Morality Without a God

If there is no God, as in Buddhism, what is the source of our moral code?  Without a God to tell us what is good and bad or right and wrong, and to order us to follow instructions (commandments), what is the source of morality?

Morality in Buddhism, it is stricter in most religions, means thoughts and behavioral guidelines that lead to reducing and ending suffering.

While this may not be the case for all religious traditions, though it is for most, the content of a religion’s moral code is directly related to a religion’s soteriology–its ultimate goal, or, more “religiously,” its salvation concept.  In Buddhism, the soteriology is to end suffering in this lifetime. This leads to a moral code aimed at reducing suffering, which, from a practice perspective is achieved by developing peaceful ways to speak and think and act.  In the Abrahamic faiths, on the other hand, the moral code is about getting into heaven, or, even more elementally, simply obeying God’s instructions because God’s authority is absolute.  God commands the faithful to act in ways God approves of, and morality is defined exclusively by the word of God, or what those intentions are thought (and argued over!) to be.

A conservative Catholic told Carl: “everything we do here is aimed at the next life.”  A conservative Buddhist would say exactly the opposite.  This demonstrates that moral codes (i.e., guidelines for acting “correctly”) are directed and organized based on the faith’s “end game” — directed either toward the next life or toward this life.  If our goal is to end our suffering in this lifetime, we may act differently than if we need to do things to get a good spot in the next life.  Methods to describe these actions vary.  There are, for example, guidelines vs. commandments; internal awareness-driven vs. external sanctions-driven actions; compassion vs. righteous anger; my way is a way vs. my way is the way; the six paramitas vs. the seven deadly sins; etc.

In Buddhism today (at least from the deepdharma perspective), morality is expressed through guidelines for action that are intended to lessen suffering, with a focus on internal awareness, the development of a skilled way of acting so one has progressively less and less discomfort with everyday living, with suggestions for self-guided incremental “course corrections” as we go through life.

At its foundation, we cannot emphasize enough, Buddhist morality arises from its focus on exploring and “understanding” (to the degree that this is possible) emptiness, the ultimate nature of things, and not from an imaginary punitive figure at the top of a spiritual hierarchy or from some universalized external occult or metaphysical source.  (See extensive discussions of emptiness elsewhere on

The Mahayana doctrine of emptiness suggests a way of life (see emptiness under Beliefs and Practices on in which we release our minds from self-centered and self-serving desires and illusions so we can follow the path to liberation (morally speaking, the paramitas), not only for ourselves but for all beings.  One who practices emptiness in this way is a person of compassion, since freeing oneself from self-centered, egotistical passions and delusions sets one on a course of compassion for ourselves and others where in the end we aren’t being compassionate, but we are compassion embodied.

Once compassion arises (again, from the wisdom of emptiness) mindfulness directs us in how to stay on course until morality is “perfected” and an “enlightened morality” happens naturally. When this happens, our default has been reset. There is no longer a need for us to mindfully keep moral correctness within our attentional field for it is our attentional field.  As the Buddha said to his disciple Ananda (related in Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh): “My teaching is not a philosophy. It is the result of direct experience…. My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold on to or worship.  My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river.  Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already reached the other shore of liberation.”

Bear in mind that the study of emptiness is a soteriological device, an instrument or tool used to suggest a course to lessening suffering.  It is a skillful means, not a thing we attain, nor a place to reach.  So, emptiness needs to be understood conventionally (on an everyday level) as a means to liberation. Conventional understandings, while all fictions and ultimately empty, are necessary as tools for presenting us with the path, and with a methodology for attaining (and along the way, lessening) liberation from suffering. Without these conventional understandings of how to behave, we would easily lose our way from the path.

This focus on understanding emptiness is not to say that Buddhist tradition is free from suggestions and instructions for moral ways to think and act.  Quite the contrary, the tradition’s primary focus is on guiding the practitioner to always be aware of and to engage in “right,” behaviors, based on or arising from one’s position on or commitment to the path of liberation.  Right behaviors (including thought) are foundationally delineated in the “eightfold path” (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) as a beginning point for all Buddhist practice.  Describing how to embody the eightfold path in all aspects of your life has been a focus of Buddhist scriptural and philosophic guidance since the time of the Buddha.  The collective thoughts, traditions and practices making up the corpus of Buddhist moral guidance have developed and been tested over 2500 years of tradition to assist in the lessening of suffering.

