Life without sila is like a car without brakes

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Teaching given at Diamond Heights in San Francisco, California, summer 1992.

The subject of sila, or virtuous, beautiful conduct, is a very tricky area which people often misunderstand. It is therefore an area where we can benefit from some guidance and instruction: some understanding about how to best conduct ourselves in the manner in which we relate; both to our own life and to other people.

Often, we are attracted to the Buddha’s teaching because it cuts right to the very heart of our experience. I was certainly drawn by the ultimate and incisive nature of it, in particular the teachings on emptiness. This seemed to be one of the most important aspects of the teachings: i.e., that which pertains to transcendent, ultimate reality.

In Western culture, we tend to not want to settle for second best. We want to aim for the top and we can tend towards the same kind of attitude in our approach to religious life. Why bother with the provisional teachings, the kindergarten stuff, when we can go for enlightenment just by the use of these very powerful insights into selflessness and emptiness, or into the essential Buddha nature of all beings? You come across this in different Buddhist traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. This aspect of the teaching, that all beings are Buddhas and everything is perfect just as it is, was stressed in Buddhism’s early years in the West. “We just have to awaken to the perfection that comprises everything around us. And once we have that realization we can act in whatever way pleases us. If we are all Buddhas, then we act as Buddhas and everything that a Buddha says and does is perfect.” So, the teaching was often interpreted in a way to justify any kind of activity. With the back-up of ‘ultimate truth,’ everything is perfect. So, no matter what I do or how it looks to you, or to the police, it’s all perfect.

On an ultimate level this is true. But this truth is something which has caused a great deal of confusion in the Buddhist world. Even though it’s a very attractive, powerful, and liberating aspect of the Buddha’s teaching, it can be badly misunderstood. I remember years ago being give a book called I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Reading this book is like listening to God speaking—mighty stuff. In one passage somebody asked Nisargadatta about his own spiritual training. He very rarely referred to any kind of training at all but just to the act of being awake. He said that if you just wake up to the reality of what you are, then everything is fine. The questioner persisted and eventually he said: “The teacher told me, ‘You are the Ultimate Reality—do not doubt my words.” Nisargadatta’s comment then is something like: “So, I just acted accordingly.” End of subject! I remember thinking, “That’s it!? That’s all there is to it? Maybe he, as some special kind of person, was the Ultimate Reality, but what about all the rest of us?” It was so raw and direct, but, eventually, something in my heart said, “Yes, it’s true—for everyone. That’s all there is to it.”

But then we tend to find that what may have been a valid insight, after a while, just becomes a memory of some thing that we believe we have accomplished. We take it as some kind of credit card that we can keep spending on and never pay the bill—because there’s no one there to send it to. It is just as if you received your account from Visa and returned it to them saying, “There is no one here. No one actually owns this card. Therefore here is your bill returned.” If you did this you’d soon receive a visit from someone in a uniform!

This interpretation has been a common occurrence in the West, causing a lot of distress: people have taken some big mystical experience, or ratification by a spiritual authority (such as being named a Dharma Heir) or some approval by a teacher of great reputation, as an indication of their enlightenment. I’ve heard of people saying, “You don’t understand what I do because I’m enlightened and you are not. Therefore, you can’t understand the motives of my actions. You should not question what I do.” Anything can be justified by this outlet.

In Christian history something very similar to this was known as the ‘Antinomian Heresy’ (literally it means “exempt from the law”). There was a group of early Christians who believed that anything done in the name of Christ was a pure act. They caused a lot of trouble and were eventually squashed by the church. I find it interesting to see that the same dynamic occurred so long ago (and has done a few times since then in the Christian world). Individuals thinking that, if they have some kind of credential or authority behind them, like Jesus or a great Guru or Roshi who says “Okay, you’ve got it. Well done, I’m right behind you. You are the owner of the lineage. It’s not you acting, it’s just the Buddha nature within you”—taking that for granted, we don’t necessarily recognize our own, ego-motivated actions, desires, opinions and views. Or we justify them as being ‘Sleeping Buddha’ or ‘Angry Buddha’ or ‘Lustful Buddha’ and drift further and further off the path. And usually we find that we’ve taken a number of people with us.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the distress caused in Buddhist circles over recent years around this point and this misunderstanding. As I have said, this ultimate viewpoint is valid. It has its own truth—that qualities of good and evil are only relative truths. Somewhere in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it says, “There is nothing that is good or evil of itself but our thinking makes it so.” That is certainly true from the ultimate point of view, but from the relative perspective there is definitely good and there is bad, right and wrong. There is beautiful conduct and that which is ugly. So we must not only take things from the ultimate perspective, but use a bit of common sense as well; not just operate from idealism but look at life in terms of realism and practicality too.

