The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Training of Sila, the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).

The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:01 pm

By most people's standards, I'm a pretty well-rounded, normal 24 year old guy. I'm considered nice, polite, and I'm well-liked. By the standards of most Americans, I'm a good guy.

But an event this weekend got me thinking. I was at a state park playing a tennis match with a friend. After the game, I had lunch and went to the garbage pale to throw something out and I noticed a bustling anthill amidst the grass. Habitually, I planted my foot on top of the structure in order to flatten their little home and then stamped my feet on many of the nearby ants. Enough that I later had to take a stick and grind away at the bottoms of my running sneakers to scrape out the layer of little ant bodies and mud that had gotten gunked deep between the treads.

As someone who is interested in the ethics of killing and dhamma from a theological standpoint (I am not spiritual), what would be the implications of this dynamic? How could one be a good person while also causing death?

How is the karmic debt I've built weighed? I like most animals, I have a dog, I even like insects. According to dhamma, would I be reborn in the hell realms and then be reborn as an ant as many times as there are ants that I've crushed? I've stepped on a lot of bugs over the years, a good number of them on purpose. But what about my good acts in society and toward other people? Are those counted for less?
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby daverupa » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:14 pm

Thrylix wrote:As someone who is interested in the ethics of killing and dhamma from a theological standpoint (I am not spiritual)


I don't know what you mean by this distinction. Do certain answers apply, and certain other answers not, based on your interpretation of whether those answers are spiritually or theologically laden? Clarifying this point will be important since the Dhamma is a living practice, neither spiritual nor theological.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Khalil Bodhi » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:28 pm

Also, as a nit-picky aside, the Dhamma can't be studied theologically since it's all logos and no theos...

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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:39 pm

What about in the context of karma as you know it?
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby daverupa » Tue Apr 26, 2011 9:53 pm

Kamma is intention. Your intention, then, was to cause the destruction of life (however habitual the urge vis-a-vis ants). The act was therefore a breach of the first precept, and therefore unwholesome, leading on to further suffering and not to the cessation of suffering.

It is important to note that this does not make you a bad person, and you wouldn't be a good person if you had abstained. There can be no good or bad person, simply wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind. This case of ants is an example of unwholesome bodily action.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Kim OHara » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:09 pm

daverupa wrote:Kamma is intention. Your intention, then, was to cause the destruction of life (however habitual the urge vis-a-vis ants). The act was therefore a breach of the first precept, and therefore unwholesome, leading on to further suffering and not to the cessation of suffering.

It is important to note that this does not make you a bad person, and you wouldn't be a good person if you had abstained. There can be no good or bad person, simply wholesome and unwholesome actions of body, speech, and mind. This case of ants is an example of unwholesome bodily action.

Just an addition to a response that I agree with:
It is better to avoid such actions (harming other living creatures) and the way to do it is mindfulness. Think before you act - "Is this a good thing to do?"
Sometimes it will be necessary to harm, even kill, other creatures (e.g. killing a snake may be the only way of protecting children nearby) but we should generally aim to avoid causing unnecessary harm.
After a period of thinking about your actions every time you come across insects, your habitual response will no doubt change - you will 'automatically' leave them be instead of 'automatically' stomping them - but mindfulness is the essential first step in that direction. That's true of all of our bad (unwholesome, unskillful) habits, actually.
:namaste:
Kim

Edit: fixed typo.
Last edited by Kim OHara on Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Dan74 » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:26 pm

I wouldn't rush to foretell millions of future rebirths as an ant. At the same time it seems that we usually learn compassion from experiencing deep suffering ourselves. So in that sense there may be some lessons in store for you. Kamma is not punishment, it's a natural consequence of your action. And a natural consequence of an action lacking in compassion is suffering.

Worldly notions like "a good person" is often more to do with a reasonably well-adjusted likeable person, rather than actual moral virtue. I wouldn't worry too much about being considered "a good person" but rather take a good honest look at how you live. Being liked and respected by truly wise and good people counts for something, but most of us don't have much of a clue and you regularly hear stories of neighbours of a convicted serial killer saying what a nice guy he was because we would say "Good Morning!" and took his garbage bins out on time.

In my case, having kids has really brought issues like killing little creatures and animals to the fore. I realized I cannot honestly justify it. So we take insects outside and avoid eating meat. I recall out eldest when he was barely 3 burst into tears when I swatted a mosquito in his bedroom before turning the lights out. He reminded me of it for months to come and made me promise time and time again that this would never happen.

I guess we come into this world with different sensitivity and compassion for different things. But whatever it is, it's good to identify those moral blind spots and work on them.

Good luck on your journey!
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby SDC » Tue Apr 26, 2011 10:53 pm

Thrylix wrote:What about in the context of karma as you know it?


