Man in Zen robes with hands in gassho

Ethics, Meditation, and Wisdom 

Norman Fischer on how sila, samadhi, and prajna work together to give us stability on the Buddhist path to liberation.

By Norman Fischer

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

The generation of the 1960s—my generation—was the first in the West to practice Buddhism in appreciable numbers. In those days, the sense of upheaval was very strong and, for young men facing the Vietnam draft, immediate and dire. I remember this all too well. I left college in 1968 with a very hazy future. At any moment, I could be drafted to fight in what I considered to be an unjust and futile war. And just a few short years before that, everything had seemed so bright. The war in Vietnam shattered my generation, leaving us dazed and confused.

It was also the era of the psychedelic revolution (which had, ironically, come about as a result of Cold War CIA experiments). This promised a way out: though we might have no future, we could “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” We could revolutionize our minds. 

When the drugs turned out to be an unstable answer, and the anti-war politics an exhausting dead end, many of us turned to Eastern religions, which seemed similar, but more solid. They included mind-bending meditation techniques that had the advantage of not being illegal or dangerous, and profound ancient teachings that provided a sanctioned way of looking at life that was radically different from the American consumerist culture we were so fed up with. 

In short, we craved transcendence. The last thing on our minds was morality, which we considered part and parcel of the false and uptight America that was ruining our lives. 

We are once again living in traumatic times. Probably now, as then, many hope to find escape and relief through Buddhist practice. They will find, as we have, that as one’s Buddhist practice matures, the impulse to escape relaxes as one’s point of view opens up. Eventually, it becomes clear that ethical conduct, and moral restraint, however much this is not what we may have been looking for, are essential elements of the path to liberation.

Classically, the Buddhist path consists of three great practices known by the Sanskrit/Pali names, sila, ethical conduct; samadhi, meditative absorption; and prajna, transcendent wisdom. These three depend on one another.

The goal of the path is a kind of escape: liberation from samsara, the endless round of suffering. This liberation, called nirvana, is realized with the arising of prajna, the wisdom that sees things as they truly are—radically un-self-centered, radically fleeting, with nothing anywhere to hold onto. To release the mind from attachment, the cause of suffering, prajna depends on samadhi, meditation, which requires a stable mind. An immoral mind is unstable. This is why the practice of sila is so essential.

“To release the mind from attachment, the cause of suffering, prajna depends on samadhi, meditation, which requires a stable mind. An immoral mind is unstable. This is why the practice of sila is so essential.”

Although the liberated sage is said to be spontaneously ethical, since self-interest and self-deception have (presumably) become impossible for them, the path to liberation requires the conscious practice of moral restraint. This means that in Buddhism, sila is a practical matter that turns not on divinely ordained concepts of good and evil, as in Judeo-Christian traditions, but rather on what is said to be “wholesome”—tending toward liberation—and “unwholesome,” tending toward further bondage in samsara. 

You begin to practice sila by taking a close look at your conduct, including all activities of body, speech, and mind. Even subtly unwholesome thoughts destabilize the mind. How much more so the agitation that naturally occurs in the mind when conduct is reckless and destructive?

Consider the extreme case of addictive behavior. Addiction is characterized by deep and unconscious distraction and an almost total inability to face difficulty directly. From the point of view of Buddhist teachings, all unenlightened behavior is addictive behavior: we are addicted to self, and like all addicts, we have little control over our compulsion and very little focus. Even our ordinary, seemingly harmless thoughts and impulses are subtly unwholesome and feed the habit. My old teacher, Bernie Glassman, who was very impressed with recovery programs, often would begin dharma talks by saying, “Hello. My name is Bernie, and I am an addict. I am addicted to ego.” This was not a joke! 

Overcoming this common addiction requires careful attention over time. This attention is called sati (Sanskrit/Pali), or mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to see the difference between what is wholesome and unwholesome in body, speech, and mind, and to gently turn you away from the unwholesome and toward the wholesome. The mind then begins to settle, making meditation more effective. This is how to practice sila: simply pay attention to the mind and body, and shape conduct steadily around the imperatives of the path. 

