SÏLA - MORAL CONDUCT
Sïla or moral conduct is the principle of human behaviour that promtes orderly and peaceful existence in a community. It yields, in particular, a very special benefit (to be discussed later). Rules of moral conduct are to be found in every religion. They may resemble other codes of conduct to a greater or lesser degree depending on the Teacher or religious system from which they originated. Usually they comprise lists of actions from which to abstain,implying that-any actions not covered by the prohibitions are permissible. A good example is afforded by the five Sïla (of Buddhism), namely to abstain from taking the life of sentient beings, to abstain from taking possession of anything that has not been given by its owner, to abstain from sexual misconduct, to abstain from lying or evil speech, and to abstain from intoxicating drinks which are a primary causes of negligence. These five Sïla are the basic principles of Buddhism best know to most people. It is customary for them to be delivered during almost every religious ceremony and those present at the ceremonies generally make a formal declaration of their intention to comply with them. Thais must have seen or heard monks enunciating the Sïla ever since the time when they were still small children and did not understand them. Consequently it is of interest to consider the extent to which most people realize the importance of the Sïla and what they think of them, especially as most of the Sïla prescribe a mode of conduct that is widely different from the general practice of human beings. Some people favour the Sïla while others do not, as can be gathered from the following instances.
The first Sïla : The prohibition against taking the life of living beings applies not only to humanity but also to creatures of every kind, both big and small; black ants as well as red ants. Each day a vast number of animals are slaughtered as food, for most people eat meat while vegetarians are not common. In the field of science, animals are used in many researches and experiments. In the administrative field, arms are used in crime suppression. Law enforcement agencies punish law breakers. Belligerents at war use arms to destroy one another. The actions cited here as examples are not regarded as illegal or as running counter to normal worldly practice. Indeed, it may even be considered worong to abstain from them, as is the case when constables or soldiers fail in their police or military duties. Moreover, nowadays many kinds of animal are known to be carriers of micrkobes and, thanks to the microscope, germs and many sorts of microbes have been detected. Almost everything contains them - even drinking water. Only the larger impurities are caught by the filter; microbes can pass trough. So numberless microbes pass into our throats with each draught of water. It is the same with medicines. Wenever they are used, either externally or internally, they destroy myriad's of microbes. Are these microbes to be considered as living beings in (the sense of) the mist Sïla or not? If so, perhaps no one can fully comply with it. Besides, some are of the opinion that people who refrain from taking the life of animals should also refrain from eating meat, because it amounts to encouraging slaughter and is no less inful according to them.
The second Sïla : Taking possession of anything that has not been given by its owner or stealing, is also wrong, even legally speaking. However, there is, for instance, the exception of enemy property in the case of war.
The third Sïla : Adultery is wrong. One who commits it does not command respect nor inspire confidence. Sexual misconduct involving persons with whom cojugal relatins should be avoided according to custom, or those who are prohibited by law, or by the Dhamma, is also wrong. So is coercing by physical or even financial means a married or even unmarried person into cosenting to such conduct. The purpose of this third Sïla is to preserve the respectablity of the family of each person concered and to safeguard its sanctity and inviolability. By the same token, respect of person, place and property should be customary behaviour, as laid down in the book "Ethics of Good People" , which says, for example: "Do not intrude into people's which says, for example: "Do not peep into their rooms from outside". It is proper for us toadopt manners derived from the Sïla or moral rules, all of which aim at promoting good behaviour and discouraging laxity.
The fourth Sïla : Lying is generally regarded as wrong. Nevertheless, people very seldom speak quite truthfully to one another and so their word can hardly be relied upon. Sometimes they are unable to speak the truth; for instance, they may have to lie to save themselves from harm, and doctors lie to bolster their patients' morale. Lying under these circumstaces may be contrary to the Sïla aims at btinging about mutual benefits by adhering to truth and avoiding verbal offences. Similarly, utterances harmful to another's well being such as, for example, malicious, abusive or slanderous speech intended either to deride others or to vaunt oneself, may be truthful, yet they must be regarded as wrong, because they are contrary to the Sïla. It is said that the Lord Buddha Himself, besides saying only what was truthful, useful and fitting and laying down the Sïla agaist lyingf, also discouraged malicious, indecent and vain speech.
