Sila and Harmlessness

Ajahn Jayasaro

Sila and Harmlessness

In the “Ovada Patimokkha” the Buddha laid down the most basic and important guidelines for the samana’s path, and there we find that harmlessness is the principle he most emphasized.

Through our way of life as samanas we offer the gift of harmlessness to the world. People may be inspired by how we live our lives, they may be indifferent, or they may even be contemptuous of us, but whatever the various reactions to a Buddhist monk people might have, fear is highly unlikely to count amongst them. People see a Buddhist monk and they know that he is not dangerous to them. Animals see a Buddhist monk and they sense that he is no threat to them. This is a singular thing.

It’s very unusual, isn’t it, to be so scrupulous and so caring for even the smallest kind of creature — not just human beings, not just the cuddly lovable kinds of creatures like Shetland ponies and fluffy cats, but even poisonous centipedes, geckos and biting ants. You find that after you’ve been keeping the Vinaya precepts sincerely for a while the idea of depriving even a venomous snake or a small poisonous insect of its life becomes almost inconceivable.

With the cultivation of sila (virtuous, ethical conduct) and metta-bhavana (the development of loving kindness) it’s just no longer an option. Through our practice as samanas we are able to observe how closely the devotion to moral precepts is connected to being truly benevolent and altruistic. If we continue to harm other beings by body and speech, our expressions of metta remain hollow and cannot lead us to peace.

At the same time, if we attempt to uphold a strict level of sila without a spirit of goodwill and compassion, without a kind and forgiving heart, then we can easily fall into the traps of self righteousness, a false sense of superiority, and contempt for the unvirtuous. This is what is called losing the plot.

…The Buddha said that as all living beings desire to be happy and fear pain just as we do, then we should abstain from all actions that deprive beings of happiness or increase their pain. Sila is an offering of dana (generosity), a gift of fearlessness and protection to all sentient beings. To live our lives within the boundaries defined by the precepts, mindfulness of our commitment has to be constantly maintained; sensitivity and skill are continually called for. With wisdom and understanding of the law of kamma, we abstain from killing, harming, and hurting any sentient being through our actions and speech.

Gradually, our good intentions unbetrayed by our actions, we are able to tame our unruly minds.

This reflection by Ajahn Jayasaro is from the talk, The Beauty of Sila.