Sila: Getting Your Act Together

The Dharma of getting your act together (sila) is all about behaving better. Some prefer to call sila “restraint” or “discipline” rather than “morality”, because morality is enmeshed with philosophical concepts of right and wrong. However, there really is no good English word for sila. All of them are chock-full of the shadows of ideas like “good” and “evil”, and their meanings do not really do sila justice. The English translations can often trigger a frame of mind that is punitive and judgmental, which is not at all what sila is about. For this reason people can have real hang-ups about sila. Some people dismiss it as old-fashioned, and others go way overboard with self-discipline to the point of unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. My hope is that this essay might clear up a few misconceptions.

While the other two parts of the Dharma, concentration and wisdom, refer mostly to practices and insights that take place in meditation, sila is the part of the Dharma that deals with “normal” day-to-day life. Getting an education? That’s part of sila. Being a loving member of family? That’s part of sila. Volunteering at the food bank? Sila. Doing an honest job at work, canvasing for a political cause that you think will help your neighbors, teaching the Dharma to people who want to become enlightened? All sila. Almost everything that we do that is not meditation or the insights related to it fall into the category of sila (though these distinctions get blurred during advanced practice). When you stop and think about it, most books on Buddhism are actually books on sila. Compassion, interconnectedness, gratitude, forgiveness,  – focusing on these are all part of the practice of sila. Needless to say, there is a good reason so much of what is described as Dharma is in the basket of sila. It is where everybody starts, and nobody can skip this critical practice. When we begin on the path, we realize that where we start our practice is with the whole of our lives. Everything that we do off the cushion is sila.

So why care? There are many reasons why people behave well: a sense of gratitude toward God, sense of community, personal identity as a moral person, compassion for those who are effected by your actions… The list of reasons could go on and on. All of the above reasons for moral behavior are fine. But the primary reason for moral behavior on the path to enlightenment is to prevent stupid or wrong-headed behavior from getting in the way of liberation. These teachings are all about one thing – getting you enlightened (that isn’t quite right but I’m going to keep it simple). So everything in the Dharma, from start to finish, aligns on this one end.

How does immoral behavior interfere with enlightenment? There are two levels (roughly speaking) on which behavior affects one’s ability to wake up. The first is what happens when you sit to meditate. If you’ve been up to no good in your daily life, and you are a normal healthy person with no personality disorders, then your mind will immediately begin to ruminate on your actions. You will not have a choice about this, and it will be a real shock if you’ve never really looked deeply at your own mind before. Ever notice that people who act badly are also the most cranky and difficult? That is because a person with poor behavior will always have at least a low level of frustration and irritability caused by rumination, as if an annoying song was stuck in their head. This effect is a form of what is called “Karma” in Buddhism, or to put it simply, it is an example of the law of cause and effect (more on Karma in a future post). Meditation is very difficult for a person suffering these psychological effects of negative behavior.

The second effect that bad behavior has on liberation is in the form of Karma that most people are familiar with, the kind that effects our daily lives. When we engage in behaviors that harm ourselves or others, we create the conditions for further harm to happen to us. It really is that simple. What that eventual harm might be is nearly impossible to tell (and totally a waste of time to speculate about), but suffice it to say that if you do something that you know has caused harm to another person you have just set the stage for something negative to happen to you. This is not meant in a mystical sense at all. It is very direct and simple. If you exercise you set the conditions for good health to happen to you, if you text while driving you set the conditions for a car accident to happen to you, and if you intentionally create harm you set the conditions for harm to happen to you in some form. So, how does all this interfere with awakening? In a pretty no-nonsense type of way: if you are constantly dealing with the fallout from negative actions, how are you going to meditate?

Because the purpose of morality in the dharma is to keep the path to enlightenment from becoming obstructed, there really are no concepts of “sin” or “judgement” in this way of thinking. Rather, there are guidelines, or “practice precepts” that are intended to keep the practicioner from doing things that would wreck meditation. This only makes sense. In any good set of instructions there are not only clear directions about what to do, but also what not to do.

The most famous of the instructions on what not to do are the “five practice precepts” taught by the Buddha. These five are:

1. abstain from killing

2. abstain from stealing

3. abstain from lying

4. abstain from intoxicants

5. abstain from sexual misconduct

These precepts are very basic and are intended to keep the practitioner from causing serious havoc with their meditation. If you are robbing or killing people you will have a very tough time meditating. However, it should be pretty clear from the outset that these precepts are not airtight rules that are black and white. Does the precept to abstain from killing mean that I need to be vegetarian? Is it stealing if I buy a foreclosed home that belonged to a family with a subprime mortgage? Am I breaking a precept if I have a beer with dinner? What the heck is sexual misconduct? There are lots of grey areas here, and that is the primary reason that I mention them at all. To point out what I hope will become obvious to every practitioner, that there really are no absolute rules that can take the place of your own conscience and critical judgment. While a good teacher can give you guidelines, it is up to the individual meditator to decide whether a behavior is interfering with their progress. What can be said with any real certainty is that the precepts, and all of sila, is about preventing the practitioner from intentionally causing harm to others or to themselves. If anything can be a sila litmus test it is that: intention to harm.

Daniel Ingram once referred to the teachings on morality as “the first and last practice”. I like this way of describing it, because it emphasizes the open-ended nature of our attempts to perfect our morality. Becoming moral is not a practice that is finished on the way to enlightenment, rather it is a practice that deepens with each insight. Even after enlightenment, you’ll find that you still don’t have perfect behavior. To your great chagrin, you will find that you are now fully awake to all your unskillful and unhealthy behavior. Once you fully wake up to your life, the first order of business is to rectify all the stupid stuff you get yourself into!

As your behavior becomes less harmful to yourself and others, more peaceful and compassionate, you will see a corresponding improvement in your meditation (and very likely a big improvement in your overall life). Once you have your act together and your meditation begins to deepen, it is worth your time to try and get a better understanding of meditation and its role in the path. The next part of Dharma covered here is on meditation and is what I call “Getting your head together.”

Getting Your Head Together (concentration)

Getting it Done (wisdom)

  1. In my experience, daily meditation (in my case in the evening) tends to reveal the effects of the not-so-nice-things I did during the day. For example, I’ll suddenly remember something rude I said to a colleague or family member and strongly feel it (shame) in the body (heat, tension) and mind (self judging thought). To me this is inspiring not to repeat such an action, more so than following precepts.

    • That is the sign of really good practice. The precepts are very basic guidelines – but ultimately it is up to you to see clearly what is skillful or unskillful. With good practice, comes sila, with sila, comes good practice.

  2. awesome post.

    while we’re on the topic of sila, since you have a background in both psychology and hardcore meditation practice, my question is:

    in your opinion, is it possible for a psychopath to be enlightened?

    i ask because (nope, i’m not a psychopath, i think) since psychopaths don’t feel empathy or guilt from the consequences of their actions, don’t they have an advantage when it comes to practice?

    imho, i think it’s possible for psychopaths to be enlightened, but how they express that enlightenment to society is another story. maybe this is one explanation why some purportedly enlightened teachers are such a-holes 🙂

    would love to know your take on this.

    ~C

    • Another fascinating question – unfortunately the answer to this one has to be “I don’t know.”

      But not knowing never kept me from making an educated guess. So here goes: In the old suttas it sure seems like psychopaths can get enlightened, after all there is always Angulimala to consider. But a lot of stuff in the old suttas are more inspirational than practical, and you have to wonder about whether a mass murderer could REALLY clear their mind enough to make the leap into enlightenment. Let’s just say I’m highly skeptical. I’ve met some people who could be properly called psychopaths, what we would now call “antisocial personality disorder” and my gut instinct tells me that they are so profoundly disturbed that enlightenment for them would be like reaching the peak of everest for a person with no legs. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely. I don’t think so…

      • Ron,

        thanks again for entertaining my irrelevant-to-practice question.

        one of the reasons i ask the question is to tie it with the phenomena of supposedly enlightened teachers/guru who continue to act like psychopaths. one explanation (or justification) for such acts even has a cool-sounding name, like “crazy wisdom” (e.g. they are beyond conventional morality or what not). another one is that they’ve lost their minds during the Dark Night and got stuck in a psychotic state. another plausible explanation i’d like to throw in is that, maybe they were psychopaths in the first place who happen to achieve enlightenment just by following the instructions diligently. and since there is no cure for psychopathy (well, at least according to the experts) then their expression of enlightenment is one of a psychopath — before enlightenment, psychopathy; after enlightenment, psychopathy.

        ~C

  3. As Adler would say, insight “spits in your soup.” You can still do self-destructive behaviors once you’re aware that they’re self-destructive… But they just seem less and less appealing every time you do them.
    Or, to speak in first person, I sure don’t smoke weed like I used to once I started being aware of how bad it makes me feel to indulge more than once a month. I guess that’s where they get the stuff about “effortless, naturally moral actions” coming to enlightened people. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to see what kind of skillful behavior will happen after stream entry!

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