MCTB Morality, The First and Last Training

The original Pali word for this training is sila, which I am translating as “morality.” People translate it in various ways, with some other possibilities being “virtue” and “decency.” Regardless of the word we choose, it is likely to have both positive and negative implications. If the word “morality” bothers you due to the associations that it brings to mind, take a look at the assumptions, agendas, and practices of this training and come up with your own word for it. I don’t think that it is so important what we call it. I do, however, think that we should give some attention to trying to live it.

From my point of view, training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world. When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality. When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training in morality. When we philosophize, we are working on training in morality. When we exercise, we are working on training in morality. When we try to take care of ourselves or others, we are working on training in morality. When we try to defend the environment, reform the government, or make this world a better place, we are working on training in morality. When we try to find a good and helpful job, try to build a healthy marriage or raise healthy children, or shave our heads and move to a remote desert, we are working on training in morality. Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training.

The second two trainings, those having to do with attaining unusual states of mind and those having to do with ultimate realizations, have limits, in that we can master them absolutely. However, this cannot be said of the first training. There is no limit to the degree of skill that can be brought to how we live in the world. Thus, morality is also the last training, the training that we will have to work on for all of our life. We may be able to attain to astounding states of consciousness and understand the true nature of reality, but what people see and what is causal are the ways that these abilities and understandings translate into how we live in the world.

There are basic assumptions that are extremely helpful when undertaking training in morality. It is very helpful to assume that some sort of basic moral code is helpful for getting along in this world, and thus that there is some practical benefit to be derived from training in morality.

It is also helpful to assume in some loose and non-dogmatic way that the more good we do in the world, the more good there will be in that world, and thus the more good things will happen to us and all other beings. It is also worth assuming the corollary of this, that the more we do bad things in the world, the more bad things will be in that world for us and for all beings. These assumptions are not unique to Buddhism nor are they in any way extraordinary. Societies and traditions throughout the ages have advocated that we find a place in our life for these assumptions. Realize that defining bad and good is often very much a question of perspective, but don’t fall into the paralyzing trap of imagining that it is useless to try anyway. It is better to try to do your best and fail than not try at all.

Thus, we are assuming that what we think, say and do have consequences. When undertaking training in morality, we are assuming that we can control what we think, say and do, thus creating consequences that are beneficial. Rather than accepting our current level of intellectual, emotional and psychological development as being beyond our power to change, we consciously and explicitly take the empowering view that we can work with these aspects of our lives and change them for the better. We assume that we can change our world and our attitudes towards our world. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

Further, as a part of our empowerment, we assume that the more of our resources and abilities we bring to this training, the likelier we will be to succeed. We have a body, we have reason, we have our intuition, we have our heart, and we have ability to learn and remember. We have a community of others with wisdom to share, we have books and other media that contain advice for living the good life, and we have our friends and family. We can draw on all of this and more to try to live a good life, a life where our thoughts, words and deeds reflect as closely as possible the standards we have consciously adopted and defined for ourselves. The more consciously engaged we are with our task, the more we are likely to be successful.

Crucial to the control of what happens in our lives is our intent. Thus, training in morality places a lot of emphasis on intent, with the basic assumption being that the more our intentions are kind and compassionate, the more we are likely to be able to manifest kind and compassionate thoughts, words and deeds.

Further, it is helpful to assume that training in morality requires us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives. When we are not paying attention to what we are thinking, saying and doing, we will not easily be able to craft these in a way that fits with the assumptions of this training. If we are not paying attention to what the consequences of our thoughts, words and deeds are, both in the short term and the long term, we are unlikely to be able to gain enough experience to be able to guide our training in morality successfully.

It is also helpful to assume that training in morality will help us when we get to formal meditation practices (the next two trainings in concentration and wisdom), providing a foundation of good mental and physical habits that can support those practices. Thus, even if we have little interest in being moral because of the benefits it can bring, if we are interested in obtaining the results of the other two trainings, we should also engage in training in morality.

