20 June, 2024


Buddhism And Moral Responsibility: Response To Shyamon

By Kapila Abhayawansa

Prof. Kapila Abhayawansa

It is not an exaggeration to point out that in the modern world inspired by advanced scientific and technological knowledge and extensively developed education systems people are seemed to be running off from their moral responsibilities never than before. In this context, it is not out of place to write on moral responsibilities of the man for it leads man to think about himself and his responsibilities to the society where he lives. In this regard, the article entitled “How A Non-religious Person Can Be A Better Moral Being?” written by Shyamon Jayasinghe and published in Colombo Telegraph on 28 July seems to me as an eye opening piece of writing.

Though the title seems to be rather hurting the heart of religious people who attached to their respective religions it really reminds me the teaching of the Buddha to a group of people known as Kalamas. As P.D Premasiri observes elsewhere “it draws attention to the possibility of independent inquiry into moral questions.”. The Buddha advised there to Kalamas to arrive at the moral judgments on purely non religious basis. According to the Buddha, man has to think over his own psychological dispositions which give rise to his own moral behavior and how it repercussions affects to himself and others, without depending on any kind of authority; religious or otherwise in order to arrive at the judgment on the moral acts. To make it clearer it is better to present here what the Buddha said to the Kalamas. It runs as follows: “Now, Kalamas, does not this man, thus become greedy, being overcome by greed and losing control of his mind – does he not kill a living creature, take what is not given, go after another’s wife, tell lies and induce others, too, to commit deeds that would conduce to disadvantage and unhappiness for a long time?” This same observation was made by the Buddha in respect of malice (dosa) and delusion (confusion). In the same way the Buddha drew the attention of Kalamas to the behavior of the man induce by the absence of greed, malice and delusion with the opposite effect.

In his article, Shyamon makes no distinction of Buddhism from other religions, theistic or atheistic and put it in the same category which yields the misrepresentation of the teachings of the Buddha particularly, in respect of moral teachings. In this regard we have to demarcate Buddhism into Early Buddhism and Popular Buddhism. When we take Popular Buddhism as it is, I have no objection with Shyamon. To get the proper understanding of the position of the Buddha who encouraged the people for moral purity and of his moral teachings I would like to quote Prof. Y Karunadasa as follows:

“As a religious teacher who upholds the moral life, the Buddha defines his position by the following words: “You yourselves should do what ought to be done. The Tathagatas (only) show the way” (Tumhehi kiccam atappam; akkhataro Tathagata) [Dhammapada]. Therefore the Buddhist moral teachings may be described as descriptive rather than prescriptive. There are no injunctions or commandments as to what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. This also means that good and bad acts are neither rewarded nor punished, but that they have their own consequences according to the principles of moral causation”

In the context of moral behavior Buddhism uses the term Kusala (wholesome) for the morally good conduct and akusala (unwholesome) for the immoral conduct. The judgment as to whether it is a morally good or bad conduct is done not on the basis of reward or punishment but on the one’s spiritual purity or impurity and the nature of the affect on other people. In this sense according to Buddhism, morality has both personal and social dimensions. Therefore, all the moral teachings of Buddhism have their significance not only to the doer but also to the society. This is further evident from the criteria of the moral concepts given by the Buddha in the Ambalatthika rahulovada-sutta in the Majjhima-nikaya. Here the Buddha tells Rahula that just as a mirror is meant for reflection; even so every volitional act should be committed after proper reflection. Person has to reflect on the consequences of the act that he is going to do, on himself and on others. If the act results in harm to oneself, to others and to both it should be reckoned as morally unwholesome. If the act brings about beneficial consequences to oneself to others and to both it should be evaluated as morally wholesome. This tells us in Buddhism morality means only the intentional activities of the man, not the activities done without intention under the influence of any kind of authority of injunction or commandment.

In this context the five precepts in Buddhism should also be understood in the above sense. It is not a mere code of conduct. Moral responsibility does not come from outside but from within man himself. As a social being man is bound not only to him but also to the society. Therefore, it is the duty and the responsibility of the man to behave in the way that it leads to the benefit of both him and others. This is the meaning of the Buddhist recognition of man’s responsibility over his activities, when it says that “You yourselves should do what ought to be done”. This implies that as man has to do whatever he does with his own knowledge and awareness of it, responsibility of his action lies within himself. In the phrase sikkhāpadam samādiyami appeared at the end of each precept in the code of five precepts points to the same fact that one promises to prevent form misconduct shown in the precept with the knowledge and awareness of the results of it which bring about to one and others.

