PART I: MASTERING VIRTUE
PRECEPTS FOR LAY PEOPLE
There are three sets of precepts for laypeople: the five
precepts, the eight precepts, and the ten guidelines. Here we will
discuss the five and the eight precepts first, saving the ten
guidelines for later. The five precepts can be divided into two sorts:
those dealing with bodily action and those dealing with speech.
Normalcy in bodily action is expressed by the precept against lying,
which involves refraining not only from lying, but also from divisive
tale-bearing, from coarse or abusive speech, and from aimless or idle
talk. As for the precept against taking intoxicants, it fits in with
the third precept -- against illicit sex -- in that both deal with
forms of intoxication.
The eight precepts are derived from the five --and, like the
five, can be divided into two sorts. Seven deal with bodily action:
refraining from taking life; from stealing the possessions of others;
from any and all sexual intercourse; from eating food from the period
from noon until the following dawn; from watching dancing, singing,
instrumental music, and other shows, and from using garlands,
perfumes, cosmetics, and jewelry; and from using high and luxurious
beds and seats.
The precepts, whether five or eight, are ultimately two: right
normalcy in bodily action and right normalcy in speech. //Sila//, the
Pali word for virtue and precept, literally means normalcy -- a
quality that can be separated into either five or eight component
virtues. The eight //uposatha// precepts do away with more defilements
of bodily action than do either the five precepts or the ten
guidelines. The bodily actions of a person who observes them weigh
lightly, like those of one who is ordained. (Speaking of ordination,
for women at least, it would appear that a person who observes the
eight precepts does away with more greed, anger, and delusion in terms
of bodily action than did the //sikkhamanas// (aspirants to nunhood)
of the past. Although as a novice the //sikkhamana// was expected to
observe the ten precepts, still when she was about to be ordained as a
nun she had to be strict in observing only the first six). So whoever
observes the eight precepts can be said to lead one form of the chaste
life -- //kala-brahmacariya//, temporary renunciation -- the only
difference being that one doesn't have to change one's mode of dress.
It's a rare man or woman who will act in this way. Whoever does
can be counted as a person of value, a vessel for what is wise and
worthwhile, into which the practice of concentration (//samadhi//)
should be placed.
The ten guidelines, unlike the five and eight precepts, don't
have to be taken as vows. Once you understand them, simply go ahead
and follow them. Altogether, they are of three sorts; three principles
dealing with bodily action, four with speech, and three with the
heart. The three principles dealing with bodily action are: not taking
life, not stealing, and not engaging in illicit sex or taking
intoxicants (the last two being counted as one). The four principles
dealing with speech are derived from the precept against lying:
refraining from lying, from divisive tale-bearing, from coarse or
abusive speech, and from idle, aimless and useless chatter.
The three principles dealing with the heart are: //anabhijjha//
-- not coveting the possessions of others; //abyapada// -- not feeling
ill will, i.e. not wanting others to suffer misfortune; and
//samma-ditthi// -- right view, being convinced that the pleasure and
pain we experience come from our own good and bad actions: Whoever
does good will meet with good, whoever does evil will meet with evil.
So altogether there are ten guidelines. These guidelines are
termed //kusala kammapatha//, wise policies or clean actions. They are
policies that should be adopted and followed -- the more constantly,
the better. Defilements related to greed will die away; those related
to anger and delusion won't have a chance to arise. Greed arises from
the thought of coveting -- the focusing of desire -- which is then
expressed as greed in one's thoughts, words, and deeds. One's thoughts
thus become restless and disturbed; one's words and deeds, unwise and
defiled. As for anger, it arises from ill will, which then gives rise
to hostility and finally to anger, fury, and violence. One's thoughts,
words, and deeds thus become unwise and defiled. Delusion arises from
wrong views, from ignorance of right and wrong, good and evil, making
one's thoughts, words, and deeds unwise and defiled.
So you should kill these things off their source. Kill off
covetousness by sharing your possessions with others -- with your
children, brothers, sisters, relatives, friends, monks, nuns, and
recluses -- which in the long run will be to your own benefit. This is
termed generosity (//dana//). Kill off ill will by developing thoughts
of benevolence, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity; and avoid
detrimental actions by observing the precepts (//sila//). Kill off
wrong views by associating with people who are knowledgeable and wise,
learning from them so as to develop your own insight and discernment.
This is termed mental development (//bhavana//).
These are the techniques for curing greed, anger, and delusion.
Covetousness, ill will, and wrong views are the tap roots of
defilement; greed, anger, and delusion are the crown. The thoughts,
words, and deeds that express these qualities form the trunk and
branches, and the fruit is pain: the pain of birth, ageing, illness,
and death; of sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair.
Normally, when we've eaten the flesh of a fruit, if we don't destroy
the seed, it will have a chance to sprout and form another tree. So it
is with defilement: If we don't destroy the seed, it will produce more
fruit. Thoughts that fasten and cling: These are the seed. People who
don't realize this, imagine this fruit to be something tasty and
delicious, and so are unwilling to abandon and destroy covetousness,
greed, ill will, and wrong views. As a result, they spin around in
this cycle in various ways, under the influence of these three sorts
of defilement. When these defilements arise in full force, whatever
status one may have will be shattered, whatever wealth one has will be
lost, the good opinion of others will turn to censure, one's happiness
will turn to misery, one's friends will flee, and one's family will
fall apart -- or even if it doesn't fall apart, it will be pained with
sorrow, as if its heart had been scalded with boiling water.
