilty of the serious offence of killing a human being. He is no longer a monk, and must disrobe immediately. The same is true of speaking in praise of euthanasia, as mentioned in The Problems of Life by the Venerable Mahāsi Sayādaw. No distinction is made between an adult human being and a foetus just after conception. The Buddha’s teaching says that life begins at conception, so abortion is the unwholesome deed of killing a human being. You should have no doubt about this.

One who has realised nibbāna is incapable of deliberately killing even a snake or a scorpion, let alone a human being. All Buddhists should follow the five precepts to the best of their ability, though we accept that ordinary people will not have perfect morality. Nevertheless, one who has strong faith in the Buddha’s teaching does not break the precepts even to save his or her own life.

A monk named Cakkhupāla made a vow not to lie down for the entire rainy season. He contracted an eye-disease, and the doctor told him to put in the eye-drops while lying down. Still he would not lie down, and he went blind, simultaneously gaining ­Arahantship. An ordinary person might say that he went blind because he did not take the medicine, but the Buddha pointed out the root cause. In a former life he was a doctor. When a patient he was treating refused to pay him, he prescribed one more course of medicine for her that made her go blind. Because of that evil kamma, he went blind in his final life as Cakkhupāla. His determination not to break his vow enabled him to attain Arahantship, so he put an end to suffering for ever. Going blind was inevitable for him because of his previous evil kamma. If he had taken the medicine, his kamma might not have given its result so soon, but there was no way he could have avoided it.

If a woman is raped, though she has done nothing wrong, she has to endure dreadful humiliation. If she accuses the man in court she is liable to be cross-­examined by the man’s defence lawyers, who will insinuate that she led the man on, and consented to sex by inviting him into her flat, etc. If her behaviour was completely blameless, she still has to suffer. All this suffering has a cause that is hidden from our view. Those who do not believe in previous lives look for other reasons to explain why a woman is raped, such as provocative clothing or licentious behaviour. These may be contributory factors, but even nuns, old women, and children sometimes get raped. There must be some other reason why a particu­lar woman falls victim to this awful crime.

Let us consider what happens to the rapist. If the prosecution case fails, does he get off completely free? Not according to Buddhism he doesn’t. Whatever action we do, good or bad, will have a result. If a man commits rape, he is liable to be reborn in hell after death. There, he will suffer torment until most of his evil kamma has given its result. We can infer that when reborn again as a human being, he may be a woman who is the victim of rape or other sexual abuse.

This is a reasonable explanation of why an apparently innocent person has to suffer appalling injustice. Only a Buddha can say precisely what cause leads to what result, but there are many stories in the Buddhist scriptures where the punishment fits the crime very well indeed:

  1. A man abused a Solitary Buddha, calling him a leper. He was reborn as Suppabuddha, a leper in the time of Gotama Buddha.
  2. A goldsmith who committed adultery shamelessly was reborn as a goat, a monkey, then a bull; and was ­castrated on each occasion. Then he was reborn as the wife of Sakka for five existences, then he suffered as a king’s daughter. Then he was reborn as a male deity, and finally he was reborn as the Buddha’s cousin, Ānanda — and he was still rather popular with women.
  3. Urged by his wife, a man beat his elderly and blind parents to death. After suffering in hell, he was reborn as Venerable Moggallāna, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples. He gained Arahantship and mastered all of the psychic powers, but he was beaten to death by robbers, as his psychic powers could no longer save him from the greater power of his previous kamma. Venerable Moggallāna was an Arahant, he had no anger whatso­ever for the robbers who were beating him to death, but his previous kamma had to give its result.
  4. In the time of a former Buddha, a jealous monk threw away the food given by his supporters for an Arahant, because he wanted to drive him away. In the time of the Buddha he became a monk, but he never got enough to eat throughout his life.
  5. In the time of Buddha Sikhī a group of nuns paid homage at a pagoda. When they left, one bhikkhuṇī going in front, who was an Arahant, spat out a piece of phlegm. Seeing the spittle on the ground, a bhikkhuṇī who was following said, “What kind of whore would spit in a place like this?” In the time of Gotama Buddha she was reborn at the foot of a mango tree in the king’s garden, and abandoned. King Bimbisāra found her and she was brought up in the royal household. Because she was found at the foot of a mango tree, she was called “Ambapāli.” Due to her former practice of the nun’s morality, she was extremely beautiful. When she came of age, all the young nobles vied for her hand in marriage, and were ready to kill one another to get her. To settle the matter amicably the ministers decided that she would belong to everyone, so she was established as a courtesan. Thus, due to abusing an Arahant as a whore, she became a prostitute. Wealthy nobles paid one thousand a night to sleep with her, so she became wealthy. She donated the Ambapāli mango grove to the Saṅgha, became a bhikkhuṇī at a mature age, and gained Arahantship.

