“The ford where all the Buddhas cross”: Ethics as the ground of liberation

Continuing in our exploration of the Noble Eightfold Path, we’re entering the limbs of Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, collectively known as the Ethics (sīla) section. A discourse called “The People of Sālā,” offering a standard list of the elements of Buddhist ethics, breaking down the limbs of Speech and Action into their subgroups, is at the bottom of the page. On this page I’ll collect a few source texts to orient us in our exploration of the action limbs, and include the overview talk.

Here’s the talks from part 1: Right View, and part 2: Right Intention.

And here’s part 3: Right Speech.

As we begin discussing the limbs of the path associated with ethics (sīla), here are a couple quotes to get us started. The first is from the Verses of the Elder Monks, and it’s associated with a monk named “Sīlava”, so this practitioner was associated with the ethical aspect of practice.

(I have a special place in my heart for monastics associated with these aspects. My own monastic name, during my short time as a bhikkhu in Burma with Sayadaw U Janaka, was U Sīlarakkhita, or “Venerable Monk Protected by Ethics.” I like that I was named after this most foundational aspect of practice rather than something more transcendent or poetic — though that would have been fine too, of course. Over the years since that retreat, I’ve only increased in my appreciation for this aspect of practice, and how the Theravāda tradition has kept it so central. The ever-deepening crisis of ethical misconduct in American Buddhism (and Yoga, and FFS just about everywhere now) only fuels my growing sense that in minimizing the importance of sīla for convert practitioners, or worse, allowing it to be reinterpreted out of existence, we may be doing a grave disservice to the sāsana, the lineage the Buddha founded.)

Sīlava’s poem, as throughout the discourses, starts by saying that ethics is the basis of all worldly success, gaining one praise, prosperity, and attainment of heaven after death. Remember that in the Buddhist systems, heaven is merely a wonderful place to be reborn, but isn’t permanent, and isn’t liberation. Good merit (puñña) gets you to heaven, but after you die from there, you’re reborn somewhere else. If you’ve been practicing the Eightfold Path, then ideally you’re then born as a human so that you can experience life fully, practice the path, and attain liberation from here. The poem starts by invoking stuff we all want. Then it goes further, turning toward liberation as the true goal of ethical purification.

… Ethical conduct is the starting point and foundation;
the mother at the head of all good things:
that’s why you should purify your ethics.

Ethics provide a boundary and a restraint, an enjoyment for the mind;
the ford where all the Buddhas cross over:
that’s why you should purify your ethics.

Ethics are the matchless power; ethics are the ultimate weapon;
ethics are the best ornament; ethics are a marvelous coat of armor.

Ethics are a mighty bridge; ethics are the unsurpassed scent;
ethics are the best perfume, that float from place to place. …

“Sīlava”, from the Verses of the Elder Monks, Thag 12.1, tr. Sujato

This beautiful line, “the ford where all the Buddhas cross over” reminds me of this other place where the Buddha famously was asked how he crossed “the flood.” He said “By not halting, friend, and by not straining I crossed the flood.” (SN 1.1, tr. Bodhi) Even with such skillful practice, it’s so much easier to cross a river at the ford. So here, Sīlava tells us that ethical conduct is the ford, the place where the flood is mellow enough to be negotiated. Even at the ford, of course, fast-moving rivers take skill to cross. But it’s so much easier when you have the ground under your feet. Ethics are also described here as a protection, which is perhaps the most common purpose given for them in the texts. Here’s how Maya Angelou describes that quality:

Just do right. Right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. It brings you the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t give you. So try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world.

Maya Angelou

Throughout the discourses we read metaphors for how foundational ethics is to the path. In this series of connected texts, it’s like the earth upon which hard work depends, and in which seeds are planted. And in a wild turn, it’s the quality that gives practitioners the kind of power enjoyed by dragon spirits (nāga).

“Mendicants, all the hard work that gets done depends on the earth and is grounded on the earth. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics. …

“All the plants and seeds that achieve growth, increase, and maturity do so depending on the earth and grounded on the earth. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics, achieving growth, increase, and maturity in good qualities. …

“Mendicants, dragons grow and wax strong supported by the Himalayas, the king of mountains. When they’re strong they dive into the pools. Then they dive into the lakes, the streams, the rivers, and finally the ocean. There they acquire a great and abundant body. In the same way, a mendicant develops and cultivates the noble eightfold path depending on and grounded on ethics, acquiring great and abundant good qualities.

“Hard Work” SN 45.149, “Seeds” 45.150, “Dragons” 45.151, tr. Sujato

In this first talk in the ethics series, I gave an overview to the action limbs, and discuss how we can understand ethics as foundational to the path, and in some ways the entire path. In the following weeks we’ll dig into the difficult and powerful relational practice of Right Speech.

The purpose of sīla, and its place in the 8FP

Meditation: the basics. Settling the body, connecting and sustaining attention with breath. (10.8.19)

Talk: How the path naturally expands from right view and right intention outward into the ethical limbs of speech, action, and livelihood. The benefits of ethical cultivation, including heaven, but mainly the peaceful state of the absence of regret. (10.8.19)

Onward: the next series of talks in the series on the Eightfold Path, Part 3: Right/Wise Speech, is here.

Root text: The People of Sālā

Householders, principled and moral conduct is threefold by way of body, fourfold by way of speech, and threefold by way of mind.

And how is principled and moral conduct threefold by way of body?
It’s when a certain person gives up killing living creatures. They renounce the rod and the sword. They’re scrupulous and kind, living full of compassion for all living beings.

They give up stealing. They don’t, with the intention to commit theft, take the wealth or belongings of others from village or wilderness.

They give up sexual misconduct. They don’t have sexual relations with women who have their mother, father, both mother and father, brother, sister, relatives, or clan as guardian. They don’t have sexual relations with a woman who is protected on principle, or who has a husband, or whose violation is punishable by law, or even one who has been garlanded as a token of betrothal.

This is how principled and moral conduct is threefold by way of body.

And how is principled and moral conduct fourfold by way of speech?
It’s when a certain person gives up lying. They’re summoned to a council, an assembly, a family meeting, a guild, or to the royal court, and asked to bear witness: ‘Please, mister, say what you know.’ Not knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I see.’ So they don’t deliberately lie for the sake of themselves or another, or for some trivial worldly reason.

They give up divisive speech. They don’t repeat in one place what they heard in another so as to divide people against each other. Instead, they reconcile those who are divided, supporting unity, delighting in harmony, loving harmony, speaking words that promote harmony.

They give up harsh speech. They speak in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable, and agreeable to the people.

They give up talking nonsense. Their words are timely, true, and meaningful, in line with the teaching and training. They say things at the right time which are valuable, reasonable, succinct, and beneficial.
This is how principled and moral conduct is fourfold by way of speech.

And how is principled and moral conduct threefold by way of mind?
It’s when a certain person is not covetous. They don’t covet the wealth and belongings of others: ‘Oh, if only their belongings were mine!’

They have a kind heart and loving intentions: ‘May these sentient beings live free of enmity and ill will, untroubled and happy!’

They have right view, an undistorted perspective: ‘There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds. There is an afterlife. There is obligation to mother and father. There are beings reborn spontaneously. And there are ascetics and brahmins who are well attained and practiced, and who describe the afterlife after realizing it with their own insight.’

This is how principled and moral conduct is threefold by way of mind. This is how principled and moral conduct is the reason why some sentient beings, when their body breaks up, after death, are reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm.

“The People of Sālā” (MN 41), tr. Sujato

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