The fifth Sïla : In spite of the rule prescribing abstention from intoxicating drinks, their consumption does not decrease and authorized distilleries are working at full blast. Liquor shops are well patronized day and night. At receptions, fairs, etc., there are alcoholic drinks, as otherwise they would be dull and drinkers would avoid them. Alcoholic drinks have thus become an income- earner which brings in a sizeable revenue each year.
Practices regarded as right and other regarded as wrong may both be contradictory to the Sïla, as shown by the foregoing instances. All of thes indicates that, one increasingly fails to understand the Sïla, to recognize their importance and to appreciate their meaning forone's existence in thes world. That is why each of the following (mixed right and wrong) views has its advocates:
1. The principles of Sïla should be altered to suit those who have worldly occupations. For ubstabce, some feel that the first Sïla should be changed to allow killing to the extent permissible by law, i.e. only killing which is not authorized by law should be prohibited. Moreover the fourth Sïla sjpi;d, they feel, be made flexible and lying be allowed when it is done to protect oneself or others. So with the fifth Sïla when intoxicants are taken only occasionally and not to excess.
2. The principles of the Sïla should be left untouched but no one need pay attention to them. If those who act thus abide by the law, they should be regard as satisfactory people. After all, law is a sort of Sïla. It is laid down to ensure the peace and welfare of the public, although it is not entirely based upon the psychological principles and rational morality which are the foundation of the Sïlas,a point with which we shall deal later on.
3. The principles of the Sïla should be left unaltered, but heeded and observed only from time to time, or only some of them. Most Buddhists belong to the category of people who act in this way. They do not change the principles of the Sïla, for they are truly interested in them and comply with them - or some of them - occasionally. For instance, some Buddhists do not take alcoholic drinks during the three-month period of the Rains-residence, but subsequently they start drinking again. If they are fishermen or fishomongers, they disregard the firest Sïla which, if observed, would make fish catching or fish selling impossible, but they may refrain from killing other animals. If they are medical students, they do not entirely follow the first Sïla, observance of which would render the use of animals for research and experimentation impossible, but they may observe the Sïla whenever it is practical for them to do so, i.e. when it does not hinder them in their profession or in performing their duties.
4. The principles of Sïla should remain unaltered and be strictly cmplied with. Very few hold this view. Moreover, even these may have some doubt in regard to microbes, and those who do not adhere strictly to the Sïla may raise the same doubt either, from curiosity or to contend that the Sïla is impracticable. To decide whether microbes are living beings or not (in the sense of the Sïla), one should consider the life history of the Lore Buddha. Whenever the Lord Buddha fell ill, he allowed Doctor Jivakakom?rabhacca to apply external remedies or to give him medicine to be taken internally. Monks were also allowed to take or apply remedies to cure their diseases. Hence, we can conclude that the first Sïla does not apply to microbes. If it did, then we could not eat nor drink anything, nor even breathe, so no one could follow it. Sïla should be rules conduct that can be followed by everyone in an ordinary, practical maner without having recourse to the aid of such instruments as the microscope. The use of those instruments should be reserved for people engaged in the medical or scientific professions
With regard to the consumption of meat as food, Buddhists themselves are divided into two factions. One faction regards eating meat as being no less wicked than the act of slauhter. It holds that, were meat not used as food, there would be no cause for the destruction of animals, hence consumption of meat is directly responsible for their slaughter and is therefore wrong. Ãcãriyavadin Buddhists accordinngly obsereve Mamsavirati or abstention from animal flesh. The other faction, the Theravãdin Buddhist monks, are permitted if eat meat. Their Vinaya or disciplinary rule allows monks to do so under three conditions, namely: if they have not seen or heard the animals being slaughtered and have no reason to suspect that the slaughter was for their benefit as opposed to slaughter for sale in general. (There are also rules prohibiting monks from eatting raw meat or the ten forbidden kinds of meat, which include tiger meat and elephant flesh). Buddhists of thes category, prticularly Theravãdin monks, are expected to eat without fuss and not be difficult about their food. They must be able to partake of vegetarian food and also of animal food, provided that the three afore-mentioned conditions are is offered them, whether vegetarian or consisting of meat of the proper kinds. This is not considered contradictory to the Sïla, because the heart of such Buddhists, especially of the monks, are pervaded with unbounded kindness and compassion towards animals. Never would they cause animals to be killed. Moreover, against the view that eating meat is wrong, they present the wrong, then the use of hide, bones, horns of animals should be altogether banned. That, too, should be regarded as wrong. Both factions are still at variance on this subject and some of their members are still carrying on the argument. But there are some who do not argue, preferring to leave the whole matter to the individual's own conscience. One should not comple others to accept one's own views. To do that is also a kilesa or mental defilement and therefore to be avoided.
