A Buddhist View of Ethics and Bioethics

- through Francois Leclercq

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Euthanasia, cloning, GPA, neurosciences…. What are Buddhism's responses to current bioethical challenges?

The slightest statement taken out of its context can lose its initial meaning, until it seems to indicate the opposite meaning. Buddhism is about 25 or 26 centuries old, but it has barely hatched in the West, including France. It is still little known there, and it often proves difficult to transpose Buddhist notions into Western languages, which are rich in local cultures and strongly imbued with Judeo-Christian connotations. It follows that presenting a Buddhist point of view in a few lines or in a few minutes is a mission that is if not impossible, at least very delicate, with a non-negligible probability of generating some regrettable misunderstandings. It therefore seems prudent to begin by setting the framework before tackling the subject itself: bioethics.

Certain passages of the sutras describe facts which are surprisingly reminiscent of protocols developed very recently: cloning, artificial insemination, etc. 2600 years ago, the Buddha spoke of test tube babies, of course not in these terms.


1-The framework

Buddhism appeared in India around 600 years BC, within a very advanced society in many fields, sciences as well as spiritualities. The Buddha was an educated man, mastering contemporary arts and sciences, both secular and religious. He was 29 years old when, after the birth of his son Rahula, he left for the jungle to devote himself to the spiritual quest. After reaching the goal he had set for himself, namely Awakening, at age 35, he shared his experience with others until his death, at age 80 or 83 depending on the sources. In other words, he taught for at least forty-five years!

Its fundamental teaching, the Sutra of the Four Noble Truths, first points to the imperfection of our mode of existence which exposes us to suffering, as well as the causes, the main one of which is ignorance, then establishes the possibility of remedy and how to achieve it. The Buddha himself used colorful language when he said that one must first be aware of the disease to have the idea of ​​looking for its causes, then verify that this disease is curable to be interested in the treatment to be followed. .

In this case, the treatment can be condensed into three mutually reinforcing remedies: ethics, concentration and wisdom – in the sense of discernment.




ethics in general

Buddhism is based on ethics, that is to say on respect – for oneself, for others, for the environment. The guiding principle is that it is important to avoid harming anyone, others or oneself. The complementary principle: when possible, the ideal is to act in a beneficial way, for others as well as for oneself.

The initial observation is, let's not forget, that the world in which we find ourselves is imperfect. It is also eminently impermanent: any phenomenon changes from moment to moment, the only certainty being that what has appeared inevitably ends up disappearing. From there, on the ground, everyone has the responsibility to use their best judgment (wisdom) to determine what is best to do or not to do, depending on the circumstances at the time.

Nothing is “good” or “bad” in itself! An act may be reprehensible, even criminal, in one context, and recommended, even beneficial, in another. The intention, or even the motivation, prevails over the act. To take an example, everyone agrees that in general it is wrong to inflict pain on others. But the circumstances, medical, educational, etc., sometimes require that someone be subjected to something painful, in their interest or/and in the interest of the community.


How do you go about trying to make informed choices? Among other criteria, Buddhism advises favoring the long term over the short term. However, this is not the most common choice in our modern society, which often seeks immediate gain to the detriment of the long term, as illustrated by many health scandals, multiple and diverse pollution or global warming.



It suffices to apply the outlines already indicated to the various fields of bioethics. Thus, a Buddhist is a priori unfavorable to euthanasia, except in very specific cases, because euthanasia amounts to killing someone deliberately. On the other hand, he can admit sedation, because its purpose is to appease the suffering, and not to kill. The nuance is noticeable.

Along the same lines, a Buddhist is OK with using stem cells, but not with using embryos as crude raw materials. We still need to agree on what we mean by embryos: are they real embryos, that is to say people in their own right, viable, or are they the assembly strictly physical of an ovum and a sperm?

As far as cloning or artificial insemination is concerned, a Buddhist has no reason to be unfavorable to it a priori, since it is a question of giving life, and not of taking it away. It is obvious that this supposes to define rules, but neither more nor less than for any birth.

Note that, curiously enough, certain passages of the sutras, that is to say the discourses of the Buddha, describe facts which are surprisingly reminiscent of these protocols developed very recently: cloning, artificial insemination, etc. 2600 years ago, the Buddha spoke of test tube babies, of course not in these terms. He also had an approach to strong elements close to quantum physics.

As for surrogacy (surrogacy), it is probably as old as humanity. Only the mode of insemination has evolved. It would be utopian to believe that it could be totally prevented. It would therefore be better to be realistic and frame it to best protect the various parties, in particular the surrogate mothers. A priori, the child being (very) desired, it will undoubtedly be treated well, whether by parents of different sexes or of the same sex.

Organ donation is a fundamentally altruistic and eminently useful act. As medical progress improves the chances of success of transplants, organ donations should no doubt be encouraged, taking care, here too, to supervise them to avoid abuse and… murder.

As for artificial intelligence, robots, neurosciences, etc., we can only repeat the same thing: it is not "bad" in itself, but it requires rigorous supervision.



It is normal for researchers to seek and therefore sometimes find. The vocation of the scientist is to extend the field of knowledge. It is up to politicians and legislators to define the limits of possible practical applications, to prevent the lure of profit or the thirst for power from outweighing respect for people and their environment. It is up to the society concerned to set its priorities: respect for the person, including the environment in which they live, or material development to the detriment of the future of humanity and the planet? Finally, it is up to philosophers and religious to encourage an ethical approach. No one has the right or the power to impose his "truth" on others. But everyone has the right and the duty to express their opinion, because everyone will be a beneficiary or a victim of the decisions taken and implemented in their time. Including in bioethics

Text taken from the 2018 Estates General for the revision of the 2011 and 2013 bioethics law - CCNE (National Consultative Committee forEthics)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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