This is the second installment of my four-part essay on the Noble Eightfold Path. The first part served as an introduction, and to contextualize the Path. This article addresses sīla ~ ethical speech and conduct ~ in more detail.
Sīla is not merely about moral and ethical considerations; it is also spiritual in nature, the very foundation on which any strong practice is built. It is interesting to note that the tenets of sīla are not intended as commandments. Rather, sīla is undertaken as a “training.” The Buddha seems very clear about the importance of sīla, which comprises three of the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. So in conformity with that teaching, our tradition gives great importance to maintaining sīla in our lives.
It is easy to understand how living a moral life benefits a cohesive and harmonious society. But looking beyond these more mundane advantages, we begin to understand that when breaking any one of the sīlas, which often harms others, we are actually harming ourselves first.
This experiential wisdom (bhāvanamaya paññā) becomes the underlying motivation for observing sīla and further growth on the Path. Therefore, developing sīla is actually in our own best interest. Clear comprehension of correct moral conduct is discerned through wisdom (paññā) or Right View (sammā diṭṭhi), which, again, is the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Westerners sometimes struggle with the notion of “morality,” associating it with being judgmental or moralistic. Part of the problem might be that the word has come to take on connotations of obligation, guilt or obedience. Perhaps one way to sidestep this is to note that in some of the commentaries on the Pāli Canon, the translation of sīla is “harmony” or “coordination.” If we do not live our lives in harmony with universal and intrinsic human values, there will inevitably be turmoil at the base of the mind, and so ultimately in society. This is inherently counterproductive to deep meditation and insight.
Living a life of sīla brings harmony at the psychological level by lessening our inner turmoil, which is so often accompanied by guilt and remorse. By practicing sīla, we begin to understand how our behavior is aligned to the karmic law of cause and effect by creating either positive or negative future outcomes. Last, and most importantly, it sets the mind up for the development of the deep states of serenity that are so important for the most profound insights. We can now begin to see how these two path factors, sīla and samādhi, are interconnected and support each other.
The Divisions of Sīla: “Right Speech,” “Right Action” and “Right Livelihood”
Note that each sīla, or precept, is prefaced by the phrase “abstaining from.” Studies have shown that we are less likely to follow an ethical rule if it is phrased in the negative. Therefore, the different tenets of sīla are not phrased as negative commandments (“do not _____”). It is also important to frame them in terms of their positive counterpoints.
Right Speech (Sammā Vācā)
The Buddha divides Right Speech into four components:
- Abstaining from false speech
- Abstaining from slanderous speech
- Abstaining from harsh speech
- Abstaining from idle chatter
Speaking the truth is fundamentally at the core of living a good Dhamma life. If our deepest commitment is truly to explore and understand the ultimate truth, then we need to live by truth in our everyday life ~ we are making a commitment to “reality” rather than “illusion.” This means guarding our speech so that it is wholesome, and beneficial to ourselves and others. Whether we speak the truth or its opposite reflects our own innermost being.
There are benefits to society if everyone lives by and consistently speaks the truth. The daily news would be starkly different if truthful speech were more pervasive in society. When a person lies, they create tension inside. When a lie is told, it requires yet more untruths to maintain it. This continues to compound, creating turmoil in the subconscious and proliferating (papanca) further misery deep inside.
Slanderous speech is usually generated out of aversion and aimed at bringing down others. Avoiding slanderous speech and encouraging concord unites rather than divides.
Harsh speech is uttered in anger, usually to cause pain. The Buddha encourages us to speak in ways that are gentle, loving, courteous and agreeable.
Idle chatter is pointless, time-wasting talk that has little value.
Broadly speaking, the Buddha’s advice is also to know when it is the right time to speak a truth so that it is beneficial and does not harm others.
Right Action (Sammā Kammanta)
Right Action relates to actions of the body: abstaining from killing, taking what does not belong to us, and sexual misconduct. Of the three, by far the most challenging and sometimes confusing for western practitioners is sexual misconduct.
Abstaining from killing
Abstaining from killing does not just imply taking the life of another human being. It includes all sentient beings, or beings endowed with consciousness, which includes animals and insects.
It is important to note that the “intention to kill” must be present to be a breakage of sīla. According to the Buddha, it is the volitional action or intention, not the act itself, that bears karmic fruit. The Buddha also pointed out that there are, in fact, varying karmic consequences depending on what is being killed. For example, there are greater consequences for the killing of a human, who has more spiritual potential, than an animal. Likewise, the killing of an Arahant or any highly developed human has much greater karmic consequences, as that person has the capacity to help so many others.
At a deeper level of understanding, while we may not overtly act in violent ways, it is also worth considering whether we might not, in fact, be harboring violent thoughts. For example, if we are confronted with gross acts of violent atrocities in the news, do we fall prey to thoughts of hatred and revenge? Even if we do not act on these thoughts, they do have an impact on our mental well-being. We might also want to consider how we would act if we were personally on the receiving end of a violent act: would we similarly retaliate with violence out of a desire for retribution?