If it is asked what purpose the Lord Buddha hoped to serve by laying down Sïla which presecribe such uncompromising abstention that they can be fully complied plied with only by very few people, it has to be admitted that no one can claim to know His exact intention in so doing; nevertheless, one may gather the reason from many principles enunciated in the Dhamma. The Lord Buddha taught us to make a comparison between ourselves and others by saying: "All living beings are afraid of punishment and death. Life is dear to all beings (as well as to us). By putting ourselves in their place, we realize that we, individually, should neither kill nor cause others to kill." By this principle of the Dhamma, Lord Buddha wanted us to understand, through entering into one another's feelings, that all living beings love life as much as we do and have no less fear of death. That is why, as a matter of simple justice, the Lord Buddha laid down the first Sïla. The second was formulated to promote mutual respect for each other's rights to their own possessions. The third encourages mutual respect for one another's families. The fourth protects our mutual interests by truthfulness. The fifth helps us to avoid carelessness and negligence. If we set store by and careful guard our wealth, our families and good faith, then we should not trespass on the rights of others. All the Sïla or rules of conduct are based solely on the principle of perfect justice. They demonstrate that Buddhism respects the lives, rights, property and so on, of everyone. This is Lokasacca or Sammutisacca, namely worldly or conventional truth. If the Buddha had made the Sïla flexible and adaptable to the wishes of the mases, they would not have been consonant with the nature of perfect justice. Lord Buddha would have shown Himself deficient in compassion towards those animals whose slaughter was thus sanctioned. That would not accord with the character of the Buddha, who was filled with compassion towards all sentient beings. Another reason stated at the beginning, is that the Sïla promote, in particular, "a very special benefit". This means that the ultimate outcome of adherence to them is freedom from all defilements. The Sïla are the first steps towards this goal. Total observance of the Sïla, though there are only five of them, can in itself be a step towards the higher level at which that "very special benefit" is realized.
What is perhaps of particular importance with regard to the Sïla is to discover why people are, or are not, interested in observing them. Some reasons are as follows:-
1. Owing to the strictness of Sïla, which involve, for example, abstention from taking the life of any living being. Suppose the rules of moral conduct had been laid down in a more accommodating manner, tolerating some of the infringements we have discussed, would such accommodating rules be followed by more people or not? Obviously, no one can say for sure that it would happen, because one gets a general impression that moral rules, in particular those concerning what is regarded as wrong either in the worldly or the legal sense, are all of them -whether the first Sïla or any other- being constantly violated. This demonstrates that the failure to observe them is not due to their strictness. Usually, one's natural inclination is to suit all actions to one's own comfort and convenience. Every nation has its laws and every religion has its Sïla. Even where some of the rules are quite flexible and accommodating, it is probable that quite a few people ignore and violate them. Therefore the main reason for violation lies with the individual himself; most people are naturally inclined to disregard or alter the rules to suit their own convenience and are quite capable of doing so.
2. Owing to the individuals themselves. Then what is it in the individual that inclines him to infringe the rules, even though this is generally and legally regarded as wrong? The causes of such behaviour embedded within the individuals themselves are undoubtedly greed (lobha), aversion (dosa) and delusion (moha), which are born in the heart as defilements (kilesa) and, in turn, bring about the absence of shame (hiri) or dread of evil (ottappa). So if change is needed, it should not take place in the principles of the Sïla, but be a change of heart, meaning decreasing the kilesas, rather than increasing them in such a way that hiriottappa-shame and fear of doing evil, appear in the heart. By so behaving, our ability to comply with the Sïla will become much greater. Better compliance with the Sïla does not mean abstention from everything prescribed in them. Abstention from what is worldly or legally regarded as wrong is in itself acceptable conduct.
