One of the most beautiful stories of Sayadaw U Pandita happened about twenty years ago, when Sayadawgyi, as he is affectionately and reverently known, was in his early seventies. Shortly after a three-month rains retreat in Myanmar, he strolled past where a Western nun named Ma Visadañanî was donating medicines. “You’re throwing away the Dhamma,” Sayadawgyi said.
Astonished, Ma Visadañanî said, “What?” or the equivalent.
“Aren’t you forgetting the ‘no-death’ medicine?” Sayadawgyi quipped, adding a verse in Pali. “Appamado amatam padam,” he said, quoting the Buddha. “Heedfulness is the way to the deathless.”
Whereupon Ma Visadañanî laughed like a flag waving in the breeze, realizing he’d noticed she wasn’t being mindful and he wanted to set her priorities straight.
Sayadaw U Pandita is ninety-three now, still teaching. His first visit to the West in 1984 was a watershed in our understanding of vipassana. His willingness to set nibbana as the overt goal of practice, his reliance on a rigorously structured method, and his skill at “reading” how a student’s practice was unfolding—often simply watching the person walk into the interview room, or cutting off a meticulous report mid-sentence—were salutary and alarming in equal measure. That 1984 retreat, attended by senior Western teachers, arguably raised the quality of Dhamma instruction in the West overnight.
Since that time, the “Mahasi” method of close observation that he taught (based on the teachings of Mahasi Sayadaw, one of the foremost teaching monks of Myanmar) has been practiced by hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. And Sayadawgyi is training Western teachers so that cultural sensitivity will underpin the rigors of the method. For some, Sayadawgyi’s uncompromising style remains a gold standard; for others, he appears as a blunt instrument. He was not always well-translated—for years, his “Keep going!” was rendered in English as “Try harder!” Nevertheless, he’s not afraid to goad you with traditional scolding if he thinks you’re wasting time or you’re at a stage where ardency is indicated. For better or worse, Sayadawgyi’s intensity is very frequently cited by people who have not met him. I wish his compassion were equally renowned. For he’s our grandfather, as loving as he is fierce, and one of the few living Dhamma ancestors who remain. You can trust his word, a lion’s roar that points out where you’re clinging and says, “That’s suffering! Get free!” How freaking awesome!
When we approached him this December, Sayadawgyi was busy leading a sixty-day retreat for 127 students. We asked for a teaching on impermanence or the Buddha’s final words; instead, he offered sila, ethical conduct, as the most vital and urgent topic for this last issue of Inquiring Mind. Longtime close student Andrew Scheffer said it’s Sayadawgyi’s priority these days to convey our responsibility as citizens of this world: we must understand that our collective situation merely reflects everyone’s conduct. Sayadawgyi asks us to protect our world, make it a better place for all—before it’s too late.
The Buddha saw that human beings get overwhelmed by greed, anger and delusion and cause harm to themselves and each other—becoming inhumane or subhuman, you might say. He also recognized that most human beings possess the ability to act unselfishly, with kindness and compassion, and that the human mind is able to become clear and concentrated. In addition, the Buddha uniquely saw that it’s within our human capacity to develop special knowledge through higher mental training. Out of compassion, he then devised three systematic trainings, known in the Pali language as puññas, or “meritorious deeds,” that support our full humanity, give us a clear human mind and develop special human knowledge or insight wisdom.
Practicing puñña is the foundation of an elevated, purified human life. The three types of puñña are dana (generosity), sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation)—which can be further split into concentration and insight. We all desire a high quality of life, don’t we? We don’t want to live in a degraded, subhuman way.
The first puñña is dana, generosity. Dana should be a systematic practice. Firstly, dana must be offered without expectation of return—and without attachment to what’s given. This frees us from greedy self-interest. If, moreover, we give with lovingkindness, dana frees the mind from anger. When dana is also imbued with compassion, it counteracts cruelty.