And of course, as Goenkaji mentions in one of his discourses, taking strong action may well be necessary in life. Our practice is not intended as a vehicle for avoiding difficulty, or becoming numb to life’s challenges. Using our spiritual practice to justify indifference and avoidance is known as spiritual bypass, and is apparently a fairly widespread phenomenon within spiritual communities. Mistaking indifference or avoidance for equanimity and spiritual neutrality is a sign of regress on the Path, not progress. For lay meditators, following the Path should result in greater creativity and engagement with life, which by definition includes both ups and downs ~ as Goenkaji says, the “Art of Living.” When taking strong action, however, or confronting a challenge, having a base of mettā is crucial. But again, we need to be vigilant and honest with ourselves: falling back on sending mettā, alone, may be spiritual bypass masquerading as equanimity and compassion, if deep down it is really only justification for avoidance or indifference.
And coming full circle, the sincere development of mettā and compassion (karuna) for all living beings is the positive corollary to this abstention.
Abstaining from stealing, or taking what is not given
At its base, stealing is craving, motivated by greed. Stealing can take the form of robbery, cheating and fraud. It can be an interesting practice to observe how we feel when we generate any form of greed. If we are mindful we can literally feel ourselves contract at the physical level.
Conversely, we all know how good it feels to let go and give with an open heart. As with all the sīlas, abstaining from stealing can be understood at incrementally subtler levels. I sometimes find myself looking for the largest slice of that delicious apple pie. While it’s not exactly stealing, there is self-interest and greed at the base of the mind. If I intentionally grab that big piece for myself, my doing so denies others.
The positive counterpart to stealing is honesty, respect for others property, being content and satisfied with what one has, and developing generosity.
Abstaining from sexual misconduct
Sexuality is a topic that is often difficult to talk about, even with a trusted friend or in a student-teacher relationship. It is my view that for earnest progress to be made in the Dhamma life, there needs to be a baseline of stability and maturity in matters related to sexuality. Yet this is a complex matter, especially in the context of 21st century global culture.
It first needs to be acknowledged that sex is natural, normal and deeply embedded in the human makeup. It is not something to be ashamed of, or repressed. In fact, in traditional Buddhist teachings, feelings of sexual lust do not fully disappear until the third stage of enlightenment! But, as most of us know, sexuality can be complicated.
Sexual relations often lie at a very polarized intersection. Forced, violent, coerced, or illicit sex can be the cause of immense pain and suffering. Conversely, sexuality can also play a vital role in developing loving, trustful and meaningful relationships, not to mention bringing new life into the world.
Navigating the realm of healthy and appropriate sexual relationships can sometimes be challenging for those walking on a Dhamma path.
This can be particularly challenging for those who have not yet have found a committed life partner, yet still find themselves with strong sexual feelings.
While on a meditation course, it is common to feel overwhelmed with thoughts of passion. Again, this is normal and should not be judgmentally viewed. However, if we indulge in these thoughts and images, they inevitably compound and perpetuate the primal web of craving. Catching the mind in a fantasy mode and quickly bringing the awareness back to the breath and/or sensations weakens the grip of deep craving and passion.
Before we go further, it might be helpful to step back and reflect on the second Noble Truth ~ that the cause of suffering is craving. For many, there is no stronger craving than the deeply pleasurable sensations of sexual intimacy. The Buddha repeatedly warned that passion is a huge hindrance on the path. Why? Because it involves high levels of pleasure and deep craving ~ the cause of suffering. The Buddha said, “There is no fire like lust.” This is surely obvious in the world in which we live today.
But while the Path leads towards a state that is empty of all craving, that is the ultimate goal. We should not confuse that with where we are here and now, as ordinary householders! Being free from craving does not happen instantly! Rather, it is progressive and results from balanced and skillful efforts in Dhamma practice and understanding.
The Buddha’s Middle Way is always so helpful to keep in mind. The extremes of suppression and free expression are to be avoided. It is therefore up to each of us to find a healthy and balanced approach to our sexual lives.
It may help to reflect on what the Buddha laid down as a baseline about sexual misconduct:
- Abstaining from intercourse with a person who is already married.
- Abstaining from intercourse with those still under the protection of their families (This can be taken to mean young persons.)
- Abstaining from intercourse with female convicts.
- Abstaining from intercourse with those who are betrothed.
From a societal point of view, we can see that this precept helps to protect marital relations and promote trust and fidelity within a committed union. From a spiritual point of view, it curbs the sexual appetite and leads in the direction of renunciation. (Of course, for a monk or nun, this means complete celibacy, and turning back the tide of sexual desire).
The positive counterpoint to sexual misconduct is to be sure that no harm is done through our sexual behavior, and that we demonstrate respect for others by not objectifying them in lustful ways.
Right Livelihood (Sammā Ājīva):
One of the most joyful aspects of working with students on the Dhamma path is witnessing them internalize the teaching and seeing how it manifests in the choices they make in their daily life. Recently, a student informed me that he was making a change in his livelihood. He had been one of three founding members of a small, start-up brewery, and had spent a number of years happily employed as its graphic designer. Although he had already stopped using intoxicants, he had now also come to recognize that he could no longer support an industry that perpetuates so much misery.
Right livelihood is easy to understand and quite straightforward ~ it is any honest and legal means of supporting oneself and one’s family that does not cause harm or suffering to others. At a deeper level of understanding, the choice of livelihood, alone, is not the only consideration. In my own case, as a carpenter and importer, what made my livelihood “right” in my own mind was the degree to which I was able to incorporate the other elements of sīla into my business life. Having an attitude of service to others might also be a fruitful consideration of Right Livelihood.