Mindful Ethics – dukkha & sukha

It may be helpful to begin with a reminder that there is no equivalent to the Ten Commandments in Buddhism – no list of what we should not do. There is also no Creed – no statement of what to believe. These are matters for each individual to explore, to decide and to take responsibility for – in the light of their own experience and learning.

The practice of being mindful involves not only paying attention without attachment, being present, but also, ‘minding,’ taking care, being kind. Being mindful enables us to experience, and to begin to understand, and come-to-terms with, the impermanence and interdependence of all phenomena. This is a life-long process of experiential learning and of modifying our behaviour in the light of what we learn. The impermanent and interdependent nature of existence gives rise to many difficulties. In Buddhism these difficulties are denoted by the term dukkha – a term with many meanings, but often translated as, ‘suffering.’ It is important to keep in mind that dukkha includes not only physical and mental pain, but also the feelings of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ that we may have about our existence and the unease, anxiety and disturbance that arise from our experience of the ever-changing nature of existence.

Dukkha is complemented by the related term sukha. The prefix su- means something like ‘good and conducive to wellbeing’ – while the du- in dukkha means ‘bad, difficult or inclining towards illness or harm.’ It may be best to use the word, dukkha, in its original form, as there is no equivalent word in English to convey its many and subtle meanings. The important thing to note is that sukha, flourishing or wellbeing, can only be achieved by understanding and alleviating dukkha. Much of the Buddha’s teaching was focused on this endeavour.

In the sutras we read how the Buddha urges his students to accept that the primary conditions of impermanence and interdependence cannot be changed. We all have to face up to our own mortality, and to the eventual death of those we love. We, and those we love, are also likely to become ill or suffer injury at some point in our lives. These are matters over which we have little control and inevitably give rise to pain and grief. However, by changing the way in which we think about, relate to and deal with these events, we can lessen their effects and thus reduce our dissatisfaction, unease and disturbance.

It is not nirvana or enlightenment, that is the goal of Buddhism, but rather the cultivation of sukha, that is, the wellbeing of all and the flourishing of all sentient beings. Transforming dukkha into sukha is the process that lies at the heart of Buddhist practice.

If we are to develop sukha, it is important first to acknowledge and accept two primary conditions of existence – impermanence and interdependence – instead of trying to deny or ignore the way things are. Attachment to a false understanding of how the world is – denoted by the term, ‘avidyā’ or ‘ignorance’ – can lead people to become dissatisfied and frustrated, only adding to their suffering. Dreaming and hoping for permanence, and clinging desperately to things, ideas and other people as they change and pass away, only makes everyone unhappy, restless and dissatisfied. It is these conditions of dissatisfaction, unhappiness and unease that mindful meditation enables us to understand and change. Instead of avidya, ignorance, it is important to cultivate, prajna, wisdom and understanding.

Almost all aspects of our existence have the potential to cause us pain, even those experiences that are pleasant and joyful – because pleasant experiences do not last for ever. This constant potential for suffering and dissatisfaction is what the Buddha’s teachings are intended to address. This is the positive message the Buddha communicates in his long years of teaching – we can cultivate sukha, that is, wellbeing, peace and equanimity, by paying careful attention to our experiences and changing our relationship with them. Being able to be aware of our thinking, sensing and feeling, without attachment, what we might call meta-awareness, can enable us to be less disturbed by life and all its ups and downs.


Mindful meditation involves engagement with the world, being here in this world – not seeking to escape to another world or to a transcendent state of mind. Being mindful we notice what arises from moment to moment and observe the everchanging relationships and processes that make up the world. In sitting meditation, we work to develop clarity of vision and thought, learning to see ourselves and our neighbours as we are, and to be mindful of the conditions within which we exist.

Mindful meditation helps to calm and clarify the mind, in order that we might act in an informed and compassionate manner. In this way we learn to see more clearly what needs to be done, and what we can do – to reduce suffering, and to improve the conditions (internal and external) in which we live. While much can be done by changing our view of ourselves and the world, aspects of the world also need to be changed to improve the lives of its inhabitants. In my view, it is important to counter the popular idea that mindful meditation is only about personal development and self-realisation. Social and political change may well be required if suffering is to be alleviated.

If we accept that mindful meditation involves both non-attached awareness and caring attention, then an ethics of mindful compassion and kindness can be developed from the simple practice of meditation. Perhaps, instead of the usual iteration of the Eightfold Path as a series of right actions and attitudes, it might be more helpful and effective to think of it as a path of mindful actions and attitudes. The eight practices advocated by the Buddha might then read as a reminder to develop the skills of: mindful understanding, intention, action, communication, livelihood, effort, awareness and concentration. By cultivating these skills we are cultivating sukha – that is we are developing our own actions and attitudes in a way that will benefit all beings and, by implication, our planet as a whole.


