Having spent a few weeks contemplating what the Buddha meant when he instructed us in Right View and Right Intention, we now turn from the “Pañña” (wisdom) portion of the 8-fold path to “Sīla” or the ethical trainings.
While all the aspects of the Buddha’s 8-fold path support and reinforce each other, we investigate the individual steps to help us understand how that happens. Whatever view we hold strongly influences our intentions, which in turn govern how we act in the world. We can also read the situation in reverse order: how we behave can bring light to what our intentions are and what views we hold.
The ethics section of the path is concerned with how we relate to other beings. It is comprised of Right Action, Speech and Livelihood, which we can consider together to start with. First, why do some of us bristle at the word “morality”?
The English word “morality” and its derivatives suggest a sense of obligation and constraint quite foreign to the Buddhist conception of sila; this connotation probably enters from the theistic background to Western ethics. Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics, not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony. In fact, the commentaries explain the word sila by another word, samadhana, meaning “harmony” or “coordination.”
— Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4
This is just one way in which the Buddha’s words are often misunderstood. By applying a western, theistic world view to the teachings, we overlook the fact that the Buddha and his contemporaries were living with an entirely different world view. A hierarchical structure with mankind at the pinnacle was completely foreign in ancient Asia, and can still seem strange to people in other cultures.
So let’s take a step back and consider that if we undertake the goal of creating harmony with our actions, it is a guide with an entirely different feel and flavor from obedience to external orders. If we have the creation of harmony as our goal, we evaluate our potential actions/words primarily in terms of how they affect ourselves and others. We all do this to some degree, but how much weight do we give to the effects of our words and actions on others?
More on this next time.
P.S. I’ve created a “Links” link at the top of the page, to give easy access to some of the places I’ve referred to.
P.P.S. As a reminder:
The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Action, Speech and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)