Exploring the spirit, subtleties, and relevance of Buddhist ethics: a panel discussion with Norman Fischer, Lama Palden Drolma, and Andrew Olendzki.
From the time of the Buddha, the path has been understood as a threefold training in ethical conduct, meditation, and wisdom—sila, samadhi, and prajna—leading to an unconditional inner freedom. At a time when every corner of the globe seems to be unraveling, it is auspicious that our forum explores the meaning and practice of the least glamorous but possibly most necessary of the three trainings: sila.
The basic motive for training in sila is to learn how not to harm. This approach expresses our care and compassion for sentient beings and also strengthens those qualities, which are at the heart of a spiritual life. Raised Christian, I was led to believe that nonharming was important, but only after hearing the dharma did I know that it is as important not to harm oneself as it is not to harm others. In fact, the two cannot be separated: to hurt another is to hurt oneself. This teaching reshaped my understanding of conduct because it brought it into the area of self-interest which, truth to tell, at that time mattered far more to me than the welfare of others.
Because sila is often expressed in codes, such as the precepts, bodhisattva vows, and the monastic Vinaya rules, it can quickly become complicated. Our aim is to combine outer impeccability with inner relaxation, but that outcome is not always easy. Whether a layperson or monastic, beginning or experienced practitioner, we all face similar questions in working with sila: Should we follow the precepts obediently or does the thought of them trigger rebellious urges? Do we hold the precepts tightly or loosely or in some middle way? When we see ourselves or someone else lapse in conduct, do we hold that with or without judgment? Does our practice focus more on the outer action or the inner motivation? As my actions become more conscious, what is the effect on my meditation and understanding? And always, what am I learning about suffering and happiness?
When there is greater freedom in the mind we find our actions aligning more effortlessly with the guidelines on conduct. It is then that we begin to appreciate the far-reaching effects of sila practice in bringing greater harmony not only into our own hearts and minds but into the environment around us. By protecting ourselves we also protect others. A person with impeccable conduct can create a safe haven, a zone where everyone feels more at ease. We start to feel from our own experience how our conduct can, as the Buddha said, give to countless beings the gift of fearlessness. May this practice flourish in our world today. May all beings live in harmony.
Buddhadharma: Of Buddhism’s three trainings—sila, samadhi, and prajna (often translated as morality, meditation, and wisdom)—there has been less emphasis on sila in the West. Would you agree?
Norman Fischer: In the beginning of the Zen movement here, people were not that interested in sila. They were interested in meditation experience, and awakening. In the 1970s, morality was looked upon as conventional social wisdom, and everybody was trying to escape from that because it was restrictive. Buddhism was part of that escape. That was very true for the first fifteen or twenty years but then there were spectacular ethical scandals alongside an overall maturing of the people who were in the movement. Now I would say there is a strong emphasis on precepts, on ethical conduct, and on sangha. Since precepts mostly have to do with how we conduct ourselves in relation to each other, kindness and harmonious social relations, sangha and sila go together. In our Everyday Zen groups, taking the precepts, studying them, and bringing them into the heart—not just as a set of rules to live by, but as a set of deep reflections—has become a tremendously important part of what we do. It is as important—or more important—than the emphasis on awakening.
Andrew Olendzki: The Vipassana scene is very similar to what Norman has just described. There was a great infatuation with the meditative experience early on, although the retreats did always begin (and still do) with a formal taking of the precepts, to give the retreat experience itself a moral container, so to speak. In similar fashion, though, there has been an evolution as students have matured.
Sila, samadhi, and prajna are interrelated and any one of them can be an entry point that leads naturally to the other two. Even if we’re coming to practice through meditation out of an interest in peak experiences, we begin to see more clearly the stuff arising and passing in our minds and we can’t help but attend more carefully to its ethical content. As our understanding of prajna deepens and we begin to better understand the impermanent and selfless nature of it all, an increase in integrity will naturally result. As one becomes wiser, one becomes a better person, and I think that’s beginning to happen across the board, in our scene anyway.
Lama Palden: In Vajrayana in the West, I think there was always more emphasis on conduct and on the bodhisattva attitude and vow, and just fundamental basic conduct. There have been spectacular exceptions, such as the early Vajradhatu, founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. But overall, in the Vajrayana communities I think it’s been a less dramatic change than what Norman and Andrew have described. Sila has been there all along as a vital component, sometimes more in the background, sometimes more in the foreground.
Buddhadharma: Andrew, you used the word integrity…
Andrew Olendzki: Yes, I prefer to call sila integrity, since morality and virtue both have some baggage in our language.
