Moral Foundation for Humanity
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
What is the Purpose of Life? 1
Understanding the Nature of Human Beings 2
Understanding the Nature of Life 3
The Need for a Religion 4
Searching for a Purpose in Life 5
Realisation 6
Buddhism for Human Beings in Society 7
The Buddhist Way of Life for Householders 8
The Human Being is the highest fruit on the tree of evolution. It is for the individual to realise his or her position in existence and understand the true meaning of his life. The purpose of life is to achieve the end of suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

TO know the purpose of life, you will first have to observe it through your experience and insight. Then, you will discover for yourself its true meaning. Guidelines can be given, but you must create the necessary conditions for the arising of realisation yourself.

There are several prerequisites to the discovery of the purpose of life. First, you must understand the nature of human life. Next, you keep your mind calm and peaceful by adopting religious practices. When these conditions are met, the answer you seek will come like the gentle rain from the sky.


HUMAN beings may be clever enough to land on the moon and discover wondrous things in the universe, but they have yet to delve into the inner workings of their own minds. They have yet to learn how their minds can be developed to the fullest potential so that its true nature can be realised.

As yet, human beings are still wrapped in ignorance. They do not know who they really are or what is expected of them. As a result, they misinterpret everything and act according to their imagination. Is it not conceivable that our entire civilisation is built on this misinterpretation? The failure to understand existence leads us to assume a false identity of a bloated, self-seeking egoist, and to pretend to be what we are not or are unable to be.

People must make an effort to overcome ignorance to arrive at realisation and Enlightenment. All great people are born as human beings from the womb, but they work their way up to greatness. Realisation and Enlightenment cannot be poured into the human heart like water into a tank. Even the Buddha had to cultivate His mind to realise the real nature of human life.

Human beings can be enlightened—become a Buddha—if they wake up from the ‘dream' that is created by their own ignorance, and become fully awakened. They must realise that what they are today is the result of an infinite number of repetitions of thoughts and actions. They are not ready-made: they are continually in the process of becoming, always changing. And it is in this charac­teristic of change that their future lies, because it means that it is possible for them to mould their character and destiny through the control of their actions, speech and thoughts. Indeed, they become the thoughts and actions that they choose to perform. They are the highest fruit on the tree of evolution. It is for them to realise their position in existence and to understand the true meaning of life.

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MOST people dislike facing the facts of life and prefer to lull themselves into a false sense of security by dreaming and imagining. They mistake the shadow for the substance. They fail to realise that life is uncertain, but that death is certain. One way of understanding life is to face and understand death which is nothing more than a temporary end to a temporary existence. Many people do not even like to hear of the word ‘death'. They forget that death will come, whether they like it or not. Recollections on death with the right mental attitude can give a person courage and calmness as well as an insight into the nature of existence.

Besides understanding death, we need a better understanding of our life. We are living a life that does not always proceed as smoothly as we would like it to. Very often, we face problems and difficulties. We should not be afraid of them because the penetration into the very nature of these problems and difficulties can provide us with a deeper insight into life. The worldly happiness provided by wealth, luxury, respectable positions in life which most people seek is an illusion because it is impermanent. The fact that the sale of sleeping pills and tranquilizers, admissions to mental hospitals and suicide rates have increased in proportion to modern material progress is enough testimony that we have to go beyond worldly, material pleasure to seek for real happiness. This does not mean of course that Buddhism is a negative religion which condemns the acquisition of wealth. Far from it. The Buddha has expressly encouraged hard work to gain wealth because He said that wealth can give a person the opportunity to lead a decent life and to do meritorious action. What He discouraged was attachment to that wealth and the belief that wealth alone can bring ultimate happiness.

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TO understand the real purpose of life, it is advisable for a person to choose and follow an ethical-moral system that discourages evil deeds, encourages good, and enables the purification of the mind. For simplicity, we shall call this system ‘a religion'.

Religion is an expression of the striving of human beings: it is their greatest source of power, leading them onwards to self­realisation. It has the power to transform a person with negative characteristics into someone with positive qualities. It makes the ignoble, noble; the selfish, unselfish; the proud, humble; the haughty, forbearing; the greedy, benevolent; the cruel, kind; the subjective, objective. Every religion represents, however imperfectly, a reaching upwards to a higher level of being. From the earliest times, religion has been the source of humanity's artistic and cultural inspiration. Although many forms of religion had come into being in the course of history, only to pass away and be forgotten, each one in its time had contributed something towards the sum total of human progress. Christianity helped to civilise the West, and the weakening of its influence has marked a downward trend of the Occidental spirit. Buddhism, which civilised the greater part of the East long before, is still a vital force, and in this age of scientific knowledge is likely to extend and to strengthen its influence. It does not, at any point, come into conflict with modern knowledge, but embraces and transcends all of it in a way that no other system of thought has ever done before or is ever likely to do. Westerners seek to conquer the universe for material ends. Buddhism and Eastern philosophy strive to attain harmony with nature and enhance spiritual satisfaction.

Religion teaches a person how to calm down the senses and make the heart and mind peaceful. The secret of calming down the senses is to eliminate desire which is the root of our disturbances. It is very important for us to have contentment. The more people crave for their property, the more they have to suffer. Property does not give happiness. A great many rich people in the world today are suffering from numerous physical and mental problems. With all the money they have, they cannot buy a solution to their problems. Yet, the poorest people who have learnt to have contentment may enjoy their lives far more than the richest people do. As one rhyme goes:

  ‘Some have too much and yet do crave
I have little and seek no more;
They are but poor though much more they have
And I am rich with little store.
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I have; they pine, I live.'
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THE aim in life varies among individuals. An artist may aim to paint masterpieces that will live long after he is gone. A scientist may want to discover a new phenomenon, formulate a new theory, or invent a new machine. A politician may wish to become a prime minister or a president. A young executive may aim to be a managing director of a multinational company. However, when you ask the artist, scientist, politician and the young executive why they aim thus, they will reply that these achievements will give them a purpose in life and make them happy. But will these achievements bring lasting happiness? Everyone aims for happiness in life, yet they suffer more in the process. ‘The value of life lies not in the length of the days, but in the use we make of them. People may live long without doing any service to anybody and thus, live very little'.

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ONCE we realise the nature of life (characterised by unsatis­factoriness, change, and egolessness) as well as the nature of greed and the means of getting them satisfied, we can understand the reason why the happiness so desperately sought by many people is so elusive like catching a moonbeam in their hands. They try to gain happiness through accumulation. When they are not successful in accumulating wealth, gaining position, power and honour, and deriving pleasure from sense gratification, they pine and suffer, envying others who are successful in doing so. However, even if they are ‘successful' in getting these things, they suffer as well because they then fear losing what they have gained, or their desires have now increased for more wealth, higher position, more power, and greater pleasure. Their desires can never seem to be completely satiated. This is why an understanding of life is important so that we do not waste too much time doing the impossible.

It is here that the adoption of a religion becomes important, since it encourages contentment and urges a person to look beyond the demands of his or her flesh and ego. In a religion like Buddhism, people are reminded that they are the heirs of their karma and the master of their destinies. In order to gain greater happiness, they must be prepared to forego short-term pleasures. If people do not believe in life after death, even then it is enough for them to lead a good, noble life on earth, enjoying a life of peace and happiness here and now, as well as performing actions which are for the benefit and happiness of others. Leading such a positive and wholesome life on earth and creating happiness for oneself and others is much better than a selfish life of trying to satisfy one's ego and greed. If we do not know how to live up to the expectations of others, how can we expect others to live according to our expectations?

If, however, people believe in life after death, then according to the Law of Karma, rebirth will take place according to the quality of their deeds. People who have done many good deeds may be born in favourable conditions where they enjoy wealth and success, beauty and strength, good health, and meet good spiritual friends and teachers. Wholesome deeds can also lead to rebirth in the heavens and other sublime states, while unwholesome deeds lead to rebirth in suffering states. When people understand the Law of Karma, they will then make the effort to refrain from performing bad actions, and to try to cultivate the good. By so acting, they gain benefits not only in this life, but in many other lives to come.

When they understand the nature of human life, then some important realisations arise. They realise that unlike a rock or stone, a human being possesses the innate potential to grow in wisdom, compassion, and awareness—and be transformed by this self-development and growth. They also understand that it is not easy to be born as a human being, especially one who has the chance to listen to the Dharma. In addition, they are fully aware that life is impermanent, and they should, therefore, strive to practise the Dharma while they are still in a position to do so. They realise that the practice of Dharma is a life-long educative process which enables them to release their true potentials trapped within their mind by ignorance and greed. To experience worldly pleasure there must be external objects or partners but to gain mental happiness it is not necessary to have an external object.