As I have mentioned many times, I have been very impressed by the work and writings of Sulak Sivaraksa – who is a Thai social activist and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. He writes about how mindful meditation can form the basis for an ethical renewal of society. Through a mindful analysis of our current economic, social and political systems, we can revitalise our ethics and work towards a more balanced, fair, sustainable society, grounded in mindful action, compassion and responsibility.

In his book, Seeds of Peace, Sivaraksa identifies what he calls, ‘three poisons: greed, hatred (and other negative emotions) and delusion.’ He argues that capitalism and consumerism are driven by, and encourage, these three poisons. He goes on: ‘In a capitalistic system, the mass media stimulate desires for things that are not really needed [this is a] deception that plays on people’s greed [and is] difficult to perceive […] We believe that consuming more, going faster, and living in greater convenience will bring happiness. We don’t look at the tremendous cost to ourselves, to our environment.’ He points out that the main aim of capitalism is profit, not sukha – the welfare of all. And profit requires ever-increasing consumption, exploitation and craving for more. According to Sivaraksa, if we are to achieve a healthier, fair and just society ‘…two realisations are necessary: an inner realisation concerning greed, hatred and delusion, and an outer realisation concerning the impact these tendencies have on society and the planet.’

What Sivaraksa, and other Buddhist teachers and social activists, are advocating, is that we move from a worldview grounded in craving, anger and delusion, to one that is guided by the cultivation of metta, karuna and ahimsa.

‘Mettā,’ is a Pali word, derived from, mitta, ‘friend’ – it is most often translated as ‘loving-kindness’, but a more accurate rendition might be ‘true friendliness’. The idea of friendship radiating out from person to person is taken as a model for how a just, equitable and peaceful society might function. The Sanskrit word, ‘Karunā,’ is usually translated as compassion – a sense of ‘fellow-feeling’, of shared suffering and of empathy, and a feeling of care and kindness towards those who suffer as we do. Karuna, grows out of a deep feeling of connectedness and a shared condition of being. ‘Ahimsa,’ is a Sanskrit word defined as, ‘not to cause injury through actions, words or thoughts,’ and, ‘non-violence.’ If all beings are interdependent and in constant interaction, any action, however small, affects all others. If all things are interconnected, and therefore inseparable, in any absolute sense, there can be no clear and fixed boundary between oneself and the universe. Thus, to injure or harm any part of the universe is to harm ourselves.

Sivaraksa’s critique of the socio-economic system within which we live is very useful and pertinent. It also echoes the teachings of the Buddha, Karl Marx, Erich Fromm and Ernst Schumacher, and contemporary writers such as Noam Chomsky. They are all arguing for a fundamental transformation of society, such that we put the wellbeing of all sentient beings and of our planet, as our guiding aspiration. To me, this suggests a renewal of politics and economics grounded in mindful action and attitudes – mindful ethics. It may be helpful to consider the skills identified in the Eightfold Path as being the means by which we can develop a mindful ethics, enabling each of us to make our political and economic decisions less determined by acquisitive, egocentric interests, and more determined by non-attached compassion and non-violence.

So, you might ask, what has all of this got to do with the simple activity of mindful meditation? Well, being mindful is a powerful process of learning and transformation, based on a clear awareness unclouded by anger, craving and delusion. It can lead to a realisation that in a finite world, with limited resources, infinite insatiable desire and consumption will inevitably be destructive of ourselves, of other beings and of the world we inhabit. Somehow the delusion of unlimited consumption needs to be clearly acknowledged and replaced by an ethics of moderation, sustainability, responsibility, and care for the planet and all its interdependent inhabitants. Through being mindful, paying attention, we come to realise how all beings are dependent on each other – that the universe is a dynamic universe of everchanging relationships – in this way we come to feel kinship and kindness towards all beings. This is one important way of cultivating sukha – a path to the alleviation of suffering and to building a healthier, just and more peaceful society.


Chomsky, Noam. 2017. Optimism over Despair. Penguin.

Fromm, Erich. 1979. To Have or To Be? Abacus.

Schumacher, E.F. 1974. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Abacus.

Sivaraksa, Sulak. 1992. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, Parallax Press.

Rahula, Walpola. 1988. The Social Teachings of the Buddha, an essay in: The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, ed. Fred Eppsteiner, Parallax Press.

International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB):   https://www.inebnetwork.org/about/

Robin also suggested: Lent, Jeremy. 2022. The Web of Meaning. Profile Books.