Is Anything Truly ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’?

As a Buddhist practitioner I reckon I need to be very clear on what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.   In this post I explain how Buddhist morality is more to do with the effects of one’s own wilful actions (kamma) upon one’s own state of mind and less about the consequences for others. Nothing in this world is inherently good or inherently bad, but the Buddha’s doctrine of anicca, dukkha, anatta should not be understood as some kind of nihilism where ‘anything goes’…


The Buddha taught us that the world is impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), voidness (anatta) and nothing whatsoever is worth clinging to, but obviously this should not be understood as some kind of nihilism where ‘anything goes’ because the Buddha also taught us that intentions have consequences and we are all heir to our kamma.

Adam & Eve

Hans Baldung Grien, ‘Adam & Eve’, 1511 chiaroscuro woodcut sheet

So, from my viewpoint, morality is more about the effects of my own wilful actions upon my own state of mind and less about the consequences for others. Accordingly, ‘good’ is whatever leads me to nibbana and ‘bad’ is whatever keeps me bound in samsara.  Notice that I’m not talking here about intrinsic God-given qualities with inherent external existence but attitudes and behaviours that bear psychological fruits for the ‘doer’ and are thus recognisable as either skilful and wholesome (‘good’) or unskilled and unwholesome (‘bad’) in a given context. This is something that I realise for myself, having developed clearer seeing by practicing the Four Noble Truths and Four Foundations of Mindfulness, for example.

In my opinion, the ability to judge my own (and other’s) ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions based on insight, not dogma or delusion, is an essential life skill.  The ‘rules’ of Buddhism [1] are for guidance and training purposes; they are based on the Buddha’s own experience, and best regarded as his personal advice to us for ending our own suffering rather than a set of commandments to be obeyed without discernment and questioning. And upholding the Buddha’s minimum standard for good living or ethical conduct (i.e. the Five Precepts) is what separates the humanitarian from the sociopath or despot or anyone else who might be tempted to use the ‘good intentions’ argument to justify anti-social behaviour.

Btw, here’s a link to the first of four short YouTube videos on Buddhist morality by Ven. Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu which may be of interest to readers <Buddhism 101: Morality I>




[1] “Practicing Buddhists voluntarily undertake a particular set of training rules appropriate to their life-situation:

Source of quote: ‘Virtue: sila‘, edited by Access to Insight, 12 February 2012.

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