the source of right and wrong – the correct practice of sila

Photo by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash

Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind: This is the teaching of the Buddha.

It sounds so simple: not to do any wrong, and to grow the good in oneself. That’s it. And in one sense, it really is that simple.

And yet, as we start to look deeper, we see that such a basic thing as doing good and avoiding wrongdoing might not be so ‘easy’ as it appears at the first glance. If I want to follow this simple teaching, where do I begin?

If we want to take some steps to doing less harm and more good, one obvious way to start is by deciding to follow some kind of moral code that guides our actions.

There are many different moral codes that can be found in different societies and religions, and the code we choose to follow will depend on, among other things what is our aim, and what culture we live in; what kind of code or moral structure is available to us. In a religious society, for example, it could take the form of the Ten Commandments; in non-religious society it might take the form of a code of morality based on buying or eating, such as vegetarianism, veganism or minimalism.

For those wishing to practice the teaching of the Buddha, there exists a simple code, which has as its guiding principal the aim of avoiding those actions that cause the most harm, both for ourselves and others.

It consists of five rules, or Five Precepts: no stealing, no lying, no killing, no sexual misconduct, no alcohol or drug. (For a detailed explanation of why we follow these precepts and what role they play in morality, there is an introduction to this subject here.)

While a code of morality can be a good base from which to work, a way to set oneself on the right path, there can still come a point when it is not enough, when we realise that we need to work more deeply on ourselves.

There comes a point when one sees – okay, I’m not lying, I don’t steal, I don’t commit adultery, I don’t kill, I don’t drink or do drugs… but still there’s something wrong. I’m still not good as I want to be, still I feel somehow it’s not good enough. I’m still attacked by selfishness, desire, laziness, doubt; most of my actions are ultimately self serving, done for me; still I feel I’m a hypocrite inside in some ways, even if I don’t tell a deliberate lie; still I often regret the things I say or the way I behave, even if it doesn’t break these rules – I am not satisfied with myself as a human being.

This is quite a painful dilemma, a thorny thing to have inside. Faced with this, and without a good guide, most people will end up falling towards one of two main solutions.

One way is to decide that “that’s just the way I am and I have to accept it,” to choose to ignore, cover up or distract yourself from the uncomfortable feeling of not being as good a person as you want to be by any means possible, or to surround yourself with people who make you feel good and who reassure you that you are “a good person.”

Another solution is to say “I will practice at a higher level now,” to tighten and increase the stringency of the code that you were already following: to add new rules, or to make the rules you already follow harsher and more difficult. In the Buddhist tradition, from the base of the five precepts people may go to become a monk or a nun, taking the Eight Precepts or the Ten Precepts so that now they live a stricter lifestyle than before; for example, they eat one meal a day, don’t listen to music or watch entertainment, sleep on the floor.

The truth is that neither of these options really solves the problem (trust me – I’ve tried both ways, and not half-heartedly.) Neither of them targets the root, the place where right and wrong have their beginning.

A third way, the one that we practice at this school, starts by seeing ourselves as we are, honestly, not hiding from it, not making excuses. Am I moral in my actions and words? How about inside?

I may indeed practice the five precepts, but how far does this take me? If I don’t kill, but I have anger or hatred towards somebody – is this moral? If I don’t steal, but I’m jealous when someone else gets something I want – is this moral? If I don’t lie directly, but I am a hypocrite and cheat myself inside – is it moral? If I don’t commit adultery, but I have sexual desire for the partner of another, or flirt with men despite the fact I have a boyfriend – is it moral? Is it right? Or is it wrong?

It is not by adding more rules to our code that we work to be moral in a deeper way; but rather by applying the choice of right over wrong everywhere, in everything we do: to not only our physical actions, but our words, our thoughts, our intentions and our emotions. From this point of view, even though someone may follow the five precepts in his physical actions; if he harbours hatred towards someone, or wishes to take revenge on someone, he breaks the five precepts at the level of thought.

If we allow our mind to be overcome with anger, hatred, jealousy, sexual desire, greed  – at this moment our mind is not moral, our thought is not right according to our own basic code of right and wrong.

This kind of Morality requires constantly checking inside ourselves: what is it? Good or bad? Right or wrong? What do I want to do? What do I want to say? Who is driving inside, is it on the side of good or on the side of evil?

If right is chosen over wrong inside, at the level of thought and intention, then all the rest follows from there: if we think rightly, we will naturally speak rightly and act rightly too. Everything has its beginning inside the mind.

Meditation and morality

The problem, of course, is that we don’t voluntarily choose to become angry, or to become jealous, or to fall into any ugly emotion that makes us suffer and gives rise to wrong thoughts and intentions. We cannot decide what our mind makes and where it goes and what it does. The mind reacts automatically to each contact from the senses, following the habitual patterns that it has made through countless repetitions over countless lives; just as the water in a river always flows along the same path that has been forged through a long, long time of gradual erosion over thousands of years.

Expecting the mind to, all of a sudden, react with calm and patience in a situation in which it has always learned to react with impatience and anger; this is like expecting some water of the river to suddenly deviate and flow in a different direction to the rest. If we leave the mind to its own devices, we cannot help going into anger, jealousy, sexual desire, hatred, anxiety, agitation, fear – which is to say that we are stuck being immoral; we can’t help it!

