The meaning of “Sila”

I am interested in developing sila more thoroughly. Usually, when sila is discussed in the suttas, it is defined in terms of moral precepts - not killing, not deceiving others, avoiding the ten unwholesome actions, generally being a “good person”, etc. However, I am beginning to wonder if sila has a much broader meaning than I previously considered.

For example, if one is overweight and eats a poor diet, or fails to exercise regularly and becomes physically weak, do they lack virtue? Something like this isn’t included in any list of precepts as far as I am aware, but making poor decisions in regard to one’s health can certainly be a cause for regret.

Another example would be a lay persons livelihood and wealth. If one fails to be diligent in their livelihood and doesn’t build wealth, or makes risky financial decisions that cause one to lose their savings, regret and remorse are almost certain to arise. Could being financially responsible be an aspect of one’s sila?

One can keep the five or eight precepts quite well, but still have areas of negligence and irresponsibility in their life that lead to remorse. If the goal of sila is non remorse, perhaps “being diligent in beneficial deeds” would be a better way to understand sila than just “being a moral person”.

In your opinion, how should sila be understood? I would love to hear others thoughts or discover related reading material. Many thanks.

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I think this is for a very good reason. I advise against going beyond what the Buddha taught.

Just because something causes regret doesn’t automatically mean that it is bad sila. Unless you can find something in the texts that indicates that. The fact that the purpose of sila is non-regret doesn’t mean that all regret is caused by bad sila.

Think about this passage describing stream enterers:

Ariyakantehi sīlehi samannāgato hoti akhaṇḍehi acchiddehi asabalehi akammāsehi bhujissehi viññuppasatthehi aparāmaṭṭhehi samādhisaṁvattanikehi.
And a noble disciple’s ethical conduct is loved by the noble ones, unbroken, impeccable, spotless, and unmarred, liberating, praised by sensible people, not mistaken, and leading to immersion.

AN9.27. Are you now going to change the definition of a stream enterer to match your new definition of sila?

Not all bad things are included under the precepts. Likewise, not all bad things are included under sila. They are still bad things, obviously. But the Buddha didn’t group them that way.

We shouldn’t need to have something be under the category of “sila” in order to behave properly.

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My instincts assume it means… leave it be ?

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Yes, I agree. I think ‘sila’ is about ‘non-harming’. Many suttas such as MN 61, MN 19 & SN 47.19 say the object of non-harming is both oneself & another.

AN 11.2 highlights what you said, namely, sila certainly prevents a cause for regret.

“Mendicants, an ethical person, who has fulfilled ethical conduct, need not make a wish:

Sīlavato, bhikkhave, sīlasampannassa na cetanāya karaṇīyaṁ:

‘May I have no regrets!’

‘avippaṭisāro me uppajjatū’ti.

It’s only natural that an ethical person has no regrets.

Dhammatā esā, bhikkhave, yaṁ sīlavato sīlasampannassa avippaṭisāro uppajjati.

AN 11.2

There are suttas related to eating food, use of money & acquiring wealth, such as:

  • Dhp 185 refers to moderation in eating.

  • SN 3.13 says due to moderation in eating, discomfort fades, one ages slowly, taking care of life.

  • SN 12.63 says to not eat food for fun, indulgence, adornment or decoration; but to eat only to make it through the day (“across the desert”).

Similarly, there are many suttas about livelihood & wealth, such as:

  • Dhp 155 & Dhp 156 about not acquiring sufficient wealth.
  • AN 4.62 about the happiness (well-being) related to wealth.
  • AN 8.54 about initiative, protection, good friendship & balanced finances.
  • AN 4.258 about ways to lose wealth.
  • DN 31 very detailed about ways to both acquire and destroy wealth.
  • AN 10.91 about the proper use of wealth.

In his Visuddimagga, Buddhaghosa said about etymology:

  1. (ii) IN WHAT SENSE IS IT VIRTUE? It is virtue (sìla) in the sense of composing (sìlana). What is this composing? It is either a coordinating (samádhána), meaning noninconsistency of bodily action, etc., due to virtuousness; or it is an upholding (upadhárana), meaning a state of basis (ádhára) owing to its serving as foundation for profitable states. For those who understand etymology admit only these two meanings. Others, however, comment on the meaning here in the way beginning, “The meaning of virtue (sìla) is the meaning of head (sira), the meaning of virtue is the meaning of cool (sìtala).”

Sila is the initiating dynamic which brings the sequence of profitable factors into operation (sila> samadhi> panna), requiring an effort of will (Anguttara Nikaya 11.2).

According to SN 47.16 = SA 624, the moral discipline (sila) is a foundation for practising the four stations/foundations of mindfulness (pp. 216-8). The moral discipline is about ‘right action’:
Pages 215-8 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (285.9 KB)