Ethics, Calm and Wisdom

I undertake the training rule to refrain from harming life.
I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking what is not offered.
I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual (sensual) misconduct.
I undertake the training rule to refrain from false (and divisive, harsh or empty) speech.
I undertake the training rule to refrain from intoxicants causing heedlessness.

Here at the end of this cycle of posts about the five lay precepts, I want to share a bit of context.

In the language closest to what the Buddha would have spoken, “Sila, Samadhi, and Panna” (ethics, calm, and wisdom) form the framework for spiritual development. In this blog, I focus on the first of these, the ethical trainings, for a few reasons. The first is that these are the teachings that the Buddha offered to everyone who came to him seeking help, even those who had no interest in following him as a teacher. The precepts and other practical advice establish a set of guidelines that will reliably steer us in the direction of non-harming and the reduction of suffering; in a word, happiness. It is not required to turn away from worldly life to practice the ethical trainings, in fact “in the world” is where they are designed to function. If applied regularly, they are guaranteed to make our lives, and the lives of those around us, better.

A second reason I’ve chosen to focus on the ethical teachings of the Buddha is that they seem to be the neglected one-third of the trainings. You will find many books and websites and other resources offering to teach you meditation (samadhi), which with effort and luck will bring about greater wisdom (panna – pronounced “panya”). But the ethical teachings are the unglamorous, “obvious” trainings. It is easy to think (as some do) that as our calm and wisdom grows through meditation, we will naturally become more ethically refined. However, without some direct attention to the causes and results of our speech and action, it’s unlikely to work that way. In fact, distortions in ethical thinking may result.

Lastly, in one period of my own practice, I more or less gave up on meditation. I remember saying in desperation to a retreat leader, “At least I can do sila practice!” Which turned out to be just what I needed. It’s never the wrong time to focus on ethical practices.

Wise words from Bhikkhu Bodhi:
The observance of sila leads to harmony at several levels — social, psychological, kammic, and contemplative. At the social level the principles of sila help to establish harmonious interpersonal relations, welding the mass of differently constituted members of society with their own private interests and goals into a cohesive social order in which conflict, if not utterly eliminated, is at least reduced. At the psychological level sila brings harmony to the mind, protection from the inner split caused by guilt and remorse over moral transgressions. At the kammic level the observance of sila ensures harmony with the cosmic law of kamma, hence favorable results in the course of future movement through the round of repeated birth and death. And at the fourth level, the contemplative, sila helps establish the preliminary purification of mind to be completed, in a deeper and more thorough way, by the methodical development of serenity and insight.

So if you do want to meditate, doing the ethical practices will clear the way for (and support) the necessary mental calm, patience and determination to actually experience some of the lasting benefits of meditation.

Next up: Wholesome work

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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