2nd Paramita: Ethics (Sila) 05-18-2020

Last week’s Dharma talk reviewed the Mahayana Buddhist concept of six paramitas (Sanskrit) or noble qualities—generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The focus was on the first virtue of generosity. Our discussion referred to earlier Theravada Buddhist teachings about ten paramis (Pali), which include the virtues of honesty, resolution, and two Brahma Viharas: loving-kindness and equanimity. 

Since then, I found that some Mahayana sutras mention ten paramitas, with four different additional virtues—skillful means, determination, spiritual power and knowledge. In this series of talks, we will continue to discuss six core Mahayana paramitas that guide lay practitioners to cultivate noble character traits. Now we will turn to the second of these virtues: the perfection of ethics (Sila Paramita).

This paramita is the enlightened attribute of virtuous and ethical behavior, which entails morality, self-discipline, impeccability, personal integrity, and honor. The essence of this paramita is to avoid harming ourselves and others through being virtuous in thoughts, words, and actions. In Buddhism, ethical conduct (Sila) is based on the principles of love and compassion for all beings.  

Even though we know that unethical behavior causes suffering and unhappiness, many of us have a negative response to the words “morality,” “discipline,” and “ethics.” These terms are often associated with imposed rules or impossibly high standards for how we should behave. But discipline and morality are inner qualities that we can cultivate gradually. When we are living a life of integrity and non-harm, we feel peaceful, at ease, and in touch with our basic goodness. 

You may recall that there is a category of morality on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. In order to live in harmony with others and have peace of mind, without the burden of regret or remorse, Buddhist practitioners take precepts, which promote honorable and harmonious behavior.  

The Buddha cautioned his disciples to refrain from the unwholesome actions of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. These three injunctions are included in the five precepts that the Buddha recommended as behavioral guidelines for laypeople. The other two basic precepts are to speak truthfully and wisely, and to abstain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind.

(Traditionally, when Theravada monks are ordained, they undertake vows to follow 227 precepts.)

Rather than considering precepts to be guilt-inducing moral commandments, we can embrace them voluntarily as a way of training ourselves in mindfulness. The precepts can serve as kindly reminders to be more aware and to make wise choices before acting. These are ideals we strive for, not goals we punish ourselves for failing to attain. Instead of beating ourselves into submission, we offer ourselves precise, firm, loving guidelines repeatedly, until new behaviors become established.

Most of us hold an intention, either vaguely or explicitly, to live a good life and to refrain from harm. The precepts give us a clear path for doing so, and a safe harbor when we lose our way, which we tend to do repeatedly.  

Ker Cleary, a contemplative psychotherapist, recommends integrating the precepts into our daily life by reading them aloud each morning, and then observing with an open, curious mind what arises throughout the day: 

Today I intend to:

  • Protect all life. (Do no harm to anyone.)
  • Take only what is freely given.
  • Speak truthfully, wisely, kindly, and in a timely manner.
  • Use sexual energy wisely.
  • Protect the clarity of the mind (Refrain from clouding the mind with intoxicants).

Zen teacher Josh Bartok writes about the importance of connecting with values or guiding principles that underlie the precepts. He says, “One of the greatest gifts of Buddhist meditation is that it strengthens our capacity to be choicefully present in our lives—to live by intention rather than be buffeted about by inner reactivity and outer circumstances.”

Each precept entails an explicit precaution and is associated with an implicit aspiration. Undertaking the training precept to refrain from harming or killing others implies vowing to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings.

This vow helps us view all life as interconnected, as inseparable from ourselves. An underlying value is to affirm life.  

On meditation retreats, when I practice walking with mindful attention to each footstep, I not only avoid stepping on insects, but I also have a chance to observe their activities. Several of my poems are tributes to bugs and slugs encountered during walking meditation. 

Sometimes we have no choice about taking life. Even those who decide to be vegetarians consume plants in order to survive. Consciously giving thanks for whatever food we eat connects us to the web of life that sustains us. Jack Kornfield says that it matters more what comes out of our mouths than what goes into them.