Lama Palden: Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the top scholar–yogis, explained sila as meaning “cool.” He likened it to a cool breeze in a hot country. It brings relief and happiness, since it cools the fire of desire that’s burning us up. Since our runaway desire isn’t ultimately going to fulfill us, the contentment with what is and with what we have brings a breath of fresh air. Paying attention to ethics, to integrity, brings us more in alignment with our true nature. It provides the conditions for awakening by aligning us more with our inherent buddhanature. Acting in an ethical way, having conduct that is beneficial to oneself and others, creates the karma and the conditions that help us awaken.
Norman Fischer: Ethics and morality are so fraught in our culture because they are generally treated as absolute rules ordained by the divine: You must behave in these ways and if you don’t you’ll burn in hell for it. Ethics in Buddhism is more about discovering how to live in accord with who we really are, as Palden so beautifully expressed. I think it’s wise for Andrew to choose the word “integrity.” It’s in the territory but it doesn’t bring with it all the fire and brimstone that “ethics” and “morality” do in our culture.
Andrew Olendzki: It carries more the sense of being something organic that expresses the quality of your mind. “Morality” is coming from outside; “virtue” is something you aspire to, and “ethics” is a big umbrella society puts over you. One of the core insights of Buddhism on this whole matter is that sila, how you act, is an expression of your understanding.
Norman Fischer: Instead of ethics as a set of rules imposed from the outside, sila is understood as how a buddha would conduct herself or himself spontaneously.
Andrew Olendzki: Yes, and in terms of our training, it’s not simply a matter of “If you do this, you will become that.” Rather, “As you become that, this is what you do.”
Lama Palden: It’s a sense of alignment with deeper principles of truth and reality and with our fundamental nature, which is basic goodness. In the traditions that most of us in the West grew up in, there is usually the sense that there is some problem at the core of who we are.
Buddhadharma: Buddhism’s flowering in the West coincided with a flight from rules and convention, yet sila often ends up being expressed in rules, such as the precepts and the Vinaya. If you have a complete flight from rules, don’t you risk leaving something essential out of the tradition? How do we relate to the traditional rules and vows that guided our forebears in the Buddhist traditions?
Norman Fischer: We do need rules and precepts, but what we’re emphasizing here is the spirit behind those rules. If the spirit behind the rules is to align oneself with your true nature, then the rules are understood, administered, and held in a very different way. I was invited to address the ethics panel at Kaiser Medical Center where they’re concerned about issues surrounding organ donation, when to turn off the respirator, and related questions. And I will share with them the viewpoint we’ve been talking about. From a Western perspective, you have principles and rules that must be adhered to as absolutes. It’s a very different matter when you have rules held as guidelines for awakened conduct, where awakening, kindness, and cooperative living are the watchwords. You don’t have fixed principles so much, so you don’t debate over when does life start and end. Those debates are less important than finding out what is the kindest thing here, what will bring the most benefit to everybody.
Andrew Olendzki: Rules in the context of sila also afford refuge. The laws of cause and effect mean that the harm you do is going to not only hurt the people around you but come back and hurt you. Even if you feel disinclined to obey them, having a set of rules that you sign on to gives you a kind of protection from yourself, as well as a protection for everyone else. It’s a gift of harmlessness that you give the people around you. Seeing sila as a refuge and a gift takes some of the edginess out of the “you must obey the rules or else” point of view.
Lama Palden: The core of Buddhist ethics is the motivation to not cause harm to any living being and to be of benefit to others.
Buddhadharma: Even when people understand rules as a means of protection, they wonder how much the ones we’ve inherited from Asia are rooted in those cultures. How can we adapt these rules and let them evolve?
Andrew Olendzki: The Buddha emphasized intention as the driving force of karma. What you do is less important than the intention behind how you do it. That universal guideline is not bound to cultural vicissitudes. There’s a certain timeless quality around working from intention rather than on the basis of a specific set of actions.
Lama Palden: The understanding of interconnectedness that is at the heart of the dharma, and the practice of equanimity that springs from it, offered a huge breakthrough in human consciousness—a transcendence of the principle of preserving one’s tribe, which is the source of so many ethical codes. Today we’re finding that it’s more relevant than ever as we’re becoming so aware of our interconnectedness. The highest alignment within our hearts is to understand our interconnectedness and appreciate that we really want to protect and try to enhance the life of every sentient being.