It is stressed over and over again in classical Buddhist teachings that a deep insight does not negate the need to behave respectfully and carefully towards other people, to the things of the earth, and towards social conventions. One of the disciples of a Master of Ch’an meditation was telling me that even though his teacher is spiritually very highly accomplished, he very rarely gives talks on emptiness. This despite the fact that he is eminently capable of doing so. In most of his Dharma talks he teaches about doing good and keeping the Precepts. Regardless of his audience he tends to stress the need for a profound sense of moral integrity.

This monk also told me an interesting story about their early days, in the sixties, when their monastery was situated in an old mattress factory down in the Mission District of San Francisco. It was called Gold Mountain Monastery and, as he told it, it was a pretty grim place! In those days, amongst all the other luminaries of San Francisco, there was a character called Sufi Sam. He was one of the psychedelic gurus of the time. Sufi Sam was quite a wealthy man who kept open house and provided free psychedelics and booze for anyone who wanted to come and join the party, that is, be part of his group and/or join in the general spiritual free-for-all. He pulled in quite a few people and actually helped a good number of them. He was very much a “be whatever you want to be” kind of teacher, as far as I understand. And he taught that we are all God/Buddha/The Great Whatever it is—however you want to name it.

As the story goes, one day Sufi Sam fell down the stairs and died. The following day about 20 of his disciples—very starry-eyed, longhaired, colorful characters—showed up at this very strict Chinese meditation monastery. They explained that on the previous night, following the death of Sufi Sam, eight of them had all dreamed the same dream. In their dreams, Sufi Sam appeared saying, “You should go to see Master Hua and you should take refuge with him. Don’t carry on the way I’ve been teaching you. Go with him and tidy up your act.” It was interesting that, coming from a very liberal and open-ended approach, Sufi Sam should say (albeit under slightly exotic circumstance—from the other side) that what his disciples should do is learn how to contain and restrain themselves and guide their lives in a more wholesome way.

Side view mirror, car speeding down the road.

Having a car that can accelerate and go places fast is fine, but if you don’t have brakes, when the road bends you will be in trouble. (Photo by Brian K)

When Ajahn Chah came to the West he noticed that many people asked questions about selflessness, emptiness, and Ultimate Reality. Yet he could see how people were, how they operated, and he started to stress the keeping of precepts; he tried to bring people down to earth. He saw that what we did not need was more of a passport to ignore the practical realities of human living by spacing out into some pseudo-transcendental realm, making that our aim whilst neglecting the world of relative truth. The reason why the Buddha put a lot of emphasis on the precepts, and also why the more orthodox Buddhist teachers stress them in other groups in the West, is precisely because of the pain and difficulty caused when we don’t abide by some kind of guidance system. You can liken not adhering to a moral discipline to driving a car without brakes. (This is a very apt symbol for San Francisco. You’ve got some pretty impressive hills here!) If you imagine what driving a car without brakes here would be like, it doesn’t take much to recognize that you could really pile up seriously.

So that’s what the aspects of self-control and self-discipline are about within the Buddhist training; just making sure that the brakes on your car work. Having a car that can accelerate and go places fast is fine, but if you don’t have brakes, when the road bends you will be in trouble. When we reach a stop sign or a crossroads we need to be able to stop. Life is not all empty roads and green lights; other traffic, red lights and so on abound.

What you find in the Buddha’s approach towards sila or virtue, is that it is not an imposition upon life, as if he were thinking that, “All religions are about telling people that they can’t have fun, so I suppose mine will have to be that way too.” His approach was neither an effort to put the dampers on everything people find enjoyable, nor was it a gratuitous imposition of rules upon people. But my experience of it (and what initially attracted me to the Teaching) was that it was a simple effort to pinpoint the areas of life where we get ourselves into trouble most easily, where life is most karmically loaded; so it’s more like pointing out the danger spots and encouraging us to be careful. The Buddha wasn’t saying that something is inherently bad or wrong, but that if we don’t develop some kind of sensitivity to these difficult areas of our lives, if we don’t look out for trouble spots and problems, it’s like driving with your eyes closed or like driving without brakes. “You’re going to be fine for a while friend, but don’t expect me to be around to pick up the pieces when you collide with something.”