So we should kill off these defilements by being generous with
our belongings; by observing the five precepts, the eight precepts, or
the ten guidelines; and by practicing concentration to develop the
mind, making it firm, unwavering, and still. Once these defilements
die, then even if you've never had wealth, you'll be wealthy; even if
you've never reached heaven, you'll attain it, constant and
unchanging, in line with the Buddha's verse on the rewards of the five
//silena sugatim yanti//
Through virtue they go to heaven.
Through virtue wealth is attained.
//silena nibbutim yanti//
Through virtue they go to liberation --
secure happiness, free from all suffering and stress.
//tasma silam visodhaye//
Thus we should all purify our virtue.
* * *
Question: At what times should the five precepts, the eight
precepts, and the ten guidelines be observed?
Answer: The five precepts and ten guidelines should be observed
at all times -- without any reference to morning, evening, noon, or
night -- as constant or timeless principles (//nicca-sila//,
//akalika-sila//). As for the eight uposatha precepts, a pattern has
been established -- in line with the varying abilities and
opportunities of laypeople -- of gathering to observe the precepts
together once every seven or eight days on the lunar sabbath: the day
of the new moon, the full moon, and the eighth day of the waxing and
waning moons -- altogether four times a month. This pattern is for
people who don't have much time or opportunity. If, however, you have
plenty of time and opportunity, let your own conviction be your guide.
Focus on goodness, and not on the calendar, observing the precepts on
your own, making whatever day you observe them -- no matter what the
date or season -- your own personal uposatha day.
Someone might object here, saying, "If it isn't the lunar
sabbath, then you can't say you're observing the uposatha precepts."
"If they're not uposatha precepts, what are they?"
"Just the ordinary eight precepts."
"Is it good or bad to observe the eight precepts?"
"And we observe the precepts for the sake of the good, don't we?
So if we've hit the good right on the nose, what does it matter if
we've hit the wrong day?"
Here we should translate the word "uposatha." Literally, it means
"approaching respite" from all that is corrupt and unwise. So by
definitions, if there's no respite from corruption in your actions,
then it's not uposatha day. There's no way you can guarantee that this
or that date is an uposatha day or whatever. Still, the pattern of
observing the eight precepts on the lunar sabbath is a good one for
people who don't have much opportunity. But if you do have the
opportunity, you shouldn't limit yourself just to those days, because
virtue, by its nature, isn't too particular about the date.
This being the case, we should set up gradations so that those
who feel inspired to practice can do so as they are able:
1. The first group observes the eight precepts on each lunar
sabbath during the rainy season: three months, four days a month, thus
twelve days. This is termed //mudu//, the weak level.
2. The intermediate level -- //majjhima uposatha// -- observes
the eight precepts on each lunar sabbath, without fail, throughout the
year: twelve months, four days a month, thus 48 days a year.
3. The highest level -- //ukkattha uposatha// -- observes the
eight precepts on each lunar sabbath, and on the day before and the
day after each sabbath, without reference to month or season: twelve
months, twelve days a month, thus 144 days a year. This is for people
of firm conviction. Or, if you want, you can aim higher than that and
observe the eight precepts at all times and in every season, focusing
on the quality of virtue itself instead of on the ordinances and
conventions of the world -- just like the Buddhist nuns who, in our
day and times, observe these very same eight precepts.
* * *
Virtue can be established on one of two bases: either through (1)
making a vow (//samadana-virati//), as when we repeat the precepts
after a monk or novice (here it is also necessary to learn exactly
what vices and misdeeds are forbidden by each of the five or eight
precepts); or (2) simply deciding on our own to abstain from a
particular vice or misdeed (//sampatta-virati//). In other words, when
you want to keep your character pure, you can go ahead and decide to
refrain from misconduct on your own. Once virtue is established, and
you are careful to safeguard it out of a sense of conscience so that
it doesn't lapse, this is termed //samuccheda-virati//: absolute
For virtue to be kept pure depends on two factors: perseverance
and the four Sublime Attitudes (benevolence, compassion, appreciation,
and equanimity). An example of keeping the precepts through
perseverance would be: Suppose you're accustomed to killing animals.
If you decide to observe the precepts, you hold off for a day or so,
but you have no strong sense of perseverance to get you through. Once
you get past your self-imposed time limit, you go back to your old
ways. Observing the precepts through perseverance in this way means to
exercise self-control so as not to commit whatever misdeeds you've
been accustomed to.
Question: Is there any value in observing the precepts in this
Answer: There can be -- as far as that particular day is
concerned. Seeing the light every once in a long while is better than
never seeing it at all.
To observe the precepts through the Sublime Attitudes, though,
means to wish for the happiness of other living beings, to sympathize
with the fact that no one wants to suffer, that we all desire
well-being and freedom from harm. Once you realize this, and a sense
of compassion arises, you wouldn't dare transgress the precepts you've
undertaken. Observing the precepts through benevolence in this way
bears powerful rewards.
