Last week I introduced the Buddhist concept of the six paramitas or perfections. We’ve examined the first paramita of Generosity, and now I’d like to reflect upon the second one: The Perfection of Ethics (Sila Paramita)
This paramita is the enlightened quality of virtuous and ethical behavior, morality, self-discipline, impeccability, personal integrity, and honor.
The essence of this paramita is to avoid harming others, and to be 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” and “discipline” and “ethics.” They 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. So that we can live in harmony with others and have peace of mind, without the burden of regret or remorse, Buddhist practitioners take precepts to 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. (Traditionally, when Theravada monks are ordained, they vow to follow 227 precepts, a truly daunting prospect. So we’re getting off easy!) The other two basic precepts are to abstain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and to speak truthfully and helpfully, in a timely manner.
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 clear, 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 all 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:
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. 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 fascinating activities. Several of my poems are tributes to bugs and slugs encountered on the Dharma path.
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. My teacher 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. When I’ve attended meditation retreats, bedroom doors are left unlocked, and everyone trusts that their belongings are secure. Anyone who finds a lost item returns it to a table near the meditation hall.
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.
The training 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 at dinner, 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.
Like other Buddhist precepts, 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.
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. In the current political campaign, candidates regularly tell reporters 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.
If we break a precept, we can take responsibility for harmful actions, but there is no need to add judgment, guilt, or shame to our 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 these 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.