3. Owing to necessity, such as in the following instances: Infringement of the first Sïla in order to protect One's property, life, nation, religion and king, as happens in battle or when one is dealing with criminals or enemies. Transgression of the second Sïla in order to keep oneself alive or because of hunger or real poverty. There seems to be no reason for violating the third Sïla, since compliance with it would surely not kill anyone. Infringement of the fourth Sïla for the sake of one's own welfare. Failure to observe the fifth Sïla because one has to take alcoholic drinks as medicine, or because one medicine prescribed is mixed with alcohol, or just for the enjoying oneself occasionally (in which case, if one becomes drunk, one hoes straight to sleep without starting a row). Manu of the foregoing intances can be counted as cases of necessity, such as, for example, if one is a fisherman by trade or a medical student. It is known that King Mongkut requested the Teachers at Wat Bovoranives to instruct monks on the point of disrobing and returning to lay life, to learn the way of following the Sïla in manner consonant with necessity as explained above, in order to secure for themselves a satisfactory worldly life. When one asks oneself, for instance, whether it is really necessary to kill or to steal, one realizes that this is very seldom the case. Consequently even the mere intention not to infringe the Sïla, except when it is impossible to do otherwise, and to abide by them as far as necessity permits will make us realize that the five Sïla can be followed, to a great extent, without difficulty or loss of any worldly advantage.
4. Owing to a lack of supporting and complementary Dhamma. Lack of Dhamma complementary to each of the rules may also be a cause of mentary to each of the rules may also be a cause of their infrigement. Mettã or loving-kindness should be cultivated as (an aspect of) Dhamma complementary to the first Sïla. Samma-ajiva or Right Livelihood should be practiced as (an aspect of) Dhamma complementing the second Sïla. SantutÚtÚhitã or contentedness with one's spouse is (an aspect of) Dhamma that should be developed to complement the third Sïla. Truthfulnesss is (an aspect of) Dhamma that should be observed to complementing the fifth Sïla. Carefulness and circumspection should be adhered to as (an aspect of) Dhamma complementing the fifth Sïla. Explanations of some of the complementary aspects of Dhamma follow. For instance, mettã complementing the first Sïla, where it exists in any being, banishes all desire to harm. To say nothing of the mettã or loving-kindness shown by parents to their children, even mettã towards pets like dogs and cats is enough to bring about the greatest care for them. Withour mettã , but with dosa or aversion instead, these pets might easily be destroyed. Right Livelihood complementing the second Sïla can be explained as follows. If one is lazy in work or adopts a wrong mode of livelihood for one's subsistance, one cannot possibly comply with the second Sïla. Since we all have to eat every day, each of us has to get his food without fail and therefore must have means of living, and a right one at that.
5. Owing to absence of leaders who abide by the Sïlas. As an illustration, there is a saying in a Jãtaka which can be summarized as follows: "when a herd of cattle is travelling, if the leading bull strays, the whole herd goes astray. So it is with the people. If the appointed leader practises adhamma or unrighteousness, the multitude will also practise it. The whole nation will suffer if that one fails to abide by the Dhamma. When a herd of cattle is travelling, if the leading bull keeps to the proper course, the whole herd will do the same. So it is with the people. If the appointed leader abides by the Dhamma, the multitude will do likewise. The whole nation will be content if the leader upholds the Dhamma. This Buddhist saying is quite clear. The behaviour of the leader is of great consequence to the masses as they will inevitably follow his example.
The above reasons for being or not being interested in the observance of moral conduct may, each of them, be of significance in relation to the Sïla. In short, whether the Sïla. Are or are not followed by the individuals composing society depends on whether or not they bring about contentment in accordance with the level of the followers.
In this respect, some have voiced the opinion that the Sïla may be looked upon as fundamental principles to be applied in a way suited to one's own status. What is regarded as suitable will be in conformity with the purpose of the Sïla only if it is adopted without prejudice to others and without favour to oneself, for the purpose of the Sïla is to avoid harm to others. Besides, they are the first steps towards concentration (samãdhi) and isight (pa?ñ?ñã). Since observance of the Sïla should not be literal but should accord with their purposes, it will differ somewhat depending on the status or profession of each individual. For instance, observance of the Sïla by the common people who desire peace and contentment for all in the family as well as in the nation, will take one form; that of the monks who desire to attain a higher plane of the Dhamma will take another. Both forms will, however, lead to the goal for which observance of the Sïla was established. Furthermore, Sïla or rules of moral conduct are also the principal factor in national growth, the force that brings about economic productivity of individuals will tend to eliminate and destroy itself. Where the productivity of one individual is high but it is detrimental to that of some one else, nothing is added to the community. Rather, the total yield of the community diminishes and consequently it is difficult to promote general progress and prosperity. Even from this point of view, it can be seen that many people observe the Sïla in a way suited to their own status, realizing that the Sïla can bring prosperity to the community.