All of these stories show that kamma is an almighty force. No one can escape its effects, not even an Omni­scient Buddha. Though a Buddha or an Arahant does not suffer mentally when abused or beaten, he still has to endure the physical effects of previous kamma. Ordinary people have to suffer the results of previous kamma too, but they also suffer mentally. If they are not wise, they make fresh unwholesome kamma. Being abused as a result of abusing others, they abuse the abuser in return, earning more abuse for the future.

Not everything is the result of previous kamma, but nothing happens without a reason. For some things, previous kamma is the only reasonable explanation.

If one aborts a foetus for any reason, one is making unwholesome kamma resulting in being aborted oneself in the future, or being killed early in one’s life. If one has faith in the law of kamma, one will never do such a cruel deed to a defenceless foetus. Such actions are unthinkable for a true Buddhist. A Buddhist should carefully examine the facts, accepting the current situation as a result of previous causes, then act pragmatically with compassion, mindful of the inexorable law of kamma.

When the wife of King Bimbisāra was pregnant she had bad dreams and desired to drink the king’s blood. Astrologers predicted that the child would kill his own father, so the queen tried to abort the child. All of her attempts failed, and the pious king had her guarded carefully to prevent any further attempts on his heir’s life. The boy was named Ajātasattu — unborn enemy.

Misled by the wicked monk, Devadatta, Prince Ajātasattu, killed his own father as predicted. Though he realised his mistake after the birth of his own son, it was too late. He reformed himself and supported the Saṅgha to the end of his life, but inevitably had to suffer in hell after death due to the heavy kamma of killing his own father. Until he heard the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, he had many sleepless nights, but after gaining confidence in the true Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha he gained some peace of mind. He became a devout supporter of the Saṅgha, and after the Buddha’s passing away he sponsored the First Buddhist Council at Rājagaha, but he was murdered by his own son.

So if a woman has an abortion, or someone encourages her to have one, they both make heavy unwholesome kamma. Social values in the West need to change. Men need to be more protective of women, and women should want to preserve decent sexual values, since they are the most vulnerable. Why do women allow themselves to be sexually exploited? Every woman who poses half-naked for a magazine, or who walks about improperly dressed, showing what should be seen only by her husband, is per­petu­ating unwholesome sexual morals. She is not asking to be raped, but she is using her femininity to manipulate men to do her bidding. Men can resist everything except temptation.

In civilized cultures, women do not travel alone, or sit alone with unrelated men. They keep their bodies well covered, and sexual exploitation is less common. To reverse social trends is now very difficult, but if the Buddha’s teaching was widely accepted and practised, abortion would not be condoned, nor would it be considered as the best solution to an unwanted pregnancy.

What kind of sense does it make to kill thousands of babies in the womb, and then pay thousands of pounds for fertility treatment or surrogacy?

Is Disability the Result of Kamma?

Are the disabled suffering from the results of evil kamma done in a previous life?

England football captain, Glen Hoddle, lost his job because he gave his opinion on this question. Perhaps football players should not answer such questions, but monks should try to answer ethical dilemmas to arouse faith in the law of kamma. Right understanding of the law of kamma will help us to come to terms with suffering.

This is what the Buddha said in the Lesser Discourse on the Analysis of Kamma: “Some man or woman is given to injuring living beings with the hand, a stone, a stick, or a knife. Because of such actions, on the dissolution of the body after death, he or she reappears in a state of deprivation, even in hell. However, if not born in hell, if reborn as a human being, he or she suffers from poor health.” (M.iii.204)

So congenital diseases are the result of bad kamma in a previous life. The results do not always manifest at birth, but can appear whenever the conditions are ripe, as illustrated by the story of Cakkhupāla given above.

However, the law of kamma is not fatalism. Not every effect is due to kamma from a previous life. If one treads on thorns, trusting in one’s good kamma for protection, one will still get one’s feet pricked. If one smokes, drinks too much, or eats unhealthy food, one will suffer from diseases. Good kamma in the present life can prevent past bad kamma from giving its results, but present bad kamma can help it to manifest to the full. A simile will clarify how past and present kammas function together.

A certain minister was the favourite of a king. He abused his privileged position by demanding bribes, confiscating others’ property, and abusing young women. His victims dared not complain to the king, who would not tolerate any criticism of his friend. However, one day the minister did something to annoy the king, and the king had him thrown into prison. On hearing that the minister was in prison, one of his victims came forward and complained to the king. The king investigated the complaint, and finding it to be true, inflicted further punishment on the minister. Then everyone who had suffered at the minister’s hands came forward, and the king had him put to death.