Whoever puts virtue fully and completely into practice can aspire
to any attainment: rebirth as a human being, rebirth in heaven, or
//nibbana//. Such a person can aspire to a beautiful appearance and
voice, fragrant aromas, delicious tastes, delicate sensations, and
delightful moods. To have virtue is to have wealth: The five precepts
are equal to 50 pounds of gold bullion; the eight precepts, 80 pounds;
the ten guidelines, 100. Actually, moral virtue is something valuable
beyond price. Virtue and generosity, taken together, are the
qualifying factors for rebirth as a human being and rebirth in heaven.
Virtue, generosity, and the development of the mind through meditation
are the qualifying factors for nibbana. So we should all try to find
the time to perform those actions that will lead to our true welfare
in the coming future.
* * *
THE SERVICE FOR THE LUNAR SABBATH
Before taking the precepts, first pay respect to the Triple Gem
-- the Buddha, the Dhamma (the Truth he taught), and the Sangha (those
of his followers who attained that Truth) --
ARAHAM SAMMA-SAMBUDDHO BHAGAVA
The Blessed One is Worthy & Rightly Self-awakened
BUDDHAM BHAGAVANTAM ABHIVADEMI
I bow down before the Awakened, Blessed One.
SVAKKHATO BHAGAVATA DHAMMO
The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One.
I pay homage to the Dhamma
SUPATIPANNO BHAGAVATO SAVAKA-SANGHO
The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples has practiced
I pay respect to the Sangha.
Now the group will chant the standard morning service. If you don't
know it, simply remain silent. When the group has finished, it will
chant the request for the precepts in unison. Again, if you don't know
it, remain silent. The request for the five precepts is as follows:
MAYAM BHANTE TI-SARANENA SAHA PANCA SILANI YACAMA
Venerable sir, we request the five precepts together
with the Three Refuges.
DUTIYAMPI MAYAM BHANTE ....YACAMA
A second time....
TATIYAMPI MAYAM BHANTE ....YACAMA
A third time....
The request for the eight uposatha precepts:
MAYAM BHANTE TI-SARANENA SAHA ATTHANGA-SAMANNAGATAM
Venerable sir, we request the eight-factored uposatha
observance together with the Three Refuges.
DUTIYAMPI MAYAM BHANTE ....YACAMA
A second time....
TATIYAMPI MAYAM BHANTE ....YACAMA
A third time....
Then repeat the phrase paying homage to the Buddha:
NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMA-SAMBUDDHASSA (three
Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Rightly
And then the phrases for taking refuge in the Triple Gem:
BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
I go to the Buddha for refuge.
DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
I go to the Sangha for refuge.
DUTIYAMPI BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A second time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.
DUTIYAMPI DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A second time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
DUTIYAMPI SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A second time, I go to the Sangha for refuge.
TATIYAMPI BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A third time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.
TATIYAMPI DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A third time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
TATIYAMPI SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
A third time, I go to the Sangha for refuge.
This finished, the monk who is officiating will say,
TI-SARANA-GAMANAM NITTHITAM ("The taking of the three refuges is now
completed"). You say, AMA BHANTE (Yes, sir). Now repeat the precepts
after him (translations are given below):
1. PANATIPATA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
2. ADINNADANA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
3. KAMESU MICCHACARA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
(If you are taking the eight precepts replace this with:
ABRAHMA-CARIYA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI)
4. MUSAVADA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
5. SURA-MERAYA-MAJJA-PAMADATTHANA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM
(If you are taking the five precepts, stop here. If you are taking
the eight precepts, continue:
6. VIKALA-BHOJANA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
7. NACCA-GITA-VADITA-VISUKA-DASSANA MALA-GANDHA-VILEPENA-
DHARANA-MANDANA-VIBHUSANATTHANA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM
8. UCCASAYANA-MAHASAYANA VERAMANI SIKKHAPADAM SAMADIYAMI
If you are taking the uposatha precepts, the monk will announce the
duration of the uposatha period. Repeat after him:
IMANCA RATTIM IMANCA DIVASAM
SAMMADEVA ABHIRAKKHITUM SAMADIYAMI
(which means: I undertake to maintain, perfect and pure for today
and tonight, this uposatha observance formulated by the Buddha and
composed of eight factors.) The monk will counsel heedfulness and
announce the rewards of observing the precepts:
IMANI ATTHA SIKKHAPADANI ACCEKAM RATTIN-DIVAM
UPOSATHASILA-VASENA SADHUKAM RAKKHITABBANI
(These eight training rules are to be well maintained for
the entire day & night of the Uposatha period.)
(you say, AMA BHANTE (Yes, sir.)) The monk will continue:
SILENA SUGATIM YANTI SILENA BHOGA-SAMPADA SILENA NIBBUTIM
YANTI TASMA SILAM VISODHAYE
Through virtue they go to heaven.
Through virtue wealth is attained.
Through virtue they go to liberation Thus we should all
purify our virtue.
This ends the taking of the precepts.
* * *
The precepts translated are as follows:
1. I undertake the training rule to refrain from taking life.
2. To refrain from stealing.
3. To refrain from illicit sex. (This is for those who are taking
the five precepts. The precept, ABRAHMA-CARIYA..., for those taking
the eight precepts, forbids all forms of sexual intercourse.)
4. To refrain from speaking falsehood.
5. To refrain from taking intoxicants.
6. To refrain from eating food during the period from noon until
the following dawn.
