Sīla : Virtue

The subject of morality, or virtue, comes up in all religious systems and even without. In Buddhism, the word “Sīla” refers to virtue in a very general form, whether the practitioner is one who holds to five, eight, or 227 precepts.

The basic layperson’s five precepts, or pañca-sila, are effectively the minimum-standard in Buddhism. Sure, the Precept Patrol isn’t going to come pound down your door and take your Buddhist membership card if you break a precept, but it is the standard formula of rules proscribed to those who consider themselves followers of the Buddha. The Five Precepts are generally rendered (for those who haven’t heard or read them previously) …

  1. … to refrain from killing living beings.
  2. … to refrain from stealing.
  3. … to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. … to refrain from false speech.
  5. … to abstain from intoxicants.

These training rules may seem somewhat ambiguous to those who are unfamiliar with the precepts, but even so, I think they offer a general outline one can follow even in the absence of a qualified teacher. The ideas conveyed are also not terribly dissimilar to  the expectations of other religions.

It is possible, even with this common ground, that one might ask why the perfection of virtue is important. The following passage suggests that the Buddha felt that the perfection of one’s virtue is like an unadulterated gift, offering great protection to all beings…

“There are these five gifts, five great gifts … that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & brahmans. Which five?

“There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from taking life…

“Furthermore, abandoning taking what is not given, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking what is not given…

“Furthermore, abandoning illicit sex, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from illicit sex…

“Furthermore, abandoning lying, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from lying…

“Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fifth gift, the fifth great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & brahmans.” Anguttara Nikaya 8.39

It would seem to me that no one was ever rightly criticized for living a virtuous life. Those who fail to understand it may, by their misunderstanding, feel superior to and speak down about such a one, but the virtuous care not of such prattle.

A Google search quickly calls up the following short verses suggestive that Biblical morality is similar to that expounded by the Nikayas:

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. Mark 7:20-23

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out. Proverbs 10:9

So how does the lay Buddhist of America apply these rules to his or her life? Practicing the five precepts can certainly have its challenges, especially when one considers that the precepts may be preached slightly differently by different teachers. For instance, I do not take the precepts to imply that one must be vegetarian or that homosexuality is forbidden, but some might — perhaps due to puritanical conditioning or a personal bias, I cannot say with any certainty.

I think it is much more reasonable, and simpler, to say that these training rules are more about one’s intentions than economics or political whimsy. If I choose to eat meat when it is offered to me, I do not feel directly responsible for the animal’s death so long as I never asked anyone to actually do the killing. That said, I won’t dispute that there is a kammic value to eating meat — the effects on one’s health are unmistakable (at least in my opinion). I personally choose to not download music because I consider it, in a very vague manner, to be stealing, although I won’t argue with people who dispute that view. Holding one’s tongue when it might otherwise speak falsely isn’t so hard to grasp, but when you come across a situation where an undetectable “white lie” would save you hours of work, it presents a unique challenge to keep it straight.

I think the really complicated ones — perhaps over-complicated by some — are the 3rd and 5th rules. Sexual misconduct is vaguely specified, I think intentionally, and the precept against intoxicants (particularly alcohol) seems primarily to make certain a man keeps his wits sharp — to prevent transgression of the other rules — as opposed to any specific evil associated with the substances themselves. I think those of us who follow the Buddha have to take it on some measure of faith that he had good reason for these rules and try them out.

Fortunately, it isn’t a contest to see who can keep the precepts the best or unbroken the longest — it is about training the mind to inherently want to be a safe haven to all beings. Adherence to the rule can be forced (just as sexual urges can be repressed) , at least for a time, but becoming the rule… becoming virtue… that remakes the mind.

Remake your mind and be well, friends.


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