Right and wrong in Buddhism


For basic questions about Buddhism, a book called Good Question, Good Answer provides many straightforward explanations. For example, about doing right and doing wrong:

Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad, and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving, love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good. To know what is right and wrong in god-centered religions, all that is needed is to do as you are told. In a human-centered religion like Buddhism, to know what is right and wrong, you have to develop a deep self-awareness and self-understanding. And ethics based on understanding are always stronger than those that are a response to a command. So to know what is right and wrong, the Buddhist looks at three things:

  • The intention behind the act
  • The effect the act will have upon oneself
  • The effect it will have upon others

If the intention is good (rooted in generosity, love and wisdom), if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving and wiser) and helps others (helps them to be more giving, more loving and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and moral.

Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes, I act with the best of intentions but it may not benefit either myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but my action helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress to others. In such cases, my actions are mixed — a mixture of good and not-so-good.

When intentions are bad and the action helps neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others, then the deed is wholly good (p. 18).

From Good Question, Good Answer, by S. Dhammika. Available in English, Chinese and Thai from BuddhaNet.net (free download on the library page). Venerable Shravasti Dhammika is a Buddhist monk originally from Australia. He writes a blog titled Dhamma Musings.


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2 responses

  1. Barry, isn’t that something explained by karma? That is, humans always have intention, but sometimes, we are so filled with ignorance or delusion, we do not see our own intention. If our present intention is unfathomable, maybe it is our past intentions (impulses) at work.

    Or am I off-base in that? Please, teach me.