Sila, the moral aspect of the Eightfold Path, consists of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood; that means taking responsibility for our speech and being careful about what we do with our bodies. When I’m mindful and aware, I speak in a way that is appropriate to time and place; likewise, I act or work according to time and place.
We begin to realise that we have to be careful about what we do and say; otherwise we constantly hurt ourselves. If you do or say things that are unkind or cruel there is always an immediate result. In the past, you might have been able to get away with lying by distracting yourself, going on to something else so that you didn’t have to think about it. You could forget all about things for a while until eventually they’d come back upon you, but if we practise sila, things seem to come back right away. Even when I exaggerate, something in me says, ‘You shouldn’t exaggerate, you should be more careful.’ I used to have the habit of exaggerating things – it’s part of our culture; it seems perfectly normal. But when you are aware, the effect of even the slightest lie or gossip is immediate because you are completely open, vulnerable and sensitive. So then you are careful about what you do; you realise that it’s important to be responsible for what you do and say.
The impulse to help someone is a skilful dhamma. If you see someone fall over on the floor in a faint, a skilful dhamma goes through your mind: ‘Help this person,’ and you go to help them recover from their fainting spell. If you do it with an empty mind – not out of any personal desire for gain, but just out of compassion and because it’s the right thing to do – then it’s simply a skilful dhamma. It’s not personal kamma; it’s not yours. But if you do it out of a desire to gain merit and to impress other people or because the person is rich and you expect some reward for your action, then – even though the action is skilful – you’re making a personal connection with it, and this reinforces the sense of self. When we do good works out of mindfulness and wisdom rather than out of ignorance, they are skilful dhammas without personal kamma.
The monastic order was established by the Buddha so that men and women could live an impeccable life which is completely blameless. As a bhikkhu, you live within a whole system of training precepts called the Patimokkha discipline. When you live under this discipline, even if your actions or speech are heedless, at least they don’t leave strong impressions. You can’t have money so you’re not able to just go anywhere until you’re invited. You are celibate. Since you live on almsfood, you’re not killing any animals. You don’t even pick flowers or leaves or do any kind of action that would disturb the natural flow in any way; you’re completely harmless. In fact, in Thailand we had to carry water strainers with us to filter out any kind of living things in the water such as mosquito larvae. It’s totally forbidden to intentionally kill things.
I have been living under this Rule for twenty-five years now so I haven’t really done any heavy kammic actions. Under this discipline, one lives in a very harmless, very responsible way. Perhaps the most difficult part is with speech; speech habits are the most difficult to break and let go of – but they can also improve. By reflection and contemplation, one begins to see the unpleasantness of saying foolish things or just babbling or chatting away for no good reason.
For lay people, Right Livelihood is something that is developed as you come to know your intentions for what you do. You can try to avoid deliberately harming other creatures or earning a living in a harmful, unkind way. You can also try to avoid livelihood which may cause other people to become addicted to drugs or drink or which might endanger the ecological balance of the planet.
So these three – Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood – follow from Right Understanding or perfect knowing. We begin to feel that we want to live in a way that is a blessing to the planet or, at least, that does not harm it.
Right Understanding and Right Aspiration have a definite influence on what we do and say. So panna, or wisdom, leads to sila: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Sila refers to our speech and actions; with sila we contain the sexual drive or the violent use of the body – we do not use it for killing or stealing. In this way, panna and sila work together in a perfect harmony.