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Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pāli) in Buddhism is one of three sections of the Noble Eightfold Path, and is a code of conduct that embraces a commitment to harmony and self-restraint with the principle motivation being non-violence, or freedom from causing harm. It has been variously described as virtue,1 right conduct,2 morality,3 moral discipline4 and precept.
Sīla is an internal, aware, and intentional ethical behavior, according to one's commitment to the path of liberation. The Sanskrit and Pali word sīla is an ethical compass within self and relationships, rather than what is associated with the English word "morality" (i.e., obedience, a sense of obligation, and external constraint - all of which are quite foreign to the concept of sīla as taught by Gautama the Buddha since 588BC). In fact, the commentaries explain the word sīla by another word, samadhana, meaning "harmony" or "coordination." 5
Sīla is one of the three practices foundational to Buddhism and the non-sectarian Vipassana movement — sīla, samādhi, and paññā as well as the Theravadin foundations of sīla, dana, and bhavana. It is also the second pāramitā.6 Though some popular conceptions of these ethics carry negative connotations of severe discipline and abstinence, sīla is more than just avoiding the unwholesome.
Sīla is also wholehearted commitment to what is wholesome. Two aspects of sīla are essential to the training: right "performance" (caritta), and right "avoidance" (varitta). Honoring the precepts of sīla is considered a "great gift" (mahadana) to others, because it creates an atmosphere of trust, respect, and security. It means we pose no threat to another person's life, property, family, rights, or well-being.7
Non-harming, Pāli cognate avihiṃsā, is not a technical term in the Buddhist tradition, rather a permeating foundation for the code of conduct known as sīla. Non-harming manifests perspectives both absolute and relative, particularly in the ever-increasingly complex ethics of global culture. For example, though eating meat/animal products is technically different than killing for the meat, if one knows that such foods comes from inhumane industrialized animal husbandry then one may understand one's sīla to present new ethical questions.8
There are several levels of sīla, which correspond to the basic morality of five precepts, the basic morality with asceticism of eight precepts, novice ordination's ten precepts and full ordination's vinaya or prātimokṣa. Laypeople generally undertake to live by the five precepts which are common to all Buddhist schools. If they wish, they can choose to undertake the eight precepts, which have some additional precepts of basic asceticism.
The five precepts are not given in the form of commands, but are training guidelines to help one live a life in which one is happy, without worries, and able to meditate well. Breaking one's sīla as pertains to sexual conduct introduces harmfulness towards one's practice or the practice of another person if it involves uncommitted relationship.9 They are:10
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing ;
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given;
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from sensual misconduct;
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech; and
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from liquors, wines, and other intoxicants, which are the basis for heedlessness.
In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of giving (dāna) and ethical conduct will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower heavens is likely,11 even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting one's aims to this level of attainment, although by itself it does not gain one nirvāna or end suffering.9
During special occasions, monastic retreats for lay followers, and such, a more stringent set of precepts is undertaken, usually for 24 hours, until dawn the following day. The eight precepts encourage further discipline and are modeled on the monastic code. Note that in the eight precepts, the third precept on sexual misconduct is made more strict and becomes a precept of celibacy.
The three additional rules of the Eight Precepts are:10
- “I accept the training rule to abstain from food at improper times.” (e.g. no solid foods after noon, and not until dawn the following day)
- “I accept the training rule (a) to abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and shows, and (b) from the use of jewelry, cosmetics, and beauty lotions.”
- “I accept the training rule to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.”
Vinaya is the specific moral code for nuns and monks . It includes the prātimokṣa, a set of rules (227 for monks in the Theravādin recension). The precise content of the scriptures on vinaya (vinayapiṭaka) differ slightly according to different schools, and different schools or subschools set different standards for the degree of adherence to the vinaya.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there is also a distinctive vinaya and ethics for bodhisattvas contained within the Mahāyāna Brahmajala Sutra (not to be confused with the Pāli text of that name). These exist above and beyond the existing monastic code, or lay follower precepts.12 Here the eating of meat, for example, is frowned upon and vegetarianism is actively encouraged (See: vegetarianism in Buddhism). These precepts, have no parallel in Theravāda Buddhism.
- Gethin (1998), p. 170; Harvey (2007), p. 199; Ñāṇamoli (1999), pp. 3 passim; Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "sīla"; Thanissaro (1999); and, Warder (2004), p. 100.
- Gethin (1998), p. 170.
- Gombrich (2002), p. 89; Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "sīla"; and Saddhatissa (1987), pp. 54, 56.
- Bodhi (2005), p. 153.
- The Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikku Bodhi, Buddist Publication Society, Sri Lanka 1994 Online version available 
- Horner, I.B. (trans.) (1975; reprinted 2000). The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part III): 'Chronicle of Buddhas' (Buddhavamsa) and 'Basket of Conduct' (Cariyapitaka). Oxford: Pali Text Society. ISBN 0-86013-072-X
- Living This Life Fully: Teachings of Anagarika Munindra, by Mirka Knaster Ph.D., Shambhala Publications, USA, 2010. Pg. 67
- In Defense of Animals, The Second Wave by Peter Singer. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005. USA
- Stewart McFarlane in Peter Harvey, ed., Buddhism. Continuum, 2001, pages 195-196.
- "Bodhi Monastery: the Five Precepts". Retrieved 2011-03-14.
- Maha-parinibbana Sutta, section 24 (Chinese parallel found in the 遊行經 of Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 1, No. 1 長阿含經, CBETA
- Bodiford, William M. (2008). Soto Zen in Medieval Japan (Studies in East Asian Buddhism). University of Hawaii Press. pp. 22–36. ISBN 0-8248-3303-1.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005). In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-491-1.
- Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1.
- Gombrich, Richard (2002). Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07585-8.
- Harvey, Peter (1990). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University. ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
- Knaster, Mirka, Ph.D. (2010). Living this Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 978-1-59030-674-1
- Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
- Nyanatiloka Mahathera (1988). Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. ISBN 955-24-0019-8. Retrieved 2008-02-17 from "BuddhaSasana" at http://www.budsas.org/ebud/bud-dict/dic_idx.htm.
- Saddhatissa, Hammalawa (1987). Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvāna. London: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-53-3.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1999). The Ten Perfections: A Study Guide. Retrieved 2008-02-17 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/perfections.html.
- Warder, A.K. (2004). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1741-9.
- Sila as explained in the Buddhist Encyclopedia.
- Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh on Sila The Third Precept: Sexual Responsibility For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts (1993) by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright 1993.