2. Morality, The First and Last Training

1. Introduction to Part I   |  3. Concentration, The Second Training

The original Pali word for this training is sila, which I am translating as “morality”. People translate it in various ways. Regardless of the word we choose, it is likely to resonate for people both positively and negatively. If the word “morality” bothers you due to the associations it suggests, look at the assumptions, agendas, and practices of this training and come up with your own word for it. I don’t think that it is so important what we call it. I do, however, think that we should give careful attention to trying to live it.

From my perspective, training in morality has as its domain all the physical, verbal, and mental behaviors belonging to every single aspect of life that is not explicitly meditative. When we are trying to live a good life in the conventional sense, we are working on training in morality. When we are trying to work on improving our physical, emotional, and mental health, we are training in morality. When we philosophize, we are training in morality. When we exercise, we are training in morality. When we are taking care of others or ourselves, we are training in morality. When we try to guard the environment by not misusing or wasting resources, reform corrupt governments, or make this world a better place for everyone, we are training in morality. When we commit to a non-harming and benevolent livelihood, build a healthy marriage, raise healthy children, or shave our heads and move to a remote place to dedicate ourselves to intensive spiritual practice, we are training in morality. Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others and ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training.

I should add a qualifier here, relating to what a life well-lived might mean. For some, that is a life of riches, decadence, and hedonism. That is not what I am talking about. It is not that wealth is inherently bad, though there are strong moral arguments to be made for a vastly more equitable distribution of wealth. It is not that all decadence is inherently bad, and I would hate to make someone feel terrible for having a second dessert occasionally, but clearly there is a great degree of spending on luxury that is contributing to the destruction of the planet and behavior that simply leads to more misery for all concerned in the name of “fun”. It is not that we shouldn’t enjoy our lives, as an enjoyable life is a much easier one to accept, but clearly plenty of the pathways people go down seeking enjoyment do predictably lead to more suffering than they produce pleasure or fulfillment. So, with those qualifiers in mind, ponder what a life well-lived would mean and aspire to that.

The third training, called wisdom, as understood within the Theravada framework, has limits, in that you can only take it so far, and it can be fully mastered. Interestingly, this cannot be said of the first two trainings of morality and concentration. There is no limit to the degree of skill that can be brought to how we conduct ourselves in the world. There are so many ways we can develop, and no obvious ways to define what one hundred percent mastery of even one of these might be. Thus, morality is also the last training in the sense of being the training we need to cultivate throughout our lives. We may be able to attain to extraordinary states of consciousness and understand many aspects of the actual nature of sensate reality, but what people see and what is causal are the ways that these abilities and understandings translate into how we live in the world. Some folks who read MCTB1, for reasons I am unsure of, came away with the mistaken impression that I somehow consider morality as unimportant. Let me now be completely clear on this: morality cultivated throughout our entire lives is critical for everyone, and particularly for those who want to train in concentration and wisdom!

There are basic premises that are extremely helpful when undertaking training in morality. It is very helpful to accept, for example, that a basic moral code, that is, a universal and non-harming ethic, is helpful for getting along in this world, and thus that there is practical, real-world benefit to be derived from training in morality.

It is also helpful to accept in an easygoing and non-dogmatic way, that the more good we do in the world, the more good there will appear in that world both for us and for others, and thus the more good things will happen to us and all others. It is also worth assuming the corollary of this, which is that the more we do harmful actions in the world, the more harm we experience and therefore the more that miserable circumstances arise.

These premises are not unique to Buddhism, nor are they in any way extraordinary, and that brings me to an important point about the spiritual traditions in general: most religions have points that are generically useful that they have attempted to appropriate as exclusively theirs, such that extremist followers of that faith may come to believe that their tradition’s teaching on morality is the only teaching on morality. The corollary of this fallacy is that people not of their own religion are considered unlikely or incapable of being truly moral, when, in fact, societies and traditions throughout the ages and around the world have advocated for a universal, non-harming ethic.

It is worth realizing that defining “negative” and “positive” action is often very much a question of perspective. In the face of this, some will retreat into the semi-dysfunctional and often self-serving position of moral relativism, in which we decide that morality is totally subjective or that morality is arbitrary and thus futile or unnecessary to bother with. Paradigms that are less intellectual and more grounded in common sense can help us to avoid falling into the paralyzing and extremely dangerous trap of imagining that it is futile to train in morality, however seemingly relative and arbitrary. It is better to try to do our best and fail than not to try at all.

