Buddhism’s ethical code was formulated in Iron-Age India. How relevant is it for people living today? Pam Dodd, our guest reviewer, delves into Sangharakshita’s book on Living Ethically.
Living Ethically is the first of two planned volumes by British Buddhist scholar and former monk Sangharakshita on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice for a King (Ratnamala). This first book follows a beautifully laid out interpretive journey through the Precious Garland’s rich array of common and uncommon directives for leading an ethical life.
These lessons will be a welcome addition to any Buddhist teacher or serious student of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Those from other Buddhist traditions or who wear their Buddhism more lightly may find the reading a challenge at times, but with patience and persistence most apparent mountains quickly turn into meaningful molehills.
Like the second century India philosopher Nagarjuna, Sangharakshita tackles ethical issues head on, never beating about the bush. His writing is honest, practical, and perceptive, helping the reader navigate the finer nuances of Nagarjuna’s advice to an ancient king with thoughtful attention to how it applies today.
Nagarjuna is a master at showing the subtle ways we evade the spirit of the Buddhist precepts. Both Nagarjuna and Sangharakshita make it patently clear how easily we let ourselves off the hook and what we need to do to hold ourselves more accountable to being more skillful as we go about our day.
The book begins with an informative chapter on Nagarjuna and an explanation of why it’s important to have a wise, experienced teacher to interpret old texts. The seven chapters that follow discuss Precious Garland verses using the framework of the Five Precepts overlapping the Ten Good Deeds.
Beyond killing people, the first Buddhist precept extends more deeply to not harming living beings. Breaches include hunting (chasing and killing animals for pleasure), frightening others, violent or pornographic films, political and journalistic doom mongering, giving up on someone we find difficult, and generally getting in the way of people’s positive development as true individuals.
Several sections cover the fruits of practicing the kindness of metta bhavana. True metta towards others and ourselves puts us in an effortless, positive, and spontaneous state that brings loving friendship, mental and physical pleasures, easily getting what we need, and protection from violence.
Also discussed is right livelihood (work that doesn’t require us to violate the precepts in any way). Work we should avoid includes producing or selling alcohol and weapons of war; butchering; holding any job based on deception or dishonesty; and wasting our lives working at something we hate, find repetitive or boring, or that offers no incentive to improve our performance.
Likewise, Nagarjuna says that the second precept means far more than not stealing physical things that don’t belong to us. Generosity arises from not treating things and people as commodities. The ethical person should not, for example, block other people’s development or violate their individuality by wasting their time or robbing them of their energy or be possessive or manipulate situations to his or her advantage.
Much discussion is devoted to clarifying giving and taking, including the importance of gratitude. In an ideal society, we give what we can and take only what we need. But most of us live far from the ideal. For instance, a gift is not really a gift if you’re thinking about what you will get in return. Moreover, unsolicited advice is the one assumed gift that is best withheld.
Perhaps the greatest generosity is offering help out of a sense of love, not merely a sense of duty. In other words, we should make ourselves useful when needed, not only when we feel like it.
3. Sexual Relationships
The third precept, to abstain from sexual misconduct, initially meant forsaking other men’s wives at a time when wives were considered property. Reinterpreted for the present day, Sangharakshita shows how in the broadest sense this precept is concerned with what we do with our sexuality.
At a more obvious level, we should not violate another’s individuality by using them for sexual gratification against their wishes, not knowingly break up a marriage or other sexual partnership, and not misuse sexuality thoughtlessly to get what we want. More deeply, it involves understanding the effects of our sexual activity on our state of mind.
Today Sangharakshita believes that romantic emotional attachment is a far more dangerous issue than sexual desire itself. He explains how romantic projection, or finding qualities we are missing in our romantic partners, causes many people to feel lost or incomplete when their loved one is not around or their relationship breaks up.
4. Skillful Speech
The fourth precept, abstaining from false speech, is not just about lying. Precious Garland elaborates at length on skillful and unskillful speech.
The positive consequences of lying are short-lived. The negative consequences are not. When we don’t tell the truth, eventually we’ll be found out and our word will be worth nothing. This goes as well for divisive speech like backbiting, malicious gossip, frivolous chatter, and creating dissension and disharmony between people. Special note is made of democratic political representatives who often rationalize and self-justify lying by saying people don’t necessarily want to be told the truth, their political party comes first, and that the truth is rarely obvious.
In general, skillful speech should be timely, helpful, and bring about harmony, even if it sometimes means we must tell a truth that causes pain. Hearing the truth is equally important. Nagarjuna advises that we should be non-defensively open to hearing an unpleasant truth about ourselves, accept it, and act upon it immediately.
5. The Ethics of Views
This chapter focuses on two false views, Nihilism vs. Externalism. While the analysis can seem overly philosophical, it is worth wrestling with for the useful perspective it provides for ethical practice.
Nihilists are averse to the world, asserting strongly that the world does not exist and nothing about a person remains at death. Externalists take the world and how they live seriously, believing that a permanent self or soul continues to exist after death. Externalism is better than Nihilism, however it is also not a positive mental state since it is based on attachment.
According to Buddhism, neither of these views leads to liberation. Buddhists see existence as process or flux, the flow of ever-changing mental events continuing from life to life through rebirth or re-becoming.
Also addressed in this chapter are the negative effects on mindfulness of overindulgence in drugs, alcohol, and gambling and underindulgence via self-mortification and punishment. Neither approach helps us lead a more spiritual life. Yet most of us would rather follow either than take the middle way of self-discipline and spiritual training.
6. Mental States
No Buddhist book would be complete without discussing mindfulness. Nagarjuna stresses the importance of regularly taking stock of ourselves but cautions against being too self analytical or too spontaneous. We need to be active and spontaneous and aware and mindful at the same time.
Precious Garland lists 57 unskillful mental states and how they affect our peace of mind with instructions on how to cultivate contentment and develop a more aesthetic attitude to life. Nowhere will you find a more thorough but succinct analysis of the various forms of anger, pride, hypocrisy, flattery, jealousy and all the seemingly unimportant ways our minds stay attached, scattered, or entangled.
7. The Results of Actions
Although the law of karma operates over a series of lives, there are very real consequences of our actions in this lifetime.
Nagarjuna says we are creating the world we live in every moment, by our values, our character, those we associate with, and how we treat them. If we don’t like the world we’re making, rather than accept our circumstances as given, we can change the conditions to support more positive mental states.
While Nagarjuna recommends sacrificing a life of pleasure for the promise of less tangible future spiritual rewards, Sangharakshita says that today it’s probably wiser to enjoy pleasurable experiences as long as they’re not incompatible with our spiritual life. The main question we should be asking ourselves about living ethically is “Am I becoming skillful according to the precepts and eliminating what isn’t skillful?”
Overall, Sangharashita proves a worthy guide to the Precious Garland, helping us navigate an ethical life now. Anyone who reads this book will have a hard time retiring it to a bookshelf. Its value seems to grow with rereading and recommitting to its ancient advice.