“We humans have the basis for morality ingrained in us. Our morality is rooted in our biology” Says Shyamon in his article. If the term biology is permissible to be used for the psycho-physical complexity, there is nothing wrong in his statement according to the Buddhist point of view. For Buddhism also accept that the root of the moral or immoral conducts namely non-greed, non-malice and non-illusion, greed, malice and illusion lie within our mind-setup since our birth. But they become moral conduct when they are accompanied with the intentional activity. Though human beings have the inborn moral potentiality, there cannot be moral conduct without the activities accompanied by moral intention. This is clearly pointed out by the Buddha when he criticized the view that “A person, who does not do an evil act with his body, speaks no evil speech, intents no evil intention, leads no evil lively hood is- to that extent- morally perfect”.

The Buddha’s criticism to the above view runs as follows:

“According to this view of moral perfection, even a young baby-boy, lying on its back, would be morally perfect. A young baby-boy, lying on its back, does not think of his own body. How then could he do an evil deed with his body, except for a little kicking about. He does not think of his own voice. How then could he utter an evil speech, except for a little crying? He does not think about his own intention. How then could he intend an evil intention, except for a little excitement? He does not think of his own mode of livelihood. How then could he lead an evil mode of livelihood, except for taking his mother’s milk?”

This implies that there cannot be a moral perfection of a person whose actions are not conducted consciously and deliberately.

It is the view of Shyamon that a man’s ethical behavior should based effectively on sympathy, education, social ties and needs; no religious base is necessary. But when we pay our attention to the practical world we cannot experience the effective power of all these factors when the immoral activities are pervading every corner of the present global society. All sorts of unethical activities such as terror, corruption, power hunting, cheating, robbing, killing assassinating, drugs trafficking, illegal transactions and so on cannot be attributed to uneducated people and people who do not have social ties. For example, politicians and their supporters who are the leaders of all these unethical activities cannot be considered as those who are not educated and who do not have social ties. This shows that if one does not understand the values of the social responsibilities for one’s own benefits and others well being, factors such as sympathy, education, social ties would not be effective.

Buddhism does not prescribe moral injunction or commandments, in the real sense entire teachings of the Buddha can be considered as a set of moral education which analyses moral concepts, evaluates moral responsibilities and shows the way how to apply morality to the life of the people, highlights the benefits of moral perfection and discourages for the immoral behavior. Therefore, if the Early Buddhism can be taken as a religion, it can be said, on the religious basis of Buddhism the world would be a better dwelling place of people who are aware of each other’s pain and needs.

*Prof.  Kapila Abhayawansa, Vice Rector, International Buddhist College, Thailand.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    I do not think anyone can dispute what is stated above. However, it is important to find out why the society has degenerated to the levels as of this day. The teachings are very many and also those are made more and more complicated, thanks to the scholars and the religious leaders.In my opinion the time has come to present things in a more simple and logical way to the vast majority who are daily bombarded with economics of day to day living.

    I think, it is time for the scholars and religious leaders to start with the basic of, say for example the facts of day to day “psychology” of living in a society. In this regard, I believe the Buddhist Psychology relates very well with “will” and “intelligence”. So let us say a simple theory like:

    As you “see” – so you “feel”
    As you “feel” – so you “think”
    As you “think” – so you “will”
    As you “will” – so you “act”.

    This simple theory, I found in the book titled “Revolt In the Temple”. Every word “see”, “feel”, “think”, “will’ and “act” is important and the true meaning must be taught to the people. This I find is a simpler way to direct the man towards the betterment of the society.

    • 0


      ” However, it is important to find out why the society has degenerated to the levels as of this day.”

      Simple, the reason is that we did not know how best to keep religion separate from linguistic nationalism.

      The combination of religion and language has produced a lethal cocktail of parochial political forces. The identities of people have been distorted hence they fight among themselves and against others, a competitive narrow nationalism rather looking inverts than outwards.

  • 2

    No Religion is necessary to be Good

    Human beings do not need a religion or any other dogmatic extravaganza to be kind .We lived with the religious industry guiding us for most our existence and we are not getting better at living with others.

    Buddhism or any other “ism” is what we inherited from our parents. We do not need bronze age dogmas to live peacefully with the next door neighbour.

    Religion, including Buddhism , did not protect me from robbery, rape ,torture or any other vice.

    It is the law of the land that protect people from religious bigotry. If religion, Buddhism or any other, is capable of making the world a better place why do we need a criminal law code to protect us .

    If we decided to remove all law enforcement agencies and hand over the control of world to Religions (any brand of it) do you think we’ll be safe to live anywhere?

    We need kindness and respect for others to make this a better place ,not religions or evolved pre historic, unscientific dogmas written in old” scriptures” by uncaring MEN.

    • 1

      You are absolutely correct. We don’t need religion: we need to think, and be kind.

      • 0

        No need religions but Need Dhamma, Dhamma can guide anyone who practice it in daily life in a proper way to attain the Highest Happiness. Dhamma is the universal antidote, is not a religion. So what is the Dhamma means??? Dareti iti Dhamma, one who practice personally, practice of What?? Practice of Morality (sila)which purify the actions (bodily, verbally and mentally), practice of right concentration (samma samadhi)which purify the mind and practice wisdom or understanding(panna)which purify wrong views. Unerstanding of what?? Understanding the five-aggregates which are impermanance, suffering and no-self.