Our Self-Evident Proposition

Before we go any further, there is an initial assumption, what Buddhism sees as a self-evident proposition, that needs explanation as it is the assumption which underlies all of Buddhist morality:

The proposition is that “all sentient beings” want to be happy, want to end their suffering. This isn’t as speculative as it might seem, nor is it necessary to parse the words to see its validity. And knowing that this proposition is a conventional idea, and so empty, doesn’t negate its validity. This is one of those times when a conventional understanding leads us to uncovering and following the path; without it we would be lost and floundering.

Here’s how deepdharma usually explains that this proposition is not speculation. Again, the assumption is that we all want to be free of suffering, meaning happy.

Try this now–just sit quietly for a minute or two then just watch your posture for five or so minutes. Allow yourself to move and shift naturally. Notice how many times you move: crossing or uncrossing your legs, adjusting your glasses, moving back or forward, raising or lowering your arms, running your fingers through your hair, adjusting the position of your head, and so on. When we consider why each of these almost constant changes in posture occur, we observe that each movement is an attempt on our part to relieve our discomfort, to end the “suffering” that is arising from the way we are sitting or holding ourselves. And we assume that each move will make us comfortable, which is silly because it never does–we just adjust to the next perceived discomfort, over and over. As we observe, everything we do is meant to make us more comfortable, to make us a little more satisfied: happier.

To this last point, in the context for the five aggregates, we are “neuro-processing machines” who absorb information through our senses and use it to create narratives which tell us how to act and that are consistent with our previous understandings of the world. Every sense contact arises with either an affinity or an aversion gripping the contact. Contacts for which we have an affinity, we desire more of. We actually believe that getting more of what we want will relieve our suffering and make us happy. Similarly, contacts to which we are aversive, we desire to end or avoid, thinking that that will make us happy. Obviously, this doesn’t work. But it does illustrate how every narrative or story we create (4th aggregate), arises, on some level, to relieve our suffering, and it tells us that, on the most basic level, all sentient beings want to end their suffering.

This tells us that the traditional default for processing sensory stimuli fails to accomplish its goal of making us happy. The default, as we observe in meditation and with intellectually scrutinizing our daily activities, is greed (wanting more of the things we like and wanting less of those we dislike), anger (the affect when we realize it is impossible to ever get things the way we want them to be), and delusion (thinking that the way we perceive the world is actually the way the world is.)

In Buddhist parlance, “greed, anger, and delusion” are the three poisons, and unfortunately, they are also our default operating system. So, being everything arises from the three poisons, we can see that everything we do is an attempt to make ourselves happier.

Often what we do is unwise, or arises from ignorance, nonetheless, at the moment when we do it, it seems, or more accurately, it is our best shot at becoming happier. This being so, “all sentient beings” can be seen to desire to be happy. “All sentient beings” in Buddhism has historically meant beings composed of the five aggregates (humans), but with today’s ever evolving understanding of our moral responsibility, that phrase, “all sentient beings,” has been widened to include responsibility toward all sentient and non-sentient beings and things, including the planet. (See applying the dharma to the dharma below.)

“First Do No Harm”

(which really isn’t part of the Hippocratic oath, but let’s make believe)

As we have seen (in the boxed explanation above), we can derive from emptiness, in very broad terms, that greed, anger, and delusion are the source of our suffering, and that their antidotes would therefore be the source of an enlightened person’s behavior. What are those antidotes: broadly speaking, they would look like this:

  1. Do no harm, and then if possible
  2. Act beneficially, and if there is nothing beneficial to be done,
  3. Do nothing

Being that everything is empty, how do we know what is beneficial and what is harmful? These are, after all, conventional concepts. Certainly, we can experience them in meditation. When we sit still and observe our minds, we observe that certain thoughts and words and behaviors (from body, speech and mind) leave us stressed and anxious, physically and mentally ill-at-ease, such as thinking hostile thoughts toward another or reliving a fight in which we bullied and cursed at someone for no reason, or when we intentionally cheated in a game of poker. These thoughts and words and behaviors, or memories of behaviors, which lead to this discomfort are obviously doing harm. Their opposites, the antidotes to these behaviors, like compassion, wisdom, patience and generosity, leave us feeling peaceful and are therefore defined as beneficial.

Mindfulness (what Shantideva calls “guarding awareness”) is the mode of awareness that we use to regulate our attention, intentionally setting it on avoiding the doing of harm and instead on doing things with body, speech and mind that are wholesome and beneficial. Again, these wholesome actions are conventional concepts and empty. So how do we know what is beneficial?

Mindfulness implicitly defines what is beneficial and not.  As Vasubandhu explains in his Discussion of the Five Aggregates, some things are always beneficial, some things always afflicted, and some things are sometimes one or the other (see our commentary on his Discussion under Commentaries on But anything that is an antidote to the afflictions of body, speech and mind, would be, by definition, beneficial. The afflictions are all self-centered; the antidotes are all other-centered and altruistic. “Altruism” is a key defining characteristic of Mahayana Buddhism; earlier Buddhist sects do not generally place much emphasis on altruism.

