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Sila, Understanding Ethics In Buddhism

February 15, 2005

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

Very often as the discourse of Jhana emerges some critics say, "But, what about ethics?"  Of course if we were to examine the traditional forms of Buddhism we would see an emphasis upon ethics. And, if we were to examine almost any of the Abrahamic traditions we would find the same emphasis upon ethics.  Ethics is no less important to the discourse on jhana.

If we look at the teachings of the historic Buddha we will see that ethics was central to his teaching.  His teaching (dhamma) was said to be centered upon three basic strategies for attaining enlightenment, they were ethics (sila), wisdom (panna) and absorption (samadhi).  And, he articulated this three-part practice strategy based upon the Noble Eight Fold Path, and the Precepts (see below).

In the Four Noble Truths Sidharta Gotama said that by following the Noble Eight Fold Path one would arrive at freedom from suffering.  As we can see from examining the Noble Eight Fold Path, right thought, right speech, right action, and right livelihood are typically interpreted within the context of moral behavior.  And, they are additionally supported by the five precepts. The five precepts are based upon the avoidance of harmful thought, speech and action.

Hinduism has its own way of expressing ethics.  I believe the method that most fundamentally expresses the deepest core of Hindu ethics is revealed in the Hindu concept of Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is often translated as harmlessness, and I believe it is at the root of the Buddha's Eightfold Path and Precepts.

The three Abrahamic religions have their own form of expressing ethics, which are based upon the 10 Commandments (see below).  I believe it is therefore reasonable to say that most peoples and most religions regard ethics as central to their tradition and the attainment of their concept of religious freedom or enlightenment.

Further, if we look at the Four Boundless States (Brahma Viharas or Bodhichitta), which were said by the Buddha to be the qualities of an enlightened being, then we will see that an enlightened one should manifest: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity.  I cannot imagine someone who is an alcoholic, or sex addict to be manifesting any of the above qualities, or following the Buddha's Noble Eight Fold Path, or observing his Precepts, or observing the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic religions. 

Additionally if we look at the Four Noble Truths, then we find that suffering (dukkha) is based upon grasping and aversion.  If we consider that the common obsessive compulsive behavior disorders (substance abuse, various eating disorders and sexual addiction), as well as the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed and Sloth) are simply manifestations of suffering (dukkha), which are all driven by grasping and aversion, then I think we have reasonable evidence to believe that anyone who manifests any of the obsessive compulsive behavior disorders, or Seven Deadly Sins, cannot possibly be enlightened.

Therefore I believe it is reasonable to conclude that neither Choygum Trungpa Rinpoche, Rajneesh nor Da Free-John (Adi Da) were enlightened.  I believe we do no justice to anyone on the spiritual path by continuing to celebrate the lives and "teachings" of people whose lives flaunted the ethical principle of every religion. By celebrating these highly flawed "teachers" we only enable these irresponsible acts among our contemporary teachers.

The above teachers are by no means representative of the majority of Asian or Buddhist teachers, however, they did serve to be rather prominent example of outrageous behavior among religious leaders.  We should not forget that there were several Catholic Priests who molested hundred of alter boys in the last few decades.  And, if we examine the literature of the past we will find plenty of evidence to indicate misbehavior of the Christian monastics is not new.

What is common among the monastic traditions of the world is a belief that if the monk or nun simply emulated the life of their religion's progenitor that they will succeed in their monastic efforts.  It is also a common belief among those traditions that teach the contemplative life, that one must first demonstrate sufficient ethical behavior before being initiated into the "deeper mysteries" of that tradition.  While I will agree that it is indispensable for the seeker to lead a life that is dedicated to ethics, it is clear through examining these notorious monastic misbehaviors that simple emulation is not enough.

It has been this contemplative's experience that while he was dedicated to an ethical life, he had of course plenty of weaknesses, like everyone else.  And, it was through leading a contemplative life that he was in a sense fortified in his spiritual journey as well as in his effort to lead an ethical life.  In fact he has found the more he becomes saturated in the absorptions states the less he has an interest in the objects of the senses.  This personal experience is supported by the Buddhist canon.

Mahamalunkya Sutta (MN 64.9ff)

The Greater Discourse to Malunkyaputta

7. The Blessed One said, "There is a path, Ananda, a way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters; that someone, by relying upon that path, on that way, shall know and see and abandon the five lower fetters-this is possible..."

9. "And, what, Ananda, is the path, the way to the abandoning of the five lower fetters?  Here, with seclusion from acquisitions, with the abandoning of unwholesome states, with the complete tranquilization of the bodily inertia, quite secluded from sensual pleasure, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhana (through 8th jhana).

15. "Whatever exists therein of (sensing), perception, (cognitive structures), and (cognition), he sees those states as impermanent (anicca), as suffering (dukkha), as a disease, as a tumor, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as void, as not self (anatta).  He turns his mind away from those states and directs it towards the deathless element thus: _This is the peaceful, this is the sublime,' that is, the stilling of all (cognitive structures), the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of all craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbana.

(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995, 2001)

Jhanasamyutta SN 9.53

"Bhikkhus, there are these five higher fetters.  What five?  Lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, ignorance.  These are the five higher fetters.  The four absorptions (jhanas) are to be developed for direct knowledge of these five higher fetters, for the full understanding of them, for their utter destruction, for their abandoning."

(Samyutta Nikaya trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom, 2000)

It seems reasonably to conclude that one who is an authentic enlightened being would be saturated in jhana and thus not manifest the five hindrances (Sensual desire, Ill-will, Restlessness, Sloth and Torpor, and Doubt), thus such as one would not manifest the Seven Deadly Sins either (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed and Sloth).  So, let us not be na_ve in our acceptance of a teacher's credentials.  Let us instead examine his or her life to see the evidence of enlighenment.

The Four Houses of God (Brahma Viharas)

Boundless States, Divine Abodes, Bodhichitta (the Buddha mind):



Loving Kindness






Sympathetic Joy




The five precepts:


Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.


Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.


Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.


Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.


Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

The Five Hindrances (nivarana) to Enlightenment



Sensual desire



Ill-will or aversion



Restlessness and scruples (anxiety)



Sloth and Unconsciousness




Noble Eightfold Path:



right view (understanding)



right thought



right speech



right action



right livelihood



right effort



right awareness (mindfulness)



right absorption

The Seven Deadly Sins


Pride is excessive belief in one's own abilities that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.


Envy is the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation.


Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.


Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.


Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.


Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.


Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.

Ten Commandments


I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.


Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments.


Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain.


Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work. But the seventh day is the sabbath in honour of the Lord thy God; on it thou shalt not do any work, neither thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.


Honour thy father and thy mother; in order that thy days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.


Thou shalt not kill.


Thou shalt not commit adultery.


Thou shalt not steal.


Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.


Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

If you diligently engage in the contemplative life you will become enlightened in this very life-time,

Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

Originally posted Fri Aug 15, 2003  7:53 am on the Jhana Support Group


This version (updated 02-15-05) may be retrieved at this URL:


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