Based on these realisations and understanding,they will then try to be more aware of what and how they think, speak and act. They will consider if their thoughts, speech and actions are beneficial, done out of compassion and have good effects for themselves as well as others. They will realise the true value of walking the road that leads to complete self transformation, which is known to Buddhists as the Noble Eightfold Path. This Path can help people to develop their moral strength ( sila ) through the restraint of negative actions and the cultivation of positive qualities conducive to personal, mental and spiritual growth. In addition, it contains many techniques which they can apply to purify their thoughts, expand the possibilities of the mind, and bring about a complete change towards a wholesome personality. This practice of mental culture ( bhavana ) can widen and deepen the mind to gain a better understanding of the nature and characteristics of phenomena, life and the universe. In short, this leads to the cultivation of wisdom ( pañña ). As wisdom grows, so will love, compassion, kindness, and joy. They will have greater awareness of all forms of life and better understanding of their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

In the process of self-transformation, people will no longer aspire for a divine birth as their ultimate goal in life. They will then set their goal much higher, and model themselves after the Buddha who has reached the summit of human perfection and attained the ineffable state we call Enlightenment or Nirvana. It is here that we develop a deep confidence in the Triple Gem and adopt the Buddha as our spiritual ideal. We will strive to eradicate greed, develop wisdom and compassion, and to be completely liberated from the bonds of Samsara.

This religion can be practised either in society or in seclusion.

THERE are some who believe that Buddhism is so lofty and sublime a system that it cannot be practised by ordinary men and women in the workaday world. They think that one has to retire to a monastery or to some quiet place if one desires to be a true Buddhist.

This is a sad misconception that comes from a lack of understanding of the Buddhist way of life. People jump to such conclusions after casually reading or hearing something about Buddhism. Some people form their impression of Buddhism after reading articles or books that give only a partial or lopsided view of Buddhism. The authors of such articles and books have only a limited understanding of the Buddha's Teaching. His Teaching is not meant only for monks in monasteries. The Teaching is also for ordinary men and women living at home with their families. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddhist way of life that is intended for all people. This way of life is offered to all mankind without any distinction. When four aspects of life i.e., Family life, Business life, Social life and Spiritual life are satisfactorily harmonized, lasting happiness is gained.

The vast majority of people in the world cannot become monks or retire into caves or forests. However noble and pure Buddhism may be, it would be useless to the masses if they could not follow it in their daily life in the modern world. But if you understand the spirit of Buddhism correctly, you can surely follow and practise it while living the life of an ordinary person.

There may be some who find it easier and more convenient to practise Buddhism by living in a remote place; in other words, by cutting themselves off from the society of others. Yet, other people may find that this kind of retirement dulls and depresses their whole being both physically and mentally, and that it may therefore not be conducive to the development of their spiritual and intellectual life.

True renunciation does not mean running away physically from the world. Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, said that one man might live in a forest devoting himself to ascetic practices, but might be full of impure thoughts and ‘defilements'. Another might live in a village or a town, practising no ascetic discipline, but his mind might be pure, and free from ‘defilements'. ‘Of these two', said Sariputta, ‘the one who lives a pure life in the village or town is definitely far superior to, and greater than, the one who lives in the forest.' (MAJJHIMA NIKAYA )

The common belief that to follow the Buddha's Teaching one has to retire from a normal family life is a misconception. It is really an unconscious defence against practising it. There are numerous references in Buddhist literature to men and women living ordinary, normal family lives who successfully practised what the Buddha taught and realized Nirvana. Vacchagotta the Wanderer, once asked the Buddha directly whether there were laymen and women leading the family life who followed His Teaching successfully and attained the high spiritual states. The Buddha categorically stated that there were many laymen and women leading the family life who had followed His Teaching successfully and attained the high spiritual states.

It may be agreeable for certain people to live a retired life in a quiet place away from noise and disturbances. But it is certainly more praiseworthy and courageous to practise Buddhism living among fellow beings, helping them and offering service to them. It may perhaps be useful in some cases for a person to live in retirement for a time in order to improve the mind and character, as a preli­minary to moral, spiritual and intellectual training, to be strong enough to come out later and help others. But if a person lives all his or her life in solitude, thinking only of personal happiness and salvation, without caring for his or her fellowmen, this surely is not completely in keeping with the Buddha's Teaching which is based on love, compassion and service to others.