As time went on, Mahayanists broke morality into three divisions worth noting here as an exercise: (1) morality as exercising restraint, (2) morality as developing virtue, and (3) morality as altruism. It is a useful practice, once a day, to ask oneself, “Was I restrained today? (Did I do things I knew were wrong?) Was I mindfully practicing virtuousness? (Were the emphases of my practice today based on compassion?) And, was benefiting others a primary intention today? (Did I have right intention and right view constantly in my attentional field today?)

We have looked at morality broadly. Now for the narrower perspective. Here are the six paramitas, the six moral behaviors that lead directly toward liberation and so are considered “beneficial.” (With enough practice, these become our new default as suffering eases and drops away.)

  1. Giving–generosity, with or without characteristics
  2. Morality–ethical behaviors, moral restraint
  3. Patience—unmitigated acceptance of the present moment, awareness without embellishments
  4. Diligence–enthusiastic effort that arises from faith and confidence
  5. Meditation–mindfulness
  6. Wisdom—insight into dependent arising/emptiness, and the practice of right view

“If one can understand this doctrine [the doctrine of emptiness],” Nagarjuna writes, “they can understand Mahayana and possess the six paramitas without hindrance.” In other words, they would become, or at least approach, enlightenment where the six paramitas (behavioral perfections of an enlightened being) are the default setting for how we think and act. This replaces the three poisons—greed, anger and delusion—with the paramitas, and so leads us from unending suffering to the peacefulness of wisdom. (Fake it until you make it is ok here.)

Before reading any further, we suggest perusing the description of the paramitas under Beliefs and Practices on

This idea of the paramitas being tightly coupled to liberation is a later Buddhist understanding and interpretation.  It was not codified as a gate to enlightenment until the 3rd to 5th centuries CE with the widespread rise of Mahayana and specifically with the writings of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu.

Prior to this codification of the paramitas as the premier moral guidelines, the basic moral teachings were The Ten Precepts. The first five were for laity and well as monastics: (1) no killing, (2) no stealing, (3) no inappropriate sexual behavior, (4) no lying, and (5) no intoxicants. The next five were for monastics only: (6) no eating after midday, (7) no attending entertainment, (8) no wearing jewelry or perfume, and (9) no sleeping on luxurious beds, and (10) no handling money.

The earliest lists for laypeople were taught as rules of conduct; ways of behaving that led to attaining merit and virtue that would bear fruit in this life and guarantee upward movement in the next life. As Buddhism became institutionalized, morality was quickly linked to rebirth and a simple quid pro quo understanding of karma (do good, get good back, if not in this life, then the next), cultural concepts in Northern India at the time. Note that the Buddha himself never taught a doctrine of rebirth and never had a cosmology. Those were added as Buddhism moved from a forest monastic practice to an Indian institutional religion.

The first five precepts (no killing, etc.) and the 8 folds of the fourth noble truth provided the moral underpinning for the laity, as well as monastics. These arose from the logic and mindfulness of meditation, and from its extension into karma (karma not as quid pro quo, but as the storehouse of unmanifest motivational dispositions).

Morality was a serious concern for early Buddhists, even if the rules were less than systematically conceptualized.  In addition to The Ten Precepts, there were literally thousands of lists regarding behavior and mind states, mostly codified in the Books of Gradual Sayings, with longer lists of special rules for monks and even more special rules for nuns. Unfortunately, the differences in the rules (the vows taken) to be a monk and those taken to be a nun clearly indicate the early patriarchal structure to Buddhism which, in America today, has clearly shifted a gender- and orientation-free ethical standard, though patriarchal structures still endure in most of Asian Buddhism, even in America.

As the sangha grew, a broader set of moral standards were needed, with a source that was embedded in logic and reason.  Hence there was “turning of the wheel” and acceptance of the emptiness-based, paramitas-based Mahayanist emphasis on awareness arising from mindfulness that observed that if we completely reset our mental default from greed/anger/delusion to something beneficial, suffering could be extinguished. What would that set of beneficial rules be: the six paramitas, the default reset.

As we have just discussed, events fall on a spectrum between completely self-centered (greed/anger/delusion) and utterly other-centered, other-centered without characteristics (patience, compassion, and generosity); between unwholesome/harmful and wholesome/beneficial. Self-centered are morally or ethically unwholesome; other-centered are wholesome and lead to liberation. Yes, these are conventional concepts, and empty; that makes them “rafts to reach the other shore,” not meaningless ideas.