In Buddhist practice, our wholesome and unwholesome conduct is defined by our relationship to precepts. In classical practice there are ten precepts. The first five are practiced by everyone—no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or intoxication. The last five, with many more added, are practiced by monastics, and define a strictly regimented lifestyle designed for maximum stability of mind. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are various lists of precepts understood in various ways. In the Soto Zen tradition, which I practice, we practice sixteen precepts. These include taking refuge in the Triple Treasure of Buddha, dharma, and sangha as the first three; the three pure precepts of avoiding all unwholesome conduct, performing all wholesome conduct, and undertaking these with the motivation to benefit all beings. Finally, the ten grave precepts: not to kill, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, slander, speak ill of others, speak immodestly, not to be ungenerous, and not to denigrate the Three Treasures. 

In our tradition, we understand these precepts broadly. They enjoin us to be mindful of ourselves and others, so that our conduct and thinking aren’t self-serving and deceptive. I have found that practicing these precepts makes life more settled. When you are confident that you are not doing sneaky and manipulative things for your own advantage, you sleep better at night. It is worth noting that in the early decades of our Soto practice in the West, we paid very little attention to these sixteen precepts. But in recent decades, they have moved to the center of our practice, as we’ve begun to appreciate that awakened wisdom without awakened conduct is impossible.

Although classical descriptions of the path generally begin with sila, in actual practice we don’t wait for moral improvement before beginning to meditate. We do both sila and samadhi right away, and the two are mutually reinforcing. After an initial period that might be a bit rocky, meditation practice settles the mind enough to see quite viscerally the agitation our unwholesome conduct is causing. It is very common, especially in long meditation sessions, to experience great remorse for things said or done that, at the time, seemed normal and justifiable. This remorse causes you to change your conduct, which in turn settles your mind more in meditation, which then brings up older and more difficult patterns of conduct to be refined, and so on and on. There is seemingly no end to this process, though it does seem to become smoother and less painful as it continues.

The classical eightfold path of early Buddhist discourse gives us a slightly different way of seeing sila, samadhi, and prajna. The first two elements of the path, right view and right intention, represent prajna, transcendent wisdom. This indicates that the path begins with wisdom, though wisdom is also the goal. In other words, the path is fundamentally nonlinear, looping over and over again throughout one’s lifetime. It takes a certain amount of wisdom to develop the intention to undertake the path in the first place—no small thing! Having begun, we practice right speech, right action, right livelihood—the sila group of three, which settles the mind enough to develop the sixth, seventh, and eighth practices, namely right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation, which define samadhi practice: determined effort to apply awareness; mindfulness at all times; and the intensification of mindfulness in concentration practice when we sit in formal meditation, all of which facilitates the development of prajna, which takes us back to the beginning with a renewed and deeper sense of what right view and right intention actually are.  

Experientially, this all unfolds quite naturally: our inherent, if still cloudy inner wisdom brings us to the path, disguised perhaps as a need for self-care or even simple survival. As we go on, our conduct changes, our meditation deepens, and we see past our childish self grasping to a more developed understanding that our life and lives of others are nothing other than a flow of reality passing by. This deeper meditation and view deepens our intention so that we are now practicing not to improve or heal ourselves, but rather for and with others. This more selfless intention is more stable, and we go on and in with the practice, ever more deeply.

This is the original teaching of the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, with its great enthusiasm and flair for the dramatic, expands and develops the practice of sila to a dizzying extent. 

“According to Buddhist teaching, there are no good or bad people—just wholesome and unwholesome actions whose results arise in complex networks of causality over long expanses of time.”

In early Buddhism, as we have seen, the Buddha is a sage who achieves nirvana through strong personal effort and goes on to teach the eightfold path of self-liberation. Mahayana Buddhism brings an extravagantly cosmic and metaphysical dimension to all this. Its sutras, written in Sanskrit, are much longer than the earlier Pali suttas, sometimes many thousands of pages in length. They are full of magical happenings, elaborate vistas, and cosmic buddhas far beyond space and time whose ineffable teachings are more imaginative than practical. 