These assumptions naturally lead to the specific agendas we have for what happens when undertaking training in morality. We consciously aspire to have the actions of our body, speech and mind live in a way that fits with the assumptions of this training. In short, we have standards for our mental, emotional and physical lives and we try our best to live up to those standards. When we are working on training in morality, we consciously cultivate actions, words and thoughts that we deem to be kind and compassionate. By “kind,” I mean that we work to promote the happiness and welfare of ourselves and others. By “compassionate,” I mean that we work to relieve the suffering of ourselves and others. Thus, our agenda is for our intentions to be kind and compassionate, for our minds to be aware of what we are thinking, saying, and doing, and for our experience to tell us as best it can how to craft our life to reflect our intentions.

Training in morality tends to be discussed in terms of what one shouldn’t do and also what one should do. The standard Buddhist short-list of the five things that one should try to avoid, called “The Five Precepts” are: killing, stealing, lying, taking mind-altering substances that lead to heedlessness, and using sexual energy in ways that are harmful. These are obviously not unique to Buddhism, and seem to be part of the basic set of standards for behavior that societies and cultures throughout the ages have found to be helpful and practical. The standard list of things that one should try to do includes being kind, compassionate and appreciative of the successes of others.

Wrestling with the question of how we can meet this fairly reasonable standard and yet honor where we are and what is going on around us is the practice of this first training. We will make all kinds of mistakes that can be very educational when trying to work on this first training; if you mess up, remember to be kind to yourself!

There are many great techniques for cultivating a more decent way of being in the world, but there are no magic formulations. You must figure out how to be kind to yourself and all beings in each moment. As training in morality takes into account all of the ordinary ways in which we try to live a good and useful life, it is so vast a subject that I couldn’t possibly give anything resembling a comprehensive treatment of it here. However, if you wish for further elaboration on some of the basics of training in morality, I suggest that you check out some of the following works:

  • For a Future to be Possible, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Heart as Wide as the World and Lovingkindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness, both by Sharon Salzburg
  • Light on Enlightenment, by Christopher Titmuss
  • A Path With Heart, by Jack Kornfield

Training in morality at its best is grounded in a theoretical or direct appreciation of one more assumption, that of interconnectedness. Interconnectedness at this level means an appreciation of the fact that we are all in this together and that we all share the wish to be happy. When we take into consideration our own needs and the needs of those around us, we are more likely to be naturally kind and considerate of ourselves and others. Thus, we try to make it a habit to try to take into account the feelings, opinions and welfare of those around us. The obvious trap here is to fail simultaneously to take into account our own needs. Work on balancing both in a way that is sustainable and healthy.

There are countless other pitfalls we can run into when training in morality, as it is such a vast area of work. I will spend a lot of time in Part II detailing some of the more common side effects and shadow sides of training in morality, but realize that it is an endless subject.

However, one pitfall that must be addressed here, as it is so common, is that of guilt. We have grown up in a culture in which we can be extremely hard on ourselves, causing ourselves astounding amounts of pain to little good effect. If we can learn to substitute wise remorse, a remorse that simply says, “Well, that didn’t work, and this is unfortunate. I should try my best to figure out why and hopefully do something better next time,” we will be much more able to train successfully in living a good and useful life.

Some people unfortunately seem to think that the primary message of training in morality is that they should continuously cultivate the feeling that they have taken up a heavy yoke of responsibility and self-oppression. In fact, some people seem to revel in that unfortunate feeling. Those more fortunate will think, “It is so much fun to try to live a good, healthy and useful life! What a joy it is to find creative ways to do this!” There are few things more helpful on the spiritual path and life in general than a positive attitude.

Thus, the related and all too common pitfall is that people stop having fun and trying to be successful in worldly terms. There is absolutely no reason for this. If you can have fun in healthy ways, have fun! It’s not just for breakfast anymore. Also, success is highly recommended for obvious reasons. Pick a flexible vision of success in the ordinary sense for yourself and go for it! Play to win. This is your life, so make it a great one. There is no reason not to try, so long as you can do so in a kind and compassionate way.

One more great thing about the first training is that it really helps with the next training: concentration. So, here's a tip: if you are finding it hard to concentrate because your mind is filled with guilt, judgment, envy or some other hard and difficult thought pattern, also work on the first training, kindness. It will be time well spent.

MCTB Concentration, The Second Training