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Sila: East Meets West


Sila is a difficult word to define in Western terms. In one text alone, it is defined as the "firm roots of virtue" (Borde, DATE: 122), "moral discipline, morality, virtue, and ethical conduct" (Borde, DATE: 129), and "precept". While all of these might be considered rather synonymous to the Western mind, thus posing little difficulty, the problem is none of them quite tap into the Buddhist system of morality. This is because, as Promta notes, Buddhism offers two superimposed understandings of morality. First, individual morality (18), based upon the law of kamma, concerns one's progress on the Noble Eightfold Path as one seeks Nibbana. Second, because individuals exist in societies, six directions (representing the various relationships between people) govern the moral interactions between them; Promta (2002) refers to this as social morality (21), and notes that social convention, rather than the law of kamma, is its foundation. Social morality is what is most commonly understood in the West as the sole definition of ethics, meaning that ethical actions are assumed to have an outward purpose and direction only.

Morality and Kamma

Because social morality is based upon social convention, it would seem to bear a strong resemblance to the concept of moral relativity in Western thinking; because what is conventional in one society is not necessarily conventional in another, it would make sense that social morality would vary as well. Such "gray areas" were indeed foreseen by the Buddha, who, referring to his own teaching on the six directions, "allowed the sangha (monastic Order) to in future modify any of its lesser regulations that appear to be at odds with prevailing social conditions" (Promta, 2002: 21). However, the first (and, one might argue, original) understanding of sila as related to individual morality certainly seems at odds with the Western sense of the word, given that to the Western mind, individual actions in themselves are not seen as carrying moral weight unless and until they affect others. Beyond a rather superficial admonition that "one must help oneself before one can help others," the West has little to contribute to a deep understanding of how sila, defined as an individual striving for right speech, right action, and right livelihood, can be seen as moral when considered only in the context of the individual him or herself.

This paper will argue that the reason for this disconnect is the lack of a deep socio-cultural understanding in the West of the law of kamma. In the absence of kamma, it will be further argued, the only component of ethics that remains is the social one. To support this argument, right speech, right action, and right livelihood will first be presented in the context of Buddhist teachings. Next, a discussion of how sila is understood in Buddhist practice, as part of the path to Nibbana, will follow, showing how the law of kamma underlies the practice with regard to the ultimate goal of the cessation of suffering (i.e. the annihilation of craving). After this discussion, a Western "translation" of sila will be presented, which will show how the absence of a visceral understanding and acceptance of kamma dilutes the meaning. Finally, thoughts will be shared on whether or not it is possible to reconcile these diverging perspectives on sila, as well as whether or not it is necessary for Western Buddhists to do so.

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood

Bodhi refers to the triad of right speech, right action, and right livelihood as the "division of moral discipline (silakkhandha)." Having said that, Bodhi is quick to inform the reader that this use of the word "moral" does not refer as much to ethical actions as to spiritual ones, despite the outward appearance of same. Right speech, said the Buddha, is comprised of "four components: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter" (Bodhi, 2011). While these directives are worded in the negative (i.e. as what to avoid), they implicitly refer to what should be embraced as well; for example, abstaining from false speech means speaking the truth, being reliable, being worthy of trust. Avoiding slanderous speech means not just refraining from gossip, but also speaking from a place of loving-kindness, to promote harmony as opposed to divisiveness. Harsh speech is avoided and gentle speech takes its place; abstaining from idle chatter means choosing to speak only at the right time. Again, it is important to remember that these efforts are made in part so as to avoid any negative ramifications of the law of kamma, and in part to keep one's mind as pure as possible, and as open as possible, to higher levels of contemplation. While it is true that these efforts also result in greater harmony among members of society, that is not the primary driver for their existence.

Right action consists of three parts: "abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct" (Bodhi, 2011). All of these are considered unwholesome actions. To abstain from taking life includes all sentient animals; while later scholars have tempered this directive, the Buddha was clear that intentionally killing or hurting anyone, of any species, was not a "right action." The opposite of this abstention is the embrace of life, a reverence for life, a joyfulness taken in life. When one refrains from stealing, one also becomes more grateful for that which is given; when one abstains from sexual misconduct (note that sex itself is not proscribed for laypeople, but sexual misconduct, e.g. having sex with one's sister), then one can more joyfully focus upon sexual union with one's chosen beloved. Here, as in all the other silas, intentionality is key; it makes sense that as one progresses toward enlightenment, one has an ever greater understanding of one's intentions, and so while some "wrong" actions might be unintentional when one first begins to practice, such actions would not be so the further one progresses and the more aware one is of one's actions.

Right livelihood deals with the ways people earn money to live.

The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants. (Bodhi, 2011).

The Buddha also notes certain practices which should be avoided, such as usury and soothsaying. Again, the avoidance of certain careers and practices can help avoid negative kamma in itself, but it also opens the door to the embrace of livelihoods which enhance life as opposed to detract from it. Teaching from an open heart, feeding people who cannot afford food, learning to clean toxic waste areas - these are examples of ways to earn a living while not only avoiding harmful practices, but also choosing ways to make a living that come from a place of loving-kindness.

How Sila is Understood in Buddhist Practice

When the Buddha spoke with Ananda about the rewards inherent in living a wholesome life - in living according to sila - he said nothing about making the world a better place. His Wheel of Dhamma - the Noble Eightfold Path - was intended for individuals to traverse in their individual quest for enlightenment, not as a (direct) way for individuals to help other people. And so, following the Path leads to freedom from remorse, which leads to joy, to rapture, to tranquility, to happiness, so on and so forth, until "vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance" is achieved (Virtue, 2011). When a person reaches enlightenment, Nibbana, s/he is delivered from suffering, delivered from the wheel of this world, and thus lives in harmonic accordance with the law of kamma. Thus, in Buddhism, the highest "calling," if you will, is not to become a saint and do good deeds; it is, in fact, to focus upon oneself, practice sila, and seek enlightenment; it must be remembered that while Buddhism itself has branched into a great many varieties, some of which have become burdened with a great deal of extraneous directives, rules, and so forth, the essential teachings of the Buddha were relatively simple; and his primary goal was the cessation of suffering. Sila is one of the "tools" that helps practitioners along the path to Nibbana.

Sila in the Western Understanding

How can the West understand sila as an ethical system? Parts do resonate within a typical Western-style ethical system, particularly the notion of intentionality as it relates to actions that are not right; but the concept of self-focus is traditionally eschewed by Western ethics, not to mention Western spiritualities and religions. Certainly, some amount of self-improvement is called for, but only within the context of striving in the future to be better for others. And so, the typical Western thinker is left with a conundrum: on the one hand, it is obvious that if everyone strove for right speech, right action, and right livelihood, the world would be a far less violent place (and thus more "ethical"). On the other hand, such striving only as a means to seek one's own enlightenment is selfish and crass from a Western perspective.

The key here is kamma. When one has a visceral sense of the law of kamma, as did the Buddha, and as do Eastern travelers along the Noble Eightfold Path, one knows the inescapable nature of kamma, as well as the rock-bottom reality that one literally has no control over anything other than one's own actions. To govern one's own actions is, in the end, all anyone can do; seeking one's own enlightenment is not just reasonable, but the only option, as one cannot bring enlightenment to anyone else. Western ethics might well argue that while this could be true, it is also true that one can bring succor, help, and other forms of aid to others, thus having an impact upon other people; and certainly the Buddha was aware of the societal benefits of sila. However, the trick (if we may use such a word) is that to the seeker steeped in an Eastern mentality, outside benefits are not considered; they are not the focus; they are, instead, by-products of an individual striving for enlightenment, whereas to the seeker steeped in a Western mentality, one's own benefits are seen as secondarily important, if at all important. This is because the Eastern mind sees no escape from kamma, just as there is no escape from the sun rising in the morning. All beings are involved in kamma, all beings are ruled by kamma. And in the end, kamma applies solely to one's own actions, one's own intentions; in the absence of kamma, self-focus is indeed selfish, for there is no natural law dictating we must hold ourselves strictly accountable in this fashion. In the absence of kamma, the only sila that makes sense is social morality; and indeed, that is what the West focuses upon.

Conclusions: Is it Necessary to Reconcile East and West Regarding Sila?

When people in the United States learn the metric system for the first time, they are often told to stop comparing meters to yards, kilograms to pounds, and so forth, as conversions continue to solidify one's stance in the imperial system. By leaving behind the imperial system, one gains a faster and deeper understanding of the metric system as one uses it to measure and count. The same might be said for sila. Words can do little justice to the disconnect between the Western and Eastern approaches to sila, in part because the differences are so deep; either one knows, or does not know, that kamma is in control of one's life. Either one knows, or does not know, that in the end, control of anything other than the self is an illusion (and some would say the self itself is an illusion as well). And so, because of this deep disconnect between these two worldviews, these two governing paradigms, it seems impossible for one to truly understand the other in a deep, meaningful way in the absence of experience.

Thus, Westerners who wish to travel the Noble Eightfold Path - who wish to seek enlightenment and live according to sila - need not "break their brains" in trying to "get" the Eastern notion of the word. Constant comparisons seem to be counter-productive. Rather, they need only travel the path and trust that in time, understanding will follow. As Hanh (2003: 11) said, "the daily wars that occur within our thoughts and within our families have everything to do with the wars fought between peoples and nations throughout the world." Calm your inner war - practice sila - do not think about anything beyond yourself - and yet something else beyond yourself will indeed happen: something miraculous.


Bodhi, B. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, 2011.

Borde, R., Buddhist Meditation Traditions, DATE.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. 2003. Creating True Peace : Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World. New York: Free Press.

Promta, S., 'A concept of rights in Buddhism', The Chulalongkorn Journal of Buddhist Studies,1(1), pp. 17-37.

Virtue (sila). 2011.