Mahayana Buddhism profoundly emphasizes compassion and love for sentient beings. Far from the simple desire to be liberated from samsara and enter nirvana, the goal of the Mahayana path is the full development of an infinite altruistic desire to be reborn again and again into samsara to help sentient beings achieve awakening, their ultimate well-being. The figure of the bodhisattva, a buddha-in-training whose main motivation is to love and support others, takes center stage. The Mahayana sutras tell us of countless bodhisattvas who undergo endless cosmic practices and commit themselves to extravagant vows (bodhisattvas are known and sometimes named for their vows) in their quest for universal liberation.

The Mahayana teaching does not propose refuting or overturning the earlier teachings. It sees itself as fulfilling and expanding the Buddha’s original message, much as the Christian teachings conceive of themselves as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In the case of sila, moral conduct expands from a sober restraint into an enthusiastic passion to do good as an offering to others. In the grand scheme of Mahayana practice, sila is writ large—amalgamating several other practices, like generosity, enthusiasm, diligence, compassion, and energy, it becomes the endless goodness that bodhisattvas practice for the ultimate welfare of infinite others.

Among the many streamlined schemes for Mahayana practice, the most famous is the Six Paramitas (Sanskrit/Pali for “perfections”). These are dana (generosity), sila (ethical conduct), kshanti (patient forbearance), virya (enthusiastic effort), dhyana (meditation), and prajna (wisdom). They are called perfections because they are understood to be unbounded and unlimited—literally, each one goes “beyond” itself, to include everything. Together they describe a path of energy, endurance, and endless generosity for the salvation of all.

The first of the four great vows in Zen, chanted daily, is “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” Such a vow implies the perfection of sila—sila beyond sila, not merely stabilizing the mind, but almost the opposite—an enthusiastic expression of loving awakening. 

All spiritual teachings come out of a context that shapes them. Buddhism is a product of ancient Asian cultures from feudalistic societies in which leaders held absolute power. Individuals had no political agency, culture was static, and every station in life had its proper and eternal role. Peasants grew crops, artisans plied crafts, rulers ruled, and religious leaders gave teachings to their followers. If societies were to improve, it would be because rulers took on the religious commitment to be compassionate and generous with their subjects. The best thing an individual could do was to practice the dharma, which included generosity and consideration for others.

But in the modern era, in which citizens have political agency, and, perhaps, a faith and a hope that history can lead to improvements in human societies, the context for Buddhist teachings changes. We now feel a natural urge to extend the teachings into the social arena. Buddhist teachings certainly imply a social ethics. And we now have, for the first time in Buddhist history, an “engaged Buddhism,” which takes on a social and political agenda.

Following the bodhisattva’s zeal for compassionate caring for others, this agenda seeks to advance all forms of human caring. These include the virtues of fairness, nonexploitation, nonviolence, full inclusion of all groups and all kinds of people, ensuring food, shelter, safety, education, and a fair chance at happiness and well-being for all. They also include caring for the nonhuman life of the earth and for the nonliving environment, as well as the promotion or establishment of governments and societies that work to provide these things for all citizens in a peaceful and beautiful way. 

These are broad and general values that are, of course, not specifically Buddhist. They are shared by many people of goodwill. Within them, one could imagine a great variety of political and social positions. Someone might sincerely believe that since governments are inherently corrupt, they should be mistrusted as a rule, and that social welfare ought to be the province of religious and private charities. Someone else might just as sincerely believe that in mass societies only governments can provide effective welfare. All sorts of serious political disagreements, specific and general, could be engaged by people who sincerely hold Buddhist values but imagine their application in various ways.

“Not knowing doesn’t hamper you from doing good and avoiding bad. But it does make you more loving, more forgiving, and more humble.”

