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I am searching for a sutta which gives a general guideline which helps in making ethical decisions. There are many suttas which give a skillful action for a specific scenario but I am looking for a guideline which shows us how to choose one action instead of another.

Often in ethical decisions it is possible to see how any decision hurts others indirectly. For example: Should I read printed news or online news? Printed news involves cutting down trees and destroying habitats, online news requires burning fossil fuels and polluting which harms people. We can endlessly intellectualise about the results of actions but this is paralysing rather than empowering. I would hope that a sutta doesn't suggest to analyse all possible results of an action.

I'm not sure what form the guideline will be in but I suspect that it will involve looking at one's own mind to see the motivations for an action or to see if any green/anger/delusion arises when taking the action.

The differences between an ethical action, skillful action, and meritous action are quite slim so the sutta could refer to any of these.

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Don't paralyze yourself with ethical intellectualism. You're just going to drive yourself batty. Eventually you do have to act.

I'm going to give you two answers. They're related to each other. The first comes from the Majjhima Nikaya. The Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta (MN 61) (one of my personal favorites!) rightly places morality as an aid to enlightenment rather than making it an end in and of itself. It also recounts just how destructive certain actions are to the contemplative life and, rather being prescriptive about morality, it instead places the locus of agency firmly within the volition of the practitioner. Providing guidelines rather than dogmatic law, emphasizing reflection rather than strict obedience, and handing off moral decisions to each of us is uniquely Buddhist. It's also why this sutta gets my vote.

To answer what I take to be the larger part of your questions - namely paralysis by analysis when it comes to morality - let's look at a Zen koan from the Mumonkan -

Case 38 A Buffalo Passes the Window

Goso said, "A buffalo passes by the window. His head, horns, and four legs all go past. But why can't the tail pass too?"

Mumon's Comment

If you make a complete about-face, open your eye, and give a turning word on this point, you will be able to repay the four kinds of love that have favored you and help the sentient beings in the three realms who follow you.

If you are still unable to do this, return to this tail and reflect upon it, and then for the first time you will realize something.

Mumon's Verse

         Passing by, it falls into a ditch;
         Coming back, all the worse, it is lost.
         This tiny little tail,
         What a strange thing it is!

Instead of thinking about buffaloes and windows, let's instead think about suitcases and clothes. You've seen plenty of cartoons, I'm sure, where Daffy Duck is packing for a trip. He crams everything into a suitcase except the sleeve of his shirt is hanging out the side. All that effort in packing, everything in there all delicately placed, neat, and even the latches close snugly. But still that damn piece of sleeve.

So what do you do? Do you leave it hanging out? Well that's annoying! But what are your alternatives? You could cut it off, I suppose, but that would just damage your shirt. Obviously, the thing to do is to just leave it. I mean, how important is it really that everything fits into the suitcase perfectly?

Morality is really the same thing. We can devise all of these perfect systems, take special care in reflecting on our actions, but the more we pack into the suitcase - e.g. the further we expand our reflection - the more likely it's going to be that something doesn't fit perfectly. There are always going to be loose ends. We can't worry about it. Unless we stop fretting, pick up our suitcase, and walk out of the door, we are going to miss our train.

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    I like that this sutta suggests reflecting on an action before, during and after an action so we have multiple opportunities to see if the action was wholesome. Even if we did an unwholesome action we can know it for next time. Your source was more clear about this than Suminda's source so I'm accepting this as the answer. – Hugh Jan 18 '17 at 11:20
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    The paragraph at the beginning about agency is well-said. Whenever I put my suitcase out on the bed to pack it, the cat climbs in! His tail cannot pass by. – user2341 Jan 20 '17 at 2:23
  • LMAO! Well, there is a particularly famous koan about what to do with a troublesome cat, but I don't think yours would be a fan of it. ;-) And yes, Hugh, I completely agree. I've always been a fan of this sutta! – user698 Jan 20 '17 at 13:25
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Having traversed all the quarters with the mind,

one surely finds none anywhere dearer than oneself.

Thus for each of us love the self the most—

therefore, one who loves the self should not harm another.

(Piyā) Mallikā Sutta

Guarding oneself, bhikshus, one guards others; guarding others, one guards oneself.

Sedaka Sutta

This action I want to do with the ___ — will it harm me, or harm others, or harm both?

Is it an unwholesome ___ action with painful outcome, painful result?

Amba,latthika Rahul’ovada Sutta

So whenever you have a dilema think would I like to be in a similar situation if you were the subject of the action.

THREEFOLD PURITY OF ____. Having reflected thus,

he himself abstains from ____,

he exhorts others to abstain from ____, and

he speaks in praise of abstaining from ____.

Velu,dvāreyya Sutta

If it is a dilemma about the precepts, abstain and encourage others as well, and praise abstinence.

Bhante, as regards such ____ conduct, when resorted to, unwholesome states increase and wholesome states decrease, such ____ conduct should not be resorted to.

But, bhante, as regards such ____ conduct, when resorted to, unwholesome states decrease and wholesome states increase, such ____ conduct should be resorted to

Sevitabbâsevitabba Sutta

When in a dilemma look inwardly to see increase or decrease in wholesome and unwholesome states.