7. To refrain from watching shows (e.g., dancing, singing,
instrumental music) and from ornamenting the body with flowers,
scents, cosmetics, or jewelry.
8. To refrain from using high and luxurious beds and seats.
"Luxurious" means having a stuffed cushion or mattress. "High" means
more than ten inches high. Armchairs and couches with arms, however,
even if they are more than ten inches high, are not prohibited by this
* * *
The precepts, whether five or eight, have two foundations. In
other words, for them to be broken, they must be transgressed by
either (1) the body in conjunction with the mind, or (2) speech in
conjunction with the mind. A precept transgressed unintentionally with
a bodily action is nevertheless still intact. Say, for instance, you
cut a tree or gather flowers to place on an altar, and it so happens
that the insects living in the tree or flower stem die. You had no
idea they were there in the first place. In this case, your precepts
are still intact because you had no intention in mind for them to die.
As for verbal acts, suppose that you speak hurriedly, and what you end
up saying is different from what you had meant to say, out of either
carelessness or inattention. For example, you meant to say three
words, but ended up saying four; you meant to tell the truth, but what
you actually said was false. Since it was simply a verbal act, and you
didn't have it in mind to speak misleadingly, your precepts are still
A breach of the ten guidelines can be effected with one of as
many as three factors: the body in conjunction with the mind, speech
in conjunction with the mind, or the mind acting alone. In other
words, a transgression of any sort in thought, word, or deed has to be
intentional for there to be a breach in one's virtue, because the
intention -- the will to abstain (//cetana-virati//) -- forms the
essence of virtue. This can be checked against any of the various
precepts. Intention is the essence of virtue; aspects of virtue apart
from that intention are simply its expressions and applications.
The intention that qualifies as virtue is the will to abstain in
line with the five or eight precepts. As for the precepts, they give
expression to the intention, while the rules that detail exactly what
actions are forbidden by the various precepts indicate the scope of
its application. Virtue is normalcy. Normalcy and right equilibrium in
word and deed is expressed by the five precepts and eight uposatha
precepts. Normalcy and right equilibrium in thought, word, and deed is
expressed by the ten guidelines.
The statement that intention is the essence of virtue is
supported by the passage in the Canon where the Buddha says,
//cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami//
The intention, monks, is what I maintain to be action.
* * *
Virtue, as practiced by Buddhists in general, can be summarized
into three categories: //hina-sila//, //gocara-sila// and
1. //Hina-sila// means simply obeying the precepts. For instance,
the first precept tells you not to kill, so you hope to gain merit by
looking out for the lives of others, not causing them to die. The
second precept tells you not to steal, so you hope to get some good
out of taking care of the possessions of others, not causing them to
disappear. The third precept rules out illicit sex, so you go around
looking out for other people's spouses and children. The fourth
precept rules out lying, so you go around looking after other people's
ears by not putting lies in them. The fifth precept rules out alcohol,
so you do your part for other people's liquor bottles by not making
them go empty. The same holds true for the other precepts. Practicing
virtue in this way is tantamount to being a watchman for other
people's goods. You put yourself on the level of a slave or hired
cow-hand. Whether you observe the five or even the eight precepts,
this is classed as the lowest level of virtue, or as
//silabbatupadana//, attachment to external forms of goodness.
2. //Gocara-sila// means making sure that the mind occupies
itself only with good intentions, such as thinking of ways to act that
will be wise and meritorious. Whether your thoughts deal with the past
or the future, with visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile
sensations, or ideas, you are careful to keep them in line with wise
intentions, not letting them fall into ways that are corrupt or
3. //Anagocara-sila// means keeping the mind in the present, not
letting it wander among distracting thoughts. You are mindful and
self-aware, keeping watch over the mind so that it stays exclusively
in the present. //This// is virtue -- when virtue reaches a state of
normalcy -- the sort of virtue worthy of heaven and //nibbana//.
The virtue that is careful not to break the precepts can counter
the cruder forms of greed. The virtue that guards the mind's train of
thought, keeping it from traveling in the area of shoddy intentions,
can do away with anger and aversion. The virtue that enters into the
present -- i.e., virtue in a state of normalcy -- can do away with
delusion. Thus we can say that virtue can do away with the cruder
forms of defilement, i.e., certain levels of greed, anger, and
* * *
To continue with the service for the lunar sabbath: Now you have
the opportunity to hear a sermon. The request for a sermon is as
BRAHMA CA LOKADHIPATI SAHAMPATI
KATANJALI ANDHIVARAM AYACATHA
DESETU DHAMMAM ANUKAMPIMAM PAJAM
(The Brahma Sahampati, lord of the world,
With hands palm-to-palm before his heart
[approached the Lord Buddha and] requested a blessing:
There are beings here with only a little dust in their eyes.
Please teach the Dhamma out of compassion for them.)
Now compose your thoughts and keep them fixed on absorbing the
nourishment of the Dhamma. Once the sermon is finished, you may
proclaim yourself to be a lay adherent of the Buddha, as follows:
AHAM BUDDHANCA DHAMMANCA
SANGHANCA SARANAM GATO
I have gone to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha for refuge.
I have declared my adherence in the presence of the Bhikkhu
ETAM ME SARANAM KHEMAM
This is my secure refuge,
This is my highest refuge
This is the refuge, having gone to which,
One is released from all suffering & stress.