All schools of Buddhism agree on the teaching of karma, which asserts, simply, that wholesome action brings wholesome results and unwholesome actions unwholesome results. Since Buddhism assumes the ultimate nonexistence of separate selves, it does not have difficulty explaining why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. In fact, according to Buddhist teaching, there are no good or bad people. There are just wholesome and unwholesome actions and their results arise in complex networks of causality over long expanses of time. So if, in the small space of a single lifetime, I seem to receive positive rewards despite my bad conduct or terrible setbacks despite my goodness, this is not surprising—in the long view, the good and the bad consequences will balance out in lives to come. The law of karma is incontrovertible. This is the firm Buddhist teaching of all schools, and it is affirmed experientially as you practice and observe the details of your mind and life.

So wholesome action and unwholesome action will produce their proper results one way or another, and no one individual has a mind big enough to see the precise details of how this will play out. This means that although I can be certain that my wholesome action will have wholesome results, I cannot know precisely how or when. I go into all this because I think it is this understanding of karma, and all that it implies, that gives the Buddhist view a special role in the contemporary political and social world. 

As a student of the Buddha—and someone who has taken precepts and bodhisattva vows—I am enjoined to take beneficial action and avoid harmful action. This extends to my activity as a citizen of a democratic society, in which I can vote, protest, and do my best to influence others. 

But my deep appreciation of the teachings of karma shows me that I can never be sure how my actions will, in the short run, play out. This gives me both certainty and doubt—certainty that it is a good idea, even a necessity, to do good in the world, and doubt about what exactly will happen in the short run when I do it. This simultaneous certainty and doubt gives me patience and humility. I will resolutely keep on doing good to the best of my ability, even though I may not see results, for good is always good. I also realize that there is almost certainly more to the views and actions of my opponents than I can see. It is possible that they are right and I am wrong, and that in the long run, things going their way might be better than things going mine, even if, as far as I can see, this appears not to be so. I can still oppose them, but always with this background sense of doubt, which makes me more respectful and forgiving of them. And if they appear to be violent or small-minded, I know that there are reasons for this. 

In Zen, this way of understanding is called “not knowing.” The phrase is from an old Zen story. A monk on pilgrimage comes to an inn. The innkeeper, a Zen master, says, “What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?” The monk, an honest fellow, thinks about this and says, “I don’t know.” The innkeeper says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” 

In other words, the closer you are to your life, the closer you are to the world that supports us all, the more you understand that you don’t know. This not knowing doesn’t hamper you from doing good and avoiding bad. But it does make you more loving, more forgiving, and more humble.

You might conclude that Buddhism must be inherently pacifist, which I think is true: the precept of nonkilling is paramount in all schools of Buddhism. Yet there are many cases of Buddhist institutions in Asia over the generations supporting wars, just as Christianity, also a religion of radical peace and love, has been supportive of terrible wars in its history. How can this be?

Religious teaching and practice is one thing, religious institutions another. If, as I am arguing, Buddhists ought to consider it an obligation to be involved for the good of the political and social world, won’t this involvement inevitably lead to contradictions and impossible situations? Won’t we end up forced into defending one side or another, and in that defense, making compromises that erode our integrity? 

When Buddhist institutions support wars, they invariably do so because they are identified with and duty-bound to support the political regimes that support them. It is not easy to maintain independence from governments, national entities, and political parties, but this is what Buddhist institutions and individuals need to do in order to freely make the true contribution to society that they are uniquely capable of. The Mind Only schools of Buddhism teach that everything is mind. This doesn’t mean that nothing really exists but mind, that there is no outer world. It does mean that the real nature of this world is not as patently materialistic as we believe it to be in our scientific age. When I sit on my cushion—even if I were to do so in the middle of a devastating war—I might find some peace and transcendence that would be real not only for me in that moment, but in the world at large. Sila is an essential part of our practice. There is no way not to practice it, and we do so in the context of our always-deepening meditation and insight. We sit, we understand, we go forth and act. Our action expresses our awakening and brings goodness to the world.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.