The training precept to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given implies a vow to practice generosity. This precept bestows the gift of safety. On most meditation retreats, bedroom doors are left unlocked. Everyone trusts that their belongings are secure and that lost items will be returned. An underlying value of this second precept is to be satisfied with what is enough instead of continually seeking more materially or spiritually.

The third precept pertains to right speech. The injunction against lying is a guideline, not an absolute. Sometimes words that are scrupulously honest seem unnecessary and unkind. Probably all of us have withheld some truth with an intention to protect others from difficult or overwhelming news. 

During the COVID crisis, however, disseminating false information about the availability of testing, medical equipment, or drug treatments is dangerous and possibly life-threatening. Our friends in Mexico City are concerned that government officials have been misleading the public by under-reporting the numbers of Mexicans who are hospitalized or dying of the novel corona virus. People who believe these untrue reports may be complacent about social distancing or may return to workplaces prematurely, jeapordizing their own health and that of others.  

Besides giving instructions about not lying, the Buddha cautioned his disciples not to repeat slander or speak with an intention to cause discord, because such malicious speech creates divisions among people. 

We witness how often politicians spread negative rumors about their opponents, without checking facts about the slander that they are spreading, or worse, they willfully distort their adversary’s words or actions. The damage can be painful and misleading. 

Aside from pointing out the consequences of malicious speech, the Buddha described how a person who speaks harshly, “utters such words as are rough, hard, hurtful [or] offensive to others, bordering on anger, [or] not conducive to concentration.”  

Even more prevalent than harsh speech is the unwholesome behavior of gossiping.  According to the Buddha, a gossip “speaks at the wrong time, speaks what is not fact, speaks what is useless, speaks contrary to the Dharma…, speaks such words as are worthless, unreasonable, immoderate, and unbeneficial.”  

Amidst so many Facebook postings, tweets and text messages, the opportunities to gossip are multiplying. We can become lost in stories about people we don’t know and will probably never meet. It can be helpful to note our curiosity about other people’s private business, especially if it involves a scandal. If someone has just told us a tasty morsel of gossip, we have a choice about whether to ask questions to continue the conversation or to steer the dialogue towards a more wholesome topic. 

Referring to values that underlie the third precept, Josh Bartok says, “I value listening fully and speaking openly, remembering that the truth is vastly larger than what arises in my mind and that “I don’t know” is often the actual fact of the matter.”

The training precept to refrain from causing harm through sexual misconduct implies a vow to take responsibility for sexual energy. During retreats, all meditators are celibate, and sexual energy is acknowledged, contained, and channeled into intensive meditative practice. 

Outside of retreats, this precept discourages us from using power or manipulation to have sexual contact against someone’s wishes. We can reflect upon whether our sensual desire affirms intimacy with a partner, or whether it alienates us from ourselves and others. Sexual energy occurs in the context of a relationship, and healthy relationships involve a commitment to be kind, honest and respectful. Sexuality in such relationships can be a source of deep and loving connection. Josh Bartok reminds us that this fourth precept entails valuing “mutuality and commitment in relationships.” 

The precept to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind implies a vow to ingest only what preserves peace and wellbeing. If we drink too much alcohol or take mind-altering drugs in uncontrolled circumstances, our judgment can become impaired so that we lose the ability to refrain from harm. 

Many car accidents and incidents of domestic violence are associated with intoxication. This precept does not say that we can never have a glass of wine, or that we can never use mind-altering substances, but it asks us to be aware of what happens to the mind when we consume too much or do it in a potentially harmful way. An underlying value of this fifth precept is to support mental clarity. 

If we break a precept, we can take responsibility for harmful actions, but there is no need to add guilt, shame, or self-judgment. What matters is an earnest resolution to be more mindful in similar circumstances that occur in the future. The key is to learn lessons from these moral guidelines, while continuing to be compassionate with ourselves in the process. 

Following these guidelines is not meant to be a burden or a restriction of our freedom. We follow precepts so we can enjoy greater freedom, happiness, and security in our lives, because through virtuous behavior we are no longer creating suffering for ourselves and others.  Practicing the paramita of ethics requires patience, the paramita we’ll discuss next.