I will follow, as well as I am able
The teachings of the Rightly Self-awakened One
BHAGI ASSAM ANAGATE
So that in the future I will have a part
Of the escape from suffering & stress.
(Women should substitute GATA for GATO, UPASIKATTAM for UPASAKATTAM,
and BHAGINISSAM for BHAGI ASSAM.)
The Pali word for adherent, //upasaka// (fem. //upasika//),
literally means "one who is close." There are ten qualities looked for
in adherent: five activities to be refrained from and five qualities
to possess. The five to be refrained from are:
1. selling weapons,
2. selling human beings,
3. selling animals to be killed for food, or the flesh of animals
that one has killed oneself,
4. selling intoxicants,
5. selling poison.
The five qualities to possess:
2. observance of the precepts,
3. belief in nothing but the principle of //kamma// -- that those
who do good will meet with good, those who do evil will meet with
4. an unwillingness to look for merit in ways excluded by the
5. performance of merit in ways particular to the Buddha's
To possess these qualifications means by definition that one is
an adherent to generosity, virtue, and meditation.
* * *
Now that the service is over, you should take the opportunity to
develop peace and respite of mind. Don't let the day go to waste. Take
the word //buddho// as your meditation exercise. To be intent on
repeating the word //buddho// in your mind is one form of
concentration (//samadhi//). Discernment (//panna//) means thorough
comprehension of all fashioned and conditioned things. The value of
discernment is that it abandons all forms of defilement. Virtue,
concentration, and discernment: These qualities form the heart of the
Buddha's message, which we should all try to develop to the best of
Now we will pose a number of questions dealing with virtue and
concentration as a way of further elaborating on these topics.
* * *
VIRTUE: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
1. What are the benefits of observing the precepts?
What are the drawbacks of not observing them?
2. What is meant by virtue?
3. How many kinds of virtue are there?
4. What is the essence of virtue?
5. What is needed for virtue to be maintained?
1. To answer the first question: People observing the precepts
can perceive the following benefits as far as this lifetime is
concerned: They are not distrusted or despised by people at large;
they can enter with confidence into the company of sages and people in
general. After they die, they are sure to qualify for rebirth on the
human plane at the very least. For these reasons, virtuous people are
not willing to let their virtue be defiled.
Another answer is that virtuous people are admired throughout the
world. Why is this so? Because no one in the world likes abuse, not
even the least little bit. Not to mention good people, even thieves
and robbers complain about people who have no principles, as when they
get together to commit a robbery: The members of the band are sure to
find fault with each other because of the hardships involved in what
they're doing. Still, they go ahead and do it, out of their own
ignorance, stupidity, and lack of judgment.
Another answer is that people who observe the precepts work for
the prosperity of this world and the next. Most of us overlook this
aspect of virtue. Wrong looks right to us, and we think that observing
the precepts retards progress, that people who observe the precepts
are old-fashioned and behind the times, or that the precepts make it
impossible to earn a living. All of these views have no basis in
truth. Exactly how do the precepts retard progress? Consider this
carefully: The nature of the world is that not a single person likes
to suffer. Even common animals don't set their sights on pain. So to
be virtuous means not to ruin the world, but to protect it and help it
advance. When the Buddha established the precepts, he did so not
merely in line with his own opinions, but rather in line with the ways
and opinions of people throughout the world. How can we know that this
is so? We needn't ask the Buddha himself; we can consider the matter
on our own:
(a) Take a simple example, like killing: Fishermen make their
living by killing, and some of them end up making money by the
fistfuls from it. Still, they complain about the hardships of their
work and sometimes they even fall in the ocean and drown. The fact
that they complain about their work shows they don't like it. As for
the fish, they don't like it either. Even gnats and mosquitoes don't
like being abused. So why do we abuse them? Because we haven't
associated with wise people. We see the harm and the pain, yet we
still go ahead and do it out of our own darkness and delusion. This is
one example to show that the Buddha established the precepts in line
with the views of the world.
Example (b): Stealing, Is there anyone in the world who likes it?
If the world liked stealing, there probably wouldn't be laws
forbidding it -- and what human society doesn't have such laws? The
fact that we have these laws shows that we don't like stealing. Even
things about to be stolen don't like to have people steal them.
Animals, for instance, when they're cornered by thieves, will try to
run away. Thieves and robbers usually complain that their work is hard
-- always having to lurk and keep out of sight, going without food and
sleep. The fact that they complain shows that they don't like their
work. So why do they do it? Because they haven't associated with wise
people. Wrong looks right to them because of their own darkness and
Example (c): Adultery. Who in the world likes it? Go ask those
who do it, and they'll complain that they suffer from it. Ask those
who are done to, and they'll complain that they suffer from it and
don't like it. Sometimes they end up killing themselves. This shows
that the world doesn't care for it. So why do people do it? Because
they haven't associated with wise people. Wrong looks right to them,
and so they bring about the ruin of the world. They get fined or put
in jail, and get into difficulties with their families, knocking one
another over the skull just for the fun of it. To do wrong in this way
will bring tears to a parent's eyes and ears, and trouble to the
hearts of the authorities. These are things that bring about the ruin
of the world.
