The Pali word sila (“discipline, restraint”) recalls the word “sealant” in English. When you want to close a crack, you use a sealant and seal it off. You lay the foundation for a house and cover all the cracks, so no water will seep in, no insects will enter, and the foundation won’t collapse. As a result, the foundation for your house remains firm and is sturdy enough to build upon. Sila is like that when it comes to meditation. It’s the foundation. Through restraint, through wholesome actions and decisions made in our daily lives, we lay this foundation.

Illustration by Roberto La Forgia

If we don’t lay a good foundation for meditation, we can directly see the results in our practice. You may be meditating regularly, sitting a half hour or an hour. All of a sudden one day, you can’t even sit for ten minutes. Your mind is agitated, you’re constantly distracted, you simply can’t focus. Something you have done in your life—becoming enraged with someone, sexual misconduct, addictive behavior of all sorts or some other unwholesome action of body, speech, or mind—has deeply registered in your subconscious mind. It keeps coming back up, making you feel remorseful, guilty, restless, full of worries. You just can’t sit!

On the other hand, it’s unrealistic to expect people to become paragons of virtue before they ever begin to meditate. If we wait until we are saints, if we put off meditation until our sila is perfect, then we will never meditate! Whatever our moral situation, we must begin. We make the commitment to root out unwholesome behavior and to encourage wholesome habits in our lives. It helps to make the commitment and to come back to it, time and time again: “OK, from now on I’m going to undertake this meditation practice and I’m going to try not to break my principles.” If you do, then learn from those consequences. Feel the heaviness in your mind and in your life. Our goal is to make the mind light, to make our life light. After all, we are seeking to attain en-light-enment, aren’t we?

From “Question: Morality, Concentration, Wisdom,” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Reprinted with permission of the author. 

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