You may get something good out of this lecture by Venerable Madawela Punnaji.

http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/en/displayimage.php?album=45&pid=677#top_display_media

The book he talks about that he can not remember the name of is "As a Man Thinketh" by James Allen.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:00 pm

Even throughout college, I stomped on ants and other bugs without a thought. I still basically do it without even thinking about it. It was after that tennis match when I was scraping them off with a stick that I kind of thought about it from their perspective. I couldn't imagine the indignity of going on with your own self-actualized life, and then the next thing you know, some huge giant appears from out of nowhere and for no real reason except to satisfy some egotistical urge, lifts up his foot and purposely smothers you, your home, and your extended family beneath it. The next thing you know, you and your family are specks on the bottom of his muddy, smelly sneakers as he walks away to continue on with his self-absorbed recreational day of fun and games. It was kind of an interesting exercise in imagination was all.

I don't feel ashamed because I know that I'm a pretty good person. I make friends easily and people find me very likeable, because I know I'm nice. And I'm always happy to do favors for other people. But it's probably because I don't feel ashamed/concerned about the lives of ants that I don't really see a problem with stepping on them if I feel like it.

Your replies all are very interesting, by the way.

Worldly notions like "a good person" is often more to do with a reasonably well-adjusted likeable person, rather than actual moral virtue. I wouldn't worry too much about being considered "a good person" but rather take a good honest look at how you live. Being liked and respected by truly wise and good people counts for something, but most of us don't have much of a clue and you regularly hear stories of neighbours of a convicted serial killer saying what a nice guy he was because we would say "Good Morning!" and took his garbage bins out on time.


Very true. Some people can be very deviant even while pretending to be normal. However, I do mostly good acts. I know I do. I'm just wondering how weighty the habitual act of destroying life is while still performing mostly good acts.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Justsit » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:26 pm

Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...

Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Thrylix » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:38 pm

Justsit wrote:
Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...

Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...


Doesn't the motive behind the act matter in this context? If I did it because I wanted to cause pain, that's one thing. But to do it "just 'cause," which is why I do it, well, that seems like another thing entirely. Has that any bearing on karmic consequences?

Do you have a theory of your own about why someone like me casually steps on ants? I could use more insight into it myself, because I never thought about why I do it it until recently.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby beeblebrox » Tue Apr 26, 2011 11:53 pm

Thrylix wrote:
Justsit wrote:
Thrylix wrote:... habitual act of destroying life...

Nasty habit. Might be one to break if you are considering karmic consequences.
Planting seeds and all that, you know...


Doesn't the motive behind the act matter in this context? If I did it because I wanted to cause pain, that's one thing. But to do it "just 'cause," which is why I do it, well, that seems like another thing entirely. Has that any bearing on karmic consequences?


What is the motivation here in this thread, really? That might be something for you to think about. Just be honest with yourself... you really don't have to make up an answer. Delusion is one of the three poisons.

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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby ricketybridge » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:08 am

I dunno, I think doing it "just 'cause" shows a lack of compassion. I'd be curious how you guys would deal (or have dealt) with something like a termite infestation... I guess a householder should call an exterminator, right? So as to take care of his assets/family and all, but what about a Buddhist monastery? Do they just let the monastery crumble to the ground?
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby beeblebrox » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:43 am

ricketybridge wrote:I dunno, I think doing it "just 'cause" shows a lack of compassion. I'd be curious how you guys would deal (or have dealt) with something like a termite infestation... I guess a householder should call an exterminator, right? So as to take care of his assets/family and all, but what about a Buddhist monastery? Do they just let the monastery crumble to the ground?


If it's necessary, then just do it... and view it as killing. Don't try to rationalize it as something that is OK (deluding yourself). If it's not necessary, then don't kill. If something was killed by accident, then view that as something that got killed. Don't just shrug it off, and say that it wasn't your intention... just to make yourself feel better (deluding yourself, again).

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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Thrylix » Wed Apr 27, 2011 12:48 am

beeblebrox wrote:What is the motivation here in this thread, really? That might be something for you to think about. Just be honest with yourself... you really don't have to make up an answer. Delusion is one of the three poisons.

:anjali:


To view the opinions of others.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Justsit » Wed Apr 27, 2011 1:05 am

Thrylix wrote:...I never thought about why I do it it until recently.

Well, now that you've thought about it recently, why do you think you do it?
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby andre9999 » Wed Apr 27, 2011 1:26 am

Thrylix wrote:But what about my good acts in society and toward other people? Are those counted for less?


Maybe if you do even more good acts you can work up enough credit to kill better stuff.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby chownah » Wed Apr 27, 2011 1:39 am

Thrylix wrote:
I'm just wondering how weighty the habitual act of destroying life is while still performing mostly good acts.

Doesn't the motive behind the act matter in this context? If I did it because I wanted to cause pain, that's one thing. But to do it "just 'cause," which is why I do it, well, that seems like another thing entirely. Has that any bearing on karmic consequences?

