Children need to be taught proper ethics for life
The Rev. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya
I have been contemplating two Buddhist ethics of late: to abstain from harming living beings and to abstain from false speech.
I have thought about this more because I observe a decline of integrity in our society, our businesses and our government. If we do not change course, our children will become what our society has taught them to be. As a simple example, I know a student who was repeatedly late to the first class of the day. After being held accountable, she began arriving with excuse notes from her mother. One note was for a nosebleed, and another was inscribed with "Not feeling well." I noticed these excuses alternated every time the student was late. By lying for her daughter, the mother was teaching the daughter to lie. It does not matter if it is a simple lie or a complex one. Lying is unethical; we should not teach our children to lie. Ethics are also thrown aside by businesses for the sake of profit with little regard of the damage done to human relations and trust. A relative of mine told me a story of a business meeting that was indicative of the current business attitude. His company, a food business, had a process that generated a byproduct, caffeine. His company previously negotiated a "gentleman's agreement" to sell its caffeine to another company. At a meeting that came later within my relative's company, it had come to people's attention that a new product they were making could use the caffeine. My relative responded it was too bad they had promised the caffeine to another company. Other business people at the meeting asked if any papers were signed. The answer was no. Since that was the case, they suggested the company had no obligation to honor the agreement. They felt it was right to withdraw from the agreement because it was legal. An argument ensued because my relative stated legality was irrelevant, a word had been given and it was a matter of ethics, not legalism. His colleagues considered this an unrealistic business approach. We should not teach our children to cast aside ethics because they are inconvenient. The lack of ethical fiber in the above example is also evident in the U.S. public's lack of moral repugnancy over the ethical transgressions of the government. Although I am reticent to approach politics, the climate has become such that if religious leaders continue to turn a blind eye toward policies that create suffering and injustice in the world, no one will be left to advocate for what is noblest in human beings - which ultimately is not a political, but human concern. This year, Americans were outraged by the "American Idol" "scandal." They were not as outraged by the abuse and deaths of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the analysis of the as quaint or the deaths of our women and children in other countries. (I say "our" because all women, children and men are brothers and sisters, whether they see it that way or not.) The present attorney general looked at the legality of torturing prisoners; a question that would never arise if ethical conviction were present. However, the question was not only asked, but a legal justification was given to allow torture and to suspend human rights. We should not teach our children that torture is fine as long as it is not illegal. Former President Clinton lied and should have resigned. Again, the defense was not what is right, but what is legal. President Bush and his colleagues presented deliberately manipulated information, resulting in the deaths of many adults and children. No one has been held accountable. Indeed, some people revere the people and actions. We should not teach our children that if they are president they can lie and murder people, especially without being held accountable. I started this article noting Buddhism has precepts against harming living beings and speaking falsely. In Christianity and Judaism, there are commandments not to murder and one on bearing false witness, which could be interpreted as a prohibition against lying. Even if others transgress these principles, people of conviction hold strong to them. In Buddhism, we say you are in charge of your own karma, regardless of what others do. I appeal to people of spirit, both clergy and laity, do not - through either support or silence - condone the violation of ethics by individuals, businesses or our government. We should not teach children our religious ethics exist for adornment only, or can be ignored for the sake of nationalism. May you and all beings be well and happy.
Ven. Ocean-of-Wisdom Sakya is the abbot of Middle-Way Meditation Center in Danbury.