One might now ask, ‘If a person can follow Buddhism while living the life of an ordinary person, why was the Sangha, the Order of monks, established by the Buddha?' The Order provides an opportunity for those who are willing to devote their lives not only to their own spiritual and intellectual development, but also to the service of others. An ordinary layperson with a family cannot be expected to devote a life to the service of others, whereas a monk or nun, who has no family responsibilities or any other worldly ties, is in a position to devote his or her life ‘for the good of the many'. (DR . WALPOLA RAHULA )

And what is this ‘good' that many can benefit from? Monks and nuns cannot give material comfort to a layperson, but they can provide spiritual guidance to those who are troubled by worldly, family, emotional problems and so on. Monks and nuns devote their lives to the pursuit of knowledge of the Dharma as taught by the Buddha. They explain the Teaching in simplified form to the untutored layperson. And if the layperson is well educated, they are there to discuss the deeper aspects of the teaching so that both parties can gain intellectually from the discussion.

In Buddhist countries, the Sangha are largely responsible for the education of the young. As a result of their contribution, Buddhist countries have populations which are literate and well-versed in spiritual values. The Sangha also comfort those who are bereaved and emotionally upset by explaining how all humanity is subject to similar disturbances.

In turn, the layperson is expected to look after the material well being of the Sangha who do not earn income to provide themselves with food, shelter, medicine and clothing. In common Buddhist practice, it is considered meritorious for laypeople to contribute to the well being of the Sangha because by so doing they make it possible for the Sangha to continue to minister to the spiritual needs of the people and to develop their own mental purity.

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The Buddha considered economic welfare as a requisite for human comfort, but moral and spiritual development for a happy, peaceful and contented life.

A man* named Dighajanu once visited the Buddha and said, ‘Venerable Sir, we are ordinary laymen, leading a family life with wife and children. Would the Blessed One teach us some doctrines which will be conducive to our happiness in this world and hereafter?'

The Buddha told him that there are four things which are conducive to a human's happiness in this world. (1) he should be skilled, efficient, earnest, and energetic in whatever profession he is engaged, and he should know it well ( utthana-sampada ); (2) he should protect his income, which he has thus earned righteously, with the sweat of his brow ( arakkha-sampada ); (3) he should have good friends ( kalyana-mittata ) who are faithful, learned, virtuous, liberal and intelligent, who will help him along the right path away from evil; (4) he should spend reasonably, in proportion to his income, neither too much nor too little, i.e., he should not hoard wealth avariciously nor should he be extravagant—in other words he should live within his means ( sama jivikata ).

Then the Buddha expounds the four virtues conducive to a layman's happiness hereafter: (1) Saddha: he should have faith and confidence in moral, spiritual and intellectual values; (2) Sila: he should abstain from destroying and harming life, from stealing and cheating, from adultery, from falsehood, and from intoxicating drinks; (3) Caga: he should practise charity, generosity, without attachment and craving for his wealth; (4) Pañña: he should develop wisdom which leads to the complete destruction of suffering, to the realisation of Nirvana.

Sometimes the Buddha even went into details about saving money and spending it, as, for instance, when he told the young man Sigala that he should spend one fourth of his income on his daily expenses, invest half in his business and other activities and put aside one fourth for any emergency.

Once the Buddha told Anathapindika, the great banker, one of His most devoted lay disciples who founded for Him the celebrated Jetavana monastery at Savatthi, that a layman who leads an ordinary family life has four kinds of happiness. The first happiness is to enjoy economic security or sufficient wealth acquired by just and righteous means ( atthi-sukha ); the second is spending that wealth liberally on himself, his family, his friends and relatives, and on meritorious deeds ( bhoga-sukha ); the third to be free from debts ( anana-sukha ); the fourth happiness is to live a faultless, and a pure life without committing evil in thought, word or deed ( anavajja­sukha ).

It must be noted here that first three are economic and material happiness which is not as noble as the spiritual happiness arising out of a faultless and good life.

From the few examples given above, one can see that the Buddha considered economic welfare as a requisite for human happiness, but that He did not recognize progress as real and true if it was only material, devoid of a spiritual and moral foundation. While encouraging material progress, Buddhism always lays great stress on the development of moral and spiritual character for a happy, peaceful and contented society.

Many people think that to be a good Buddhist one must have absolutely nothing to do with the materialistic life. This is not correct. What the Buddha teaches is that while we can enjoy material comforts without going to extremes, we must also conscientiously develop the spiritual aspects of our lives. While we can enjoy sensual pleasures as laypeople, we should never be unduly attached to them to the extent that they hinder our spiritual progress. Buddhism emphasizes the need for a person to follow the Middle Path. The Buddha's teaching is not based on the obliteration of the world but on the obliteration of ignorance and selfish craving.

*Abstract from the book ‘What the Buddha Taught' by Ven. Dr. W. Rahula.

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