Sila Paramita

THe Perfection of Morality

Guanyin With Candles
© ZenShui / Sigrid Olsson / Getty Images

Sila paramita means "perfection of morality." It is the second paramita, or perfection, for both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Sila, or shila, is also sometimes translated as virtue or ethical conduct as well as morality. It also connotes balance and harmony.

Teachings about morality permeate Buddhism. Morality is the focus of the Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold Path.

Right Action focuses on the Buddhist Precepts. Moral teachings for ordained monks and nuns are found in the Vinaya-pitaka.

It's important to understand that the basis of Buddhist morality is not found in external authority. In other words, the practice of morality is not found in unquestioning obedience of a list of rules. Instead, the perfection of morality is the natural expression of wisdom and compassion.

Morality and You. And Everybody Else

In the West, we tend to think of morality as a personal choice to be bad or good. In the cartoon cliché, a person struggling with temptation has a devil whispering in one ear and an angel in another. Morality is seen as something between an individual and some cosmic scale weighing good and evil.

Close your eyes for a moment and contemplate the word "morality." What images appear in your head? How does the word make you feel? Maybe I'm odd, but the word for me brings up images of frowning puritans threatening to put rule-breakers into stocks.

It's not a happy word.

Sila Paramita teaches us that morality is about people living together harmoniously and compassionately. It's not about an individual and an invisible cosmic judge, but all of us together. When morality is about being considerate of one another, it's a very different thing than morality as a list of absolute moral rules.


Morality and the Path

You might ask, aren't the Precepts a list of rules? Think of the Precepts as something like training wheels. Working with them helps us become more aware of where we are "sticking." Put another way, they provide guidance for allowing the enlightened activities of wisdom and compassion to manifest in the world through us, without our getting in the way.

Mahayana scholars identified three categories of sila: Morality as restraint, morality as virtue, and morality as the selfless activity of compassion. These categories show us a progression of training, from self-concern to selfless concern.

Morality as restraint touches on renunciation. Renunciation is understood to be releasing whatever binds us to ignorance and suffering. The Pali word usually translated as "renunciation," nekkhamma, means "to go forth." So, we begin the journey by giving up behaviors that bind us, such as lying, stealing, and attachment to sensual pleasure.

Practicing morality as virtue means grounding the practice of morality in mindfulness and meditation. In this phase, the practice of morality "turns around." It ceases to feel like a restraint on one's behavior and instead comes from a genuine concern for others.

In the final phase, morality is the selfless activity of compassion, an expression of wisdom. Hakuin spoke of this when he said, "From the sea of effortlessness, let your great uncaused compassion shine forth." This is sila paramita, the perfection of morality.


In Buddhism, the teaching of karma is inseparable from the teaching of morality. To understand why this is true, it's important to understand what karma is, and is not.

Karma is not a cosmic criminal justice system that hands out rewards and punishments. There is no supernatural intelligence directing karma, sending blessings to the virtuous or calamities to evil-doers.

The Buddha considered karma to be a force or principle that follows its own natural laws (see the Five Nyiamas). Karma means "action," and in Buddhism this means volitional action, specifically.

And the most basic teaching is that actions cause effects.

What we are, and what our lives are, at any given moment is the cumulative result of many choices, many actions. This is karma. Leading a virtuous life will not protect you from earthquakes, or from catching the flu, but it does build contentment and a more satisfying life.

Another thing karma is not, is fate. In Buddhism, we are not fated to suffer X amount of misfortune because of X amount of wrongdoing. We can change; we can clean up our act, so to speak. And as we do so, karma changes as well.

One other aspect of karma is that once in motion, it tends to keep going. One effect causes other effects causes other effects, and these effects can roll on out of our sight and even beyond our lifetimes. As we pay more attention to karma, we realize that all of us on our planet are linked together in a vast nexus of cause and effect. As our concern for others grows, so does our concern for karma.

Keeping a Balance

I said earlier that the precepts are something like training wheels. I want to come back to that metaphor now, to discuss balance.

In Buddhist practice we often hear about a Middle Way, staying between extremes. This goes back to the story of the historical Buddha. In his quest for enlightenment, the young Prince Siddhartha gave up a life of indulgence and pleasure and took up a life of extreme asceticism. He fasted nearly to the point of death, for example. Eventually he realized that his path was between extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial.

By the same token, care should be taken to not become too rigidly attached to precepts. Attachment to rules can obscure the larger purpose of morality, which is benevolent care for others. Focusing only on the rules can hinder, rather than help, the development of compassion.

On the whole, Buddhism discourages the imposing of moral absolutes, and instead encourages us to simply respond with compassion to the suffering in front of us. And sometimes, that requires breaking rules. Buddhism teaches that if our actions are guided by wisdom and compassion -- with no trace of selfishness, not even the urge to do good to "feel good about myself" -- our actions will be moral.