Developing your sila, mental calm, is done by working with the precepts. The precepts, commonly misunderstood as regimental rules to follow, are actually more like reflective undertakings, focusing on certain aspects of our lives (actions, speech, and livelihood). Having strengthened the sila muscles, a practitioner is better equipped for success in meditation practice, samadhi.
Sila has various translations, including: moral conduct, calm, cooling the mind, and virtue. It involves developing in your life the worldly manifestations of whole action, whole speech, and whole livelihood.
In addition to being a category on the 8 Fold Path, sila is also the second parami (paramita) and Namgyal Rinpoche says that sila counteracts kama-tanha (greed), or blind craving of lust. In Tibetan deity practice, meditation on Chenrezig helps to develop sila.
Practitioners of the popular S.N. Goenka vipassana retreats will have a background on sila by taking the precepts, where you swear to not kill, take intoxicants, engage in lustful activities, steal, etc. In the nightly vipassana discourses Goenka will describe the purpose of sila as a process of purifying the mind. To purify the mind you are creating a clean and blank canvas on which you can perceive reality more clearly, without the distraction of creating new “sins”. Hence why sila is also translated as “cooling” or “calming” the mind. In an interview with Tricycle Magazine S. N. Goenka shared what the Buddha said about what happens when we are not practicing sila:
” […] he says that when you harm anybody, when you perform any unwholesome action, you are the first victim. You first harm yourself and then you harm others. As soon as a defilement arises in the mind, your nature is such that you feel miserable.”
And so we practice the precepts to calm the mind. Namgyal Rinpoche describes it as “cooling the raging passions”:
“Sila does not intimate an ethical standard such as is usually attributed to it in the West; it is more the idea that virtuous conduct is cooling to the raging passions. By first establishing sila one can calm down – even if only temporarily – and then it may be possible to develop samadhi and panna.”
To repeat, sila is not about “ethical standards” so much as a practice of cooling the mind.
Zen teacher Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
“What is really being cultivated through the observance of moral precepts is the mind.”
We use the mind, with the aid of the precepts as signposts, to reflect on our behaviours. Here are a few examples from Namgyal on using the precepts in a reflective way:
“It is very meritorious to study the precepts. By the real question is: What produces coolness of mind? What allows space, so that one can get on with a study?
“In the ancient way of taking precepts, it was more like a training in awareness. The vow was, ‘I undertake to train myself…’ […] By undertaking to train oneself to refrain from killing and harming, the being began to ask, ‘In what way am I killing? In what way am I harming? By refusing to accept a gift, and I harming someone’s practice of dana?’ When the precepts are used like this you have to examine all the ways you might be harming other beings. You have to know how to receive love without harming. So that is the first precept: Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.”
The Clear Sky Center’s “The Karma Yoga and Dharma Training Booklet” points out that because the nature of the precepts are more reflective, mistakes are allowed for and expected:
“The Buddhist approach to precepts is more meditative and reflective than prescriptive. The general formula for a precept in the Buddhist text is “I undertake to train myself to…”. We all know we are going to mess up sometimes. Even trainers and teachers are not perfect. What is important is the attitude to want to learn.”
The teachers Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat Sensei explained that in Vajrayana Buddhism the word “sin” describes breaking sila not as “wrong-doing” but rather as “missing aim”. To miss the aim of wholesome doing, behaviour that would create no harm for someone else, and no harm for you. Rather than having an air of judgement, to “sin” really implies that you have simply missed something. But have no fear, because that is the intent of the 8 Fold Path – to move practitioners from incompleteness to wholeness.
Back in the page on panna, we discussed how in developing “whole” wisdom, or in this case “whole” calm, we will be working from the mundane (lokiya) to develop transcendental (lokuttara) calm. We must start where we are at, which will likely be the mundane level, and which is how precepts are most commonly understood. Namgyal describes:
“Lokuttara (loka + uttara) means literally ‘beyond’ or ‘out from the worlds.’ Lokiya is the worldly or ordinary truth. The Eightfold Path in lokiya understanding could mean something like practicing the precepts: ‘I undertake to train myself to refrain from…’ For example, the teacher might say, ‘Don’t get drunk’; that comes under ‘Cease to do evil.’ ‘Cease to do evil’ is the lokiya level, the pragmatic path at the ordinary level. That is the mundane way of practice, using some idea of what constitutes a good or bad act in terms of Buddha-Dharma.”
And then Rinpoche describes moving towards the transcendental sila:
“Samma (total, complete) action and livelihood in the lokuttara understanding does not necessarily contradict the idea of right action or right livelihood of lokiya methods. [But] there is a time when, realistically, you must go beyond your ‘good’ practices and go to awakening. When you have to practice, when you have to manoeuvre the good, you are not free. So it is in this light that we speak of lokiya (mundane) and lokuttara (transcendent) ways of teaching.
The 8 Fold Path itself is just a structure meant as a guide. Once a practitioner is at a certain level, or degree of transcendence, the structure is no longer necessary. Perhaps this could be compared to a child who is learning to make letters, and starts by tracing. It would in fact be a hindrance for the child to continue to trace once they can draw the letters on their own. To be practicing at the lokuttara level, you are on your way to transcending the need for the structure of the precepts, and of the 8 Fold Path. This is why, particularly in Vajrayana Buddhism who believe in awakening in this lifetime, you will find students and teachers who are not apparently practicing the precepts (or at least the obvious ones).
This is a general description of sila. Go to the topic on the precepts to learn more specifically about them, or continue to the first section in the sila category: whole actions.