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3.1 “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. 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. Meditation: Back to basics. Connecting and sustaining attention. (Recorded Oct 8, 2019, Insight Meditation Satsang, Berkeley)
Talk: Intro to the Ethics limbs (Recorded Oct 8, 2019, Insight Meditation Satsang, Berkeley)

Root text: The People of Sālā

So i have heard.
At one time the Buddha was wandering in the land of the Kosalans together with a large Saṅgha of mendicants when he arrived at a village of the Kosalan brahmins named Sālā. The brahmins and householders of Sālā heard,  “It seems the ascetic Gotama—a Sakyan, gone forth from a Sakyan family—while wandering in the land of the Kosalans has arrived at Sālā, together with a large Saṅgha of mendicants.  He has this good reputation:  ‘That Blessed One is perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed.’  He has realized with his own insight this world—with its gods, Māras and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, gods and humans—and he makes it known to others.  He proclaims a teaching that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing. He reveals an entirely full and pure spiritual life.  It’s good to see such perfected ones.” Then the brahmins and householders of Sālā went up to the Buddha. Before sitting down to one side, some bowed, some exchanged greetings and polite conversation, some held up their joined palms toward the Buddha, some announced their name and clan, while some kept silent. Seated to one side they said to the Buddha: “What is the cause, Master Gotama, what is the reason why some sentient beings, when their body breaks up, after death, are reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell? And what is the cause, Master Gotama, what is the reason why some sentient beings, when their body breaks up, after death, are reborn in a good place, a heavenly realm?” “Unprincipled and immoral conduct is the reason why some sentient beings, when their body breaks up, after death, are reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. 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.” “We don’t understand the detailed meaning of Master Gotama’s brief statement.  Master Gotama, please teach us this matter in detail so we can understand the meaning.” “Well then, householders, listen and pay close attention, I will speak.” … (Read the full text, where the Buddha talks through the precepts in detail, and how observing them leads to any fruit/rebirth one desires, including the full liberation from suffering that is the goal of the path.)
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