A woman stands at the threshold of an illuminated doorway

How Ethical Conduct Leads Buddhists to Wisdom

How might our minds find peace, and even liberation? It starts, said the Buddha, with what we do (or don’t do). Bradley Donaldson explains.

By Bradley Donaldson

Photo from the Series “Threshold,” 2018 by Joseph O. Holmes.

The Five Precepts were my introduction to Buddhist ethics. I had read them early on in my practice and thought that their simplicity made them easy to carry out. After all, how hard was it to not kill, for example? But the more I practiced, the more I realized that sila, ethical conduct, was not only about abstaining from basic harmful behavior, but also about developing behaviors of body and mind that moved in the direction of good will and benevolence. Which is to say that I realized I would not go very far in my practice if I discounted the importance of developing sila. That is because moral conduct is absolutely crucial to developing the higher stages of Buddhist practice, namely samadhi and pañña (Pali; prajna in Sanskrit), concentration and insight.  

Without the sturdy foundation of ethics to hold up our practice, our efforts to develop on the path will be for naught, mostly because sila is indispensable. It not only affects what, how, and why we do what we do as practitioners, but it is also a large part of the noble eightfold path in general, a part that cannot be skipped or ignored. 

At a fundamental level, sila encourages us to live a life in line with the dharma’s core values. That is, to live a blameless life, one filled with compassion and as little harm to others as possible. It is also true, though, that the other parts of the path help us to develop our morality. Right view, for instance, tells us that our actions have corresponding consequences. If we wish to live peacefully, there are actions we must take in order to do so. We let go of harming ourselves and others, we “put down the rod and sword,” as the ancient discourses say. We take active steps to live blamelessly, and when we are living as such, peace seems to come more naturally. That is because the mind is no longer bogged down with shame and regret.

In one of my favorite Buddhist discourses, the Samannaphala Sutta or “The Fruits of the Contemplative Life”—the second discourse in the Digha Nikaya (Book of Longer Discourses)—King Ajatasattu of Magadha is deeply troubled. After having killed his father, King Bimbisāra, in order to seize the throne, King Ajatasattu, now beset with anxiety, seeks consolation. His question is similar to one we might ask from time to time: “How might my mind find peace?”

After seeking the advice of a number of other spiritual leaders of the time, the king eventually goes to see the Buddha with his concerns. The Buddha tells him, in brief, that the path begins with ethical conduct. If one is intent on achieving enlightenment, they first give up killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and so forth. It may seem like a rebuke of the king, a man who has just murdered his father, but I see this as a moment of compassion from the Buddha. You have made mistakes, he says, but you can start again.

“Sila is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. It benefits ourselves, others, and the world at large. But it is not the final goal.”

After developing ethical conduct to a certain extent, practitioners then experience a “blameless happiness inside themselves.” This is the result of aligning one’s intentions and actions with wholesomeness. It is like a ruler who has no more enemies. There is no more danger of attack or invasion, and one can live peacefully. This is also like the state of the mind, which is now less anxious and no longer embroiled in malice or worry.

Sila, then, is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. It benefits ourselves, others, and the world at large. But it is not the final goal. Ethical conduct allows the mind to achieve a certain level of peace, and it is this peace that allows the mind to access deeper states of meditation. One can attain concentration more easily and work on giving up the five hindrances to meditation (sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt). These hindrances are like parasites that weaken the mind, and it is no surprise that improving ethical conduct helps weaken ill will and remorse. 

In the discourse, the Buddha is very clear that developing further on the path is impossible without having given up the hindrances. Like a river flowing into too many channels and streams, our mind would be too dispersed to concentrate deeply. But a mind supported by blameless conduct that has quelled the hindrances—even temporarily—can become strong. That is when it is possible to develop the sharp focus of concentration that leads to knowledge and vision.

Let’s imagine for a moment an aquarium with murky water whose glass is covered with algae. How well could you observe what’s inside, no matter how good your eyesight? But when we cleanse the mind of its impediments—like how we might wipe down the glass and filter the water—over time, we are able to see clearly. We see what actions benefit ourselves, others, and both. We understand what is ethical and what is not. Ultimately, we can develop the higher states of mind of a committed practitioner.

If, instead, we do not develop ethical conduct, we set ourselves back. We restrict the mind because we end up nurturing unwholesome states of mind. This allows ignorance to grow. This happens, the Buddha says, when we act without hiri and ottappa (both Pali), conscience and carefulness. Ever mindful that we tread the right path, our aim then is to always check that our conduct aligns with good will for all involved. When we do this, we find that joy enters our lives, and the mind becomes tranquil. And it is with that tranquility that the mind becomes easily concentrated. There is a beautiful discourse in the Anguttara Nikaya (Book of Shorter Discourses), titled “Making a Wish,” that goes as follows:

An ethical person, who has fulfilled ethical conduct, need not make a wish: “May I have no regrets!” It’s only natural that an ethical person has no regrets. 

When you have no regrets you need not make a wish: “May I feel joy!” It’s only natural that joy springs up when you have no regrets.

When you feel joy…it’s only natural that rapture arises…

When your mind is full of rapture…your body becomes tranquil…

When your body is tranquil…it’s only natural to feel bliss…

When you feel bliss…it’s only natural for the mind to become immersed in samādhi…

When your mind is immersed in samādhi you need not make a wish: “May I truly know and see!” It’s only natural to truly know and see when your mind is immersed in samadhi.

Once the mind is still and bright, it is ready to see clearly. And it comes naturally, now that the causes and conditions are in place. This is where insight comes in. What is it exactly that we are trying to see so clearly and understand? The nature of the mind, the nature of the world, and the root causes of suffering.

In the Buddha’s words, when the mind is “purified, bright, flawless, and rid of corruptions,” it can truly understand suffering and its end. When one sees this, truly understands this, the mind is freed. The aquarium is now clear. We can see the pebbles, the shells, the fish, and their scales sparkling in the light. We can see it all.

Moral conduct, then, is a prerequisite for freedom. If we imagine the path as a wheel, then right speech, right action, and right livelihood form essential spokes—without which the wheel would crumble. But when we develop sila, then samadhi follows. And when we foster samadhi, pañña arises. The progression is straightforward, simple even, though not at all easy. The effort, however, is worthwhile, because in the end it leads to the highest happiness of all, one that is blameless in every way. Sila perfected, if you will.  

Bradley Donaldson

Bradley Donaldson

Formerly a monk, Bradley Donaldson teaches meditation. He’s focused on helping queer and BIPOC folks heal and cultivate connection.