Example (d): Lying. Is there anyone in the world who likes it?
When a person is lying, he has to be wary out of fear that others will
find him out. When he's about to lie, he suffers in trying to figure
out how to get away with it. Once he's lied, he suffers out of fear
that no one will believe him. A person who is lied to has to question
and cross-examine, out of fear that what he's heard may not be true.
Even small children don't like to be lied to. Say that a child is
crying for its mother, and its father lies to it, saying, "There --
your mother's coming." When it doesn't see its mother, it'll cry
without stopping. Why? Because it can't trust its father. But not to
mention human beings, even animals don't like to be lied to. Say that
we take some cooked rice and lure a dog with it. Once it sees the
rice, it'll think we're going to feed it, so it comes prancing up with
its rear high and its tail wagging -- but instead of feeding it, we
take the rice and run off. If we do this three or four times, after
that it probably won't come, because it knows we're lying. This shows
that no one likes lies. So why do people lie? Because they haven't
associated with wise people. Wrong looks right to them, and so they
cause the world to degenerate.
Example (e): Alcohol. There is one who likes the drinking of
alcohol. People who brew it complain of their difficulties: that it's
a losing business, that they're afraid they'll be seen by the police
or cheated by their customers. People who drink alcohol complain that
it makes them dizzy, or that it eats up their salaries and leaves them
poor. I have yet to hear anyone extol drinking as a way to health,
wealth, and happiness. If people who drink really thought it were
good, they probably wouldn't come back to drinking plain old water or
eating plain old food again. Once people get drunk, they start acting
rowdy and disgusting in ways that people in general neither praise nor
admire. Even their own families get disgusted with them, and they
themselves complain that they're in debt or don't have enough money to
spend, which shows that they themselves don't like or admire their
In some places the government, acting out of concern for the
public well-being, has established laws to prevent the damages that
come from the drinking of alcohol. (I personally have wondered whether
the money the government makes from taxing alcohol is enough to cover
the damages caused by people who drink. I doubt that it is, but this
is simply my own opinion. You might want to consider the matter for
yourself. One common example is when people get together to drink --
either legal whiskey or bootleg -- and get to talking: One bottle of
whiskey, and maybe one of them ends up killed. The pittance the
government gets from the bottle of whiskey is probably nowhere near
enough to pay for the costs of tracking down the guilty parties in a
case like this.)
Thus the Buddha saw the evils in this sort of behavior: that it
causes the world to degenerate and hampers people from making a
living. A drunk person, for instance, can't do any steady labor. All
he can do is brag. I don't mean to be critical here, but it's
something I've often seen. For instance, when a farmer has his
neighbors over to help harvest his rice, they'll make plenty of noise,
but when you go to take a look at their work, you'll find the rice
scattered all over the place.
Once I came across a well dug at a crazy angle, but when I peered
down at the water, it looked clean and fresh. So I said to the owner,
"The water looks good. Why didn't you do a good job of digging the
well? Was it because you ran into a rock? Or a tree root? When was it
dug? Who dug it? Did you do it yourself, or hire someone to do it for
So the owner answered, "I had some friends over to help dig it."
"How did you get them to dig so deep? It must have cost a lot of
"I served whiskey until we were all good and drunk, and then we
got down to digging the well, which is why it ended up so crooked."
This goes to show how liquor can spoil a job.
All of the examples I've mentioned here -- brief, but enough to
serve as food for thought -- show that the world doesn't like these
things, that they cause damage and loss, putting money, labor and
people to waste. And this goes to show that the Buddha forbade these
things in line with the views of the world. Not one of the precepts
runs counter to those views. This being so, which one of the precepts
retards progress or creates trouble?
Then why don't people perceive this? Because they haven't
associated with wise people, and so wrong looks right to them. They go
counter to the world, and suffer for it. The Buddha taught in line
with the aspirations of the world, for the progress of people and
nations. If people were truly to abstain in line with the precepts,
life on earth would be happy in the visible present.
This ends the discussion of the first topic, the benefits and
drawbacks of observing and not observing the precepts.
2. The second question -- "What is meant by virtue?" -- can be
answered as follows: The Pali word for virtue, sila, means normalcy.
"Normalcy" refers to a lack of deviation in thought, word, and deed,
while "lack of deviation" refers to the act of not doing evil with
one's deeds, not speaking evil with one's words, and not thinking evil
with one's thoughts: in other words, abstaining from three types of
harmful bodily action, four types of harmful speech, and three types
of harmful thought. The three bodily actions to be avoided are taking
life, stealing, and taking intoxicants and engaging in illicit sex. To
avoid these things, not letting the body deviate in their direction,
is for the body to be in a state of normalcy. The four types of speech
to be avoided are lies, divisive tale-bearing, coarse and abusive
speech, and idle, aimless chatter. To keep one's speech from deviating
in the direction of these things is for speech to be in a state of
normalcy. For thought to be in a state of normalcy means (a) not
coveting the belongings of others, (b) not feeling ill will towards
those people or living beings whose actions are displeasing, and (c)
viewing things rightly: seeing that all living beings fare according
to their actions -- those with good intentions will meet with good,
those with evil intentions will meet with evil -- and that no one
aspires to suffering. Once you see things in this way, maintain this
viewpoint. Don't let it deviate into ways that are wrong.