Looking at the five precepts for the Buddhist laity, they are very much presented in this spirit. They are there as guidelines to help us, not as the voice of the Lord dumped upon us. Often people are concerned about what sort of standard to follow, how strictly to apply the precepts. This is, of course, up to each individual. The Buddha presented them in quite a formalized way so that there is a clear standard, but we can apply them in differing strengths. In different cultures, what is considered right and wrong varies somewhat.

The first precept is not to take the life of any living creature. This comes from a basic respectfulness of life and is about controlling aggression. If it is taken very scrupulously, then we avoid all unnecessary taking of life; even the tiniest insects, mosquitoes, or the green flies who are doing terrible things to your roses. The precept is there to make us think about what is most important to us. “Are my roses more important, or is the life of this creature more important?”

I once had a potted plant, a chrysanthemum. At first it looked vital and healthy with lots of flowers, I suspect because it had been jammed full of chemicals in the flower shop. Then, of course, it got a bit exhausted. As you might know, when a flower gets weak the green flies sniff it out from across the garden. After a while this poor plant was covered in green fly. I wondered what to do about it. First of all I picked the green flies off with a feather and took them outside. This was quite laborious because they multiply at an alarming rate. Eventually, I looked at my plant and said, “I am not going to keep a plant anymore. I’m going to have a green fly farm. I’ll just keep pet green flies instead!” Did any of you ever read e. e. cummings’ poem about his uncle Sol’s worm farm? I am not necessarily suggesting that this is the approach one has to take. But, certainly, we can terminate a lot of suffering by changing our attitude to what we expect or want out of life.

Last weekend we were down at the Ojai Foundation having a meditation day, but we were not allowed to use any of their buildings. It seemed that they’d had some problems with the planning authorities so we had to have all of our sittings outside. In that area of the state, there is a very potent biting fly. We could feel these little flies landing on us as we tried to meditate. It was very good for concentration as we felt these little critters land and sink their jaws in. Quite naturally, the first reaction is, “These flies are obstructing my meditation practice, they shouldn’t be here.” But then I realized that I was just getting annoyed with them for biting me. From their perspective, we came and sat on their hillside, a five-star food source, radiating heat and all sorts of interesting smells. So they think, “Well, whoopee. Drive-in, free burgers.” If we just change it around and consider instead, “I’m not here to meditate, I’ve just come to feed a few flies. I’m having a fly feeding day. Of course, if I am going to feed such flies, it is going to hurt a little bit. That’s just part of the deal.” By changing our mind around we can relate to the whole world in a very different way.

I’ve just used these examples so we can see how to work with the precepts and use them to help us live in a much more unselfish way. But the precepts don’t only relate to external things, they also relate to the inner world. We try to refrain from killing off anything in the mind, like wanting to kill our selfishness, anger or jealousy. Rather we try to develop a mind which is able to work with, accommodate and deal with things in a non-competitive, non-confrontational way. We learn to work with the differing aspects of the mind rather than attacking and aggressing against them.

The second precept is about acquisition or greed, the desire for owning things. The text of the precept is: “I undertake to refrain from taking that which is not given.” Which means that we need to learn to live just by what comes to us, to live without taking more than we need from life. So it not only means refraining from stealing possessions or money or defrauding people, but also developing a sense of contentment with what we’ve got, learning not to chase things just for the sake of acquisition. In this culture this is a highly rebellious principle: most of us here this evening are not hell-bent on becoming millionaires by the end of the year, but still, the whole ethic of ‘more is better’ easily creeps into us. Even if we’re way above wanting fancy cars or loads of money, we can still want loads of spiritual acquisitions; sublime states of mind, beautiful Buddha images, or wonderful spiritual books. Often there is greed for significant experience that we can end up using solely to gain a reputation for having great wisdom, or to inflate our egos or to impress our friends. So the second precept is helping us to guard against greed of all kinds, and accumulation for its own sake.

The third precept is probably the most tricky one, I have heard tell how, when Ajahn Chan came to the United states in 1979, he was teaching at IMS and giving a talk about the precepts to an audience of around 100 people who were on retreat at that time. When he got onto the third precept, which is about sexuality and the proper use of sexual behavior, he went on for about 20 minutes without giving the translator a chance to get a word in. He really got into his stride! It was obviously something that needed to be explained in detail. It’s an area which is very personal to people and it is difficult to have an objective standard for it, particularly in today’s society where many of the traditional boundaries have shifted radically.