Generally speaking, people in Thailand know how they should observe the Sïla or moral rules. They also know that the five Sïla are in no way an obstruction to prosperity of the individual or the country. The cause for concern does not lie in the fact that too many people strictly observe the Sïla, but in the fact that too many people infringe them. This goes so far that even those actions which should be eschewed because they are generally or legally considered harmful, are nevertheless still common. What chiefly needs to be set right lies then, in the individual and in the circumstances already dealt with. If everyone were to behave in a way that lessens kilesas and generates in the heart enough hiriottappa and if, at the same time, there are circumstances which make for contentment and comfort, such as freedom to carry on one's livelihood in an atmosphere of peace and security and ability to earn enough for oneself and family, then there would be no cause to infringe the Sïla and people might be interested in following the Sïla complementary Dhamma, such as cultivating mettã (loving-kindness) towards others and diligence in pursuing their livelihood. If the leaders of administrative officers of all ranks were also interested in the Sïla, if they were prepared to abide by them and not to discharge their duties in harmful ways but in a manner beneficial to the people's welfare, if every sector of the community were to concur in maintaining such good behaviour, the standard of morality would surely improve, because the basis of each individual's mind desires to be good, so people readily see the advantages of the Sïla. If earning one's living becomes difficult or dangerous, solutions to such contingencies must be given first priority. In the Buddhist religion, the Lord Buddha taught that the present benefits should be taken care of first, for instance, by being diligent and working for a living. Then, after that, He advised people to attend at the same time to their future benefit, for instance, by having faith in and abiding by the Sïlas.
When there is an outcry about a state of degeneration resulting from disrespect for moral values, youth as well as adults clamour for those values to be upheld just as is happening at present .But the reasoning set forth in these paragraphs should be remembered and all of us should join hands in trying to improve the situation by getting at the real cause. Monks can only point the way. The task cannot be undertaken by any single group of people. All sectors of the community should cooperate in accordance with their duties. All of us should perform our duties with honesty. Each should examine his own behaviour and make an effort to do away with unwholesome conduct by following the principles of the Sïla. Then abiding by the rules of moral conduct would not be difficult, that is, it can be done by requesting form a monk the Sïla or by oneself following them, without receiving them from the monks. What is important is one's determination to abide by the Sïla, that is to abstain from certain actions. Although such abstention may not be complete in the sense of the perfect Sïla and may apply only to actions regarded as wrong and unwholesome in the worldly or legal sense, that is nevertheless better than not to abstain at all.
The prescription of the perfect Sïla, complete in every respect does not mean that their observance should also be perfect right form the start. No one would be able to manage that. The practice of the Sïla should be gradual, step by step, from the lower to the higher stages. That is why the following words are used "I undertake the rule of training abstaining from such and such conduct." This amounts to agreeing to train in the Sïla or moral rules. It also means that observance of the Sïla is still not yet perfect, It is the same with the study of any branch of knowledge, If one is still learning a subject, it means that one does not know it yet to perfection. Anyone who knows it completely does not have to train in it. A person who is still learning should not be held responsible for ignorance of what he has yet to learn.
Usually, monks do not dispense the Sïla or moral rules of their own accord or in random fashion. They do so only upon request. When we ask for the Sïla, it means we are ready train in them. How many of the Sïla are to be observed or whether they should be followed temporarily and for how long are matters depending on the will of the person concerned. Buddhism offers a rather flexible way of observing moral conduct which should be quite adequate and cause no trouble or loss to those who do so. This depends upon the faith of the individual.
A force that may incline one to follow the Sïla or rules of moral conduct is realzation of the benefits to be had from them as taught by the monks every time they give them : "one may attain the right path by observing the Sïla, wealth of all kinds by observing the Sïla, the cessation of pain and grief in the heart by observing the Sïla.. Therefore, one should purify one's Sïla to make it perfect."