Many of us sense that by working from the inside, meditation addresses the root of our problems. But that introspective effort remains handicapped if we give way to pain-producing actions and words off the cushion.
To end suffering, the Buddha prescribed a compound of three essentials: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Meditation practice without morality and wisdom is like a stool with only one leg—it is bound to fall over.
The Sanskrit term for morality—the first of the three trainings—is sila, which also translates as “discipline.” Both English equivalents creak under the weight of dualistic judgments about right and wrong, good and bad. But in actuality, when upheld in daily life, sila brings lightness and ease to meditation.
The last things we need in meditation are sticky burrs like regret and guilt, yet we invite them into the mind through misconduct. Those without a contemplative practice might be able to hasten through their days and nights without regard for consequences, skating over ethical lapses without a second thought. But once we start sitting on a regular basis, we open ourselves up to sobering reflections from the past.
Consider the fourth precept of sila: refraining from lying. Common as it might be, lying can take a toll on us. A coworker of mine expressed an understanding of this simple truth when he mused, “I like to tell the truth ‘cause I like travelin’ light.”
Worries also arise following instances of wrong speech like angry words, snarky comments, and arrogant boasts. Hardly crimes, these petty transgressions nevertheless return to awareness during meditation to disturb the mind and disrupt concentration.
Our haphazard bumper-car collisions with the precepts can impede practice not only by haunting our sits, but also by weakening our faith in what in Zen we call our intrinsically enlightened nature. Until we have awakened to the perfection of our fundamental nature, we harbor traces of doubt—about our teacher, our practice, and ultimately ourselves. Any such doubt is bound to show itself sooner or later, usually at pivotal points in our practice, as it did for the Buddha himself in the form of the demon Mara, who visited him as he neared enlightenment. The more effectively we live up to the precepts, the more likely we are to trust and realize our true self.
Wisdom (prajna), the third leg of the stool, is often understood as our original nature, unborn and undying. Until enlightenment, our practice is vulnerable, our meditation and conduct both prone to wobble. Nonetheless, until we do confirm our innate wisdom, we need to work at it as best we can. As the saying goes, we “fake it” with the faith that, realized or not, innate wisdom is still ours to use “until we make it.”
This we do through mindfulness and concentration, the twin functions of awareness. Put simply, concentration arises from a state of stabilized awareness. But to help us uncover our innate wisdom, concentration requires mindfulness—the noticing of what arises in one’s mind, body, and surroundings.
Off the cushion, hours can pass as we sit rapt by movies, cat videos, Angry Birds, and the Kardashians. Every once in a while, these lazy afternoons happen to the best of us. But by bringing together concentration and mindfulness, we’re less likely to indulge in such passive activities and more likely to remain alert when taking part in active ones. This will make all the difference when we sit down to meditate.
By cultivating wisdom in this way, we free ourselves from delusive attachment.
Finally, the three legs of our practice—morality, meditation, and wisdom—work together as a complete unity, and our practice becomes a stool that all the angry birds in the ten directions couldn’t topple.
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