The Consequences of our Behaviors

My understanding of religion has always included a behavioral component. Whether through specific rules or a broad moral compass, we use religion to make choices about our behavior. Specifically, the way the Buddhist tradition addresses behavioral ethics that interests me, rather than the particular behaviors discussed. Although the noble eightfold path offers some guidance regarding one’s actions, it seems to me that it overall more interested in the results rather than in the actions themselves.

It seems vital to understand that this is a path and not a rulebook. It is not that one is expected to behave according to the noble path. In fact, I would say that people are expected to fall short of its precepts. The failure to perfectly execute some part of the noble path, is not a matter of personal evil or inadequacy but simply normal spiritual immaturity—we all enter the path as people who sometimes gossip, have desire, and fail to completely understand the four truths. In this way, refraining from specific actions seems less of a requirement and more of a goal.

Gethin is careful to point out that is not simply a matter of making one’s “behavior conform to the prescriptions of the path,” but rather “an inner transformation at the deepest levels of one’s being” (83). Although the path to the cessation of suffering includes specific behaviors to refrain from, such as hurtful speech, it also encompasses a host of internal goals as well, such as intention, view and mindfulness. Thus, the frowned-upon actions do not stand entirely on their own but rather reflect the inner state of one’s intentions. As one cultivates other “wholesome qualities” of the noble path, it is expected that these harmful actions will decrease. Conversely, refraining from harmful actions helps develop the inner qualities.

So we can come to understand unwholesome actions as facts of life that can be overcome, much like suffering. There is little spiritual “meaning” to these actions beyond their unhelpful nature. Like the raft used to cross the river and then left because it is no longer helpful, unwholesome acts can be understood as unhelpful and simply left behind. That is to say that, since everyone at one time engages in unwholesome acts, they do not seem to permanently mark the actor in any way. They are simply unhelpful distractions from the path to the cessation of suffering.

What these observations mean in my understanding of Buddhism is that there is room for growth. Messing up by engaging in an unwholesome act is not the end of the path, it is part of the journey. There seems to be a lot of possibility for mistakes, and I wonder how this is practically be applied to people who have engaged in extreme acts—can anyone join the path at any point, or are some people considered too far gone? From what we have read, I would expect individuals to be allowed to improve upon past actions indiscriminately.


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2 Responses to The Consequences of our Behaviors

  1. jpf12 says:

    This reminds me of a story about the Buddha and a man who has killed 999 people in the forest. The Buddha goes into the forest and through his magic powers and a brief conversation is able to help the killer see his faults. The Killer eventually becomes enlightened. However, his previous actions, his karma, has not been erased and as a consequence (If I remember correctly) he is later killed or at least severely beaten. This suggests that although Buddhism allows for mistakes, even terrible ones, people are still held responsible for their actions by Karma.

  2. Star Lord says:

    I thought this was a really interesting paper! I’m always interested in the idea of morality and how it plays out in the views of various religions and philosophies. It is a very complex thing it seems because not everything is black and white, there’s always a bit of gray, but there’s not real guidelines for this gray area. It’s like Aristotle and his doctrine of the means where he believed that every vice has a virtue and vice-versa and that humans are supposed to find the balance between the two. It sounds ideal, but it doesn’t take into account the situations one may encounter that may cause them to lean more towards a certain vice or virtue. For example, if you’re in danger and retaliate to protect yourself, are you still a virtuous person though you were on the violent side of the scale rather than being balanced on the scale of violence and pacifism. Are there circumstantial exceptions? Who ultimately decides if you’re a moral person or not? Is it simple enough to be placed on a scale? It gets pretty complicated and interesting!

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