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Morality, Concentration, Wisdom

Bhante Gunaratana

Question: Buddhism teaches that three things: sila, samādhi and pañña—or morality, concentration and wisdom—are fundamental to a successful meditation practice. And we must have good sila or morality as a first step toward a successful meditation practice. Could you please elaborate?

Bhante G: In using the word morality for sila I would also suggest the words “discipline” or “restraint,” perhaps even in place of the word “morality,” which has a philosophical connotation. And, yes, it is correct to say that practicing sila—acting with discipline and restraint in daily life—lays an essential foundation for a good meditation practice.

Depending on how disciplined we are, our practice becomes successful. When we don’t have sufficient discipline, our practice will be difficult. Mindfulness may then be hard to attain or to sustain. We must have good discipline to be mindful. Most of the time we don’t remember to be mindful—we are not mindful of mindfulness! It’s harder yet when our minds are distracted or bothered by unwholesome actions we may have undertaken or be involved in.

The Pāli word sila recalls the word “sealant” in English. When you want to close a crack, you use a sealant and seal it off. You lay the foundation for a house and cover all the cracks, so no water will seep in, no insects will enter, and the foundation won’t collapse. As a result, the foundation for your house remains firm and is sturdy enough to build upon. Sila is like that when it comes to meditation. It’s the foundation. Through restraint, through wholesome actions and decisions made in our daily lives, we lay this foundation.

If we don’t lay a good foundation for meditation, we can directly see the results in our practice. You may be meditating regularly, sitting a half-hour or an hour. All of a sudden one day, you can’t even sit for 10 minutes. Your mind is agitated, you’re constantly distracted, you simply can’t focus. Something you have done in your life—becoming enraged with someone, sexual misconduct, addictive behavior of all sorts or some other unwholesome action of body, speech or mind—has deeply registered in your subconscious mind. It keeps coming back up, making you feel remorseful, guilty, restless, full of worries. You just can’t sit!

On the other hand, it’s unrealistic to expect people to become paragons of virtue before they ever begin to meditate. If we wait until we are saints, if we put off meditation until our sila is perfect, then we will never meditate! Whatever our moral situation, we must begin. We make the commitment to root out unwholesome behavior and to encourage wholesome habits in our lives. It helps to make the commitment and to come back to it, time and time again: “OK, from now on I’m going to undertake this meditation practice and I’m going to try not to break my principles.” If you do, then learn from those consequences. Feel the heaviness in your mind and in your life. Our goal is to make the mind light, to make our life light. After all, we are seeking to attain en-light-enment, aren’t we?

Sila, though, should not be confused with a set of commandments. It is something you undertake by yourself, on your own accord. If you don’t make the effort, if you commit some unwholesome behavior, you reap the consequences and it affects your meditation practice. If you do make the effort, you’ll also see the positive consequences—it’s very cause and effect. We practice sila for own self-confidence and to overcome our weaknesses. So, sila is a way of behaving, that we ourselves choose. We undertake it by ourselves for the sake of a steady state of mind, for the sake of progress in our practice. Good sila strengthens our courage and ability. It gives support to our meditation practice and provides psychological strength. It is this foundation that is absolutely necessary to gain concentration.

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