Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Law and Ethics

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Buddhist Law

In Buddhism, no text explicitly lays out laws pertaining to Buddhists. While there are religious principles derived from various teachings, these are not utilised or viewed as binding laws. Rather, they are presented and understood as moral precepts. Some streams of Mahayana Buddhism have a codified set of rules and regulations for their specific monastic community. These are often seen as laws that govern the conduct of monastics. However, there is no court of appeal or other elements that one might expect in a modern legal system. The most serious offences for monks/nuns are punishable by a form of ‘disrobing’, which excludes them from the monastic community.

Guiding Ethical Principles

Moral Precepts

Mahāyāna Buddhism codifies ethical behaviour in the form of precepts. There is no single set of precepts; some Buddhists may voluntarily undertake five, while others may follow extensive lists. The underlying principle is that an individual seeks to let go of their sense of ego and attachment to the self. It is believed that by letting go of one’s ego and sense of self, an individual can act from a compassionate (karuṇā) and wise (prajñā) state of mind.

The number of precepts a Buddhist commits to depends on their position within the organisational structure. There are five general precepts that are usually considered to be the bare minimum a Buddhist should follow, which are:

  • Refrain from killing or injuring living creatures.
  • Refrain from taking what is not given.
  • Refrain from committing sexual misconduct.
  • Refrain from ‘wrong speech’, such as lying and gossiping.
  • Refrain from using intoxicants that cloud the mind, such as alcohol or non-prescription mind-affecting drugs.

Merit (Puñya)

Puñya (puñña in Pāli) refers to the concept of ‘merit', ‘meritorious action' or ‘virtue'. It is the primary attribute sought by Buddhists to develop better karma to help in their spiritual goals. Mahāyāna schools generally hold that the accumulation of merit is necessary to progress spiritually. Merit can be acquired through various ways such as gift-giving, following moral precepts and practising meditation or rituals.

‘Field of merit’ is a related concept which refers to the idea that good deeds performed towards a special individual, group or object is worthy of more merit. For example, veneration towards the Śākyamuni Buddha provides the greatest field of merit. Some Mahāyāna schools such as Nichiren, Pure Land and Tiantai/Tendai consider texts (such as the Lotus Sūtra) or particular bodhisattvas to provide great fields of merit. As such, Buddhists may perform rituals of reverence in order to gain merit. In some cases, Buddhists may perform merit-making rituals toward a bodhisattva in exchange for favour or protection from the bodhisattva.

Karmic Debt

A common concept that underpins ethical decision-making is the idea of karmic debt (related to the concept of karma). This refers to the idea that beings cannot avoid the negative results of their unskilful or unwholesome actions. As such, all bad deeds or actions must be eventually paid. This notion may underpin some of the moral decision-making of many Buddhists as people seek to avoid committing karmically bad actions. Conversely, developing karmically good actions reaps good results (e.g., happiness, good fortune, etc.).

Compassion (Karuṇā)

The virtue of compassion (karuṇā) is emphasised in all schools of Buddhism, but is particularly important in Mahāyāna traditions. Compassion is generally understood as the deep care and concern for the suffering of others. Mahāyāna schools tend to view compassion as the necessary complement to wisdom or insight (prajñā). Compassion is also one of four virtuous qualities an individual should cultivate.

Non-violence (Ahiṃsā)

In Buddhism, ahiṃsā (avihiṃsā in Pāli, meaning ‘non-injury’, ‘non-killing’ or ‘non-violence’) refers to the concept of not causing harm to other living things. Adherence to the principle of non-violence is thought to generate positive karma while defying the principle is believed to bring about negative karma. The concept of ahiṃsā forms the basis of vegetarianism for many Buddhists, as well as the tolerance towards all forms of life.

Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce


There are no strict sexual ethical guidelines presented in Buddhism for lay Buddhists (apart from the fourth moral precept of refraining from sexual misconduct). Rather, sexual and reproductive ethics are based on general ethical concepts such as moral precepts and the doctrine of karma. Buddhists are generally open to the use of birth control. However, other topics related to family planning such as abortion or reproductive technologies are usually influenced by factors other than religion (such as culture, family perceptions, financial security, etc.).

Sexual Misconduct

Avoidance of sexual misconduct is one of the main moral precepts expected to be observed by all Buddhists. ‘Sexual misconduct’ for lay Buddhists generally refers to sexual offences such as non-consensual sexual acts, sexual activity with minors or those protected by the law, and adultery. It can also broadly refer to any irresponsible use of sexuality (such as promiscuity, an overindulgence of sex or sexual addiction).


Buddhism recognises the importance of marriage as a social institution. However, it regards monastic life as an ideal. As a result, marriage is usually not understood as a religious concern, but rather a matter of society in which the partners assume obligations to each other. Monastics tend not to officiate wedding ceremonies and usually will not participate as a matchmaker. Nonetheless, it is customary for newlyweds to visit a local monastery after their wedding to receive a blessing and in some cases perform a simple ceremony.

Most schools of Buddhism require monastics to remain celibate, with the exception of monastics in Japan. Such monastics are permitted to marry, and many major Japanese temples house married monastics with their families. Such temples tend to be family-run and passed down the male lineage. Some monastics in South Korea may also marry and live with their partner in monasteries.


Generally, Buddhism has no religious objection to divorce. Social and cultural influences play a major role in determining the level of acceptance when it comes to divorce and remarriage.

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