How to Practice Sila Without Calculation

How do we practice ethical conduct, or sila, without falling into judgment, and without ignoring the complexity of each moment? According to Norman Fischer, the way has always been there.

By Norman Fischer

Erin, 2017. From the project “O N E E V E R Y O N E” by Anne Hamilton.

Sila Paramita is the paramita of ethical conduct, of purification, of moral discipline. It is cleaning up your act, straightening out your behavior, so you can practice effectively. In the Judeo–Christian tradition, moral discipline is obedience to a God who requires you to be good and not bad and rewards and punishes accordingly. This idea, without humane interpretation, can create a feeling of coercion leading to guilt and all sorts of moral confusion, including attraction to the forbidden, and immorality perpetrated as rebellion. In contrast, sila paramita recognizes moral discipline as, on one hand, the goal of practice—to so harmonize with awakened reality that your conduct is naturally beautiful and compassionate—and, on the other hand, a practical necessity for going on with practice, because wrong conduct unsettles the mind and heart, and a settled and focused mind and heart is necessary for awakening.

There is an observable connection between meditation practice and ethical conduct. In meditation practice, you begin to notice the connection between your fidgeting body and mind, your various emotional and physical painfulnesses, and your conduct.

You see that the more straightforward your everyday conduct, the easier, more focused, and more calm your sitting practice becomes. In long sesshins (intensive Zen sitting retreats), you sometimes experience this dramatically, feeling your physical pain on the cushion suddenly resolving into a heartbreaking sense of remorse for something you did or failed to do in the past.

You see how a mind and body full of resentment, anger, and reactivity, caused by emotional responses to what’s happened in your life, can’t sit still without misery. And when your mind calms down and you are more accepting and patient with yourself and others, you sit with more happiness. Any shoddy or unthoughtful conduct of body, speech, or mind makes shadows in your heart that, as soon as you sit down and begin to practice, you won’t be able to avoid. In this way, sila paramita is a natural outgrowth of your sitting practice.

In classical Buddhism, there are three main practices, each a prerequisite to the next: sila, dhyana (meditation), prajna (wisdom). Wisdom—specifically the wisdom that sees impermanence and the nature of reality—immediately leads to awakening, the end of suffering, which, as I’ve said, naturally leads to Buddha-like conduct.

In Zen, we practice these three at the same time, understanding them as inseparable.

Sitting practice makes you more aware; it sensitizes you to the little nicks and bruises that the heart is subject to. Hurtful things you used to say and do, painful things said and done to you that you formerly brushed off or hardly noticed, you now see as painful. It pains you to say, even to think, hurtful things, and you notice even more—though you probably noticed before—when such things are said or done to you. The more you are familiar with all this in your own mind, the twists and turns of which increasingly come into view as you go on practicing, the more it dawns on you that others are like this too. You see you are not unique—there’s a human pattern here. The human mind is a swirl of activity mostly centered around self-preservation and self-justification (which can, oddly, sometimes take the form of self-recrimination) and all sorts of scheming to get one’s own way. After some initial dismay, you realize this is normal. You are a mess, and so is everyone else. And when you don’t take the mess into account, when you insist on pretending that it doesn’t exist, that it is reasonable to take all the hurts and slights and confusion seriously and thrash around in them—you make things much worse. But appreciate the mess, know that it is a shared mess, and even have a sense of humor about it, and you can be much more forgiving and generous with yourself and others. So naturally, your thoughts, words, and deeds in relation to others will be more relaxed, generous, and kind.

Usually we think of moral discipline as uptight. A person vigilant all the time about the way they think and speak, austere and overly cautious in personal habits. This might not be such a bad thing. To be concerned about your speaking and thinking, your consumption, your habits, is not so bad—not to be small-minded and crabby about it, but thoughtful. The older you get, the more this makes sense. A little bit of overindulging goes a long way after a certain age. And at some point, it begins to seem silly to get into arguments and fights; you are less likely to be slighted by a comment or a look. Who has time for that? Keeping regular habits becomes more comfortable, easier.

Some ethical restraint is good when you are younger, too. The cultivation of mindfulness implies that you are naturally paying attention all the time to your life and that you come to know what’s good for you and what isn’t, and that without much trouble you choose the former. Not getting in your own way makes practice much easier.