Norman Fischer: That is what our morality is based on in the biggest context, but there’s also a narrow context. In a training situation, practitioners often practice according to a rule. That rule can be very specific and strict, particularly in monastic contexts. If you’re following the traditional Vinaya as a Theravada monk, you take a vow to live by these rules as an integral part of your commitment to being trained together with others. In that sense, Vinaya rules are instrumental. Not eating after noon is not a universal moral rule of kindness. It’s a rule you undertake for the benefit for your training.
There’s still a place for those rules, and I’ve felt great admiration for those who have adopted those rules, particularly Western monks who are taking a great cultural leap. It’s preserving something very ancient for a beneficial purpose, but they also would recognize that there’s a Buddhist morality that is a valid way of acting with integrity that doesn’t depend on following the 250 rules. In Zen, we have sixteen bodhisattva precepts, which are in a way the opposite of Vinaya in the sense that they’re very broad and they’re understood in Zen as koans—not so much specific rules as deep reflections about our conduct. So, we have two poles in our practice of sila: very specific training rules and a much wider sense of ethical principles.
Andrew Olendzki: The Theravada tradition has always employed a two-part system: very strict rules for monks and nuns as an integral part of their training and very broad precepts for laypeople. The good part of that broadness is that it leaves you a lot of personal responsibility for how you’re going to define not killing and not harming. But that is often frustrating for people. Some just want to be told what is right and wrong, so they don’t have to figure out whether walking on grass violates the first precept because there are bound to be bugs in there. But that’s the first noble truth: we live in a flawed system. [Laughter]
Everybody is kind of left to their own devices in figuring out where to draw the lines. For some Buddhists vegetarianism is an important expression of that, but most Buddhists of course are not vegetarian, and neither was the Buddha. On almost any matter we can think of there’s a personal engagement of one’s own understanding about right conduct. There is also some natural growth and evolution in how to apply guidelines as one’s understanding deepens.
Lama Palden: There are core rules in the Vinaya that deeply reflect and reinforce the principles we’ve been talking about, and ancillary rules that have more to do with relating to the mores in a particular cultural context. The ancillary rules are more situational. It’s important, then, that we make a distinction between the core integrities and those that we may change according to circumstances of time and place.
Buddhadharma: Of all the rules, the prohibitions regarding sexual conduct cause some of the most confusion, since sexual mores seem so culturally based.
Andrew Olendzki: Once again, it’s easier for the monks and nuns—celibacy is nonnegotiable, end of story. But for laypeople, there’s a sliding scale. One of the ways it was defined in the ancient world was that it’s inappropriate for a man to have sexual relations with a woman who’s under the protection of another man, which of course meant “under protection” of one’s father until marriage and then one’s husband afterwards. It basically outlawed or forbade premarital sex and extramarital sex. How you apply that today is different because so many of the cultural definitions are malleable. However, if we’re engaging in a sexual act in a way that inflicts real pain or humiliation or is exploitative, we can be pretty sure we’re on the unwholesome side of the continuum. But if we’re doing a sexual act with an attitude of generosity and loving-kindness, we’ll probably be in more wholesome areas of behavior. It’s not exactly what you do with whom as much as the quality of mind with which you’re approaching what you’re doing.
Norman Fischer: I would add that sexuality is very powerful and it’s a heavy karmic act, more than you might think in any given moment of passion. At the time of the sexual revolution we had the idea that sex was just a thing you did, and that if you got over your hang-ups, it was really no big deal. It turns out that it’s not so simple to get over your hang-ups and that sexual activity is powerful—it has a powerful karmic effect.
Lama Palden: “Sexual misconduct” has been interpreted differently by different Vajrayana teachers. Some on the very strict side believe that you’re only supposed to have one partner for life. My own teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, interpreted it for us much more in the spirit of what Andrew was talking about. Also, reinforcing what Norman just said, the cornerstone is that our actions be based on a loving, compassionate heart and that any repercussions that arise from one’s sexual activities are supposed to be looked into deeply.
Buddhadharma: As an exercise, I would like to pick a sila guideline from each of the traditions and ask you to comment. We can start with an example from the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts of the Zen tradition: “I vow not to misuse intoxicants but to keep the mind clear.”