Thus, the Buddha taught that what we think, say, and do has consequences for our subsequent moment-to-moment experience. When undertaking training in morality, we are proceeding from the premise that we can, if we choose, control what we think, say, and do, thus creating consequences that are pleasant and beneficial, both in terms of our experience and that of others. Rather than accepting our current level of intellectual, emotional, and psychological development as being beyond our power to change, we consciously and explicitly adopt the empowering view that we can work with these aspects of our lives and change them for the better. We assume that we do have the capacity to change our world and our attitudes towards our world. We take responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

Further, as a part of our empowerment, we assume that the more we bring our resources and abilities to this training, the likelier we are to succeed. We have a body, we have reason, we have our intuition, we have our heart, and we can learn and remember. We have a community of others who have wisdom to share, we have books and other media that contain advice for living a good life, and we have our friends and family. We can draw on all these and more to try to live a good life, a life in which our thoughts, words, and deeds reflect as closely as possible the standards we have consciously adopted and defined for ourselves. The more consciously engaged we are with our task, the more we are likely to be successful.

Crucial to the control of what happens in our lives is our intention. Thus, training in morality places much emphasis on intention, with the basic assumption being that the more our intentions are kind and compassionate, the more we are likely to be able to manifest kind and compassionate thoughts, words, and deeds.

Further, it is helpful to understand that training in morality requires us to pay attention to what is happening in our lives. When we are not paying attention to what we are thinking, saying, and doing, we will not easily be able to craft these in a way that fits with the assumptions of this training. If we are not paying attention to the consequences of our thoughts, words, and deeds, both in the short and the long terms, we are unlikely to be able to gain enough experience to be able to successfully carry out our training in morality.

It is also helpful to understand that training in morality will help us when we get to formal meditation practices (the next two trainings in concentration and wisdom), providing a foundation of good mental and physical habits that can support those practices, as well as helping to avoid the mental and physical irritation that can result from a lack of a solid moral foundation. Thus, even if for some crazy reason, we have little interest in being moral because of the benefits it brings, if we are interested in obtaining the results of the other two trainings, we must also engage in training in morality.

These key points about training in morality naturally lead to the specific agendas we have for what happens when undertaking training in morality. We consciously aspire to have the actions of our body, speech, and mind fit with the premises or prerequisites of this training. In short, we have standards for our mental, emotional, and physical lives and we try our best to live up to those standards. When we are training in morality, we consciously cultivate actions, words, and thoughts that we deem to be non-harming, and if possible, kind and compassionate. By “kind”, I mean that we work to promote the happiness and welfare of others and ourselves. By “compassionate”, I mean that we work to understand and relieve the suffering, problems, or unhappiness of others and ourselves. Thus, our agenda is for our intentions to be kind and compassionate, for our minds to be aware of what we are thinking, saying, and doing, and for our experience to inform us how best to craft our life to reflect our wisely informed good intentions.

Training in morality tends to be discussed in terms of what we should and shouldn’t do. The standard Buddhist short list of the five actions that practitioners should refrain from doing are referred to as the five precepts: killing, stealing, lying, taking intoxicants that lead to heedlessness, and sexual misconduct, which includes such actions as cheating on a partner or using sexuality in a harmful way (Sutta Nipata [SN] 2.14). These are not unique to Buddhism, and seem to be part of the basic set of standards for behavior that societies and cultures throughout the ages have found to be helpful and practical. The standard list of things that we should try to do includes being kind, compassionate, and appreciative of the successes of others.

Additionally, in the Karaniya Metta Sutta (SN 1.8), we find the following advice: “Those who are skilled in good and wish to attain the state of peace should be able, upright, perfectly upright, compliant, gentle, and humble. Contented, easily supported, of simple livelihood, with few duties, controlled in senses, discreet, not impudent, they should not be carried away by the emotions of the majority. They should not commit any slight wrong such that the wise ones might censure them.” The rest of the sutta is also very worthy of reading and practicing.

Wrestling with the question of how we can meet these standards and yet honor where we are and what is going on around us is the training in morality. We will make all kinds of mistakes that can be very educational when trying to work on this first training; if you mess up, remember to be gentle with yourself!