Two of Buddhism greatest philosophers (Asanga and Vasubandhu) have given us lists of things that are beneficial. Here are a couple of key lists from Asanga; those from Vasubandhu can be found in his Discussion of the Five Aggregates.

The 9 Calming Mindstates

  1. Generosity
  2. Compassion
  3. Patience
  4. Humility and Modesty
  5. Moral Restraint
  6. Truthfulness
  7. Dependability

Usually seen as negatives, 8 and 9 are viewed as positive mindstates here.

  1. Regret
  2. Distaste

 The 11 Virtuous Mental Qualities

  1. Sense of propriety
  2. Considerateness
  3. Suppleness
  4. Equanimity
  5. Conscientiousness
  6. Renunciation
  7. Imperturbability
  8. Unbewildered clarity
  9. Non-violence
  10. Enthusiasm
  11. Faith

Morality Without God:
A Short-Form Restatement Emphasizing Dependent Arising

Buddhism emphasizes understanding the nature of things as-they-are (not reified nor governed by the three poisons of greed, anger and delusion), meaning empty. Things are the way they are because they are conditioned (preceded) by other things. We are conditioned by other people and phenomena. Other people and phenomena are conditioned by us. This is dependent origination, aka dependent arising–the way things are ultimately and the source of our morality. (The classic way of understanding emptiness is to equate dependent arising with emptiness.)

Since everything depends on conditions, on other people, places, things, etc., to arise, then nothing is completely independent and autonomous. Since nothing is autonomous, nothing is permanent. This eliminates either eternalism or nihilism as sources of morality, considering that both are permanent. Eliminating eternalism as a possibility also eliminates God, as a God that is not eternal and permanent is not very useful. So, everything is dependently arisen, and it is from dependent arising itself that our moral code arises.

This is the way our conventional world and conventional understandings of ourselves arise: from conditions. Every time we or anyone does anything with body, speech or mind, a new condition arises. Some conditions are wholesome and beneficial as they lead us and others along the path to more peacefulness and ease in our lives; some are unwholesome, as they increase stress and distress and produce unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness.

But you might argue that conditions are themselves empty. While that is correct, it doesn’t mean that conditions are meaningless. Yes, the walls of this room I am working in now are “empty,” but that doesn’t mean I can walk through them. Words may be empty, but that doesn’t mean it is ok to be a bully.

Anyway, our fundamental assumption isn’t a speculative assumption but rather an experience-able self-evident understanding of our conventional nature that arises from understanding our ultimate nature. The realization that our moral guidelines are empty, rather than negating their validity, simply frees us from attaching even to these rules while allowing us to follow them and stay inside a wholesome wheelhouse.

Without a God to tell us what is good and bad, what is unwholesome and unbeneficial, Buddhism looks mindfully to the ultimate nature of things to understand the right way to act with body, speech and mind. This means we aim to give up greed, anger and delusion as our default mode of processing information. Giving up those three poisons resets our default to a life driven by patience, compassion, and generosity, and all the qualities listed above in blue, qualities that lessen our suffering and our ego-centered sense of Self.

This leads to a compassion centered way of life; to a life that uses the six paramitas as rafts to take us “to the other side,” as the Heart Sutra says.

Final Note:
Applying the Dharma to the Dharma

We have seen how morality in Buddhism, though always emphasized, has changed and expanded from simple prescriptive lists to flexible, complex mind-only delineations. As our world has become more complex, socially, culturally, and technologically, so have our ethics and morality.

When discussing Buddhist doctrines in general, and specifically as it relates to morality, Buddhism suggests we apply the dharma, meaning our unique understanding of how things are, to the dharma–to our moral code. Allowing morality to adjust to innovation and changing cultural norms is essential to a healthy dharma, right ethics and morality, and a peaceful life.

Right speech is an obvious example of ever-changing moral and ethical standards to which the dharma is responding. Today “right listening” is often added to “right speech,” ever-elusive and changing “politically correct” speech too has been added, and all forms of digital and video communications are now included under “speech,” including pictorial platforms, like Instagram and SnapChat. Buddhist socially engaged activism, which was created as a part of Buddhism in the 1950s, is another example of Buddhism’s changing morality—and a dangerously slippery slope as it assumes that what we advocate and endorse, is right and beneficial.

Emptiness allows us to apply the dharma to the dharma, but it must be done carefully and mindfully. Conventional understandings are weak and often clouded in delusion, even those anchored in Bodhisattva vows and the paramitas, even those which have great public support.  The humility of thought encouraged by mindfulness will help act as a raft keeping us to a course of doing no harm.