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Inner Goodness: The Perfection of Morality
In last month’s column, we explored the first parami (Skt. paramita, or “perfection”) of dana (“generosity”), so we are now ready to explore the second, sila, which translates as “morality” or “virtue.” Although the ten paramis do not actually appear in the earliest records of the Buddha’s teachings, as Guy Armstrong writes in The Paramis: A Historical Background* “. . . it is clear that from the early days of Theravada Buddhism, the paramis were viewed as the essential elements of the path to buddhahood and hence closely identified with the bodhisattva path.” The ten paramis are: generosity–dana; morality–sila; renunciation–nekkhamma; discernment or wisdom–panna; energy–viriya; patience–khanti; truthfulness–sacca; resolve–adhitthana; kindness–metta; and equanimity–upekkha.
At this point in history, many people feel rather antipathetic to the words morality and virtue. This is natural when people have only met with superficial examples of morality that serve to mask judgement and domination, or to insist upon a pretense of false harmony, so common in institutionalized religion. This is why it is all the more important to probe further into sila in order to unearth the beauty, power, and joy of the true practice of virtue and morality.
In The Mangala Sutta: Blessings (Khp 5), the Buddha’s disciple and cousin Ananda asks the Buddha, “What is the purpose of skillful virtues? What is their reward?” The Buddha replies, “Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward.”** For many people, the promise of freedom corresponds to financial freedom, political freedom, or the freedom of unlimited, individual choice. The Buddha, however, understood that true freedom comes from within. Consider the time and energy that humanity has spent regretting the past. Whole lifetimes have been wasted! But when we act with integrity and have a strong sense of morality, no matter what happens, it is easier to release regret knowing that we did our best and nothing more was possible at the time. This calls on us to embody the Buddha’s teachings of interdependence, or conditionality. The whole universe and even our choices are based on countless conditions, most of them beyond our control. Yet in every moment we can choose the most virtuous response we are capable of, even though it may sometimes well be limited. This is the call of sila.
Although morality is called a “perfection,” the paradox is that it requires us to be imperfect. Clinging to fixed beliefs or dogmatic certainty blocks the practice of virtue, which is based on curiosity and openness. No matter how skillful we become, we will still encounter suffering. Rather, our perspective changes. The Japanese Zen priest Dogen (1200–53) wrote, “Practicing all virtues means getting dirty in order to embrace beings who are mired in the mud” (Anderson 2000, 157). There are guidelines offered in Buddhism for the practice of the perfection of morality in the form of the Five Precepts, the Bodhisattva Precepts, and the Monastic Precepts (Vinaya). These are not commandments, but rather invitations and supports to deepen a practice of morality. There is no need for commandments because once we truly understand the suffering brought about by unskillful actions, skillfulness is cultivated with joy. It may feel difficult sometimes, but it is in fact the practitioner who derives the greatest benefit from practicing the precepts.
There are many different ways to word the precepts. For example, a classical translation from the Pali for the first of the Five Precepts would be, “I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.”*** In my tradition of the Plum Village community, we have expanded the precepts into entire paragraphs on each theme and renamed them The Five Mindfulness Trainings. The first starts with, “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” **** The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts include the Three Pure Precepts, which encapsulate the whole path of sila: “I vow to refrain from all evil. I vow to make every effort to live in enlightenment. I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.”***** The words are not as important as the intention to live in full awareness and to avoid harm whenever possible, although we can never be completely without fault. Practicing precepts is inherently an exercise in humility, which is another essential quality on the path of Buddhahood.
Developing sila anchors our practice in the world. It asks us to be mindful in our daily interactions and decisions. It gives us points of reflection to bring mindfulness into every realm of our lives, not just to reduce stress or to improve efficacy at work but to be truly alive. In Being Upright, Tenshin Reb Anderson of the San Francisco Zen Center writes, “Whenever we deny our basic connection with other beings, the bodhisattva precepts are broken” (Anderson 2000, 11). Therefore, when we practice the precepts, we affirm our connection with all beings. We act out of concern for other beings, which also includes concern for our own well-being. We affirm our own inner goodness. This has nothing to do with pleasing others, as an artificial notion of virtue might suggest. Yet it has everything to do with true love, for everyone—for ourselves, our loved ones, our enemies—everyone.
In cultivating sila, it is not necessary to become vegetarian or give up alcohol right away. Rather, we simply examine our lives, and as the title of Anderson’s book suggests, learn to be upright. For me, being upright is about aligning body and mind, always moving toward a balance point of stability that lies between shame and pride. Like physically balancing on the ball of one foot, it is not a static point that you find and then hold onto, but rather a constantly shifting, dynamic process of responding to present moment conditions. As conditions change, so does our balance point, but with practice we learn to come back to being upright more and more easily. Practicing virtue ultimately feels good, though to attain a certain level may require traveling into uncomfortable territory where our habits need to change. Virtue is easeful and calming, with a quiet sense of power that comes from connection and never from control. Hence the Buddha’s statement:
Whoever truly cares for themselves
should never follow ways of wrong;
it’s difficult to be at ease
if you’ve done a harmful deed. (SN 3:4)
Do you care enough about yourself to practice sila? Are you willing to look deeply into your life to understand true happiness? Are you ready to discover your own inner goodness? I hope so. It’s worth it.
Anderson, Reb. 2000. Being Upright. Berkeley: Rodmell Press.