by Venerable Narada Thera
Is Buddhism an ethical system?
It no doubt contains an excellent ethical code which is unparalleled in its perfection and altruistic attitude. It deals with one way of life for the monks and another for the laity. But Buddhism is much more than an ordinary moral teaching. Morality is only the preliminary stage on the Path of Purity, and is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. Conduct, though essential, is itself insufficient to gain one’s emancipation. It should be coupled with wisdom or knowledge (pañña). The base of Buddhism is morality, and wisdom is its apex.
In observing the principles of morality a Buddhist should not only regard his own self but also should have a consideration for others we well — animals not excluded. Morality in Buddhism is not founded on any doubtful revelation nor is it the ingenious invention of an exceptional mind, but it is a rational and practical code based on verifiable facts and individual experience.
It should be mentioned that any external supernatural agency plays no part whatever in the moulding of the character of a Buddhist. In Buddhism there is no one to reward or punish. Pain or happiness are the inevitable results of one’s actions. The question of incurring the pleasure or displeasure of a God does not enter the mind of a Buddhist. Neither hope of reward nor fear of punishment acts as an incentive to him to do good or to refrain from evil. A Buddhist is aware of future consequences, but he refrains from evil because it retards, does good because it aids progress to enlightenment (bodhi). There are also some who do good because it is good, refrain from evil because it is bad.
To understand the exceptionally high standard of morality the Buddha expects from his ideal followers, one must carefully read the Dhammapada, Sigalovada Sutta, Vyaggapajja Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Karaniya Sutta, Parabhava Sutta, Vasala Sutta, Dhammika Sutta, etc.
As a moral teaching it excels all other ethical systems, but morality is only the beginning and not the end of Buddhism.
In one sense Buddhism is not a philosophy, in another sense it is the philosophy of philosophies.
In one sense Buddhism is not a religion, in another sense it is the religion of religions.
Buddhism is neither a metaphysical path nor a ritualistic path.
It is neither sceptical nor dogmatic.
It is neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence.
It is neither pessimism nor optimism.
It is neither eternalism nor nihilism.
It is neither absolutely this-worldly nor other-worldly.
It is a unique Path of Enlightenment.
The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma, which, literally, means that which upholds. There is no English equivalent that exactly conveys the meaning of the Pali term.
The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the Doctrine of Reality. It is a means of deliverance from suffering, and deliverance itself. Whether the Buddhas arise or not the Dhamma exists. It lies hidden from the ignorant eyes of men, till a Buddha, an Enlightened One, realizes and compassionately reveals it to the world.
This Dhamma is not something apart from oneself, but is closely associated with oneself. As such the Buddha exhorts: “Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a refuge. Abide with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as a refuge. Seek no external refuge.” — Parinibbana Sutta.