In general the more we practice dana, the less we will be inclined to harmful deeds motivated by uncontrolled greed, anger and cruelty. A person who gives systematically in this pure way will become free of the most extreme forms of greed, anger and delusion. She or he will find it easy to refrain from killing, stealing and other strongly harmful behaviors. Thus, dana is a foundation for morality.
However, dana alone cannot purify all of our physical, verbal and mental actions. Therefore, the Buddha offers a second meritorious deed or puñña: sila, or compassionate morality. Sila is also a systematic training, generally expressed as keeping at least five precepts. These five are: not killing, not stealing, not harming others sexually (or allowing ourselves to be sexually harmed), not telling lies and speaking harshly, and finally, not succumbing to intoxicants and addictions.
Sila means taming our physical and verbal behavior. As human beings we are social animals, living with others on this planet. Obviously, most sentient beings don’t want to be harmed. Each human being must control her or his own actions and speech; no one else can do that for us. We each should contemplate our actions as follows: “If that were done to me, I’d find it unbearable. The other person will feel the same way. So I won’t do it.” We may need courage to restrain ourselves if the impulse toward harm is strong.
It may sound odd to some Western ears, but in Buddhist culture, a sense of moral shame and moral fear is considered healthy and appropriate. When we recognize greed, anger or delusion in our mind, moral fear makes us take precautions to avoid giving in. Moral shame, on the other hand, is retrospective. If we realize we’ve done harm and feel appropriately badly about it, this moral shame will induce us to behave differently the next time. A person with moral shame and moral fear does his or her best to maintain sila, keep the precepts.
Quite frankly, people who lack basic morality are disgusting! No matter how expensive their jewelry or clothing may be, they’re unattractive and offensive. It’s as if they smell bad. In contrast, sila is like a fragrance or an ornament. We have a saying, “Sila makes the wearer beautiful.” Sila also prevents us from falling into lower realms of existence, whereas people who do not sustain basic morality are bound for states of misery, devoid of happiness. We can think of harmful deeds as poisonous food that will lead to deadly consequences. Therefore sila is good to rely on throughout our life.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, a divine being, a deva, asked him a question in the form of a riddle: “What is it that is good up until old age?”
And the Buddha replied, “Sila.”
Indeed, sila is good from when we are born until the very moment we die. It is one of the most important tasks a human being can undertake. Sila is not only needed by Buddhists. It is needed by the whole world. Sila puñña makes a person a true human being.
Without sila as a base, it isn’t easy to concentrate the mind and develop higher knowledge. As we practice controlling our actions, we will feel how dangerous and painful the tendencies of greed, anger and delusion are. Dana weakens these tendencies, as we have seen above. But in order to thoroughly clean and uplift our minds, the Buddha offers a third kind of meritorious practice. This is bhavana, or mental development. If we undertake training in concentration, we will find our mind becoming clean and clear. One who develops concentration is said to have “a clear human mentality.” From the basis of concentration, we can go on to develop wisdom, special human knowledge.
Dana is the foundation for sila. Sila is like a mouth for us to take in the tasty, nourishing food of concentration and wisdom. If our mouth is injured or full of canker sores it will be difficult to eat and drink; if we don’t have a mouth at all, it will be impossible. But of the three puññas, surely the most important one is sila—for sila protects our individual world as well as the larger world around us.
It is worthwhile to contemplate all the harm human beings inflict. Imagine if only half the people in the world stopped killing, stealing and breaking the other precepts. How peaceful it would be! If we cherish the purity of avoiding misdeeds, and value the results that come from keeping sila, surely we will want to make a personal effort. Sila has the four characteristics of an important task. It must be done; it can’t be left undone. It must be done by oneself, not left to others. It must be done at the right time and regularly. And it must bring lots of benefit.
May all human beings keep at least five precepts purely!
Teaching obtained and given context by Andrew Scheffer, translated by Ma Vajirañanî, transcribed and edited by Ma Vimalañanî and Kate Wheeler. Biographical anecdote from U Pandita: One Life’s Journey by U Thanmyay Kyaw, lightly adapted by Kate Wheeler.