Today – and for the next four entries – I am continuing my plan to go through the Buddhist Parami, often translated as the Six Perfections, as favoured in the Mahayana scriptures. I will consider the larger list of ten parami – or paramita – at a later time. I began, in my last entry, contemplating generosity. Next in line (and the order is significant) comes wholesome action, sometimes translated as ‘right action’ or ‘morality’. I also favour the translation ‘wholesome relationship’ given by one of my teachers, Tarchin Hearn. After wholesome action (Sila in Sanskrit), comes patience, energy/effort, concentration and, finally, wisdom.
My luck continues and I again find myself on my own, this time on a long, white sandy beach, stretching into the distance in both directions. The sun is shining but not too hot. The wind is deliciously cooling and the surf is quite high today – which may be why there don’t seem to be many people on this renowned Gold Coast beach on the Australian East Coast. Sure enough, there are high rise buildings but they’re small in the distance. Just to the right of me are the surf flags, marking the area watched by the busy little group of surf guards, dressed in their vibrant red shorts and yellow tops. Is this dedicated vigilance and energetic training ‘wholesome action’?
I compare in my mind the ebb and flow of the well-motivated activity below me with the memory of the procession of depressed teenagers who passed in alarming numbers through the rural community mental health clinic I worked at until recently. Suicide was an ever present threat, amongst both the youth and more mature adults living on the other side of Australia. This was another beautiful seaside community but nature’s beauty was often ignored, with all attention focussed instead on the self and its woes. As a counsellor, I frequently found myself looking for ways to seduce those suffering severe depression away from their contemplations of suicide, self harm and self hate. Even the more moderate expressions of depressed mood often made wholesome action and relationship difficult to achieve.
Sila – right action – is not only about resisting killing or harming any being, it is also about supporting life and a wholesome relationship with oneself and all beings. It seems to me that helping others – like the young surf lifesaving guards below me – and the parents playing with their children on the shoreline – is a great antidote to the isolating prison of depression and the harmful actions that can be prompted by this sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I have often found that walking, swimming and surfing are also effective in lifting depressed moods and likely to encourage more wholesome relating.
Activity moves the energy!
Inspired by the wide open space and the beauty of the ocean, I walk to the shoreline and spend the next twenty minutes moving through the ‘Eight Precious Movements’, belonging to the Chi Kung family of breathing, stretching movements. I try to spend around an hour most days doing Tai Chi and a series of similar movements that I have been fortunate to learn. This, too, I consider an example of sila: wholesome action that supports life.
When I had finished, I walked up the steps to a viewing platform overlooking the beach. Here three older citizens were enjoying the view and fresh air. They asked me if I had been doing Tai Chi and we chatted about the benefits of breathing mindfully and stretching the body – to promote the life force as best we can. This interaction was, to my mind, an example of ‘wholesome relationship’, evident in our wholesome, or ‘right’, speech evoked by our mutually open, friendly, sharing intention.
So Sila, right action, is not just a prohibition against harming and killing. It is also about how we help others and how we communicate with ourselves and others.
I include attention to our self talk because this is what supports our habits of helping or attacking; promoting the wholesome or the unwholesome. As we talk to ourselves we are rehearsing and reinforcing how we will react to others. Wise speech must also be wetted with compassion. And true compassion is inclusive, not selective.
Friendly relationship feels good!
Another example of sila – wholesome relationship – that warmed my heart today – and last night – was the sight of a group of 10-12 young Asian men and women crammed together around the picnic table at the camping site next to ours. No alcohol or other drugs were evident and their enjoyment of each other and their camping adventure – all sharing one big tent – was palpable. In fact, I was so encouraged by their goodwill that this morning I asked if I could photograph them – to capture their warmth and obvious pleasure in each other. They happily agreed and we exchanged warm greetings then, and each time I walked by, before they packed up camp and gaily drove off.
Like all the Six Perfections, or Parami, sila is a quality to contemplate and hold question about. What is it that makes my actions wholesome or unwholesome?
Communication is also considered action in Buddhadharma. Harsh speech; attacking speech; incitement to harm; dead-end speech with put-downs; gossip and empty prattle are all considered unwholesome, requiring effort to transform into the perfection of wholesome action and relationship.
So, does anyone out there have reflections on what is wholesome action? And do you have examples of sila to share? Or questions? The comments box is waiting!