Aug 6, 2020
Martin Goodson

Wisdom, Ethical Living and Meditation as One Practice

Meditation as a 'stand-alone' practice has never been part of Buddhism. This article looks at a more holistic practice 'The Three Pillars' and how they derive from each other.

Lanyon Quoit - Megalith - Cornwall - UK… By waterborough - photo shooting,



In the Buddha’s early teachings, the Noble Eightfold Path forms the central practice known as the Arhat Path to Nirvana – with peace at its heart. The eight stages of the Path are categorised as ‘The Three Pillars’:

The Pillar of Wisdom

Right View

Right Intention

The Pillar of Ethical Conduct

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Living

The Pillar of Meditation

Right Effort

Right Awareness

Right Meditation

The three pillars plait together to form a ‘whole’ spiritual practice, though it can be very tempting to split them apart. For example, many people interested in meditation techniques tend to practise meditation in a ‘standalone’ fashion – without much interest in how the experience changes when it is devoid of the other two pillars. One benefit of practising within a tradition is the possibility of drawing from a collective wisdom accumulated over centuries. We can miss out on this by taking a narrower, more personal view of what we are engaging in.

For this exercise, we shall look at the Second Pillar, at ethical conduct, and its impact on meditation practice. However, the Pillar of Ethical Conduct is itself based on the first pillar: wisdom.

Why is this?

The Arhat Path to Nirvana is based on the fundamental insight of the Buddha known as anatta or ‘non-self’. But what does ‘non-self’ really imply?

The Buddha said that anatta was truth – that our mental perception of a ‘self’ is false. He does not deny here that we are individuals; rather, his teaching holds that the perception of a ‘self’ as a separate entity, apart from all else, is a delusion. We are made up of causes and conditions that lie outside this perceived ‘self’ that we call ‘I’. There is no part of our selves that could exist, either physically or mentally, unsupported by these ‘externals’. This understanding of ourselves as part of a matrix rather than as separate, discrete entities is not difficult to contemplate intellectually. However, recognising it as the actual truth is a different matter.

For there is often a disconnect between what I consider to be, and how I behave. The thinking self and the acting self often appear to be two separate beings. In Buddhist teaching, this is a result of the false notion of ‘I’, which hides what the left hand is doing from the right and vice versa. From time to time, we become aware of saying or doing something that, at another time, we might regret – but despite our best intentions, we continue doing it. Consider our resolutions to diet, give up smoking, become more conscious of climate change and alter our behaviour accordingly … What excuses do ‘I’ come up with when failing to live up to my own ethical intentions?

As noted, meditation is used in all sorts of ‘well-being’ strategies these days; but at its root, it is about becoming conscious. When I fail to live up to my intentions, making an excuse is also excusing myself from becoming more conscious about why this failure occurred. In this way, the attempt to live ethically – and failing – is an opportunity to investigate our own inner being, and to become more conscious of the true state of affairs.

Where do our ethics come from? An ‘ethos’ comprises the principles upon which a personal or collective set of laws, codes of conduct, notions of morality, etc. are based, as well as the spirit of our ethics. It is usually regarded as a fundamental component of ‘truth’. As we have seen, in Buddhism truth is anatta: non-self, no-‘I’. Our ethos and ethics are to be based upon the wisdom of anatta.

What does that look like?

To begin with, it looks very different from an ethos based on self. If there really is an entity called ‘I’, then it would make complete sense to live selfishly. A ‘me-first’ attitude would simply reflect the truth. However, if the Buddha is correct, then Buddhist ethos is more reflective of true reality.

The Golden Rule, well known in religious studies, has a number of formulations. Two of the most common ones are:

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

‘Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you.’

(In Buddhism, we have the Bodhisattva Vow: ‘Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to assist them all.’)

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the exponents of religion manage to live up to the declarations above, let us examine them closely. Which principle is evident here? We can see that the ethos underpinning the Pillar of Ethical Conduct is that of anatta. Although anatta is linguistically formulated in the negative – it is the absence of something – it is, in fact, a positive. If there is no separating principle, then all things must be interrelated. It is precisely this understanding that forms the tenet upon which our ethical conduct is based.

Even if we do not attain anatta, we are still living in accord with this key insight of Buddhahood when we attempt to conduct our lives based on its wisdom. Recall, too, that speaking, acting and living generally according to this principle will have karmic consequences. In Buddhist thought, like produces like.

A meditation practice enables the continual interpretation of this principle. Whatever situation arises, the awareness of how the ethos or spirit of the present moment manifests. Doing so represents the development of insight towards which the whole practice is geared. Thus the Buddha taught the third Pillar – meditation – within the context of the other two Pillars, of wisdom and ethical conduct.


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