Dharma & Meditation: Deepening Practice
November 4, 2008
Class Four

Keywords: sila/moral awareness

Aaron: Good evening. My love to you all. I am Aaron.

There have been many anxious thoughts during the sitting, and also quite a bit of spaciousness and equanimity. You are to be honored for holding that space. (it is election night and after class we'll all be watching the returns)

The focus in this class is sila, an aspect of the Eightfold Path. We're talking about the different aspects of the dharma, not to recognize them intellectually but to ask, "How does this inform my life and my practice? And how do my life and practice inform my understanding and enactment of this aspect of the dharma?"

In the second chapter of your reading (The Sound of Silence; "No Exit"), at the beginning of that chapter Ajahn Sumedho speaks about the Four Noble Truths and the three levels of understanding of each of these truths. The first is simply the conceptual level, "This is what it is", and then at the second level, moving deeper into the understanding of it. This is the direct experience of it, getting to know it not just in the mind but in depth. And finally the full understanding.

If I might use a simple metaphor, you've all experienced minor thirst at times. If we said, "This is thirst," you'd say, "Oh, yes, I know about thirst. I've heard about thirst and I've experienced it." But then if you went 36 hours with nothing to drink, you would have a deep direct experience of thirst, different from your previous experience. It's not conceptual any more; you know it in every part of the body, the body's cry for water.

And then you're transported to an area of the world where there's a terrible drought, where many people are suffering from prolonged thirst, where the streams have been fouled by pollution, where the rains have not come and the earth is parched and cracked. Children are sick and dying; plants are sick and dying. You see the whole cycle of thirst and drought, and of misuse of the planet. Different aspects that cycle have contributed not to the lack of water in the village springs which have been fouled by carelessness. So you deeply understand.

So we could look at these 3 stages in this way: to taste it and say, "Yes, I have a sense of what that is," to go deeply into it, and then to understand the causes and conditions of it, and how it relates to other things; to fully know it.

So we look at suffering, or dukkha, and those 3 levels. We look at the causes of suffering, the second Noble Truth. We look at freedom. And now we are looking at the Path and this particular aspect of the Path that we call sila.

What is sila? The translation that's often offered is "moral awareness." These are words. What does moral awareness really mean? This is not the Biblical kind of statement, "Thou shalt not." It's not a set of rules that you learn and observe simply because you've been told this is what you're supposed to do, or if you do this you'll go to Heaven. Rather, this precious sila comes from a place of deeply knowing the inter-being of self and other.

I had an experience in a very long ago lifetime, when I was young in spirit. A younger and smaller boy in my village and I got into a fight. He had said rude things about my mother. I suppose this is a reason why young boys often fight. My father had died when I was young so my mother did manly labor, as it might be called, as well as taking care of the children and preparing food. She worked very hard to take care of our family. My father's brothers helped her, but still she had to be strong and powerful, not soft and feminine as were many of the women in the village. So the boy had said, "She's strong like a man," and instead of taking that as a compliment, I took it as an insult and began to fight with him. I did not restrain myself, as would have been wise, so we got into a tussle and I was bigger. I pushed him and he fell in such a way that he broke his arm.

Our village elders were very wise. They did not punish but tried to use our life situations for teaching. So after the immediate first aide was given, a splint was on the arm and a few days had passed so it was not so painful, they called us both. These elders first talked about what had happened, and then they said that what they felt would be an appropriate use of this situation––not punishment, an appropriate use of this situation–was that since the smaller boy could temporarily not help his mother and father by going out and doing farm work and heavy work, that for those 6 to 10 weeks until the arm was healed, I would go everyday to his home and do the heavy work that he always did. And he in turn would come to my house and help my mother every day. He would do everything that one could do with one arm. He would help her to tend the children, to stir the cooking pots, to carry a bucket of water, to keep the fire burning, to go out and pick berries and nuts and other kinds of food.

So each of us spent the next 2 months doing this work, and of course we both gained deep insight into each other's lives. I saw the reason for his statement about my mother; it was really not meant as an insult. Rather, it was a statement of his own concern because his mother was rather weak, frail, and dependent, and needed her children to take care of many things. I saw how that was for him. And he saw how it was for my mother, who had so much responsibility with a number of young children. I was the oldest. So he began to cherish her strength.