“When a fool does evil deeds he does not realise their evil nature.
By his own deeds the stupid man is tormented, as if burnt by fire.” (Dhp v 136)

Past evil kammas cannot give their results if strong good kammas are now manifesting, but when present evil kammas are done, the door of opportunity is left open for the results of past evil to appear.

Conversely, one who does many good kammas in this life may still have to suffer due to the fruition of evil kammas from a previous life. However, when some good kammas begin to give their results, conditions will be favourable for the results of further good kamma to appear. Moving to a new country can bring many benefits.

Are True Buddhists Vegetarians?

Are true Buddhists vegetarians?

The eating of meat inevitably involves the killing of animals, why do most Buddhists eat meat and fish? Shouldn’t all Buddhists be vegetarians or vegans?

Intention is called kamma. The Buddha permitted monks to eat meat and fish, provided they have not seen, heard, nor suspected that the animal was killed specifically to offer meat to them. This applies equally to fish, fertile eggs, and other living things such as lizards or insects.

In this world, the vast majority of people are not vegetarians. If monks had to be vegetarians, it would be difficult for them to propagate Buddhism. Although Buddhists should not kill living beings, they can eat the meat of animals killed by others, provided they are free from involvement on four counts:

  1. They do not kill by their own hand.
  2. They do not urge others to kill.
  3. They do no condone killing.
  4. They do not speak in praise of killing.

Even if Buddhists do not buy meat and fish, non-Buddhists, and even some Buddhists, will kill living beings for the sake of a livelihood. The unwholesome kamma of killing is made only by the perpetrator, unless one urges, condones, or speaks in praise of that action.

Growing vegetables also entails the deliberate killing of pests and insects that feed on crops, but by buying vegetables one is not condoning that killing. A Buddhist farmer might be able to produce organic crops without the help of insecticides and pesticides, but his products are likely to be more expensive.

Vegetarians and strict vegans are blameless if they choose not to eat meat or dairy products, but we cannot say that meat-eating is blameworthy in itself, unless one is involved in killing. Butchers who sell meat are not directly involved in the slaughter of animals. Only those who sell livestock for slaughter, and those involved in slaughtering, are guilty of killing living-beings.

The majority of Theravāda Buddhists are not vegetarians, and some are certainly guilty of condoning killing. Mahāyāna and western Buddhists are often strict vegetarians. Many Buddhists are too fond of meat and fish, they should reflect mindfully while eating to be free from excessive craving. A varied diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and low in fat, is best for health. Vegetables are cheaper than meat and more healthy.

A true Buddhist should be content to eat any kind of food, mindfully reflecting, “I take this food, not for enjoyment, but only for the sake of nutrition.” If vegetarians take food unmindfully with attachment to the taste, taking pride in being more virtuous than others, or have strong aversion to the smell or taste of meat, they will be making unwholesome kamma.

If you are still doubtful about this, please read the ­Āmagandha Sutta of the Suttanipāta (vv 242-255), where the Buddha Kassapa makes it crystal clear that immorality is stench, not the eating of flesh.

Are Tantric Practices the Buddha's Teaching?

Are Tantric practices the Buddha’s teaching? In his book (translated by Jeffrey Hopkins), “How to Practice, The Way to a Meaningful Life,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:

“For Buddhists, sexual intercourse can be used in the spiritual path because it causes a strong focusing on consciousness if the practitioner has firm compassion and wisdom. Its purpose is to manifest and prolong deeper levels of mind (described earlier with respect to the process of dying), in order to put their power to use in strengthening the realization of emptiness. Otherwise, mere intercourse has nothing to do with spiritual cultivation. When a person has achieved a high level of practice in motivation and wisdom, then even the joining of the two sex organs or so-called intercourse, does not detract from the maintenance of that person’s pure behavior…”

No. These teachings are from Hinduism, not Buddhism. According to the Vinaya rule, if a monk engages in any kind of penetrative sexual intercourse with a woman or a man, or even a corpse or an animal, whether he emits semen or not, he is defeated, and no longer a monk. However, if a monk or nun does not consent to sexual intercourse, or was insane at the time, there is no offence.

If a monk engages in some other sexual contact, which falls short of penetrative sexual intercourse, he has committed an offence requiring a formal meeting of the Saṅgha.

If a monk thinks there is no danger in sexual intercourse, he should read the next question. Even if a monk says that sexual intercourse can be used for spiritual practice, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has himself participated in such practices. If he has, then he should be dealt with according to the rule. No one should make unsubstantiated allegations of defeat. To do so would lead to rebirth in hell. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread! For details, please refer to Should One Criticise Shameless and Immoral Monks?

