Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sila – The Foundation and Perfection of our Practice

by Chien Hoong © 2010

Sila or morality is a large part of Buddhist practice. It is often considered the bedrock of the Buddhist path and holds a very central role in all aspects of Buddhism. Often teachers would prescribe good morality as the first step in ones spiritual journey. Apart from being the foundation of practice, sila is also naturally an outcome of walking the spiritual path.

First of all, let us clarify what we mean when we say practising the Buddhist path. The goal of Buddhist practices is to be rid of our distress and afflictions which continue to arise over and over again in our life experiences. It is the purification of the mind so that it has the strength to overcome and transcend the obstacles that prevent a life of true peace and happiness. The systematic approach of the practice comes from the Noble Eightfold Path which emphasises the 3 aspects of morality, mental cultivation and wisdom. The entire path is largely reliant upon our ability to cultivate understanding towards the true nature of our life experiences. That is, through understanding arises wisdom which breaks through the chains of delusion and the grips of greed and hatred. To do this, a strong mind is needed to be watchful of our body and mind experiences from moment to moment.

So how does sila fit into this practice? As previously mentioned, it is one of the 3 aspects of the eightfold path and is often seen as the foundation of the entire practice. In a way, morality prepares the ground for planting the seeds of mental cultivation which gives rise to the tree of wisdom. A life with good morality enables a person to feel the basic level of safety and security that is a requisite for the practice of mental cultivation and wisdom. It helps create a state of the mind that is not overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, remorse and confusion. On the flip side, you can’t have peace of mind when you have gone against the Buddha’s advice on morality. Just take note of your state of mind the next time you tell a lie or take something that is not yours. Is the mind still bright and clear or does it become shaken and withdrawn?

As we progress in our practice, morality changes from something that is externally determined to something that we internalise. This comes from the understanding of our internal experiences. As previously mentioned, the aim of the Buddhist path is to cultivate an understanding of our life experiences in the deepest manner. We become more and more aware of how we are affected by our thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions. With this comes an understanding of what thoughts and actions are conducive for our peacefulness and which create more trouble in our lives. Very naturally, our lives are shaped in accordance with morality.

The basic morality in Buddhism is encapsulated in the 5 precepts. This covers the most fundamental codes of discipline which is needed for both a good life and for the development of wisdom. It is not something that has been laid down because of societal norms or the needs of a particular time and followed based on blind faith. They were not set for the purpose of creating order or social engineering but were laid down by the Buddha based on an in-depth understanding of the human body and mind. The precepts caution against actions that have the potential to create instability and stress in our minds and, therefore, are not conducive for a good life let alone any mental development.

When we grow in our spiritual path and understanding of life experiences, we start to realise for ourselves the reasons for the Buddha’s advice on morality. We see for ourselves how the mind has to be in a state of tension and stress in order to break any of the precepts. You can not harm or hurt another being, without first generating intense greed and hatred within the mind. As our practice deepens, we see this more clearly and start to realise for ourselves how these negativities cause our mind to fluctuate and suffer. We also begin to realise that the first person who is damaged by a life without morality is simply our selves. Therefore, very naturally as we progress in our practice, our lives will align with the precepts because our lives become instinctively inclined towards that which is beneficial towards ourselves and others. We naturally avoid actions that create distress in others which must first also bring harm to our own minds. When we can see clearly how our mind reacts and the outcome that follows, we simply could not harm ourselves and others any more. It is like a child who for the first time realises that fire burns, does not dare to get too near fire any more.

Sila plays such an important role in all Buddhist practices. It sets the foundation for what follows on our spiritual journey. As we gradually progress along our path, our conviction towards a moral life also increases. We understand and see for ourselves the damage that we inflict upon our own mind and body when we do not heed the advice on morality. We learn gradually to live a life that is in accordance with sila although along the way we may still make countless mistakes. As a Buddhist teacher used to say, we are only “learning sila” as we are growing spiritually. It doesn’t matter if we sometimes get it wrong and make silly mistakes so long as we are still growing. A life of the highest morality comes only from strong mental cultivation and the full maturation of wisdom. As we reach our final goal in our practice, it is then that we would have also perfected our morality. Until then, it is learning, observing and being aware step by step along the way.

Here are some titles that you might find them related to the article

The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of SufferingFor a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday LifeVirtuous Bodies: The Physical Dimensions of Morality in Buddhist Ethics