It is quite easy to mistake the Buddha’s encouragement to lead a virtuous and moral life with the call to blindly adhere to a religious codex or engulf into some form of social trend setting crusade.
Nothing could be further from the experiential truth 🙂 and the pragmatic path of removing the burden – which is exactly where awakening leads us to. When the Buddha spoke about the “(virtuous) habit” (lit. meaning of sila) what it seems that he had in mind was again a very personal experience which everyone who listened to him would be able to replicate. Sila was not supposed to be an intellectual exercise nor a meaningless religious ceremony either.
This is the important part: Done properly, a virtuous habit develops a power of its own. A tangible power of purity which you can feel yourself – as if you can almost touch it.
Please take a moment and think about that. And take yet another…
Did you ever “feel” virtue?
Now, the question would be: Can someone “feel” virtue? But our answer must be “yes” in the same way as we can feel “metta”! In terms of metta we usually know about the benefits of being friendly to our friends, family and neighbours. But what about the benefits of some experiencing and “tasting” purity? What does purity stand for? Isn’t it a gauge about the strength of concentration and wisdom in terms of body and speech? But rather than listing gazillion of quotations where the Buddha praised various forms of virtue, I’d rather invite you to an experiment (see below).
This is the background: Because, in a very similar manner as we can supercharge our meditation practice by moving it into all four postures we can improve our entire life if we understood what the Buddha really implied when he spoke so highly about the five trainings rules of virtuous conduct. The training of re-enforcing positive decisions is truly a powerful tool on the path to Nibbana. A true preliminary to any meditation effort!
If we think in theistic/religious terms (and for most people that’s about the same thing), however, then we might regard the precepts formulated by the Buddha as mere “rules”, “regulations”, “lip service”. We might simply view them as a garment, which many teachers recommend to us but they are not as “fascinating” as “studying” the Dhamma or “doing meditation” – yes, they almost appear in the eyes of mainstream Buddhism as least import (though the Buddha let his path start with sila).
But sila, practiced correctly, can develop an almost magical power. Something almost devine (i.e. < deva) and beautiful. Below you will find a simple exercise for you to try out and experience for yourself how the simple but repeated practice of sila could be understood as an entrance towards the path of jhanic joy.
It is an odd phenomenon, that if we put our mind to something – and stick with it – that the amount of success seems directly correlated to the amount of perseverance we were willing to come up with. Really odd 🙂
The stronger the perseverance the more astonishing the results. Whilst most of us take this for more or less granted as some kind rule/wisdom of life, an even greater advantage can be gained if we use this power of determination for our mental development. This is at the core: When the mind (messing with life all the time) suddenly gets narrowed down and focused, amazing things seem to happen.
And this is how the exercise goes:
Every morning, immediately after getting up, make a mental note of all the five precepts. Go through them, one by one, but with full attention and awareness. Do NOT let this become a ritual – so you will have to rephrase them in your own words – which might be different from one day to the other. Just make sure that you do a determination, using the power of determinations (adhiṭṭhāna). At the same time, do not spend too long on this. Just make it a quick but precise walk through.
Then, every night, right before you fall asleep, rehearse those five precepts. Go through them one by one and ask yourself: Did I keep the first precept, did I take any life?” etc.
Now, it is important to listen to yourself, when you do the nightly reflection. Do not fall into self-pity, remorse, regret, guilt etc. This is like a meditation training. You know that it does not help (quite the opposite!) if you feel guilty that you lost your concentration. Your concentration will then be gone even longer :-). So just renew your effort and keep going. **
Fast forward: After a couple of days you will see some astonishing things occur. First of all, during the day, your mind will remind you once you get close to the border of crossing/breaking on of your training rules. This is no problem, as it is good to see and experience how that feels and how the mind reacts when that happens.
But, in case you succeed, then you will almost feel a rush – this feeling of success when (especially facing obstacle) one is able to pull through and keep a promise / follow a set determination almost seems to supercharge the mind. Its ability, desire, strength to act accordingly in the next repetition of that obstacle will be stronger, even more powerful. *
So, in the same way as you tend to a seedling, if you are careful about your five precepts, you can see and feel how this particular tandem of powers: determination and bodily and vocal purity gets stronger by each day you implement them.
My guess is, that after about one to two weeks you too will be able to feel this amazing inner strength which comes from practicing the sila.
Now imagine, you would not have built your meditation practice on this foundation. What a missed opportunity that would be 🙂
* It is interesting to observe, that the Buddha formulated his “precepts” as five training rules (sikkha-pada). Whenever he gave his disciples a task to elevate their behavior he used a stock phrase with the verb “sikkhati” (sikkhitabbam) which was employed in the following way: ” i will do XYZ” iti, evam … sikkhitabbam” which could be translated as: thinking/determining : “I will do XYZ” (so), in this way … you have to train yourself.
Just three random examples:
Tasmātiha, sāriputta evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ ‘paccavekkhitvā paccavekkhitvā piṇḍapātaṃ parisodhessāmā’ti – evañhi vo, sāriputta, sikkhitabba’’nti.
And therefore, o Sariputta, thus you have to train: “Having reflected over and over [on the proper motivation after receiving alsm] we will purify our almsround” thus namely you, o Sariputta, have to train youself. [=>applied to a form of sila]
Tatrāpi te, phagguna, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ ‘na ceva me cittaṃ vipariṇataṃ bhavissati, na ca pāpikaṃ vācaṃ nicchāressāmi, hitānukampī ca viharissāmi mettacitto, na dosantaro’ti.
And then you, Phagguna, have to train yourself: “Not will my mind be affected (changing), and not will I express myself in bad speech, I will dwell with compassion and a mind of friendliness, no illwill inside of me.” [=> applied to a form of samatha]
‘‘Tasmātiha te, gahapati, evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ – ‘na cakkhuṃ upādiyissāmi, na ca me cakkhunissitaṃ viññāṇaṃ bhavissatī’ti.
Therefore, householder, you have to train yourself: “I will not take up sight, and not will I have any (re-)cognition based on sight.” [=> applied to a form of vipassana]
We can see the close relationship between a training in determination, precursor to mental training as such, and again the utilization of “iti” as implying some form of mental note/marker to direct (keep) and/or renew the minds attention to a certain object. So at this point, one could argue that the Buddha encourages using mental determinations for all three facets of the path: sila (“i will train myself thus”), samadhi (“light, light”) and wisdom (“this is not myself”).
** Similar exercises are used in various Buddhist traditions. One example here.