Kjolhede1If you’re looking to rest your practice on anything (other than Nothing), you can’t do better than Buddhism’s three essentials: meditation (dhyana), wisdom(prajna), and morality (shila)—the three-legged stool of practice. The meditation component has always been well covered in Western Buddhism. Probably for most practitioners in the Americas and Europe it’s become all but synonymous with practice. And the promise of prajna, the transcendental wisdom revealed through awakening, has stirred the minds of practitioners ever since Shakyamuni looked up at the morning star from beneath the Bodhi tree. But upright conduct has never gotten equal attention in Western practice. 

Ultimately, morality, wisdom, and meditation are equally vital aspects of the Way that mutually condition one another. Awakening reveals the no-thingness of things—that no thing is apart from all other things. To realize truly that there is only this nature, with no “other” outside us, is to naturally want to refrain from causing harm, just as we refrain from doing harm to one of our own limbs or eyes. The Ten Cardinal Precepts then articulate how to live up to this vision of things as they are—as one. Conversely, by upholding the precepts even before awakening, we are allowing the afflictions that obstruct that experience to loosen and dissolve. And since the precepts collectively may be seen as a description of enlightened conduct, in harmonizing with them we are actualizing our buddhanature.

Upholding the precepts can’t be called the sexiest of practices. Refraining from moral reflections—in beginners, especially—is often symptomatic of an immature practice driven by a grasping mind. But to minimize the importance of the precepts reveals a poor understanding of them.

To disregard the precepts may also suggest a reaction to the moralism at the heart of our American culture, with its deeply-rooted Puritanical strain. We are a people preoccupied with good and evil. Just ask our European friends, or count our TV shows that revolve around it, or notice the showy religiosity in our politics. But the vocabulary of good and evil is a cultural accretion we don’t need. The dharma offers a more basic judgment of conduct—whether it causes harm or not. That’s really the only measure we need. Moralistic concerns are superfluous.

Buddhist shila is not really a matter of being “good.” It’s not about being anything—any thing. That would imply a fixed self that either is something or isn’t something. Rather, sila rests on action. This is how Aristotle saw morality—as praxis, or doing, as distinguished from theory. The praxis of the precepts is the work of refraining from acting, speaking, or thinking in such a way as to cause harm. In Buddhist ethics, the language of good and bad just muddies the water.

Even understanding shila simply in terms of causation, or karma, without the freight of right and wrong, doesn’t make a moral dilemma easier to resolve. Each precept may be interpreted according to various degrees of strictness. For example, we may take the third of the Ten Cardinal Precepts, not to misuse sexuality, as prohibiting merely adultery and sexual intercourse with a mentally disabled or underage person, or, more strictly, as referring to any form of “using or abusing” one’s partner. Applying the strictest interpretation to the second precept, not to take what is not given, would have us breaking it when we make consumer choices that implicate us in the misappropriation of the world’s resources. Even talking around the truth may be seen, from the most stringent view, as a violation of the fourth precept, “I resolve not to lie.”

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