EXCERPT: ‘Noble Standards’ by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

This excerpt from “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano explores the Buddha’s teachings on the significance of wholesome, ethical behavior and how this paves the way for meditation practice and spiritual maturity. Without a basic grounding in morality or sila, all the devotional, meditative practices in the world may bear scant fruit. Note the end of the piece, which features a particularly succint explanation of the Buddhist view of kamma (or karma):

When we think of a holy person, an arahant, one who has attained full liberation, who is entirely free from the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion, we do not imagine a specific physical appearance but rather a pattern of noble actions, a manifestation of poise, of serenity, of inspiring dignity. We imagine a way of speaking, standing or sitting. Those inner qualities of saintliness must, to be meaningful to us, show themselves in behavior. It is behavior — observable conduct — which defines and exemplifies the true character of a person.

While we certainly have ideas, clear or vague, of what constitutes noble behavior, we are perhaps less sure of how that behavior is brought into being, how a person might actually come to conduct himself in a saintly fashion, distinct from the usual human course. Is it the case that someone first attains liberation and then begins to behave in an especially virtuous way? Is moral purity the incidental product of an abstract mental discipline? Might we simply apply ourselves to some meditative practice with sufficient energy, setting aside our moral deficiencies, until wisdom shall arise and by itself purify our conduct?

Such ideas are tempting, but wrong. There is no postponing good moral conduct, for it is just such conduct, even in tentative form, which makes possible the development of mental concentration and thence of insight or wisdom. Good moral conduct means, at its most basic, honorable restraint of bodily and verbal actions — the healthy, judicious self-discipline which must be practiced along with any kind of meditative exploration of reality. Furthermore,  morality or virtue remains incomplete until it is extended to mental conduct as well. Because all this is difficult, because it goes against selfish interest, it requires specific attention and effort and a clear understanding of what actions lead to what results.

The Buddha taught that bodily conduct, verbal conduct, and mental conduct are each of two kinds — that which should be cultivated and that which should not be cultivated. The distinction can be seen in the results of each. Certain kinds of conduct naturally result in benefit, happiness and well-being, and other kinds naturally result in pain and misery. It then should behoove a serious-minded person to learn the difference between the two — which may easily be obscured by passion and delusion — and to strive for honor in action as well as in belief.

Within the Buddhist religion various customs, observances, rites and formalities can arouse states of mind favorable for deep meditation and for compassionate behavior toward our fellow beings; but they do not by themselves produce spiritual attainment toward the supreme goal of Nibbana, which is liberation from all suffering. Causality rules in matters religious as well as material. Misery and joy spring form particular causes, and mere wishing or mere performance of ceremonies cannot abolish misery and bring about joy. Any observant person realizes this principle to some degree, but what is less obvious is the extent to which even very solemn, dignified practices can remain decidely superficial and ineffectual if not backed with virtue in daily behavior. The real good, the genuine achievement, always costs unglamorous, steady effort.

As a teacher of causality, as one who profoundly understood the complex of conditions behind painful and pleasant things, the Buddha was always intent on explaining how we should behave, how we should train ourselves in accordance with nature, so as to prevent the arising of evil and to promote the arising of good. There is nothing mystical in this method, no irrational reliance on luck, only a clear-minded instruction in worthwhile action. The spiritually dissatisfied person may reasonably try to rearrange his or her external environment or take up some observance such as chanting religious verses, performing devotional services, or practicing various systems of meditation; but none of these alone entirely remedies the fundamental disquiet, the dukkha born from craving in the midst of ignorance. It is not just what we determine to believe, as a theoretical, intellectual matter, that beautifies life; it is not even what formal exercises we do in the way of religious practice. The foundation — and the test — of all efficacious religious faith is the conscious adaptation of our daily behavior to noble standards. How do we deal with our family and our neighbors? What honor do we show in action?

We may be genuinely inspired by the ideal of spiritual liberation and sincerely decide to pursue it — but are we quite clear about what factors are necessary, or do we assume that throwing ourselves into meditation or devotional practice will itself take care of the details and accomplish the task? Liberation is possible; the overcoming of dukkha is possible — but only for those who go about it in the right way, not neglecting necessary conditions.

What then are the conditions to be gathered, or what are the proper actions to undertake? The Buddha summarizes the noble life as consisting of three “domains”: virtue (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (panna). These three, fully developed, lead to the destruction of sorrow and grief and the attainment of Nibbana or ultimate liberation. Concentration may sound appealing, and wisdom even more so, but neither can develop properly without the foundation and continuing power of morality or virtue. The Buddha states the relationship explicitly:

Not possible is it, bhikkus, without having mastered the domain of virtue, to master the domain of concentration. Not possible is it, without having mastered the domain of concentration, to master the domain of wisdom. (Anguttara Nikaya 5:22)

We must begin with elementary matters of conduct, for if these are undertaken properly they will help to bring about higher things. Actually, what at first seems elementary in the Dhamma may not be so at all — may turn out to be tremendously profound — and the careful student will remember that the Buddha taught and emphasized exactly what he knew to be good for living beings who suffer and long for an end to suffering. Every serious person recognizes the importance of virtue for a noble life, but perhaps not everyone realizes the way simple moral maxims in the Dhamma open up, spread out seamlessly into the grand pattern of spiritual maturity. Whether we are intent on the attainment of Nibbana or simply hoping to calm our life and improve our character a little, there is a right way to behave — easily stated, but vast in its dimension.

In the widest sense, the right way to behave is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. But to consider specifically fundamental moral behavior — what exactly we should avoid and what we should develop — we can examine the unwholesome courses of action and their counterparts, the wholesome courses of action. Certain kinds of behavior, because they spring from the unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion in the mind, are themselves bad, unwholesome and productive of misery; and other kinds of behavior, which spring from the wholesome roots of nongreed, nonhatred and nondelusion, are wholesome and naturally beneficial.

There are ten unwholesome courses of action: killing living beings, taking what is not given, misconduct in sensual pleasures, false speech, malicious speech, harsh speech, gossip, covetousness, ill will, and wrong view. These kinds of misbehavior are always harmful, and when they become habits they lead the reckless person on to deep woe and misery in this life or a future life. They are the enemies of purity, the destroyers of peace, the bringers of trouble.

We prefer to think of troubles as coming from outside ourselves, as being imposed, chiefly by fate, bad luck, the malice or foolishness of others, and so on; but in Buddhism we cannot dismiss our responsibility so easily. Through actions we have done in past existences we have been born in a particular situation in this world, with a particular mix of advantages and afflictions. Through a long series of intentional actions (kamma), remembered or forgotten, we have in effect made up our own character into what it is today. According to our character, then, we respond to the surprises of fortune — we worsen situations or make them better. Often we feel helpless in the maelstrom of worldy dangers, but we should be sobered and encouraged by the Buddha’s consistent teaching that actions have made us what we are, and thus actions — the conscious deeds we may possibly perform — have the power to make us safer.

Student, beings are the owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior. (Majjima Nikaya 135)

From “Longing for Certainty: Reflections on the Buddhist Life” by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano