Conduct and character

Upon inspection sila thus reveals itself to be a two- dimensional quality: it contains an external dimension consisting in purification of conduct, and an internal dimension consisting in purification of character. However, in the Teaching of the Buddha, these two dimensions of experience, the internal and the external, are not torn apart and consigned to separate, self-sufficient domains. They are recognized, rather, to be two facets of a single whole, complementary poles of a unified field which mirror one another, implicate one another, and penetrate one another with their own respective potentialities of influence. Actions performed by body and speech are not, from the Buddhist standpoint, so many detachable appendages of a distinct spiritual essence, but concrete revelations of the states of mind which stand behind them as their activating source. And states of mind, in turn, do not remain closed up in a purely mental isolation, but spill forth according to the play of circumstances from the fountain of consciousness where they arise, through the channels of body, speech and thought, out into the world of inter-personally significant events. From the action we can infer the state of mind, and from the state of mind we can predict the probable course of action. The relationship between the two is as integral as that between a musical score and its orchestrated performance on the concert stage.

Bhikkhu Bodhi states our situation beautifully. It brings to mind pointillist paintings like Seurat’s. Each of our actions, of body, speech or mind, is a dot of color; over the course of a day, we “paint” a tiny section of a larger canvas. As we train ourselves in non-harming, in truthfulness and in compassion, those dots become more pure, more clear, more beautiful. Gradually, the whole painting takes a coherent shape. The analogy fails after that, because the painting is never finished; every day there are subtle changes in one direction or another.

The only power we have is to try to make each dot, each action, as clearly wholesome as possible. What happened yesterday is gone; what’s coming tomorrow is only our current thought about it. But right now, with the weather, the people, the situation we find ourselves in, we can make beautiful art or we can act carelessly. Our actions and their results reveal our character; our character motivates our actions. Right now, today, what’s our intention? What’s the quality of our work?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
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