There are many great techniques for cultivating a more decent way of being in the world, but there are no magic formulas. You must figure out how to be kind to yourself and all beings in each moment. Since training in morality considers all the ordinary ways in which we try to live a beneficial and useful life, it is so vast a subject that I couldn’t possibly give anything resembling a comprehensive treatment of it here. 

Some have criticized the first edition of this book for not going deeply enough into the specifics of morality. It is a fair criticism, but I think that it has already been done well in so many other places, such that if you wish to explore the basics of training in morality as approached in the context of Buddhist traditions, I suggest that you check out some of the following works and look around for others that inspire you to take care of yourself and the world around you: For a Future to be Possible, by Thich Nhat Hanh; A Heart as Wide as the World and Loving­kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, both by Sharon Salzberg; Light on Enlightenment, by Christopher Titmuss; and A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield.

There are excellent resources available online and in books; those of you who want to get deeper into Buddhist ethics might want to explore the morality practices of both the Theravada and the Mahayana trainings. The Mahayana has teaching systems of the Mind Training or Lojong tradition, which offer very refined practices for developing exceptional kindness and consideration. Those with a taste for more controversial aspects of the dharma might look towards John Stevens’ Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex. I personally also look to the work of Dan Savage for many relative aspects of navigating modern adult lay life.

Training in morality at its best is grounded in a theoretical or direct appreciation of one more vital recognition, that of interdependence. Interdependence at this level means an appreciation of the fact that we are all in this together and that we all share the wish to be happy and avoid misery. When we take into consideration our own needs and the needs of those around us, we are more likely to be naturally kind and considerate of others and ourselves. Thus, we try to make it a habit to consider the welfare, feelings, and perspectives of those around us. The obvious potential trap here is to simultaneously fail to consider our own needs. Work on balancing both in a way that is sustainable and healthy.

There are countless other pitfalls we can run into when training in morality, as mastering our behavior of body, speech, and mind is not easy, especially if we were not raised with particularly helpful role models. I will spend a lot of time in Part Two detailing some of the more common side effects and shadow sides of training in morality, but please understand it is a vast subject.

One pitfall that must be addressed here, however, since it is so common, is guilt. We in the West have grown up in a relatively privileged culture in which we can be extremely hard on ourselves, causing ourselves staggering amounts of pain to little good effect. If we can learn to substitute wise remorse, which simply says, “Well, that didn’t work, and that is unfortunate. I will try my best to figure out why and hopefully do something better next time,” we will be much better able to train successfully in living a good and useful life.

Some people unfortunately seem to think that the primary message of training in morality is that they should continuously cultivate the feeling that they have taken up a heavy yoke of responsibility and self-oppression. In fact, some people seem to revel in that unfortunate feeling. Those more fortunate will think, “It is so much fun to try to live a good, healthy, and useful life! What a joy it is to find creative ways to do this!” There are few things more helpful on the spiritual path and for life in general than a positive attitude. Thus, the related and all too common pitfall is that people stop having fun, stop having a sense of humor (a definite red flag of something gone awry if you ask me) and stop trying to be successful in worldly terms. There is absolutely no reason for this.

If you can have fun in healthy ways, have fun! It’s not just for breakfast anymore. Also, success is highly recommended for obvious reasons. Pick a flexible vision of success in the ordinary sense for yourself and go for it! Play to win. This is your life, so make it a great one. There is no reason not to try, as long as you can do so in a kind and compassionate way. The basic spirit is that these trainings are fun, a magnificent adventure in learning and growing, a remarkable opportunity to have many fascinating and transformative experiences, a wonderful experiment in what is possible in this life: these attitudes make a huge difference in all the trainings we will discuss here.

One more great thing about training in morality is that it is indispensable for the next training: concentration. So, here’s a tip: if you are finding it hard to concentrate because your mind is filled with guilt, judgment, hatred, resentment, envy, or some other harmful or difficult thought pattern, work on the first training. It will be time well spent. Further, if and when you start doing more intensive training, you will very quickly realize that whatever good mental and psychological habits you have will be a great support, and whatever unskillful mental habits you bring will definitely slow you down or even stop you. Do spend your non-retreat time cultivating a healthy mind, a healthy body, and a skillful and mature set of coping mechanisms.

