by Umi No Nami Dan Rotnem

by Umi No Nami Dan Rotnem

Sila – The Perfection of Morality

It seems natural to continue from Taiso Roshi’s post last month on dāna pāramitā (read it here) with a discussion of śīla pāramitā, the second of the Six Perfections.

What is Śīla?

Śīla is often translated as morality or virtue, and is the perfection which relates to right action, right speech and right livelihood of the noble eightfold path. The Precepts of Hollow Bones Zen describe and encapsulate these ideas, each intertwining with all the others, acting as guideposts along the path of awakening.

While this is one way of practicing virtue in our tradition, the perfection of virtue is supported by wisdom (awakening to an awareness deeper than thought, feeling and emotion) and is the spontaneous functioning Clear Deep Heart/Mind in the world.


In other words, eventually virtuous behavior isn’t something that we grit our teeth and make ourselves do. It’s simply how we are because it’s the only thing that makes sense in the face of our interconnection and interdependency.

Why is it important?

Virtue serves two main benefits, one communal and one private.

When we each endeavor to follow a particular set of guidelines that promote mutual respect, tolerance and openness there can be harmony. Harmony within relationships, or at least a clear pathway through difficult times, goes a long way toward relieving suffering.

As individuals, when we follow these guidelines, we have very little to worry about, to regret, to fear or to be anxious of. A mind free of these “afflictions” is more able to stabilize and unify itself, thus allowing for a deepening meditation practice and genuine insight.

How do we relate to “breaches” of morality?

Unlike the theistic religions many of us grew up in, Zen does not relate to the precepts through a punitive or shameful framework. Two examples of this from our lineage teachings are found in the Vimalakirti Surtra and the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng.

In the Vimalakirti we learn that one of the factors of enlightenment is to pay attention to our own faults and not pay attention to the faults of others (standard warning against idiot compassion applies.) We also hear a parable of 2 people who have “transgressed” being lectured by a spiritual teacher when Vimalakirti, our role-model householding bodhisattva, shows up and reprimands him, saying (my paraphrase) “Comfort them without making them feel worse! People are only afflicted and purified by their thoughts; innately we all share this pure potentiality of buddha-nature.”


About 1000 years later, Hui Neng teaches something very similar. Two points that had a profound impact on me are:

If the proceeding thought is one of malice, we become a beast. If, instead, it is one of compassion, we become the buddha.


Do not make the mistake of renouncing your past. True renunciation is the renunciation of future mistakes.


What does all this mean?

This is a path we all walk together. Growing, deepening, learning. Sharing in this mission to bring into being a harmonious and loving world through the practice of meditative, compassionate wisdom and mindful stewardship.

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.

It doesn’t matter.

 Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.

Come, yet again, come, come.

–          Rumi

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