I’ve contemplated this question a lot because people have asked about it to so many times over the years. To use a classical standard, to say that people should not have sex before marriage, is so completely out of tune with the way life is in the Western world these days that if I promoted such a standard, there would probably, and rapidly, be a much smaller group of people who gave any credence to the things that I said! Even just the idea that a relationship should be between one man and one woman is a great presumption nowadays. Because to be in a partnership of a man with another man or a woman with another woman is pretty common—particularly in this town! So one needs to have some sort of objective standard, whereby sexuality is not just being used as a distraction for some selfish end, or simply to maximize pleasure for oneself, but much more with a quality of responsibility and commitment. A standard that I might suggest, (and this is just for everyone to consider) is to refrain from engaging in sexual intercourse with anyone you wouldn’t be prepared to spend the rest of your life with. Not intending to, just prepared to. This is only a suggestion—I don’t want to give anyone heart failure.

Now it might seem to be a bit of cheek for someone who has been celibate for the last 15 years to put such a thing to you. However, even though I was quite libertine in my ways, this is actually the standard that I used to live by before I was a monk; and this was before I was even a Buddhist. I did slip occasionally (!) particularly if I was blind drunk, but I must say that I found it a really helpful standard to consider: “Well, would I be prepared to spend the rest of my life with this person?” If the answer was “No,” I found it much better to relate on the basis of friendship and to avoid going into the area of sexual engagement.

This is just a standard for you to contemplate; it might seem somewhat extreme but it does carry the use of sexual energy, and the sexual nature of our bodies, with a due sense of responsibility. So that sex is not just used for pleasure seeking and so forth, but is a way of bonding ourselves to another person in a way that is wholesome, supportive and beneficial to both sides.

The internal aspect of this standard is that we’re not just trying to maximize the pleasure principle generally; instead we’re inclining more towards a sense of responsibility, of caring for all things mental and physical rather than just using different kinds of pleasure to distract ourselves from boredom or for taking our mind off more painful things.

The fourth precept is on ‘right speech.’ In some of the Buddha’s descriptions of the Five Precepts he spent more time on this precept than he did on the other four precepts put together. This was quite striking to me when I first came across it, because what it said to me was that speech is our primary area of contact with other people, it is how we relate with others most immediately, most directly and most repeatedly; it is also the most loaded area of activity. Who we think we are and how we present ourselves to others is largely represented by what and how we speak. So the Buddha encouraged a great deal of care and sensitivity in our use of speech.

The precept of ‘right speech’ is not just a matter of not lying, it’s also to do with not gossiping, not back-biting, not talking about people behind their backs, and not using abusive or vulgar speech. In this way we’re being careful and not letting those tendencies of the mind spill out into a more karmically loaded situation. By sensitivity in the way we relate to other people, we’re guarding those unwholesome tendencies of mind and restraining ourselves from just dumping them onto other people. We’re not relating to others in a dishonest way, or in a selfish, spiteful, aggressive, or abusive way. Those tendencies of mind are checked at the mind door and not spread out into the world.

The last precept is to refrain from intoxication. To refrain from drink and drugs which cause the mind to become heedless. The popular interpretation of this is that it only means to not get drunk. But the wording of it is pretty clear: it means that one should avoid altogether that which causes us to be heedless. Again, I should reiterate that these sort of standards are not absolute, however this is the pattern laid out by the Buddha, and he did so for a reason. The usual way of thinking is, “Well … the occasional glass of wine over dinner … it is uncivilized to say no. People take you out and want to give you a pleasant evening and then you go and upset them by refusing their offer of a glass of Chablis.” We can feel that it’s quite unreasonable to refuse alcohol, or to not ‘allow’ ourselves a drop now and then … or a few mushrooms ….

But this is a standard that we’re creating for ourselves because we see that, if we are heedless and careless with life, then we inevitably cause problems for ourselves and for other people. If we’re more mindful, then we’re much less likely to cause the same kind of problems. It’s a simple equation: when we’re mindful, we don’t suffer. There might be pain or difficulty, but there’s no anguish. The more heedless and careless we are, the more anguish and difficulty we generate. It is a very direct relationship. If we are deliberately clouding the mind and causing our natural qualities of restraint to be squashed, we might feel great at the time, but I am sure everyone is well-acquainted with what it feels like later on when we realize how we spoke, the things we did and the things that we brought into the world in those less guarded states. Again, I don’t want to present this as a moralistic put-down, I simply bring attention to this so that we can notice what we do when the mind is distracted, confused or is modified in that kind of way.