But morality is more about others than it is about you. Mostly, the sphere of ethical conduct has to do with how you interact with others. Some people think that meditation makes an already self-concerned person hyper self-aware, thereby increasing causes for worry and upset. There might be some truth to this. But, mostly, meditation practice has the opposite effect: it makes much more vivid the feeling that you are living in a world with other people whose lives, hearts, needs, and pains matter as much as yours do. Meditation increases empathy. It makes you quite loath to hurt anyone—you see that hurting someone is the same as hurting yourself. In fact it is worse. You would rather hurt yourself than hurt someone else. If you hurt yourself, you can deal with it, somehow. But if you hurt someone else, you can’t necessarily help them deal with it. They are stuck with the effects of what you have done to them. And so are you. You have to live with it. Morality comes out of this sensitivity and empathy. Kindness toward others and one’s self is what morality is fundamentally about. Not a set of rules.

In Zen, the sixteen bodhisattva precepts describe the practice of sila. The first three—the triple refuge in Buddha, dharma, and sangha—express the profound principle on which all morality is based: faith in essential human goodness. The recognition that getting what we need and desire, protecting ourselves and our family, our clan, fending off enemies, and trying to accumulate wealth aren’t what make a human life noble and worthwhile. It’s not that doing all that is bad. It’s just that as fully conscious, more or less whole human beings, we feel that something more is required of us. This isn’t particular to Zen or Buddhism: every religion teaches this. We have to be good, pursue truth, and be responsible and caring for one another—not just our family, those who care for us and protect us, but everyone. We have to develop love. This is why the refuges of Buddha, dharma, and sangha are also the first three precepts. Refuge does not merely express fealty to a teacher, a teaching, and a community; at its most profound, refuge in the triple treasure is the recognition of our transcendent human obligation to truth, love, and understanding: to wisdom and awakening (Buddha), to living a path of wisdom and awakening (dharma), and to doing so in loving concert with all beings (sangha).

The next three precepts are called the Pure Precepts. They express the big picture of moral conduct. The first is to refrain from causing harm. Since we are all more or less whole—that is, not completely whole—we all have impulses of selfishness, self-protection, greed, and all sorts of grabbiness and nastiness. We sit down in meditation and we see this. So the practice of sila begins with restraint of those impulses.

The second pure precept is the other side of the coin—to expansively do good. To take delight in doing good. Doing good means doing what we generally think of as good: kind deeds and words, charity, supporting and helping others.
But doing good also means taking delight in religious and ritual acts, which can be more satisfying and engaging than going to bars or parties. Religious activities are good, they condition the mind in positive directions, and they have the effect of opening the mind and heart rather than numbing, distracting, or merely entertaining them. The second pure precept is asking us to extend and strengthen our love for and delight in goodness—we can even actually take delight in restraint, once we understand it. Restraining oneself from doing harm to oneself or others can feel like a pleasure rather than a deprivation.

The third pure precept is to benefit others. This means that when you follow the first two pure precepts, you do so with the motivation of benefiting others. In the bodhisattva path, the practice of sila completely overlaps with the spirit of love and compassion, which pervades all six paramitas. This is because prajnaparamita, the wisdom that cognizes emptiness, pervades all six, and emptiness is freedom, boundlessness, and love.

The bodhisattva path begins with bodhicitta—a sudden or gradual certainty that the only thing that makes sense in this life is to be of benefit, to love, to be loved, and to express that love through all your actions. Bodhicitta completely reorients your life and opens up the path. Whereas before you had been seeking relief from your suffering, or instruction in what you thought of as transcendent enlightenment, now you see that enlightenment, is, in fact, love and compassion, and that this is itself relief from suffering.

The question then becomes, how can I achieve this? What do I need to do to express, develop, and sustain compassion? And the answer is, practice the six practices: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. That’s the way to develop compassion.

For bodhisattvas, sila paramita is serene, loving conduct. It’s speaking, acting, and thinking out of love and the desire to be of service, a practice that helps you to further develop love for others, which causes others to love you. There are many teachings about how others will be drawn to you, and be cooperative with you, when you practice sila paramita. To benefit others is to influence them for the good, drawing them to kindness and goodness, and serving as an example of that. But this is done innocently and without intentionality. Bodhisattvas are without calculation.

So one side of sila paramita is the practice of loving and being loved, cultivating love. The other side reminds us to pay attention that we don’t get carried away, that we maintain a sense of mindfulness and watchfulness, so we don’t end up causing harm in our enthusiasm.

