February 26, 2013

Sila & What It Means to Be Virtuous. ~ Barry H. Gillespie

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Being virtuous may be more difficult than being moral, but it is the underpinning of all meditative practice.

Sila is the second of the 10 paramis, or perfections that Theravadin Buddhism encourages us to practice. It is one of two primary things, along with Dana, that the Buddha taught to everyone. He saw these two things, generosity and virtue as the two pillars of the householder life.

Virtue is an old-fashioned word, one that we don’t hear that often any more. It is often confused with morality, but that is something different. Think of virtue as intelligently following certain guidelines that will help you lead a life conducive to practice, while morality is a set of rules that you must follow.

Virtue is a hand pointing the way, morality is a stern, wagging finger.

Buddhist virtue is defined by the five precepts: non-harming, taking only what is offered, not using wrong speech, refraining from sexual misconduct and not abusing intoxicants. We can look at each of these separately and also look at how they interact with and support each other.

Non-harming obviously means not killing another living being, but it means much more than that. We need to look at all our actions and make sure we are not doing anything that harms another. For instance the proponents of what is often called “engaged Buddhism” look at this precept from the environmental point of view.

If we are doing something that harms the environment then we are also indirectly harming other beings.

How we understand the meaning of non-harming expands as we become more connected to the world and not so lost in our own sense of separateness. Similarly, taking only what is offered obviously means not stealing. Beyond that, it can be seen as not desiring more than we need to function in the world, to not take more than our fair share of anything, to not accumulate excess, which means that once again we must look carefully at how we live.

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The Buddha was greatly concerned with speech. He saw that speech had great power and often led to great suffering. In his teaching on the ten unskillful acts of body, speech and mind, four (or almost half of them) were about unskillful speech.

Besides not lying, he also warned against harsh speech, gossip and useless talk. This list clearly refers back to the precept of non-harming. Harsh speech creates suffering for those on the receiving end, as well as often for the speaker as well.

Gossip always end up being in some way harmful to its subject.

Useless speech is simply that, useless, our tendency to nervously fill in the empty silence with anything that comes into our head, with no thought of its’ worth. This often leads us to mindlessly blurt out thinks that we instantly, or perhaps later, regret, things that are harmful to our listeners or to ourselves.

What does refraining from sexual misconduct mean in our complex, modern world? Going back to the other precepts makes it clear. We shouldn’t do anything that could harm someone else. We shouldn’t take what isn’t offered, that is we shouldn’t use force. We shouldn’t do anything we’d have to lie about later and we shouldn’t gossip about what we have done. Finally we shouldn’t use intoxicants that will cloud our judgment or our partner’s judgment.

Notice that there is no cultural morality involved here.

No stern prohibitions like, “Only between one man and one woman” or “Only in the missionary position for the sake of procreation.” No “Don’t do that you’ll get warts on your hands.” It is all about the other people involved, how they will be affected by our actions.

Not abusing intoxicants can be interpreted in two different ways. One would be to not use them at all. They cloud our judgment and tend to make us less aware of what is arising in the present moment. For many of us this may be too stern. I like a beer or a glass of wine with a meal sometimes. The key here, for me, is “just one.

If I have more than one I become stupid. So I can occasionally imbibe and feel I am not abusing intoxicants. For others this might not work, depending on their metabolism.

The danger in this way of looking at virtuous conduct is that we can easily delude ourselves into thinking, “Well, this is okay” because our desire to do or say something overwhelms our sense of what is correct.

The advantage of strict moral guidelines is that what is right or wrong is clear, well-defined. But strict morality often functions based on fear that you will be caught, that you will be publicly shamed, or even that you will burn in hell.

Fear is an unwholesome state of mind.

It causes stress, tension, anger and other unwholesome emotions to arise. It doesn’t lead to a calm, clear mind. In fact it leads to the opposite.

Being virtuous may be more difficult than being moral, but it is the underpinning of all meditative practice. Non-harming leads to compassion. Taking only what is offered leads to generosity. Right speech leads to truthfulness. Refraining from sexual misconduct leads to loving kindness for all beings. Not abusing intoxicants leads to clarity of mind. Perfection in these leads directly to enlightenment.

(This is the second of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages us to develop. Click here for the first article, Dana: Generosity.)


Barry H. Gillespie was introduced to formal meditation practice in 1978, through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram. In 2003 he began exploring Theravaden Buddhist practice, sitting many long retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. His principle teacher is Guy Armstrong. His teaching arises out of his desire to share what he has learned with others. Barry currently leads the Full Moon Sit at the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO. This article is based on a dharma talk he gave there. For more information on his teaching go to his web site, www.barryhgillespie.com.


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Editor: Jennifer Townsend & Brianna Bemel

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