26 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Sila or Ethics (3 of 7)

Sila (ethics) has to do with action: doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Specifically, it refers both to action directed toward a goal, and toward ethical living in a day-to-day, moment-to-moment sense. Both simultaneously. The idea is to orient every thought, word, and deed toward your Mahayana intentions, and to subsume all activities in the contemplative project.

Some ways of doing things are naturally helpful; some are not. That is, some kinds of actions lead to helpful states of mind and produce wholesome results, while others produce the opposite, and some are mixed. It follows that one should cultivate the helpful and cut away the harmful.

To make a start with sila, you should first make a vow to accord your actions according to your Mahayana commitments, which is to say, to live an ethical life in order to accomplish the great work. (It helps to take precepts, and not only as a gesture of commitment.) Then, you have to go about doing it.

It is very demanding training.

First, the negative task: not doing harmful and useless things, simply abstaining from being an idiot. The rotten consequences of harmful actions are avoided simply by not having cultivated them to start with. Further, a clear and uncomplicated mind arises, without regrets or resentments; meditation develops readily. If you want to improve your meditation, start by paying careful attention to what you say, do, and apply your mind in everyday situations.

Second, the positive task: actively doing helpful, useful, beneficial things as they are appropriate to the situation at hand. Here, one builds momentum (I'm using "momentum" as a cipher for the generic Buddhist term of "making merit"), one builds confidence and trust in oneself, and in the process cultivates positive mental states. Auspicious consequences of helpful actions inevitably arise, which also support practice.

Third, the broader context: It is impossible to engage fully in the path without engaging in sila paramita in a rigorous way. Ethical life is a precondition for realization; living ethically makes realization possible. Practice starts on your feet, not on your cushion. (As an aside, one should note that distinguishing the rotten from the real in this context demands a kind of wisdom: sila paramita presupposes prajna paramita [wisdom].)

I would like to recall to memory the five precepts, which are very useful for this kind of training. These are "blameless," which means that no reasonable person could possibly find fault with you for taking any one of these up. So you have nothing real to lose. Further, following the five precepts can go a long way toward purifying the mind and the karmic stream of anyone who gives it a legitimate shot. So, beginners and seasoned hands together, let us all remember these precepts and cooperate harmoniously on the path:

1. Avoid taking life.
2. Avoid taking anything not freely given to you.
3. Avoid sexual misconduct.
4. Avoid speech that is false, harmless, or pointless.
5. Avoid clouding the mind with intoxicants.

These are a rather free rendering of the five traditional precepts. Each one could be the topic of a long discussion; the question of what counts as sexual misconduct and what does not, for instance, is one that can be debated at length. Instead of just giving you the answers as I understand them, I will instead ask you to reflect on each one of these in particular contexts: is this action helpful or harmful to myself and to others, those present and those not present?

Carry on!


  1. "doing the right thing at the right time in the right way."

    This is almost identical to one of my favorite definitions of Wisdom....Perfect!

    Wisdom ~ Knowing exactly what needs to be done and doing it without anyone having to ask you to.

    Even when I am not sure what to do I remember it's just as much what I don't do. If I'm not sure what is to be done in a situation just yet, I wait a while and keep my big yap shut.