      • 1

        No need religions but Need Dhamma, Dhamma can guide anyone who practice it in daily life in a proper way to attain the Highest Happiness. Dhamma is the universal antidote, is not a religion. So what is the Dhamma means??? Dareti iti Dhamma, one who practice personally, practice of What?? Practice of Morality (sila)which purify the actions (bodily, verbally and mentally), practice of right concentration (samma samadhi)which purify the mind and practice wisdom or understanding(panna)which purify wrong views. Unerstanding of what?? Understanding the five-aggregates which are impermanance, suffering and no-self. This is called practicing Dhamma in right way. The sweetness of Dhamma is excels all other sweetness.

    • 0

      We may can argue today that we do not need religion, that is in the an era where 90~100% people have basic education on nature, logic , science, good & bad and availability of lot of information written by intelligent people.

      How about merely 200 years back, even in western world, what was the level of logical and analytical thinking of an average man? How many of them have heard about ethical and moral correctness other than through their religious teaching? At that time simple logical teaching through religions was the only means of knowledge of good and bad for average people.

      Even today, how human mind works and why they have very thick egoistic walls, which filter every information they get through their senses, cannot be predicted by Newtonian or Quantum laws. For example, 70~80% of Sinhalese Buddhists, LTTE was most ruthless terrorist in the world. They are not lying, this what they see through their senses (see/hear) and it is crystal clear to them. Where as for Tamils, LTTE could be their savior which was going to bring back their dignity and homeland. They are not lying either, that is how they truly see it, hear it, feel it.
      Is there are any scientific understanding on principles or laws of nature that can define/predict these human behavior? No, as I know.
      If somebody believe there is powerful God or “World is Flat”, no scientific law or principles of nature can change their personal believe, their perceptions are their reality, they see God and also they see world as flat. Why?

    • 0


      You are an idiot.

      • 3

        It is not a nice thing to call people idiots ,fools etc..No matter what ever you write , you’ll never be a fool to me- I respect you for having different ideas.That’ human.

  • 0

    I read with avid interest the essay of Professor Kapila Abeywansa.There is no one who will or can dispute what he said as there is no bias, prejudice, or malice, towards any human of any race.
    As I perceive society has degenerated to abysmal levels all over the world as MATERIALISM,which is akin to a dreaded fire has engulfed society.
    The other curse is the self centred politicians who display piety but are far from it.Then comes the disciples of the Buddha many of whom are MEN IN ROBES.A true buddhist monk does not touch money but we find the liberators who entered Parliament by bluffing even the educated with a distant theory that their mission was to cleanse the Augean Stables joining the rogues and obtaining car permits and selling them.Some are even lending money on interest.
    That said the time is opportune for all religious leaders,scholars and the educated silent civil society to come forward and form pressure groups and press for reform.The first need for these groups is to ensure that the 18th amendment is repealed and checks and balances are restored as having the Judiciary Attorney General Auditor General and all state services under one person without any control is dangerous and counter productive to progress.

  • 1

    Kapila Abhayawansa’s fine article is complementary to Shyamon Jayasinghe’s and reflects contemporary thinking on the subject of religion. I feel that religions sprang up to meet a need for disciplined living in the chaos of the ancient world. In the modern world however laws have been formulated to achieve that discipline with punishment as a deterrent for indiscipline. In that context a need for religion is not absolutely essential if every one is disciplined.

    Applying this to Sri Lanka we see a paradox. The rule of law has been dispensed with by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Therefore discipline can only be ensured by religion. But then Mahinda Rajapaksa has dispensed with religious discipline as well.

    So here we are!….experiencing the chaos of the ancient world. In Sri Lanka the mediaeval world has been reborn.

  • 0

    Moral responsibility may be expected from a human having knowledge and merits. Surely cannot expect from animals. Human beings are partly animal or sometimes fully animated when their knowledge and merits are very low. Religions guide towards moral values whether it is commanded or preached. Wise men understand and lesser wise believe. All religions deserve some respect for promoting morals. Unfortunate when lesser wise take advantage of religions to commit crimes. Both the authors deserve credit for contributing stimulating writings.

  • 0

    In the west, there is a view that Atheistic people can have good spiritual life full with morality.

    Shyaman Jayasinghe, probably a rationalist, had picked up that western view. I don’t think he had read well about buddhism and knew well about buddhism. Probably, just like reading the bible buddhism is also just one book (he did not know even with just four verses the whole buddhism can be understood).

    Some how, he began to talk about the ability to live without religious morality.

    Morality is a christian term and the synonymous buddhist word for that is SEELA. SEELA can be a different meaning to a lay person and another meaning to a one who practices that only on the poya day or for a buddhist monk.

    Shyamon Jayasinghe may hide, but he made himself a fool.

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