Norman Fischer: We have fairly significant ceremonies for receiving precepts, and these take a lot of preparation and commitment, so I’m talking all the time to people about the Sixteen. The fifth precept asks us not to intoxicate with substances (some translations include intoxication with doctrines). Intoxication means going beyond an aware and clear state of mind. I say to students that it doesn’t mean you can never drink alcohol, because it is possible to have a glass of wine with dinner and not become intoxicated. Some counter that one sip of wine has one sip of intoxication in it. Nevertheless, we would all recognize a kind of line you cross somewhere when you become a little tipsy. I say have a glass of wine or a social drink, but if someone said they would like to use marijuana or take cocaine or ecstasy I would suggest they not take that precept. I don’t want to give someone a precept that they will not follow, since those substances are always intoxicating. You don’t smoke marijuana without getting intoxicated.
Overall, the trouble with intoxication is that it then might cause you to break other precepts. In my view, when you feel yourself coming close to intoxication you stop the drinking at that moment. Also, if you find you’re drinking frequently, you need to examine that. We try to talk over how we’re doing with our precept practice over time with fellow students and teachers. When I was abbot at Zen Center, I instituted a version of the full-moon and new-moon confession ceremony. We sat in small groups and talked to each other about our practice of the precepts and got feedback from others. The precepts work best when there’s an ongoing sense of reflection.
Lama Palden: In Vajrayana there’s the monastic tradition and the yogic tradition. The yogic tradition is much more flexible in terms of intoxicants. Trungpa Rinpoche famously demonstrated a yogic way of life. In the yogic context, the consciousness of the individual and the individual’s deep integrity is said to be harder to ascertain. Since it is not possible to judge whether the actions of an accomplished yogi emerge from a deep and uncompromising compassion, despite their external appearance, self-honesty is critical. Otherwise, people may delude themselves about their true progress on the path and believe their behavior is yogic when it’s really just harmful.
Buddhadharma: To continue the exercise, I’d like to ask Andrew to comment on the first precept, about not killing, which some people regard as simply a no-brainer.
Andrew Olendzki: Again, the first precept is talking to quality of intention rather than the action performed, because in Buddhist psychology action is merely the active mode of the passive side, which is intention arising from disposition. The mind is constantly manifesting some emotional state. It could be a state of anger. It could be a state of loving-kindness, anything, within the whole spectrum of the emotional manifestations of being human. As I understand the first precept, it’s largely saying that some of those emotions are harmful to ourselves and others, especially the ones that are rooted in hatefulness, cruelty, or wanting to do harm to others. If we bring a heightened awareness to the quality of our mind at every moment, whenever we notice that harmfulness—whether in a very strong form of hatefulness or in a very weak form of mild annoyance or judgmentalism—we should simply notice that. In the noticing, we see whether we can abandon it, let go of the hold it has on us. The more we can learn to do that, at ever more subtle levels, we’ll be engaging in this process of purifying our mind. As a result, our actions will be purified. We’re not really working to transform behavior as much as we’re working to transform the emotional quality of mind that we have while we’re behaving.
Buddhadharma: The behavior changes as a byproduct of our understanding?
Andrew Olendzki: Sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes you say something nice to somebody even though you don’t feel nice thoughts—it’s the fake it till you make it model of ethical behavior. That can be fine too, because the action also has an impact on the intention.
Buddhadharma: Part of the practice of sila is that one commits to certain guidelines that may help you in the moment to not overreact, even though the deeper practice is to get to the bottom of the precepts and see the full range of its manifestations.
Andrew Olendzki: Exactly. Buddhist psychology sees our emotional responses happening on three levels. The first is latent or unconscious; we can’t see it. The second is what’s arising in direct awareness. This is what we access in meditation. The third is what they call a surging stage, where it’s out of control. We’re just carried away, whatever the emotion is. Much of the time emotion moves from latent to surging without any awareness.
So meditation is working on the second level, learning to see ever more carefully what’s arising and falling away, and wisdom is working on transforming those latent dispositions so they’re not as powerful, while sila has a lot to do with managing what’s already in or threatening to be in the surging state. If we control it in its grossest sense, that allows us to proceed gradually on controlling things in more and more subtle ways.
Buddhadharma: To conclude the exercise, I’d like to ask Palden to comment on something from the Forty-six Unskillful Actions of a Bodhisattva, sometimes known as the auxiliary bodhisattva vows. One of the unskillful actions is not praising those who have good qualities, and another is not respecting more experienced people. Sometimes people are put off by these, saying, “If I’m supposed to flatter people and never buck authority, how honest is that?”
Lama Palden: Regarding not praising another’s good qualities, an example for me is if someone approaches me for help or teaching and I don’t let them know of another person who may be really well suited to help them—that bespeaks a lack of generosity.
Buddhadharma: So by not praising others with good qualities you’re being stingy?