Does Hell Really Exist?

Does hell really exist?

Where is it?

Don’t religions teach about hell just to scare the naïve away from evil deeds?

The Buddha described hell in detail in the Discourse on the Foolish and the Wise (Sutta 129 of the Middle Length Sayings), and the Heavenly Messengers (Sutta 130). Hell (niraya) is mentioned in over 800 places in the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka. As in other religions, hell is the destiny of evil-doers who kill living beings, steal, commit adultery, tell lies, etc. The Buddha declared one of two destinations for one holding a wrong view: animal rebirth, or hell (The Dog-duty Ascetic, Sutta 57). A certain ascetic believed that by fulfilling the practices of a dog, he would be reborn in heaven. The Buddha said that if he fulfilled that practice he would be reborn as a dog, but if he held the wrong view that the practice lead to heaven, he would be reborn in hell.

The Incontrovertible Teaching (Sutta 60) makes it clear how an intelligent person should keep an open mind about things beyond his or her knowledge, and adopt a safe course of action based on reason. Is it wise to drink heavily just because one doesn’t know for sure that one will get cirrhosis of the liver? After all, one is more likely to die from a road accident first!

Those who do not have faith in Dhamma will not be satisfied merely with statements from the scriptures, but that is a defect in their religious knowledge. If one studies the Buddhist scriptures carefully, and practises meditation, one will certainly gain faith in the Dhamma.

One with no scientific knowledge will not believe in the existence of atoms and molecules, and may think that scientists are talking nonsense, but with a basic scientific education one comes to have no doubt about the existence of atoms. With religious knowledge gained, one will have no doubt that there are heavens and hells, since the different characters of the pious and the wicked are obvious enough. Pious deeds and wicked deeds will certainly give very different results after death. Where are Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann now? Is there no result of evil deeds?

Free Speech versus Right Speech

​Is free speech a fundamental human right?

Is it acceptable to use any kind of speech, even if it causes offence to devout followers of a religion, to ethnic groups, or to any particular individual?

One of the greatest strengths of Buddhism is its freedom of thought. It encourages open dialogue and critical analysis to arrive at the truth, and discourages blind faith and superstition. If others speak in ways critical of the Buddha or his teachings, a disciple should remain equanimous. In the Brahmajāla Sutta, the Buddha said:–

“If, monks, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Saṅgha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?”

“Certainly not, Lord,” the monks replied.

“If, monks, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Saṅgha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.’”

While others may use false, abusive, and slanderous speech, a Buddhist should strive to avoid it. Right Speech is one of the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, so one should avoid speech that is false, defamatory, abusive, or just idle-chatter with no purpose. However, this does not mean that one should never be critical. One should blame the blameworthy, conquering the liar with the truth, as the above quote shows. One should expose falsehood, and defend the innocent from slander. The Buddha sometimes used speech that was displeasing to others, but only if it would be beneficial. If he knew that it would be harmful or of no benefit, he remained silent.

In the Kesi Sutta, the Buddha had a dialogue with a horse-trainer, explaining that he encouraged his disciples with kindness, restrained them with harshness, but that if they proved incorrigible he would “kill them” by not admonishing them any further. Of course, the Buddha did not literally kill anyone, nor did he condone killing, but in the spiritual life, if anyone is not open to instruction from the wise then they are incapable of progress, which is a spiritual death.

The Western world currently faces a dilemma about the right of individuals to express obnoxious views. Hate preachers incite violence and intolerance, and laws that were designed to protect social and religious freedoms make it difficult to prevent the dissemination of antisocial views.

The ethics from a Buddhist point of view are clear. If one urges another to kill, condones killing, or speaks in praise of it, and if someone else kills that person due to one’s speech, then one is guilty of killing, just as if one had done it with one’s own hand. If someone hires a hit-man to kill someone else, the law would have no difficulty in prosecuting the instigator for murder. However, if someone merely preaches hatred in general terms, the charge, if any is brought at all, will not be one of murder, but a lesser charge such as supporting terrorism.

Whatever the law says, the law of kamma places responsibility firmly on the head of anyone who encourages killing. Intention is kamma, so if you merely wish that someone would die or be killed, without saying anything at all, that ill-will alone is unwholesome kamma. If you go further, and utter words of wrath, hoping that someone will kill another, if they then do as you wish, you are guilty of intentional killing.

However, harsh and critical speech that is aimed at benefit is wholesome kamma. For example, “Do not listen to that bigot! He is preaching hatred and intolerance. Although others may be intolerant, be kind, open-minded, and compassionate.”