Also look if the action is very proximate to the consequence. Growing a plant in a pot on a balcony can kill, if it falls on a by standard at the wrong moment. You are not motivated to kill hence there is nothing wrong with this. If something like this is a trap then it is unwholesome. Using paper is not an issue as long as you do not have a dilemma as the case is too remote. Killing and trading in meats and rearing animals to kill in Buddhism is discouraged but not eating meat. Former aims at curtailing the supply and distribution, but consumption is not forbidden as this is somewhat remote in the chain of events, but you should not see, hear or think the animal was killed specifically for me. If you have the dilemma the animal was killed for me or due to me being a non vegetarian then it is wise not to eat. After all it is mind and volition which decides the consequences, and undesirable consequences are unwholesome, may it be a worrisome mind or the karmic consequences. The dilemma may create the Karma itself. There is a story of a low birth due to dilema of breaking a leaf by a very pious and good monk. I cannot locate the story but hopefully it will apear here: A Monk Reborn in a Lower Realm for Breaking a Leaf. It is an example where even being overly worried about little things can snowball into a large Karmic result.

To reiterate, sakes of cookery may lead to deaths if someone uses the knives to kill and rob. Also there can be gas accidents which might kill someone. But the sale of arms and weapons are used to kill. Developing a dilemma on selling items for cooking has a remote chance of killing while selling weapons increase a chance to kill and aids the process how it is done. So selling weapons may also give a dilemma if some weapons used to do a mass shooting. Selling weapons is more close to the event. In case of killing for meat you have 3 phases. The supply side which is butchers killing to produce meat. This is unwholesome. Then comes distribution. This should be avoided. Then comes the consumers. They do not have volition to kill if they are buying already dead carceses. Also the butcher is not killing say I am killing for a so and so or Mr. X or Mrs. Y. In such cases the killing is remote enough so you do not get a dilemma.

To look inwardly look at sensation.

On cognizing a mind-object with the mind,

one explores a mind-object that gives rise to pleasure,

one explores a mind-object that gives rise to pain [displeasure],

one explores a mind-object that gives rise to equanimity

Sal-āyatana Vibhanga Sutta

Your dilemma will give rise to sensation which are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

TWO KINDS OF ____ FEELINGS.

Here, when one feels a certain kind of ____ feeling, unwholesome states grow in him and wholesome states lessen;

...

Abandon such a kind of ____ feeling

but when one feels another kind of ____ feeling, unwholesome states lessen in him and wholesome states grow.

...

Attain and dwell in such a kind of ____ feeling

Adopted from Kīta,giri Sutta

Look at pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensation giving arise to wholesome and unwholesome states. Adopt if it give arise to wholesome states and abandoned it if it gives arise to unwholesome states.

Or look at sensation which arise with the dilemma with equanimity and knowing it is arising and passing / impermanent. Equanimity displaces the root of craving and aversion and knowing it is impermanent and dependently arisen displaces the root of ignorance. [Pahāna Sutta, Avijja Pahana Sutta 2] Perhaps you could also identify the 121 mind states and 52 mental factors by sensation. [Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma by Bhikkhu Bodhi]

Skillful action are the actions executed with no bad roots but meritorious may have bad roots. E.g. You are giving expecting fame, which is meritorious but not skillful.

It is only wise to have a dilemma is you have volition to act in an unwholesome way and your action orchestrates it.

NB: In a repetitive quote where just one word changes I have left the word as ____ than quote the multiple instances.

Also be careful of no harm as this can be harmful if you get attached to it. Even on a non harmful decision see if this is by attachment to an ideal or not, if so it is harmful

  • Sorry for my late reply. Thank you for putting together a collection of suttas giving advice for taking actions. There is a lot about non-harm so I think I must accept that as a method of decision making. The Sevitabbâsevitabba Sutta is the kind of advice that I was looking for, where we look inwards to decide if an action is skillful or not. I am going to leave this question open with a bounty to try to find more guidelines like that. – Hugh Jan 16 '17 at 19:40
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    Be careful of non harm as this can be harmful if you get attached to it. Even on a non harmful decision see if this is by attachment to an ideal or not, if so it is harmful. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Jan 17 '17 at 2:49
  • Very well said Suminda - especially re: non-harm. – user698 Jan 17 '17 at 19:12
  • The distinction of 'proximate' and 'remote' is new to me, and very clarifying. I appreciate this information, and it is well-written. – user2341 Jan 20 '17 at 2:18
  • @nocomprende Added bit more information – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Jan 20 '17 at 6:24
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I still see SN 56.11 as the 'single' sutta: i.e. if you ask me to pick only single sutta, it would be that one.

Consider your problem for example,

Should I read printed news or online news?

I think that sutta warns that in wanting to read news there might be craving, thirst (taṇhā).

The sutta might be an answer your question, in that it does involve "looking at one's own mind to see the motivations for an action". And its recommending the "noble eightfold path", too, might be taken as a reference to "ethical action, skillful action, and meritous action" which you were also asking after.

Also I'm suspicious of "ethical dilemmas": if the question is, "should I do this bad thing, or should I do that other bad thing?", then I'm inclined to look for a different answer or a way to reframe the question. This sutta (SN 56.11) also introduces the "middle way", which, is one of the ways to avoid or answer a false dilemma.

  • Sorry this is not really the type of answer I was looking for. There is a place for actions that are not indulging in pleasure or pain but that is for somebody endowed with great wisdom who can do such non-attached actions. There is also a place for plainly making a decision and trying to do that in an ethical way. – Hugh Jan 17 '17 at 22:53
  • I'm aware that I created a false dilemma but the example was to show the problems with intellectualizing. I left out other options to keep my question short, I wasn't trying to insist that there are only 2 actions, I use the word 'dilemma' in the informal sense so it doesn't refer to a choice with 2 options. – Hugh Jan 17 '17 at 22:55
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I like Milarepa's 'commandment' to his disciples at the end of his life: "Act so that you have no cause to be ashamed of yourselves." (It is from Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, which I read about 10 years ago.)

I think that covers all cases, and does involve a reflection on one's own mind, as you say.

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