In the formal ceremony of taking the refuges and precepts there is a little chant that the person who is giving the precepts recites. It says, “Sila is the vehicle for happiness; sila is the vehicle for good fortune; sila is the vehicle for liberation, therefore let sila be purified.”

According to the Buddha’s teaching, the whole process of liberation necessarily begins with moral restraint; a respect for the way that we act, speak and relate with each other. We might feel that to follow our feelings, fears and desire—to act in a free and uninhibited way—is Right Action in the sense that we are ‘honoring’ those feelings. However, that inhibition can be a very wise sense of right and wrong, and is what the Buddha called ‘hiriotapa’ and he described it as “The guarding/protecting principle of the world”—‘lokapala,’ It is that simple feeling of ‘this is the right thing to do, this is good, this is noble, or ‘this is wrong, this is ignoble.’ To act in a restrained and careful way, keeping the precepts, isn’t something which is inherently good—there is not such thing. But what it does is free the mind from having to remember and live through the reverberations of unwholesome karmic action. If we’re unkind and cruel and selfish then we have to remember that. It’s not that ‘goodness’ is something absolute. More accurately it is that, if we behave in a good and wholesome way it leaves the mind clearer and more peaceful than if we behave in a selfish, greedy or cruel way, which leaves the mind in a turbulent state. It’s a very straightforward relationship.

So we can see that, just by keeping the sila, observing the precepts, the mind is naturally freed from remorse. There’s nothing horrible that we have done that we have to justify or remember. When the mind is free from remorse then we feel a natural contentment, a sense of gladness that alleviates self-criticism and depression. (This is perhaps a revolutionary approach to the psycho-therapeutic treatment of a negative self-mage). In the same vein, along with that quality of happiness, the body and mind become relaxed and at ease with life. We’ve no caused to be tense and agitated. When there is that kind of physical and mental ease then we really begin to enjoy the way we are and the way life is. The mind is open and much more bright.

If the mind is content and joyful with the here and now, then we find that it’s much easier to develop meditation. If this ‘place’ is pleasant and comfortable we are not going to want to be off in the past or the future, or somewhere else all the time. If San Francisco is a good town and you enjoy your life here, you don’t feel like you have to move to Oregon or England, or to the South of France. This principle works in the same way with the mind.

This is why, if we ever want to develop concentration or good states of meditation, then we behave in a very restrained and careful way. On retreats we have a routine and strict discipline so we’re not filling our minds with stuff which we have to remember, causing disturbance. The environment is carefully controlled so as not to create that kind of effect. In the same way, if our whole life is being guided by sila, then we’re consistently providing a quality of joyfulness and contentment in the here and now.

With the development of samadhi—the more the mind is steady, stable and open to the here and now—the more the qualities of insight and understanding naturally arise. The more clearly we look at where we are and what’s in front of us, then the more able we are to discern the patterns that are there; the way that life works and functions. And that quality of ‘Knowledge and vision of the way things are,’ then brings about a profound seeing into the true nature of reality. The tendency to reject or grasp hold of things is then weakened and, as we see into the transient nature of things, we no longer try to possess the beautiful or run away from the painful. Instead we experience it directly as a flow of different aspects of nature.

The more empty and serene the mind is in its attitude towards the comings and goings of the changes in the sensory world, the more the heart is at ease with life. There is a realization of the innate, natural freedom of the mind. There are no obstructions to the natural peace and brightness of the mind. The mind’s pure, original nature then becomes the abiding experience and this is what we mean by ‘enlightenment’ or ‘liberation.’ Nothing has been gained, it is merely the discovery of what was always there but had remained hidden.

These steps all occur as a process of evolution, one stage following naturally upon another. Just as we grow from babies into infants, into children, adolescents, then into adulthood and old age—so too, if we start with sila then these other steps of the process will occur in time on their own. It is the basis, the sine qua non of the spiritual life—you can’t get to be an adult without having been a child first. If there isn’t that basis then, as far as I can see, we are seriously obstructing that whole process of evolution from occurring. We are disabling ourselves from fulfilling the wonderful potential that we have as human beings.

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