Do you have a theory of your own about why someone like me casually steps on ants? I could use more insight into it myself, because I never thought about why I do it it until recently.

It's difficult to know how weighty killing ants is....also its difficult to know how weighty "performing mostly good acts" is....the Buddha taught that the exact workings of kamma is not knowable.

The motive behind the act is key. The Buddha taught that things don't happen "just 'cause"...he taught that there is always a cause or condition which brings about activity. If you want to find out what is causing this killing of ants then I think you have made a good start already by the ponderings you have reported....maybe if you are mindful every time you kill bugs and then ponder what your mental state is then perhaps you will come to some understanding...if you don't know how to be mindful of the things you are doing then practicing meditation will help....the main reason in Buddhist thought for meditating is to train the mind and make it more capable of being mindful and focused....meditation can be learned from many different disciplines but of course Buddhists will recommend a Buddhist approach....many other disciplines teach mindfulness meditation that is very similar to the Buddhist way.....to me it was surprising that the Buddha didn't really teach very much about meditation techniques....it seems that meditation techniques were commonly known amoung alot of different spiritual groups during the Buddha's time so he didn't teach the actual techniques but just how to apply some of the effects of meditation to the Buddhist path.

You created this thread in the "Dhamma free for all" forum where you will receive replies of all levels of seriousness and applicability.....you might get more serious and helpful replies if you post in the "Discovering Theravada" forum since it seems that you are not very knowledgeable about Buddist thought.
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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby Jason » Wed Apr 27, 2011 3:25 pm

The Buddha defined kamma (literally 'action') as intention, and he essentially took the position that we, as sentient beings, have functional choice via intention operating within a broader framework of causality that conditions the choices available to us at any given time. More importantly, from the Buddhist point of view, kamma is primarily psychological in nature, with the results or fruits (vipaka) of intentional actions being experienced as pleasant, painful, or neither pleasant nor painful feelings (vedana) in the mind. In other word, kamma is how we intentionally react to things, our behaviour. (The Buddha basically took the Jain's deterministic view of kamma and ethicized it.)

That said, it's not about good or bad as much as skillful and unskillful. In Buddhism, all intentional actions are understood to have potential consequences, and actions that cause harm to others and/or ourselves are generally considered to be unskillful and something to be avoided. But if what the Buddha had to say about kamma is true, I don't think there's anyway to know precisely how these things will be experienced (AN 4.77), especially considering the complexity of this/that conditionality.

Our experience of the present is conditioned by a multitude of factors, including the results of both past and present actions. For all we know, the results of our past unskillful actions (e.g., killing ants) may count next to nothing compared to all the skillful actions and mental states we've cultivated throughout our lives. More importantly, the Buddha never condemns people merely for making unskillful choices or breaking the precepts; he simply urges them to learn from their mistakes and to make an effort to renounce their unskillful behaviour with the understanding that skillful behaviour leads to long-term welfare and happiness. That's one of the main reasons the precepts are framed as 'training rules' rather than strict commandments.

In this case, the unskillful motivation to harm may be subtle, and may not cause too much stress or suffering right now; but repeatedly cultivating and giving in to the urge to harm may build up over time, becoming an ingrained habit. This can result in not respecting other forms of life and/or inclining the mind towards harming rather than avoiding harm in other circumstances, which can condition more violent behaviour that'll result in more suffering in the future (e.g., maybe losing your temper and harming a pet). Then again, maybe you'll never suffer much over it because of other competing factors. It's impossible to know.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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Re: The ethics of minimizing suffering and being a "good person"

Postby beeblebrox » Wed Apr 27, 2011 3:50 pm

Jason wrote:In this case, the unskillful motivation to harm may be subtle, and may not cause too much stress or suffering right now; but repeatedly cultivating and giving in to the urge to harm may build up over time, becoming an ingrained habit. This can result in not respecting other forms of life and/or inclining the mind towards harming rather than avoiding harm in other circumstances, which can condition more violent behaviour that'll result in more suffering in the future (e.g., maybe losing your temper and harming a pet). Then again, maybe you'll never suffer much over it because of other competing factors. It's impossible to know.


A couple quotes from the Dhammapada that are related to this:

Dhp IX - Papavagga

(translated by Ven. Buddharakkhita):

121. Think not lightly of evil, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the fool, gathering it little by little, fills himself with evil.

122. Think not lightly of good, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.


(translated by Ven. Thanissaro):

121-122

Don't underestimate evil
('It won't amount to much').
A water jar fills,
even with water
falling in drops.
With evil — even if
bit
by
bit,
habitually —
the fool fills himself full.

Don't underestimate merit
('It won't amount to much').
A water jar fills,
even with water
falling in drops.
With merit — even if
bit
by
bit,
habitually —
the enlightened one fills himself full.
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