The subject of sila, or virtuous, beautiful conduct, is a very tricky area which people often misunderstand. It is therefore an area where we can benefit from some guidance and instruction – some understanding about how best to conduct ourselves in the manner in which we relate both to our own life and to other people.
Often, we are attracted to the Buddha’s teaching because it cuts right to the very heart of our experience. I was certainly drawn by the ultimate and incisive nature of it – in particular, the teachings on emptiness. This seemed to be one of the most important aspects of the teachings – i.e., that which pertains to transcendent, ultimate reality.
In Western culture, we tend not to want to settle for second best. We want to aim for the top and we can tend towards the same kind of attitude in our approach to religious life. Why bother with the provisional teachings, the kindergarten stuff, when we can go for enlightenment just by the use of these powerful insights into selflessness and emptiness, or into the essential Buddha nature of all beings?
You come across this in different Buddhist traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. This aspect of the teachings, that all beings are Buddhas and everything is perfect just as it is, was stressed in Buddhism’s early years in the West: “We just have to awaken to the perfection that comprises everything around us. And once we have that realization we can act in whatever way pleases us. If we are all Buddhas, then we act as Buddhas and everything that a Buddha says and does is perfect.” So, the teaching was often interpreted in a way to justify any kind of activity. With the back-up of Ultimate Truth, everything is perfect. So, no matter what I do or how it looks to you, or to the police, it’s all perfect.
…But then we tend to find that what may have been a valid insight, after a while, just becomes a memory of something that we believe we have accomplished. We take it as some kind of credit card that we can keep spending on and never pay the bill – because there’s no one there to send it to. It is just as if you received your account from Visa and returned it to them saying, “There is no one here. No one actually owns this card. Therefore here is your bill returned.” If you did this, you’d soon receive a visit from someone in a uniform!
This interpretation has been a common occurrence in the West, causing a lot of distress: people have taken some big mystical experience, or ratification by a spiritual authority (such as being named a Dharma Heir), or some approval by a teacher of great reputation, as an indication of their enlightenment. I’ve heard of people saying, “You don’t understand what I do because I’m enlightened and you are not. Therefore, you can’t understand the motives of my actions. You should not question what I do.”
Anything can be justified by this outlet.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the book, Rain on the Nile, (pdf) pp.170, 171.