Ethics: In Order to Help

The sila (ethics) paramita is not separate from the other paramitas; in fact, all paramitas support each other. In Buddhist practice we often hear about a Middle Way, staying between extremes. This goes back to the story of the historical Buddha. In his pursuit of enlightenment, the young Prince Siddhartha gave up a life of pleasure and took up a life of extreme asceticism. He fasted nearly to the point of death. Eventually he realized that his correct path actually was between these extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial.

This example shows us that we should take care not to become too rigidly attached to precepts. Attachment to rules can obscure the larger purpose of morality, which is benevolent care for others. Focusing only on the rules can hinder rather than help. We see how this hindrance is a danger in our modern life. It is very clear it can become a cause of many conflicts in the family, in communities and among countries. Blind attachment to the rules can ruin the whole world.

Buddhism—and Zen particularly—encourages us to respond with compassion to the suffering in front of us. And sometimes, that requires breaking rules. Buddhism teaches that our actions should be guided by wisdom and compassion, with no trace of selfishness, not even the urge to do good to feel good about myself. For example, this selfishness might mean you want to help others in order to feel holy, perfect or clear.

The sila paramita is about ethical behavior, morality, self-discipline, personal integrity and harmlessness. The bone of this paramita is that through our love and compassion we do not harm others; we are virtuous and harmless in our thoughts, speech and actions. This practice of ethical conduct is the very foundation for progressing in any practice of meditation and for attaining all higher realizations on the path. We should perfect our conduct by eliminating harmful behavior and following the bodhisattva precepts. We abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, taking intoxicants, divisive speech, harsh speech, greed, malice and wrong views. Following these precepts or guidelines is not meant to be a burden or a restriction on our freedom. We follow these precepts so we can enjoy freedom, happiness and security in our lives, because through our ethical behavior we are no longer creating suffering for ourselves and others.

At some stage we realize that unethical behavior always causes suffering and unhappiness. Practicing the perfection of ethics, we are free of negativity, we cause no harm to others by our actions, our speech is kind and compassionate and our thoughts are free of anger and wrong views. When we are strongly committed to the practice of ethics we are at ease, naturally confident, without stress and happy because we are not carrying any underlying sense of guilt or remorse for our actions; we have nothing to hide, we can be our selves.

Self-honesty is very important. What we think can make us happy can also make us miserable. If our direction is to help and our mind is clear—before thinking—then we don't need to worry about precepts. Good and bad are created by mind; if our mind is extinguished, then our karma is extinguished—it works in both ways. So we try to keep our correct direction: Why am I doing something? If I am not sure, then precepts give us an obvious answer.

Some of our actions are not visible to others, and the results will only appear in the future, but inside we know already what we are doing. Our true self—our intuition—is guiding us. If we are aware of this guide—in touch with it, hearing it—then there should be no problem deciding what to do. There should be no problem in quickly understanding the situation, choosing the correct action, keeping the correct action from moment to moment.

In Zen stories we have many examples about keeping and breaking precepts, and we know that the most important is to keep a correct direction and then to choose the correct action. We see this again and again in the familiar stories about the greedy monk; the rabbit and the hunter; the Zen teacher who admitted his affair with a girl from a village, took responsibility for her baby for one year, and was shunned by his village; and another teacher who decided to have an intimate relationship with a very ill women to give her great feelings of love and acceptance. We see that sometimes the effect of wrong action may not be understood by other people for a long period. It may look like we did something terribly wrong, society may reject us and exclude us, we may even face death. In that time great faith, strong center and not-moving mind is necessary.

These stories teach us to be flexible, open-minded, honest, careful and quick. In everyday life we do not usually have time to think through our decisions—we need a very clear and sharp mind. Sometimes our actions will be in opposition to common beliefs and traditions. We have to be brave. Sometimes the price of keeping clear, of keeping the sila paramita, is to give up our money, position, fame, health, love and even our life. We take this risk and accept the loss in order to help. So we are actually not losers at all.

Correct direction is not something we are born with. Some of us have less, some have more. But we can develop this ability and make it strong. When we hear about direction we understand: Yes, this is good, this makes sense, but it takes time to find direction and to make it work. It involves hard training. So we need tools to develop clear direction in order to skillfully use ethics and all the other paramitas for others. These tools are great question, great courage and great faith, which we learn step-by-step; but that is a topic for another essay.

Buddha said:

All happiness comes from desire for others to be happy.

All misery comes from the desire for oneself to be happy.