Lama Palden: Yes. Precisely. We ought to sing the praises of those who are worthy. That’s humble and helpful. In terms of the elders, it’s common courtesy and politeness to at least really listen to and consider with an open heart what someone of long experience has to say. We are not obliged to follow that person if we disagree, but the force of the vow is about bringing an open mind to listening to what people with more experience have to say about our path.
Buddhadharma: It seems like advanced teachers in all the traditions have demonstrated examples of breaking the rules. Ajahn Chah’s outer conduct caught some people off-guard, and there are certainly plenty of Zen and Vajrayana stories of teachers acting in bizarre, outrageous ways. What does this rule-breaking say about how Buddhism approaches the rules? They apply until they don’t?
Lama Palden: This brings up a common question about the relativism of Buddhist ethics, since in the cases of teacher behavior it boils down to an assessment of their genuine level of realization. There’s no blanket rule about external behavior. Certain behavior might be based on teaching nonconceptuality or cutting through fixed beliefs and ideas about reality.
Andrew Olendzki: I would distinguish things that are unusual from things that are harmful. If you’re making the disciple carry bundles of rocks into one pile and then another, and he doesn’t see the point of it, I could see that as being a higher wisdom that the teacher sees but the student doesn’t. But if the rule breaking is somehow gratifying to the rule breaker, in some direct way, I’m frankly much more suspicious.
Norman Fischer: Some might say that the higher the degree of enlightenment the more flexibility one has to use rule breaking as teaching, but I would say the opposite. The more you are serving as an example to the community, the more it behooves you to practice stronger ethical conduct as an example. From a bodhisattva path perspective, there is the possibility of breaking rules, not to flout convention and teach people, but for purposes of compassion. Breaking a training rule to be kind to someone is permissible when the clear motivation for it is kindness. What becomes more problematic is when there is rule breaking and it is destructive. That does happen. In fact, it seems to always happen that someone who thinks they are awake does something thinking, “I know it’ll cause a fuss but it’ll be good for everybody.” That is almost always self-deceptive. Nobody is awakened enough to be hurting people “for their own good.”
Lama Palden: There is an example often quoted in Vajrayana about breaking the most fundamental precept—not to kill another human being—in order to do benefit. In the ninth century, King Langdarma was systemically stamping out and destroying dharma in Tibet to the point of near elimination. At that point, a monk named Palkyi Dorje took on the karma of killing the king. He’s seen as a hero because when the greatest good for the greatest number of people supersedes one of the precepts, it would be self-centered to not break a rule. But one must be willing to bear the difficult karma that may ensue if one does break a precept.
Andrew Olendzki: I don’t disagree with you, but I do worry about the slippery slope that that sets up. If we start thinking it’s all about doing the highest good for the highest number of people, it’s a kind of utilitarianism. There are stories about people in Southeast Asia who executed their wounded friends so they would not be tortured by the enemy. That kind of situation, and what Palden mentioned, are magnificent examples of courage and fortitude, but there’s not a sense that the law of karma has been altered. If for a greater good someone is willing to spend incarnations in hell to pay for it, that can be a noble sacrifice. But it’s very different from saying that killing is therefore right in some cases.
Buddhadharma: It’s delusion to think that the preordained rightness of an action removes you from the chain of causality.
Lama Palden: That’s a key point. Sila is not about rules given by a divine authority who also can grant dispensation. It’s about deeply understanding the laws of cause and effect.
Andrew Olendzki: These are descriptive laws of nature not prescriptive laws of a higher authority. Something is unwholesome or unhealthy by definition if it leads to suffering for self or others, and leads away from seeing things clearly; and it’s by definition wholesome or healthy if it does the opposite. Sila describes the quality of the event and its effect, rather than saying what you should or should not do.
Norman Fischer: There is a famous koan called Baizhang’s Fox that illustrates that no one is immune to the law of causality. The enlightened person finds freedom in embracing causality rather than feeling causality as a restriction. If there’s a bad action and there are strong consequences, can we accept and embrace those consequences rather than try to deny them or resist them—and delight in the fact that the world works that way?
Norman Fischer is the founder of Everyday Zen Foundation, which is dedicated to adapting Zen Buddhist teachings to Western culture. He is also a senior teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, where he was co-abbot from 1995 to 2000.
Lama Palden Drolma is the founder and resident lama of Sukhasiddhi Foundation in San Rafael, California. She completed a three-year retreat under the direction of the late Kalu Rinpoche.
Andrew Olendzki is the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism.