Deep Dive Into the Paramitas | 2 Sila or Virtue

2. Perfection of Morality (Sila)  

Although it is said that moral behaviour flows naturally from releasing  selfish desires, it’s also the case that releasing selfish desires flows  naturally from moral behaviour.  In much of Asia, the most basic Buddhist practices for laypeople are  giving alms to monastics and practicing the Precepts. The Precepts are  not a list of arbitrary rules as much as they are principles to apply to  one’s life, in order to live harmoniously with others.  Appreciation of the values of giving and living in harmony with others leads to the next perfection, renunciation.  


Ethical Sensitivity

-Gil Fronsdal

The ethical core of the Buddhist path is one of its most important features. Maturing on this path goes hand in hand with developing and strengthening this core.

Ethics is about both behavior and motivation. Regarding behavior, ethics addresses some of the most challenging, interesting, and at times confusing aspects of our lives, including sex, money, security, power, truth, and questions of life and death. As for motivation, ethics addresses some of the most beautiful aspects of the human heart; in particular, our capacity for love and freedom. Ethical maturity for Buddhists has less to do with moral values than with enhanced moral sensitivity. In fact, I believe that adhering to moral values alone can hinder the development of ethical maturity. Buddhism certainly does put great importance on moral values, including the precepts. Buddhism’s cardinal ethical principle is to avoid causing harm. However, these values are often understood to be expressions of goodness flowing from a responsive heart, not rules of behavior originating in external sources of authority.

Stressing ethical sensitivity makes it easy to see the importance mindfulness has in Buddhist ethics. The greater our capacity for being present and attentive to both the world around us and to ourselves, the greater will be our understanding and empathy. Mindfulness also helps us to deal wisely with our fear, hate, greed, and other forces that impede our ethical judgment. As these forces are purified from the heart, its good qualities increasingly guide us in making ethical decisions.

Among the most important of these guiding qualities are freedom and compassion. Faced with an ethical choice, we can ask whether it both expresses compassion and helps move the heart to greater freedom. If we act from only one of these, however, our actions may be imbalanced by being too concerned with either others or with oneself. The presence of both protects us from this imbalance.

A liberated heart is an ethically pure heart. The impulse to cause harm brings with it a tightening, a limiting, a darkening of the heart. Relaxing and unfettering the heart is aligning the heart with its own purity. One of the most challenging Buddhist teachings is that nothing whatsoever is worth the cost of a contracted heart. Inner virtue is more valuable than anything we might gain from actions that will contract our heart.

A compassionate heart is an empathic heart. Empathy is heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others and concern for their welfare. Compassion not only connects us to others; it is a channel for the beautiful parts of ourselves that live in relationship to others. To dampen our compassion is to diminish ourselves.

Just as compassion and liberation support each other, so do ethical sensitivity and ethical strength. A strong commitment to ethical values and decisions can be dangerous if we haven’t seen and felt deeply what is happening in the moment. And to be sensitive but powerless to act appropriately can lead to frustration, disappointment, and a sense of personal weakness — and possibly to cynicism or despair.

Ethical strength is developed by exercising it. In some circumstances this means restraint; in others, action. Sometimes it entails learning to say no; sometimes it is saying yes. And in situations where it is not clear how to act, strength may take the form of remaining present and committed to understanding. Ethical sensitivity is developed by practicing mindfulness in all situations, but especially when an ethical choice is required. Buddhist teachings say that ethical decision-making holds the possibility of nourishing what is the best within our hearts. May our ethical sensitivity help us find that nourishment.


Virtue and The Five Precepts

As a merchant carrying great wealth

In a small caravan avoids a dangerous road:

As someone who loves life

Avoids poison:

So should you avoid evil deeds.

– Dhammapada 123

Buddhist spiritual practice falls into three general categories known in Pali as sila, samadhi and pañña, which can be translated into English as virtue, meditation and wisdom, respectively. They function like three legs of a tripod; it is essential to cultivate all three. Wisdom and meditation will not develop without virtue. Developing virtue and understanding to the full depths of its possibility requires wisdom and meditation

No single English word adequately translates sila. Sometimes, in its etymological origins, sila is said to come from the word for “bed”. Certainly we can see it as the bedrock or foundation upon which the rest of our spiritual practice is built. Sooner or later, anyone who begins to develop some sensitivity through mindfulness practice will discover that without the foundation of virtue, the depths of sensitivity are hard to develop.

Sila is usually translated as “virtue” or “ethics,” but we need to be careful not to confuse it with Western ideas of virtue and ethics. A traditional foundation of Western ethics is commandments and values often handed down from a god. These values include ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, and absolute rules that we have to live by. This approach to ethics leads easily to guilt, an emotion that is pervasive in the West, but which is considered unnecessary and counterproductive in Buddhism.

Buddhism understands virtue and ethics pragmatically, based not on ideas of good and bad, but rather on the observation that some actions lead to suffering and some actions lead to happiness and freedom. A Buddhist asks, “Does this action lead to increased suffering or increased happiness, for myself and others?” This pragmatic approach is more conducive to investigation than to guilt.

As guidelines for virtue and ethical behavior, the Buddha formulated precepts for us to follow. For lay people, there are five basic guidelines. These are 1) to abstain from killing, 2) to abstain from stealing, 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct, 4) to abstain from lying, and 5) to abstain from intoxicants such as drugs or alcohol.

The Buddha referred to these five in different ways, giving us different perspectives from which to understand them. Sometimes he called them the “five training rules” (pancasikkha), sometimes “five virtues” (pancasila), and sometimes simply as “the five things” or the “five truths” (pancadhamma). The expression “the five things” might seem odd, but perhaps it helps to free us from fixed ideas about what these “things” are, and how they function.

There are three ways of understanding these “five things.” The first is as rules of behavior. These are not considered commandments; rather the Buddha called them “training rules.” We voluntarily take on the training precepts as a discipline for the support of our spiritual training. Following them promotes the development of meditation, wisdom and compassion.

As training rules, the precepts are understood as rules of restraint. They are phrased as “For the sake of my training, I vow not to kill, not to steal,” and so forth. We agree to hold back on certain impulses. Instead of following our inclination to kill a mosquito or steal pencils from work, we hold back and try to bring mindfulness to the discomfort we are impulsively reacting to. Rather than focusing on whether the actions are bad or immoral, we use these restraints as mirrors to study ourselves, to understand our reactions and motivations, and to reflect on the consequences of our actions.

Following the training rules offers us a powerful form of protection. Primarily, the precepts protect us from ourselves, from the suffering we cause others and ourselves when we act unskillfully.

The second way the Buddha talked about the precepts was as principles of virtue. The fundamental principles that underlie all five precepts are compassion, not causing harm, and generosity. We follow the precepts out of compassion, out of a sense of the suffering of others, and out of the possibility that others can be free of suffering. We also live by the precepts out of compassion for ourselves. We want to be careful about our intentional actions, how we act, how we speak, even the kinds of thoughts we pursue.

So that the precepts do not become a rigid ideal that we live by, we practice them together with the principle of non-harming. We can keep in check any tendency to create harm through narrow minded or callous use of the precepts by asking ourselves, “Is this action causing harm to myself or others?” The understanding of what causes harm brings humanity to the precepts.

Living by the precepts is itself an act of generosity; we give a wonderful gift of protection to ourselves and to others. Indeed, one pragmatic reason to follow the precepts as rules of restraint is to bring joy to our lives. Many people meditate because they feel they are lacking joy and happiness. According to the Buddha, one of the best ways to cultivate and appreciate joy is to live a virtuous life.

The third way the Buddha talked about the precepts was as qualities of a person’s character. The Buddha described someone who was spiritually well developed as endowed with the five virtues. The Buddha said that once you reach a certain level of awakening, it is simply not possible to break the precepts. Following the precepts is a direct by-product of having discovered freedom.

In summary, these five things can be understood as rules of training, as principles to guide our actions, and as a description of how an awakened person acts. The world needs more people with the intention, sensitivity and purity of heart represented by the five precepts.

May the precepts be a source of joy for everyone.


The Perfections – Virtue Reflections and Practices 

The following reflections and practices are offered as ways to continue your exploration of the Perfection of Virtue. Both the reflections and the practices can be enriched by discussing them with friends, fellow practitioners, strangers, and if you have chosen to have one, with your Dharma Practice Day buddy.

 A useful way of engaging with the reflections is to spend a few days with each one, perhaps rereading the reflection to see what new perspectives repeated readings provide. It can be nice to devote some quiet time to focus on these reflections, perhaps while going for a walk or drinking tea. 


1. Our attitudes toward ethics and virtue are often conditioned by how ethics was viewed and practiced in the family and culture we grew up in. Spend some time considering how you may have been influenced by this conditioning. What are the formative influences that shaped your relationship to ethics. What ethical training and teachings did you receive growing up? If you can, talk with someone from your family of origin to help you understand how your family related to ethics. You might also talk to someone from a different cultural background as you and explore the similarities and differences in how ethics is viewed in your two cultures. 

2. When in your life do feel your were most ethical and when do you think you were least ethical? What personal and social conditions existed that encouraged you to be ethical or unethical? What important lessons did you learn from times you were most ethical or most unethical? 

3. Which ethical virtues are strongest in you? Which are weakest for you? To help with this reflection, here are a list of ethical virtues: compassion, caring, generosity, truthfulness, honesty, integrity, service, purity, gratitude, unselfishness, justice, morality. 

4. Spend an extended period of time considering the ways others benefit when you are ethical. As you reflect on this and discuss this topic with others, write down a list of the ways others benefit. Stretch your thinking so you can make the list as long as possible. 

The Precepts

1. The first precept, to refrain from harming living beings: Spend one day with a heightened commitment not to be involved in harming other living beings, including insects. After this day, reflect on how hard or easy it was to adhere to this commitment. How were you affected by living with greater than usual concern for the first precept? How important is the first precept for you? If you ever feel justified in not following the first precept, what justification do you use? 

2. The second precept, to refrain from taking what’s not given: Spend a day with a heightened commitment to not taking what is not given. Be very careful not to take anything which has not been offered to you in explicit or clear, implicit terms. What do you learn about yourself when you follow this precept strictly? How can you follow this precept so it helps you be more peaceful? 

3. The third precept, to refrain from causing harm with your sexuality: Dedicate yourself to a period of time to not cause any, even minor harm with your sexuality. Follow this precept as it relates to increasing your respect of others and to not taking what is not given. If you are not sexually active, how can you view your relationship to your sexual or non- sexual nature so as not to harm yourself? 

4. The fourth precept, to refrain from false speech: Spend a day committed to being as impeccable as possible with speaking the truth. Don’t talk authoritatively about things you are not sure are true. Avoid exaggerating or pretending things are other than how they are. With this practice don’t speak the truth lightly if it is going to hurt someone. What were your biggest challenges in being truthful? How did you benefit from being truthful? 

5. The fifth precept, to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness: If you drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, commit yourself to not consuming either for a period of time that is significant for you. What challenges does this avoidance have for you? What does this period of time of not drinking or taking drugs teach you about what motivates your use of drugs and alcohol? How does it benefit you and others when you don’t consume drugs or alcohol? If you don’t normally drink or consume alcohol, follow this precept by avoiding some activity, such as watching television or surfing the internet, which you might do to avoid being present with your life. 

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