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Three Fundamental Concepts:
What is Sila?

By U Nu

President, Burma Pitaka Association, 1985

          In His exhortation to the first group of sixty monks, who were ready to set out on the Buddha's mission to disseminate the dhamma, the Buddha said thus: "Monks! Teach the dhamma, the beginning, the middle, the end of which are replete with goodness".

          What did the Buddha mean by the beginning, the middle, the end, which are replete with goodness?

          The beginning is sila.

          The middle is samadhi.

          The end is panna

          Sila, samadhi, panna form the main bases of the Buddha's discourses. Therefore, this foreword will deal with sila, samadhi, panna.

          What is sila ?

          Sila is good practice. A good practice is a practice that keeps one well and benefits one.

         How does it keep one well?

          Sila keeps one from killing, stealing, committing adultery, taking intoxicants. In this way, it keeps one from doing evil deeds.

          Sila keeps one from telling lies, setting one against the other, using rough and abusive words, indulging in unbeneficial talk. In this way, sila keeps one from saying evil words.

          How does it benefit one?

          There are four types of Kusala (good) Kamma. They are as follows:

         1. Kusala Kamma leading to rebirth in human and deva bhumis.

         2. Kusala Kamma leading to rebirth in rupa brahma (Brahmas with mind and body) bhumis.

         3. Kusala Kamma leading to rebirth in arupa brahma (Brahmas with mind only) bhumis.

         4. Kusala Kamma leading to the achievement of maggas, that can put an end to endless rebirths, with their concomitants, such as old age, disease, death, separation etc.

          Anyone, who wishes to acquire any of these four types of Kusala Kammas, must, first of all, have sila.

          A question can be raised at this stage. Is it not possible for one to make dana, which is also a Kusala Kamma, without taking sila?

          Of course, dana can be made without taking sila. However, if sila is taken before dana, the quality of dana becomes very much improved, since sila can keep one from evil deeds and evil words. Dana without sila will be an ordinary dana. Dana with sila will become a dana, which has the quality of dakkhinavisuddhi (purity of charity). In the matter of receiving benefits, the latter will earn more.

          That is the reason why the monks ask the donors to take sila, before the latter offer their gifts to the former.

          Therefore, if someone asks "Why is sila so called?", one can answer thus, without fear of contradiction. Sila is so called because it keeps one from bodily and verbal evils. It is also so called because it helps one in his efforts to gain all or any of the four Kusala Kammas.

          Two types of sila

          There are two types of sila. One is for the monks and the other is for laymen.

          Sila for monks

          A monk, who keeps the following four kinds of sila, is called a monk with sila.

1. Patimokkha samvara sila,

2. Ajiva parisuddhi sila,

3. Indriya samvara sila,

4. Paccaya sannissita sila.

          1. Patimokkha samvara sila

          Self control to refrain from breaking any of thevinaya rules (rules for the monks), prescribed by the Buddha, is called Patimokkha samvara sila.

          2. Ajiva parisuddhi sila

          Self control to refrain from adopting the wrong mode of gaining a living is called ajiva parisuddhi sila.

          3. Indriya samvara sila

          Self control to restrain or subjugate the senses arising in the sense-organs, namely, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind is called indriya samvara sila.

          4.Paccaya sannissita sila

          Self control to have appropriate contemplations, whenever any of the four necessaries of the monk's daily life is used or taken, is called paccaya sannissita sila. Clothing, alms-food, dwelling place, medicine are four necessaries. For example, when the monk puts on his robes, he must remember that he puts it on, not to adorn himself and that he does so to protect himself against heat and cold, and also to cover up his private parts.

          Sila for laymen

          A layman, who keeps panca sila or Ajivatthamaka sila, is said to be a person with sila.

          Five vows for panca si/a

1. I vow to refrain from killing.

2. I vow to refrain from stealing.

3. I vow to refrain from committing adultery.

4. I vow to refrain from telling lies.

5. I vow to refrain from taking intoxicants.

          Eight vows for ajivatthamaka sila

1. I vow to refrain from killing.

2. I vow to refrain from stealing.

3. 1 vow to refrain from using improper means to satisfy my sensual desires. (Committing adultery and taking intoxicants are improper means.)

4. 1 vow to refrain from telling lies.

5. I vow to refrain from setting one other.

6. I vow to refrain from using rough words.

7. I vow to refrain from indulging in talks.

8. I vow to refrain from earning livelihood.


         Panca sila means sila, which requires one to take five vows.