I was on a retreat in 2003 with a mighty meditation master named Sayadaw U Pandita Jr., so named to differentiate him from the late meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita, who was a senior monk and one of Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw’s direct successors, and author of such classic books as In This Very Life, and On the Path to Freedom (both of which I recommend). The former gave a long talk on the Pali word danta, meaning “tamed” or “restrained”. He explained it as carrying the qualities of being poised, dignified, and stable. “Restrained” means refraining from ill-conceived or harmful (to oneself and others) actions of body, speech, and mind. Practicing with a sense of ourselves as being dignified, mature, capable, balanced, poised, steady, and able to be comfortable in our own skin while doing simple things like sitting and walking: this way of working and seeing yourself is of great benefit all around.

So, we now have a good, and quite large list of things to work on, and so begins the list of the axes of development. I used to play a game called Dungeons and Dragons back in the day (geek much?), and it was and still is a fantasy role-playing game in which we take on the role of a character who has specific attributes. In the old version of the game that I played, player characters would have various degrees of strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma, with standard humans having values for each of those ranging from three to eighteen, with three being the lowest possible level and eighteen being as high as humans could normally achieve. For instance, were I to have a character with the following attributes: strength 13, intelligence 18, wisdom 9, dexterity 17, constitution 11, and charisma 4, I would be very smart, not very wise, quite dexterous, extremely uncharismatic, and average in other factors.

Just because a character had developed one of these qualities didn’t mean the others were well developed. In D&D, these qualities were generally fixed entities unless something unusual happened. However, in the game we are playing in the real world, we assume that the various qualities we wish to develop are not fixed qualities that we can’t improve on, but instead can definitely be cultivated and improved upon, perhaps beyond what we ever imagined.

Thus, were we to draw up a character sheet for our progress in the three trainings in their various complicated aspects and track them over time, we might notice that various abilities improved with time in some generally upward trend as we gave them attention, realizing that the inevitable declines and setbacks that come with time may happen as well. So, let’s say we wanted to create the part of our own character sheet that dealt with some very simplified axes of development of the vast training of morality, we might come up with something that looks like this:

Kindness toward ourselves

Kindness toward others, both humans and non-humans

Ability to set and respect reasonable boundaries

Written communication ability

Spoken communication ability

Ability to skillfully support ourselves

Ability to skillfully support others







Dedication to service

Ability to pace ourselves to work up to our potential without burning out

Support of physical health (which we might break down further into diet, exercise, sleep, etc.)

Academic development

Intellectual understanding of models of healthy human development

Emotional maturity

Development of ethics

Sense of humor

Intellectual curiosity/enjoyment of learning

Common sense

Skillful relationships with people

Skillful relationships to mind-altering substances

Skillful relationship to power

Skillful relationship to sexuality

Skillful relationship to money and possessions

Skillful relationship to politics

Skillful relationship to our spiritual achievements and less developed areas


This list I have come up with is very arbitrary and woefully incomplete, and is meant to serve as a general example of a concept, not a definitive guide, and I would encourage you to take time to consider what your own list would look like and how you have done over the years, as well as what you aspire to in the future, since explicit goals and frameworks help galvanize and direct energy for progress.

A point that will be repeated in this book is that success in one of these areas doesn’t guarantee success in the others, and what one person considers success, someone else might not. For example, an aid worker in some war-torn refugee camp and a politics-renouncing solitary hermit might hold different opinions on how best to use their time to help save all beings. This is an essential concept when it comes to all these trainings and axes of development that is often not well understood; just because you may be strong in one developmental skillset doesn’t necessarily translate into being strong in the others. Just because you have developed one to a degree and in a way that suits your ideals doesn’t mean anyone else will hold that view. Too often, models of spirituality assume that just because you have one practice or skill down that you will necessarily have some others, what I call the “package models”. While there are some examples of people who do get packages of benefits that arrive together, there are just as many exceptions to those rules.

While learning specific things can help us learn related things more easily, such as people who play the violin well might be able to more quickly pick up guitar or cello, plenty of skill sets don’t translate to other areas of our life. This applies not only to you but also to your dharma companions, teachers, etc. The most common example of relevance is that just because someone may speak well, look good, be well-educated, be a dharma scholar, or even have strong meditative abilities, doesn’t mean they will necessarily have such things as good interpersonal and communication skills, or skillful relationships with power, money, or sex. I talk about this more later. In the meantime, it is time to move on to a discussion of the second training, concentration.

1. Introduction to Part I   |  3. Concentration, The Second Training