The second paramita is sila, which means ethical behavior or morality. It includes a social code of behavior, called the precepts which is a key component of initiation ceremonies, priest ordination ceremonies, and ceremonies when a priest finishes his or her training. In addition there’s a formal recitation of these precepts as often as monthly in Buddhist centers around the world.
But codes of what is considered moral behavior change with time and from culture to culture. My teacher certainly realized this when he discussed with us the precept“do not sell liquor.” He pointed out that we should understand it to mean do not sell anything to someone which might intoxicate them including the idea that they should be attached to a moral rule or religious belief. This was at a time when our culture’s attitude toward sex outside of marriage was beginning to go through a radical change. My girlfriend and I had just been kicked out or our apartment a couple of blocks from Zen center because the apartment manager told us that she “believed in the sanctity of a Christian marriage.” How times have changed!
Two hundred years ago, the precept about sexuality for serious meditation practitioners (who were generally ordained) was one of celibacy, which has gradually morphed to “do not abuse sexuality.” And many Buddhist teachers have fallen down on that one, even in its revised form, during the short time Buddhism has been in this country. This suggests that mere recitation of a rule of behavior may not be very effective by itself.
How can we be deeply moral, beyond getting boxed in by any specific rule, so that we do not cause harm toward others? To do this, our feeling of connectedness to each other has to be stronger than our drive to satisfy our own needs at someone else’s expense.
It is definitely possible to move in this direction. Through a regular meditation practice we begin to feel connected to all of life, which is radically different from what twelve step people call co-dependence. As our meditation matures, we do not need others to be happy to be happy ourselves. And it’s good to remind ourselves that, as my teacher said, “there are no enlightened people, only enlightened activity.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher