by Randall S. Frederick
The Noble Eightfold Path is one of the chief teachings of the Buddha, and where represented by a “ship wheel”, is arguably the most well-known image of Buddhism, second only to the seated Buddha. Of the three primary modes of learning in Buddhism – morality, mental culture, and wisdom – sila is the most important. Loosely translated from Sanskrit as “morality” or “ethics,” sila is considered the pristine state from which the highest forms of life and living – the right things – draw their inspiration. For the Buddhist, it is impossible that killing or hurting someone could ever be “the right thing” since such an activity is always done out of greed, malice, or selfish ambition. Overcome by negative forces, we do that which we would refrain doing from otherwise.
Put another way, the Buddhist concept of morality presupposes that there is an eternal right thing to which we are held responsible by the universe. We are inherently good, and must be faithful to that goodness for it is our most authentic position of self-actualization. Practice of sila then is as much about preserving one’s own nature as much as sustaining an ideal for our immediate community, the world, and indeed the entire universe. Sila is about the unending pursuit of the right thing in every circumstance. Without sila, according to Sunthorn Plamintr, “right concentration cannot be attained, and without right concentration, wisdom cannot be fully perfected. Thus, morality not only enhances people’s ethical values and fulfills their noble status as human beings, but it is crucial to their efforts toward the highest religious goal of Nibbana.” Conversely, a regular practice of sila rebuilds the world very much like Judaism’s idea of tikkun olam. Most faiths agree, we are either building a better world, or destroying the one we have.
In an interview with comedian Pete Holmes, author Rob Bell says that Jesus’s first teachings, the Beatitudes, were really about “[shaping] your heart so that the right things naturally brings you joy.” While I agree with Bell on many things (yes, even that whole Love Wins debacle), I have a difficult time with this one. Peter Parker, at the crescendo of the third act in Spiderman 2 says it differently; “Sometimes to do what’s right, we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most.”
The idea of self-sacrifice or putting the interest of others ahead of our own “joys” is insulting to most. Raised on a steady diet of Dr. Phil-istic (I dare not go so far as to call it Phil-istine) self-actualization and hydrated by entitlement, the right thing too often means not what is right, but what is in our own best interests. We have modulated Paul’s relaxed hope to mature people of faith both in what it meant then (the Philippian church had Paul’s trust and friendship because they had already proven a willingness to sacrifice and put the interest of others ahead of their own) and in promoting ourselves to that esteemed status of good people doing the right thing. So invested in protecting our interests, we can no longer perceive what is right or good any more because we are unaccustomed to sacrifice. What is right is too often the thing that is easiest, for which we do not have to struggle or labor to achieve. Cheap success and that which is bestowed like an unearned crown is what we come to see as right, what is best, even when – especially when – it puts someone else down so that we may rise.
Even tonight, while waiting at an intersection, I watched as a car bore down quickly on another, cut them off, honked excessively, changed lanes, then proceeded to cross three lanes of traffic. Given the position in traffic, I could see what the rush was all about. There was no medical emergency. They just wanted to get in queue at the drive-thru before anyone else. Had to get those tacos, I suppose. For them, breaking traffic laws, pressuring other motorists, and assuring their own placement in line was the right thing. We do things like this every day, putting ourselves first (what is right for me).
Something I find both disappointing and comforting in equal measure is that a Arahant or “perfected one” who achieves nirvana in Buddhist teaching, can regress or become corrupted. Doing the right thing can lead us to divine insight, but we must be vigilant in continuing to do the right thing because even the best among us can fail at times. Doing the right thing isn’t a decision. It is a process, an arduous process of seeking, doing, building, then moving on – not to the right thing but simply to the next thing. There will be opportunities to correct our former decisions, to set things right. There will be opportunities to do the right thing because we come to see that we previously did the wrong thing, and this time we can make the sacrifices necessary. Sometimes, the right thing is refraining from doing the wrong things, even when they are easy.
Insight comes suddenly in Buddhism, and this has caused all manner of misunderstanding where the West borrows from the East. Lightly and marginally influenced by Eastern thought in a buffet way, picking what we like, rejecting what we do not, we come to believe that our sudden insight – the right thing – is permanent and fixed, unchangeable and immutable. But we forget that new insights come. We live in a continuing revelation of what the right thing truly is. In some sense, it is as if each new insight refines the previous. Each choice was true, and remains so for the context in which it was made. But each successive lens, the next thing, and then the next thing, makes the revelation that much more clear until we can look back and say, “Yeah. I was doing the right thing all along, but wow, I sure made some mistakes along in the process.”