I had a conversation with my son in which I asked him if he was happy.  Without hesitation, he answered, “I’m extremely happy.  I am free to do what I want, when I want it.  My life is just good.”  I pondered that answer, and felt some envy at his sense of freedom.  I, by contrast, do not feel free.  I feel weighed down by “stuff,” responsibilities, my job and limited finances.  So I put that question to a couple of friends: What is happiness, and what is freedom?  The answers came rapidly and authentically: Happiness is the state of accepting what one has with gratitude.  Freedom is a bit trickier.

On gratitude, I can easily echo the sentiment.  I have, indeed, many, many things to be grateful for, not the least of which is my health, and my living environment which is a sunny locale, warm and comfortable.  And once I begin to focus on what I am grateful for, from the most minuscule to the grand, I indeed feel happy and blessed and lucky and proud of myself.


This is a topic explored by many philosophers through the ages.  In an anonymous article, the author explores whether it is possible to teach virtue.  I proposes that virtue can be taught, but the person being so taught must want to be taught, and must then act virtuously.  Virtue is the quality of being able to discern right from wrong.  But “right” from “wrong” is influenced and shaped, indeed, defined, by societal standards, as well as the times in which one lives.  In the West, issues of right and wrong are rooted in the Ten Commandments. However, Buddhism is not a monotheistic religion; it does not teach that there is one almighty God who has handed down rules for living; but rather teaches the Five Precepts: Anger (or violence, or more specifically, avoiding killing or harming other living things), Greed (or more specifically, avoiding stealing), Lust (or more specifically, avoiding sexual misconduct), Delusion (or more specifically, to avoid lying, and avoiding consuming intoxicating items.  Any thought, speech or action that is rooted in these precepts leads us away from Nirvana (bliss, enlightenment), and any thought, speech or action that involves love, giving and wisdom leads us closer to Nirvana.  In god-centered religions, to know right from wrong, one has only to do what he is told; but in human-centered religions, like Buddhism, one has to develop a deep sense of self-awareness.  Morality that is based on self-understanding is much more powerful than that which is based on command.  For example, being the target of mockery is an unpleasant and painful experience.  Knowing that, one would guard against inflicting that type of pain on another; making fun and ridiculing another would be considered doing “wrong” to another, because it would cause pain and embarrassment.  To know right from wrong in Buddhism, one would look at the intention of the act, the effect it might have on another person, and the effect it would have on oneself.  Cheating in marriage, for example, might very well lead to a dissolution of the marriage.  However, taken within this premise, what is the intention of the cheating spouse? Even if he or she claims “it just happened,” being a conscious human being precludes any such excuse.  What is the effect on the other person?  Even if the other person at first does not realize the situation, clearly, such behavior on the part of the cheating partner creates a duplicitous behavior at home, and such duplicity cannot be avoided.  The effect on the cheating spouse is also grave: It takes great energy to lie, maintain the lie, support it with various alibis, try to maintain a neutral face at home, while giving generously of one’s love and devotion to two lovers.  In other words, if my intentions are good (rooted in love, giving and wisdom), then my deeds and actions are wholesome and moral.

Still, it might be worth asking whether there are some universal standards of right and wrong.  Consider that during the Crusades, it was right to smite so-called nonbelievers in the one true church.  And smite they did, with what we now consider horrible methods, including torture, to induce suspected heretics to confess their sins.  We no longer subscribe to these methods — or do we?  Have we not resorted to torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq?  Do we not resort to torture when we water-board a suspect?

The dictionary definition of commitments is pledge or promise; obligation.  A deeper definition is engagement, keeping one’s word, being involved (in a cause or relationship), behaving with integrity. 

Each word above is rife with deeper meaning, but the most direct meaning of keeping one’s commitments, one’s promises to each other is really embodied in the Golden Rule.  How sad that so few follow that rule, even though so many profess to a deep religious faith.  Doing onto others as one would have others do onto one is a direct reflection of trying to sustain harmonious relationships among our fellows.  That means, if one if invited, don’t promise to show up if you have no such intention to do so; an invitation is not casual.  Extend yourself a bit beyond your own sphere; act with empathy to your fellow – how would you feel, for example, if you prepared a large spread, and only three people showed up, instead of the 20 you invited?  Of course, this does not refer only to party invitations.  You can extend from this all form of interactions, such as being a bit gentler behind the wheel and letting another car into traffic.

Sadly, our lifestyle has become all too casual, as evidenced by the behaviors of the people depicted on reality TV – how they talk to each other, the easy way in which they find reason to attack each other, the offensive language they use … what have we come to?

Morality can be loosely defined as refraining from immoral acts or thoughts.  I say loosely because morality is an almost indefinable sense of decency.  The opposite might be said of the popular TV show “Revenge,” in which weekly dramas are centered around various offended people seeking retribution.  Revenge is immoral, because it seeks to harm another person.  In fact, the desire to harm another person in any manner at all is immoral.  But why does morality so consistently appear as a condemnation of sexuality?  How is sexuality immoral?