Do’s and Don’ts of Virtuous Conduct

Do's and Don'ts of Virtuous Conduct


Note: This is the second article in a 4-part series on Virtuous Conduct as the Foundation of All Happiness that also includes:

You can also watch the video of this teaching, and do the guided meditation that accompanies it.


In America and other countries that share the same calendar, we are entering a new year.

It’s an appropriate time to reflect on first principles, on the things that matter most, on ways of being that we can draw on again and again this year as we deal with its challenges and try to heal and grow and awaken along the way. It’s an appropriate time to consider this central question:

What is it that leads to happiness and away from suffering, for ourselves and others?

Overview of Sila

As an answer to this question, in the Buddha’s teachings and in other spiritual traditions as well as in the findings of modern psychology, there is the foundational emphasis on – to put it simply – not being a jerk. Here are two quotations from the Dhammapada that say this more elegantly:

In the language (Pali) of early Buddhism, this is called sila.

Sila has been translated in various ways, such as “restraint,” “ethics,” or “morality.”

I prefer the term “virtuous conduct.” “Virtuous” may sound fancy, but what it means is that in simple everyday ways, in the choices we make in our thoughts, words, and deeds, we act in ways that harm less and help more.

I’ll get into the details of this further on. Here I’d like to establish the context for virtuous conduct.

First, it is not about following a set of rules handed down from on high that would be a sin to violate. It is about observing, pragmatically, the results of your actions: and nudging yourself away from what hurts and toward what helps. It is not about the shoulds of others, but about your own deep sense of integrity and inner goodness.

Second, we do this both for the sake of others and the sake of ourselves. Your virtuous conduct has obvious benefits for others, and that’s good. Meanwhile, it has tremendous benefits for you personally, including reducing conflicts with others, strengthening your general capacities to regulate and guide yourself, and helping you to enjoy what the Buddha called “the bliss of blamelessness.”

In effect, virtuous conduct is a gift to yourself. To get a feeling for how the Buddha thought about this, here is a passage from the Anguttara Nikaya (8.39) about the moral principle of not killing; for clarity, I’ve paraphrased it slightly:

“[When people] abandon the taking of life and abstain from taking life, they give freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, [and] freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, [and] freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, they gain a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is [a] great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & [teachers].”

Third, as we develop sila, sometimes we naturally consider our lack of it. Do not fear or be stopped by guilt, remorse, and shame. As appropriate, feel these things and make amends and repairs as best you can. But focus on the present, not the past. Sila is what you do in the present. Whatever has happened in the past, today you can hold your head high.

Fourth, it is good to enjoy and appreciate your own sila. Three more quotations from the Dhammapada:

Last, our virtuous conduct must be connected to and supported by two other things: training the mind and cultivating wisdom. Together, these are the three fundamental pillars of practice in Buddhism; in Pali: sila, samadhi, and panna. These pillars are also found in other spiritual and secular paths, sometimes by different terms.

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock. 

  • When you reflect on yourself these days, where are you at with virtuous conduct?
  • With training your mind to be more mindful, concentrated, compassionate, and peaceful?
  • With cultivating wisdom, including into the causes of suffering and the causes of its end?
  • Look out over the year to come. What would you like to focus on this year, in the development of your own sila, samadhi, and panna? What intuitions arise to speak to you? What’s your deep inner knowing of what your next steps are?

Details of Sila

And now let’s focus on the details of virtuous conduct.

Red Lights

One way to frame it is in terms of “red lights,” things that we do NOT do. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the Ten Commandments say what “Thou shalt not” do. Parents say things like “Don’t hit your little brother.” 

In the Buddhist tradition, there are the Five Precepts, which are also stated in the form of red lights. Each of them begins with the phrase “I undertake the precept to ______ .” A “precept” can be understood as a rule, or more broadly and I think helpfully, as a standard, value, and aspiration. 

Sometimes the word “training” is added, as in “I undertake the training precept to ______ .” I like this addition, since it emphasizes that the precept is a training of the mind and heart, a way to develop ourselves, a process of virtuous conduct. In effect, precepts are practical guides to the good life; we undertake them not because they are “right” and we are righteous about it, but because they have been shown to be effective.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates the Five Precepts in this way:

  • I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  • I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  • I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
  • I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

So let’s pause again and reflect on where you currently stand with these standards, these ways of conducting yourself:

Stated simply: not killing . . . not stealing . . . not mistreating yourself or others through sexuality . . . not lying . . . not getting intoxicated.

As you look out at the year to come, is there anything that calls to you to be more consistent with or careful about? We can consider the precepts in subtle ways. For example, perhaps:

  • eating less meat or none at all
  • not taking more than your share of the time or attention in a conversation or meeting
  • not gazing at others in unwanted and sexualized ways
  • being careful about exaggerations and overstatements in what you say
  • scrutinizing anything that “clouds the mind and leads to heedlessness,” including getting caught up in resentful ruminations

Green Lights

The precepts, and other principles of virtuous conduct, can also be framed positively, as “green lights,” things to support and do. Thich Nhat Hanh has been a wonderful teacher of this approach, and I’ll summarize and paraphrase his restatement of the Five Precepts:

  • I vow to practice reverence for life.
  • I vow to practice generosity.
  • I vow to practice sexual responsibility.
  • I vow to practice deep listening and loving speech.
  • I vow to practice mindful consumption.

Take a moment to let these commitments reverberate through you, and notice how they feel: 

I vow to practice reverence for life . . . generosity . . . sexual responsibility . . . deep listening and loving speech . . . mindful consumption.

Look ahead to the year, and consider what calls you to emphasize in your own life.


Carried along by Virtue

If principles of virtuous conduct are felt as a kind of pressure or control from the outside in, that feels stressful and burdensome, and it’s hard to sustain. 

It’s better to feel carried along by your heartfelt commitments: lifted by them and inspired by them. You can surrender to these commitments and let them live through you. 

It’s OK if you’re not perfect, especially in the beginning. See clearly, take a breath, and reestablish yourself in sila. The great writer, Samuel Becket, said once essentially: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

In many settings, people restate their vows or undertake certain precepts each day. I’ve done this myself during various periods of my life. You might consider establishing your own list of heartfelt commitments – which might be the traditional Five Precepts – and committing to them newly each morning when you wake up. Consider how this might help you. It’s helped me a lot.

Note: This is the second article in a 3-part series on Virtuous Conduct as the Foundation of All Happiness that also includes:

You can also watch the video of this teaching, and do the guided meditation that accompanies it.