Another section from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay, “Nourishing the Roots”
If we return to our earlier comparison of the Buddhist discipline to a tree, and take virtue to be the roots, then the principles of right conduct become the soil in which the roots grow. Just as the soil contains the nutritive essences required for the tree to sprout and flourish, so do the precepts contain the nutriment of purity and virtue required for the growth of the spiritual life. The precepts embody the natural conduct of the arahant or perfected saint…
The worldling (unawakened person), however, is not immune from the possibility of immoral conduct. To the contrary, because the unwholesome roots remain firmly planted in the makeup of his mind, he is constantly prone to the temptation to moral transgression. He is liable to kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, drink, etc.; and in the absence of any sound moral code prohibiting such actions, he will often succumb to these liabilities. Hence the necessity of providing him with a set of ethical principles built upon the pillars of wisdom and compassion, by which he can regulate his actions and conform to the natural, spontaneous behavior of the Liberated One.
A precept is, therefore, from the Buddhist perspective much more than a prohibition imposed upon conduct from without. Each precept is a tangible expression of a corresponding attitude of mind, a principle which clothes in the form of concrete action a beam of the light of inward purity. The precepts render visible the invisible state of purification. They make it accessible to us by refracting it through the media of body and speech into specific rules of conduct we can apply as guides to action when we find ourselves in the diverse situations they are designed to cover. By bringing our conduct into harmony with the precepts, we can nourish the root of our spiritual endeavors, our virtue. And when virtue is made secure, the succeeding stages of the path unfold spontaneously through the law of the spiritual life, culminating at the crest in the perfection of knowledge and the serene azure of deliverance.
Guiding our actions with the precepts, we are told, can point the way to full awakening for each of us. WOW!
Let’s not get overwhelmed with the possibility, though. Meanwhile, as we refrain from harmful speech and actions, one at a time, we are moving toward the brightness of clarity and away from the confinement of our darker impulses. Every misstep can serve as an invitation to do better next time.
Once when I was on a long residential retreat, a Burmese teacher came to lead a three-week session. While he was a world-renowned abbot of a major monastery, I found his frame of reference impossible to shift to. Towards the end of the three weeks, frustrated, I said to a teaching assistant, “Thank God for sila (virtue) practice! At least I can do that.” It was an awkward moment, but a sincere comment. Even if I couldn’t meditate (at least according to the system being taught), I could always keep the precepts as a central part of my practice. It was clarifying – there’s no situation in which we can’t at least try to keep the precepts.
This is how I check myself now. Again and again, I ask myself, “Am I pointed in the right direction?”