The importance of the ethical dimension of Buddhist practice.

Buddhism has long been associated with peace, mindfulness, and meditation. One aspect of Buddhism that is often overlooked is its emphasis on the importance of ethical behaviour. In this article, we explore the three meritorious practices, known as punnas, that form the foundation of ethical behaviour in Buddhism.

Buddhist monks being offered food offering (alms) from people

The Buddha recognized that humans are often overwhelmed by greed, anger, and delusion, which can lead to harm to oneself and others. However, he also saw that humans have the ability to act with kindness and compassion and that the mind can become clear and concentrated through mental training. As a result, he developed three systematic pieces of training to support humanity and develop specialized knowledge and insight wisdom.

The first of these practices is dana, or generosity, which should be offered without expectation of return or attachment. This practice frees the mind from greedy self-interest and anger and counteracts cruelty when imbued with compassion. It is the foundation for morality, and those who give in this way will be less inclined towards harmful deeds motivated by uncontrolled greed, anger, and cruelty.

However, Dana alone cannot purify all of our physical, verbal, and mental actions. Therefore, the Buddha offers a second punna: sila, or compassionate morality, which is expressed as keeping at least five precepts. These precepts include not killing, stealing, harming others sexually, lying or speaking harshly, and not succumbing to intoxicants and addictions. Sila tames our physical and verbal behaviour and is necessary for developing concentration and wisdom.

The third punna is Bhavana, or mental development, which involves training in concentration to develop a clear and focused mind. This is the basis for developing special human knowledge or insight wisdom.

Of the three punnas, sila is the most important, as it protects our individual and the larger world around us. It prevents us from falling into lower realms of existence, whereas people who do not sustain basic morality are bound for states of misery, devoid of happiness. Sila is good to rely on throughout our life, and it is essential for all human beings, not just Buddhists.