This month’s practice is “Sila,” translated as virtue, or morality. Goodness.
I don’t know about you, but virtue, or morality never had a great appeal to me. In our post-modern, hip, ironic world, where we seem to be surrounded by so much meanness, goodness sometimes seems kind of sissy or namely-pamby; “goody two-shoes” is not a compliment. It is only when one actually practices it that one sees its rewards.
What practice of sila promises is “the bliss of blamelessness.” To those of us haunted by feelings of shame or guilt, or some inner conviction of wrongness – often the byproduct of growing up gay or lesbian in a homophobic world – it is actually quite liberating to come to see and believe in one’s own goodness. And to act in a way that supports that view.
One way of practicing this perfection of “sila” is by following the precepts. The precepts are not commandments, nor rules about right and wrong. They are not imposed from without. They are undertaken, from within oneself, as “trainings.” To train the heart and mind to recognize the innate goodness that lies within each of us.
The precepts all begin with the phrase, “I undertake the training to …
- refrain from killing, taking life. (also, can be broadened to include causing harm.)
- refrain from taking that which is not offered.
- refrain from sexual misconduct
- refrain from false speech
- refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind.
It is important to remember that these are guidelines, trainings. So that, for example, as one might be taking something that is not offered – a pen in a doctor’s office, an illegal parking space, calling something tax-deductible or a business expense which really isn’t; going on Facebook on employers time … not to mention more egregious examples … one simply holds it up for enquiry, and makes that pause, to determine, am I following this precept.
The first precept, too, to refrain from killing, or taking life. “Oh, that’s easy,” one might say. I’ve never killed anyone.” Ever tent your house for termites, or given your dog a flea bath? Again, these are not absolutes, they are trainings, areas of enquiry, so that we live consciously, and considerately of the needs of others.
Sexual misconduct is behavior which causes harm, to oneself or another. Interestingly, for us, sex with a member of one’s own gender is not considered misconduct. Only if it causes harm to oneself or another.
Guidelines about false speech can be discussed at length another time, but saying something that isn’t true, or which is slanderous or harmful … which could include self-denigrating comments about oneself, if they’re not true … is a good place to start.
All of these precepts can also be looked at in reverse, as aspirations of things to do, rather than things to avoid.
- To cultivate compassion and loving-kindness, and to protect the lives of people, animals and plants.
- To realize the sufficiency in what I have; to practice generosity.
- To cultivate responsibility in the use of my sexual energy; to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.
- To cultivate loving speech and deep listening. To speak truthfully, and not to spread news which I do not know to be true.
- To practice mindful eating and consuming in a way that protects clarity; recognizing that proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and the healing of the planet.
The Buddha is often compared to a physician, prescribing for the wounded heart and mind. The precepts are prescriptions for self-esteem, self-respect, self-care. Following them, using them as trainings, leads to confidence and lack of fear.
Sila is based on the logic of interconnectedness. If we are all part of the same web of interconnection, I cannot hurt you without also hurting myself. If I would not like something done to me, then how can I do it to another?
Sila follows generosity, and in a sense, is a continuation of generosity. By practicing sila, and following the precepts, we contribute safety and truthfulness. We are giving people the gift of knowing they are safe in our presence. When people know they can trust us, they feel comfortable around us; when we know we can trust ourselves, we gain a healthy sense of self-respect.