         Ajivatthamaka sila means sila, the eighth vow of which requires one to refrain from earning a wrongful livelihood.

         These two silas are minimum silas for a Buddhist. Therefore they are called nicca silas. Nicca means always. A Buddhist must keep either of the two silas always.

          Atthanga uposatha sila

         When other silas are mentioned, they are simply mentioned as Panca sila, Ajivatthamaka sila, Navanga (nine vows) sila, Dasa (ten vows) sila. When, however, Atthanga sila is mentioned, it is mentioned as Atthanga Uposatha Sila. Why? It has three different meanings.

          They are as follows:

1. Having eight vows,

2. Sila that should be kept,

3. The days, on which atthanga sila should be kept.

          Therefore Atthanga Uposatha Sila means eight vows of sila, which should be kept on the days which are fixed for keeping that sila.

          Three ways

          According toCatumaharaja Sutta, Devaduta Vagga, Tika Nipata, Anguttara Nikaya, there are three ways of fixing days for keeping Atthanaga Uposatha Sila. They are as follows:

1. Pakati. It means the ordinary way for fixing uposatha days.

2. Patijagara. It means the way for awakening one frequently from his unbeneficial pursuits, by keeping sila on the days preceding and following the uposatha day.

3. Patihariya. It means the extraordinary way for fixing the uposatha days.

          For lack of space, only the first way, namely, Pakati, will be explained.

          Pakati way

          In fixing the days, the lunar month is used. A lunar month has two parts, namely, waxing (of the moon) part and the waning (of the moon) part. According to the pakati way, three days in each part, namely, the eighth, the fourteenth, or the fifteenth, are fixed for keeping atthanaga uposatha sila. Therefore there are six pakati uposatha days in a month for keeping atthanaga sila. The Commentary includes also the fifth day of each part. Therefore according to it, there are eight pakati uposatha days.

          In Burma, 8th waxing, full moon, 8th waning, full waning days are generally fixed for keeping uposatha sila.

          Three aims

          Atthanaga uposatha sila has three aims. They are as follows:

1. To give one extraordinary benefits in the form of good as well as high rebirths.

2. To awaken one from his unbeneficial pursuits.

3. To reduce one's physical and mental tensions.

          Advantages of sila

          In Digha Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya and Vinaya, the Buddha taught that there are five advantages of sila. They are as follows:

1. One with sila never loses sight of the good consequences of keeping sila, and the evil consequences of violating it. Because of this vigilance, his wealth and influence will increase.

2. The good reputation of one with sila spreads far and wide.

3. One with sila can meet anybody, can attend any congregation, with clear conscience and dauntlessness.

4. On the threshold of death, the memory of akusala kammas makes one without sila very wretched. However, the memory of kusala kammas makes one with sila free from wretchedness. Just as the prospects of receiving a golden cup, after one throws away his old rotten earthenware, make him feel elated, the prospects of receiving a new good rebirth, after the old, rotten body is given up, make one with sila feel elated.

5. On his death, one with sila gets a good rebirth, either as a human being or as a deva.

          Disadvantages of lack of sila

1. Good persons and good devas feel extremely disgusted with one, who has no sila, or who has broken his sila.

2. His friends will break off their dealings with him.

3. He feels miserable on account of his disrepute as a man without sila.

4. He feels unhappy when persons with sila are praised.

5. Because of absence of sila, he looks as dismal as a piece of clothing made of coarse hemp.

6. Some persons, who follow his example, will be in trouble for a long time. They will feel miserable as if they are wearing the clothing made of coarse hemp.

7. Kusala Kamma from charity to persons without sila is very meagre. It is like the cost of the clothing made of coarse hemp.

8. Just as a huge pit, which is being filled with night-soil for a great number of years, will be found very difficult to clean, a person without sila will be found very difficult to rehabilitate.

9. He will be as useless as a piece of bamboo which is used in handling the corpse during cremation.

10. Because of his lack of sila, the thought that people around him will be plotting against him will haunt him. This thought will keep him in a perpetual state of panic.

11. He will be as useless as a dead person.

12. He cannot hope to get jhanas, maggas and phalas.

13. Just as the young son of a beggar will not aspire to become a king, a person without sila will not have any desire to practise samatha and vipassana bhavanas , in order to acquire jhanas, maggas and phalas.

Three Fundamental Concepts: (2) What is Samadhi?


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