The ten precepts in Zen give a sketch of the kind of conduct from which we want to refrain—but also the kind we want to promote. They are, in effect, a fuller version of the first two pure precepts. In Zen, traditionally the ten precepts are given as don’ts—don’t kill, steal, and so on. But there’s a version attributed to the late Kobun Chino Roshi called the Ten Clear Minds, stated in both positive and negative formulation.

I vow to cherish life, not to kill.
I vow to accept gifts, not to steal.
I vow to respect others, not to misuse sexuality.
I vow to practice truthfulness, not to lie.
I vow to practice clarity, not to intoxicate mind or body
of self or others.
I vow to speak with kindness, not to slander.
I vow to practice modesty, not to praise self at the expense of others.
I vow to practice generosity, not to be possessive of anything.
I vow to practice love, not to harbor ill will.
I vow to cherish and polish the Three Treasures.

It’s clear that these precepts express broad aspirations for conduct. Exactly how they are applied in specific situations can sometimes seem unclear, and since precepts are not exactly rules to be adhered to, practitioners never accuse one another of breaking precepts, though they may question the wisdom of this or that action on the part of another. But a person might themselves come to feel that they have broken a precept. Discernment of one’s conduct is an ongoing process. And since sometimes precepts ought to be broken in the service of greater goods—like loving, protecting, and promoting the welfare of others—practicing precepts can be a great challenge.

When we extend the practice of precepts beyond the personal and the interpersonal, to our social and global responsibility, discernment becomes even more difficult. What is “not stealing” in a world that is full of institutional theft? What is “not harboring ill will” in a world where sometimes strong oppositional energy is needed to overturn social ills? The practice of sila is, on the one hand, simple and clear: we know the difference between acting selfishly and acting with goodwill for others. And the more we practice, the clearer this difference seems. But we are faced with many moral dilemmas. Sometimes the question is, what is the least bad thing to do? It seems to me that in this world, we are all compromised; none of us can claim moral purity. In an unjust world, everyone bears responsibility, except maybe the deeply oppressed.

Still, practicing sila does not leave us morally paralyzed. The three refuges and three pure precepts are clear enough. As long as we are working every day on developing our moral clarity and our kindness and love for others, we can have confidence that we can decide what to do based on what seems best to us from our present viewpoint. If it turns out to be wrong—and we will often be wrong—we know we can apologize, practice regret and repentance, and go on to the next choice we have to make.

Regret and repentance are a key part of sila practice. We assume we will make, and have made, many mistakes. Seeing them, we feel regret and remorse. These are positive feelings that we cultivate. We want to feel terrible when we’ve hurt someone, even if we didn’t mean to. The feeling of regret helps keep us honest. It leads to repentance, that is, to apology, to making amends, and committing not to do the same thing again. Mistakes are part of the process, and without regret, we can’t learn from our mistakes.

There is a big difference, though, between regret for a harmful action we have done and taking the completely unsupportable step of thinking, with deep shame, that we are somehow inherently bad people who do bad things. In Buddhist practice, there is no such thing as a fixed person, let alone an inherently bad or inadequate person. This is one of Buddha’s foundational insights—there are no persons, there is just what happens. We take responsibility for what happens because it is good for us and others to do so. But there is no one to blame.

As I’ve said, sila paramita, like all the paramitas, is pervaded with prajnaparamita, the Buddha’s most profound insight into the nature of things—that, being empty of “own-being,” things don’t exist in the way we think they do. As the Diamond Sutra, a key emptiness sutra says, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient; dana paramita, the paramita of generosity, is empty of generosity. So also there is no hurting, no one to hurt, no one to be hurt.

Fundamentally, there is no morality and no immorality. Saying this may sound scary, as if anything goes and we can, once we appreciate emptiness, commit as many sins as we want. But this isn’t the case. Seeing that there are no actual persons, that everything is only the flow of love, that that’s what being is, makes us much more passionate about doing good and not doing harm. Insight into emptiness doesn’t erase our moral sense; it makes it more flexible, joyous, open, and forgiving. We know we can never condemn anyone, neither ourselves nor anyone else. Everyone is doing what they can, as are we. Sometimes self-restraint or restraining another is necessary. But such restraint is understood as an act of kindness, not punishment based on moral superiority.

In the end, sila paramita is really silaprajnaparamita. There is no hint of moral intolerance, no hint of arrogance, no sense of moral purity or impurity. Only love and forgiveness and the widest possible appreciation for everything.

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.