This is where meditation comes in. With the effort and practice of meditation, by continually working to replace anger with good will and compassion, impatience with patience, laziness with effort, jealousy with generosity, and so on; we work to train the mind to break out of its old habits, as if we were building a dam, making the water of a river flow in a different direction. Without this effort, without this practice, it would be impossible to practice higher morality.

Building some tools

In the practice of  what we call “meditation,” several qualities need to be developed and all play a part in helping us to improve, but there are a couple of major qualities that help specifically to re-train the mind and create new habits – to drop the emotion or thought long before it reaches the stage of thinking about killing somebody, for example. If either of these all-important qualities is missing, we will not be able to drop the emotion before it becomes big and we are already rolling in it.

One of these qualities is simply awareness of what is going on inside ourselves; the ability to observe an emotion as it grows, from a tiny little “agreeable/disagreeable,” into bigger and bigger emotions, desires, fears and fantasies. If my awareness is not developed, I will not be able to see how an emotion grows from a tiny hint of “agreeable/disagreeable”. I will simply realise all of a sudden: “I’m panicked, I’m full of fear,” or “I’m furious, I want to punch somebody or something.”

Developing awareness allows me to pick out more and more of the steps that lead towards this emotion, to see the problem in its baby form, before it grows into a big monster.

This awareness and observation on its own is not enough, though; it allows us to see what is inside, but it does not get rid of the emotion for us. It’s like the alarm system that lets you know that there is a thief in your house, but does not throw the thief out. In order to understand properly the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and to be able to drop like a burning hot piece of coal whatever we know to be wrong inside of us, we need other qualities; in particular, we need wisdom; which must in turn be based on knowledge, understanding, and knowing our aim.

If my wisdom is not strong enough, I will end up at some point having confusion about what is inside me; I will not be able to see clearly the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Let’s say I have jealousy towards my sister who is prettier than me – I don’t need a great deal of wisdom to see that this is a “black” emotion, a “wrong” way to think. Even if my wisdom is not very strong, I know immediately that it’s ugly and I should drop it. Yet if I am sad because my cat died, or if I feel insecure because somebody questioned my ability to do a job that I thought I was doing well – now I don’t have a strong sense that this is black or white. It’s not pleasant, I’m hurting… but I’m only hurting myself… I’m not helping anyone either…” it’s unlikely that I will be able to drop this emotion, as I have confusion and doubt over whether it is right or wrong.

This wisdom to see what is right and wrong for us inside is closely linked to having an aim: the clearer our aim, the easier it is to see what is right and wrong for us to do. If, for example, I know that my aim in the life is to help as many people as possible, then, if I pass by a man in the street who has fallen and broken his arm without going to his aid, I should have no doubt that for me this was a wrong action, of which I should feel ashamed.

If I don’t have this aim, then it’s not necessarily so obvious for me what I should do if I pass by this man – I can think that as I’m not qualified in first aid, I can’t do anything, that there are plenty of other people around to help, or give myself all kinds of excuses for walking past. I can be influenced by squeamishness, being afraid to see blood; or by the fact that I’m already late for work. The clearer your aim and the stronger your wisdom, the easier it is to divide right from wrong in the moment that you are presented with a choice; without hesitation, without falling into doubt or uncertainty.

Together, these qualities are like a microscope through which we can look inside at our actions and thoughts; awareness giving us an image with sharpness and detail; and wisdom being like a greyscale that allows us to decide whether the picture is on the side of black or white.  When our lens becomes more powerful, we see everything in greater clarity, greater detail. We can see the tiny differences between things which, when viewed under a less powerful magnification, look the same. When we refine more and more our greyscale, we can choose between things that we would otherwise not be able to tell apart. As we develop these qualities by constant practice, gradually we can move to practicing morality at a more and more subtle level, with more and more refinement.

Practicing this level of morality is the work of a lifetime, requiring non-stop effort and unremitting persistence. It’s not for those who are lazy. Always, constantly, there is wrong that wants to put its foot in at the door to get in – our job is to slam it shut again and again; we cannot leave the door alone. Every time we slam the door, now, at this moment, we are practicing morality. The faster we can slam it shut, the stronger our morality.

This is the main reason why we train in meditation and develop wisdom and awareness: to be able to catch faster, drop faster, to be able to choose right before the wrong becomes bigger and bigger, to slam the door before it has the chance to come in. See how such an apparently simple and “easy” thing as morality – doing good, choosing right over wrong – is not so simple after all!

And yet when we practice it well, this morality is a quality that brings great rewards, and the more it is practiced, the easier it becomes. There is no lightness of mind comparable to that of a mind lightened by the effect of doing right and avoiding wrong. There is no joy that compares to the joy that arises out of practicing morality properly. The more we are moral, the more we are keeping ourselves firmly directed on the path we want to follow, instead of wandering around all over the road, or falling off it altogether; we shorten the distance we have to walk, and we give ourselves a boost to go faster on our path, by making ourselves less heavy.

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