One of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.
When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala).
For many people accustomed to systems of morality based on commandments, rewards and punishments, the Buddhist ethical perspective is liberating and refreshing.
But sometimes the idea that Buddhist ethics is about intention is seen in too narrow a way. The problem is that a deluded mind is trying to become aware of itself! We’re not always aware of our intentions, or may choose to fool ourselves about what our motivations really are. We develop ethical blind spots and adopt evasive strategies to justify our actions and to avoid change. Delusion keeps us tied to our current way of being and stops us from making spiritual progress.
One tool that the Buddha encouraged as a way of breaking out of ethical confusion is paying attention to the consequences of our actions:
Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.
If we notice that we’re harming others, or that we’re causing pain to ourselves — for example through inducing guilt — then we need to look more closely at our motivations, being open to the possibility that we’re not clear enough about our intentions. We need to look for and admit to hidden ethical agendas. I wrote about this recently in terms of the way some men harass women on the street, without being willing to look at the fact that their attentions are unwanted and cause suffering.
Another example is the way most people who eat meat say that they like animals. They don’t think of themselves as cruel. Most of them are shocked by actual cruelty and want animal abusers to go to jail. And at the same time, they pay people to abuse animals on their behalf. They don’t think of themselves as doing this, but when they buy meat they’re financially rewarding people who raise animals in stressful and unnatural conditions, transport them, terrified, long distances in trucks, herd them into a slaughterhouse, shoot them in the head, hoist them into the air by their back legs, cut their throats, and then disembowel and dismember them in preparation for being shrink-wrapped and sold.
Although there’s no overt ill intent when you pick up a steak at the supermarket, you’re paying for this whole process to happen — a process that causes affliction to others. And we don’t want to think about all this. We’re shocked by animal cruelty, so for example we don’t want to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses because we’d rather avoid being shocked. That way we can avoid the discomfort that comes from change.
If we’re going to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously as a guide for living, then we need to examine the harmful consequences of our actions, and then look for the hidden intentions and assumptions that drive those actions.
Implicit in buying meat are attitudes like, “You are more useful to me dead than alive,” and “I kind of like you, but I’m hungry, and so I don’t mind you being killed.”The attitudes are rarely if ever experienced as overtly as that (and I’ve expressed them rather baldly here) but something like that is going on. I know. I used to eat meat.
Meat-eating is just an example. I’ve picked it because so many people who want to follow the Buddhist path fall into the trap of thinking that if their actions are not directly harming others, then there’s no ethical issue at stake. And I picked it because I really hope we can reduce the amount of suffering in our world.
The problem with discussing an issue like this, though, is that it’s emotive, and so the larger point — we should examine the consequences of our actions in order to clarify our hidden intentions — can get lost in our emotional reactions.
Setting aside any such reactions for the moment, the principle of examining the consequences of our actions extends into almost every aspect of our lives. One example is our interaction with the environment. I know that taking my car to work unnecessarily contributes to climate disruption. And I know that climate change causes suffering to people on the other side of the planet. And yet I still take the lazy route. This suggests that I care less about people if they live far away or if I don’t personally know them, and that I value my comfort over others’ wellbeing. My “forgetting” to do my share of the housework suggests that I have a sense of entitlement, and that I think other people’s job is to clean up after me.
The applications are endless; Buddhism is calling upon us to be radically compassionate, radically mindful of our actions.
The principle that reflecting on the consequences of our actions illuminates our unacknowledged motivations is rarely recognized, but it’s one of the most powerful teachings that the Buddha offered us.