When this time was over, we became best friends and throughout that life we were really closer than brothers, caring for each other. Both of us were far less prone to judgment, to the judging mind's arising and to acting out the judging mind when it arose.

As I look back, this for me was the first deep opening into sila, deeply understanding how things are, and coming to the inner commitment to do no harm based on that knowing of our interconnections with each other and our deep intent not to harm another.

This sila is precious, it's very beautiful. In many Buddhist countries, children are not taught to meditate at a young age, and even adolescents may not meditate, but sila is the heart of their practice. They are not taught, "Now don't steal, it's wrong," they are taught, "When you take something from another that is not freely given, you hurt everybody," and they are asked to regard the ways they would hurt everybody.

When the alms are given, always the young children come out to the road to offer the alms to the monk and these sometimes are young children who themselves may not have as much to eat as they would like. But they're taught here, every being's needs must be respected. Children in these cultures do not tie tin cans to dogs' tails. They do not stomp on ants just because they're there. They do not disrespect their elders.

And these, I don't know whether to say actions or lack of unwholesome actions, this comes not because someone is standing over them with a stick and saying, "If you do this you'll be punished," but because from an early age they are taught reverence for all life including their own. They understand that the well-being of one is connected to the well-being of all. They realize that if they see the snake outside––often the kitchen is not in the house but in a small sheltered building; I don't want to call it a building, it won't have walls, it will be an open-air kitchen with a sheltered roof to keep the rain off––if they see a snake there, well, the snake is catching the rodents that would eat their food. Yes, it's a poisonous snake. They have to be careful of it. A three-year-old knows what kind of snake will kill her. She knows to step back when she sees it, but not to scream out, "There's a snake!" But to raise her hands and say thank-you to the snake and know that it's doing its job. There is reverence for all life.

What I want to ask you then is how sila feels to you. You have cultural conditioning to overcome. You've been raised in this Thou Shalt Not kind of culture. I'm not saying there's something wrong with that; it's fine to tell people, "Don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, don't cheat." But you have not been given the opportunity to uncover the foundations of sila, and thus you don't have that foundation for your practice.

When children or young people begin finally to meditate in a Buddhist country––I'm talking about some time ago, I don't know how it is today, but 500 years ago––when the child began finally to meditate, the child was so firmly grounded in sila that a lot of negative thought did not arise. There wasn't a lot of jealousy, pride, impatience or greed. It came up; certainly it came up sometimes. But when it did, instead of saying, "No, I won't be angry, I won't be greedy," and trying to stifle it, they just said, "Ah, here is this energy arising in me." And so the practice that we try to teach you came so much more easily to these children, because they were not raised to be beaten when they were angry but rather to sit and watch the arising of anger with an open heart, and to take care of the anger until it resolved itself, for the good of all beings. They learned to do this, not because they shouldn't be angry but with clear seeing. "This is unwholesome for all beings. And ultimately it brings suffering back to me. So I will take care of this emotion until it resolves itself."

Sila then in a very real way becomes a refuge. Can you see how that would be? It's a place where you can rest when there is strong aversion or grasping, and mindfulness, sati, notes it. "Here is grasping." Right there with grasping is that which does not grasp, and yet the grasping is still present, or the aversion, or the fear.

Coming back to sila as a refuge, one rests in this deepest intention to do no harm and the understanding that the one that you want to take something from or the one you want to punch, they are yourself. They're just another aspect of yourself, that you are truly all connected.

I'm so grateful for growing up in that culture in that lifetime and for the wisdom of the elders, who did not yell at us or beat us for fighting but simply gave us each appropriate tasks, to teach us.

So I want to ask you, we'll take a few minutes to stretch and then come back into the circle. This is not something you've done a lot of thinking about so what you say is just what comes to you. In what way does sila already inform your life and your practice, and how could it be more of a support? What can you do to nurture this true sila? Not just goodness or moral purity but truly sila as interconnection and non-harm?

I'm going to release the body and Barbara will lead the discussion. Five minutes now, to stretch.

Aaron: People have asked me do I have a preferred candidate. You have all voted so I feel free to express myself. One candidate to me clearly seems more directed in openheartedness and care for all beings, much less grounded in fear. So it is my fervent hope that he will win this election because I think that he has the potential to guide you into a path of much deeper peace in this country and in the world.

People asked him which candidate is that and he remarked that votes in this country are private, but they all know which one he means.

(recording ends)