To keep one's thoughts, words and deeds in a state of normalcy
and equilibrium like this is what is meant by virtue. The word
"equilibrium" here, though, doesn't rule out all action; it rules out
only the types of action that cause one's words and deeds to move in
ways that are wrong. Apart from such deviations, whoever has the
energy to perform work of whatever sort in making a living is free to
do so, because the precepts of the Buddha aren't lazy precepts or
faint-hearted precepts, down-and out or bump-on-the-log precepts --
i.e., precepts that don't let you do anything at all. That's not the
sort of thing the Buddha taught. As for speech, whoever has anything
to say that is free from harm is free to go ahead and say it. The
precepts of the Buddha aren't mute precepts or dumb precepts; they're
precepts that let you speak what is proper. And as for the mind,
whoever has ideas that will lead to knowledge or ingenuity in making a
living is free to think them through. The Buddha didn't forbid this
sort of thinking. He forbade only those things that are harmful,
because the basic principle of virtue in Buddhism is to abstain from
what is evil or crooked in thought, word, and deed, and to develop
what is upright and honest in thought, word, and deed. This shows that
the Buddha taught to abstain from those things that ought to be
abstained from, and to do those things that ought to be done. This
point is substantiated by such factors of the Noble Path as Right
Undertaking and Right Livelihood. But most of us believe that to
maintain the precepts confines you to a monastery and prevents you
from making a living or even wiggling a finger. This belief is wrong:
counter to the Buddha's teaching and detrimental to the progress of
To maintain the precepts -- to be virtuous -- means to keep one's
words and deeds in a state of normalcy. Whatever work virtuous people
perform is pure. The wealth they obtain as a result is solid and
lasting. Whatever virtuous people say -- no matter how much they speak
-- won't grate on the ears of their listeners. It can bring fortune
their way, as well as leaving the ears of their listeners soothed.
Whatever virtuous people contemplate, if it's a difficult job, it will
become easier; if it's an object to be made, it may become beautiful,
all because of the very principles of virtue. Most of us, though, tend
to be too contemptuous of virtue to put it to use in our work and
activities, which is why we act as a deadweight and can't keep up with
the progress of the world.
A person whose thoughts, words and deeds are not governed by
virtue is like a person covered with germs or soot: Whatever work he
or she touches is soiled and will rarely succeed in its aims. Even if
it does succeed, its success won't be lasting. The same holds true for
speech: A person whose speech isn't consistently virtuous will usually
be distrusted and despised by his listeners. If he tries to talk them
out of their money, it will come with difficulty; once he gets it, it
won't stay with him for long. And so it is with the mind: If a person
doesn't have virtue in charge of his heart, his thinking is darkened.
Whatever projects he contemplates will succeed with difficulty and --
even if they do succeed -- will be neither good nor lasting.
People who want to keep their thoughts, words, and deeds in a
state of normalcy have to be mindful. In other words, they have to
keep check over their actions in all they do -- sitting, standing,
walking, and lying down -- so they can know that they haven't done
anything evil. A person who doesn't keep his actions in check is like
a person without any clothes: Wherever he goes, he offends people.
There's even the story of the man was so absent-minded that he went
out wearing his wife's blouse and sarong, which goes to show what
happens to a person who doesn't keep his actions in check.
A person who doesn't keep his speech in check is like a rice pot
without a lid. When the water boils, it will overflow and put out the
fire. A person who doesn't always keep his thoughts in check --
thinking endlessly of how to make money, of how to get rich, until he
loses touch with reality -- is bound to do himself harm. Some people
think so much that they can't eat or sleep, to the point where they
damage their nerves and become mentally unbalanced, all because their
thinking has nothing to act as a basis, nothing to keep it in check.
Thus people who lack mindfulness can harm themselves, in line
with the fact that they are at the same time people without virtue.
This ends the discussion of the second topic.
3. The third question -- "How many kinds of virtue are there?" --
can be answered as follows: To divide them in precise terms, there are
five kinds, corresponding to the five precepts, the eight precepts,
the ten guidelines, the ten precepts, and the 227 precepts. To divide
them in broad terms, there are two: The virtues for laypeople on the
one hand, and for monks and novices on the other.
From another standpoint, there are three: those dealing with
bodily action, those dealing with speech, and those dealing with the
From another standpoint, there are two: primary virtues
(//adi-brahma-cariya-sikkha//), i.e. the five basic precepts that
have to be studied and observed first, such as the precepts against
taking life; and then, once these are mastered, the next level:
mannerly behavior (//abhisamacara//) dealing with personal conduct in
such areas as having one's meals, etc.
From still another standpoint, there are two sorts of virtue:
mundane (//lokiya//) and transcendent (//lokuttara//). Transcendent
virtues can be either the lay virtues or the virtues for monks. If a
person, lay or ordained, has attained true normalcy of mind, his or
her virtues are transcendent. The virtues of a person who has yet to
attain the normalcy of Stream-entry, though -- no matter whether that
person is a layperson or a monk, strict in observing the precepts or
not -- are merely mundane. Mundane virtues are by nature inconstant,
sometimes pure and sometimes not; some people who observe them go to
heaven, others who do go to hell. The transcendent virtues, however,
are constant and lead straight to nibbana. They are virtues that can
rule out rebirth in the four realms of deprivation (//apaya-bhumi//).
The virtues of a person who has reached the transcendent level
are the genuine virtues taught by the Buddha, which are nobler and
more valuable than all other virtues. The mundane virtues, even the
227 precepts of a monk, are no match in quality for the five virtues
of a lay Stream-enterer: That's how valuable the transcendent virtues
are. Why is it that a Stream-enterer's virtues are constant, while
those of ordinary run-of-the-mill people aren't? Because
Stream-enterers have shed self-identification (//sakkaya-ditthi//)
once and for all through the power of discernment. What does their
discernment come from? From having developed concentration, making the
mind firm to the point where discernment arises and washes
self-identification away for good. They've seen the harm that comes
from being deluded about the mind and body, and can realize that these
things aren't the self. They've investigated the body until they've
seen that it's nothing but the four physical properties (//dhatu//),
that they didn't bring it with them when they came and won't take it
with them when they go. Thus they are able to let it go, without
attachment or false assumptions.
If we view the body as our own, we become possessive of it and
are unwilling to expend it in ways that are wise and worthwhile. We
get stuck on the level of physical pleasure -- and that pleasure is
what kills off our merit and welfare. When physical pain arises, that
pain is what kills off the merit we should make. This can be classed
as a form of //panatipata// (taking life): using pleasure and pain to
kill off the merit and welfare that living beings are looking for.
This is one aspect of self-identification that Stream-enterers have
(b) //Adinnadana//: Stream-enterers don't fasten onto the body as
being their own, because they've realized that it's nothing but a
compound of the four physical properties, that these properties are
part and parcel of the world and can't be taken from it. As a result,
they don't try to cheat or swindle the world by laying claim to its
properties as being their own, and in this way they abandon another
aspect of self-identification.
(c) //Kamesu micchacara//: Stream-enterers have seen the harm
that comes from sensual preoccupations -- sights, sounds, smells,
flavors, tactile sensations, and ideas. Whatever is right to indulge
in, they indulge in; whatever isn't, they don't. This means that they
don't misconduct themselves with regard to sensual matters. Thus they
abandon another aspect of self-identification.
(d) //Musavada//: Stream-enterers have seen the absolute truth
that doesn't lie. In other words, they've seen the four Noble Truths
and so have abandoned another aspect of self-identification.
(e) //Surameraya//: Stream-enterers are not intoxicated or
heedless with regard to sights, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile
sensations, or ideas. Thus they abandon another aspect of
This is called virtue on the level of discernment. Once this
level is reached, the more common forms of virtue become constant and
lasting, because self-identification has been shed through the power
of discernment. As for //silabbata-paramasa// ("groping" with regard
to precepts and practices), Stream-enterers no longer grope in their
behavior, because they've seen for sure that it's right. And as for
//vicikiccha// (uncertainty), they've abandoned all doubts concerning
the value of discernment, their way of life, and their path of
practice: They no longer wonder as to whether they're right or wrong.
Once they can do this, they set themselves apart from mundane virtues.
Mundane virtues are inconstant because they lack discernment. Why do
they lack discernment? Because we don't practice concentration in the
heart, and so we take stubborn possession of the body, latching onto
it and wrongly assuming it to be the self, to the point where even the
slightest touch from mosquitoes or horseflies, sun or rain, can cause
our goodness to wither and die.
Transcendent virtues are thus supreme; mundane virtues are not
yet lasting. As to whether virtue will be transcendent or mundane, the
matter lies entirely with the heart.
A dull-witted heart, lacking discernment,
Latches onto the body,
But once it dies, it doesn't get to eat the meat
Or sit on the skin--
It'll choke on the bones.
Lacking training, it lies sunk in pain.
But a trained heart gives rise to discernment,
Lets go of the body,
Discards it at death without regret.
Having seen the truth,
It's called noble, supreme.
This ends the discussion of the third topic.
4. To answer the fourth question -- "What is the essence of
virtue?" -- we first have to distinguish the essence of virtue, the
intention to abstain (//cetana-virati//), from the expressions of
virtue, which are of three kinds: //sampatta-virati//, //samadana
virati// and //samuchheda-virati//. These three are called expressions
of virtue because they follow on the precepts.
//Sampatta-virati// means to restrain one's behavior on one's
own, without taking a vow -- for example, going out into the wide open
fields or into the forest and seeing an animal that would be good to
kill, but not killing it, for fear of the sin; or seeing another
person's belongings that would be good to take, but not taking them,
for fear of doing evil.
//Samadana-virati// means to take the precepts as a vow -- either
on one's own or repeating them after another person -- and then being
careful not to violate them.
//Samuccheda-virati// means to keep one's precepts pure and
unblemished, regardless of whether or not one has taken them as vows.
For these expression of virtue to be pure or impure depends on a
number of minor factors arising from the exercise of thought, word,
and deed that either run counter to these expressions (thus blemishing
them) or are careful to follow them (thus keeping them pure).
As for the essence of virtue -- "essence" here meaning the chief
agent or determining factor -- the essence is the heart that wills to
abstain from harm in thought, word, or deed -- the five forms of harm,
the eight, the ten, or what-have-you -- and is mindful to keep the
mind in a state of normalcy. Thus there are two kinds of virtue: pure
virtue, i.e., spotlessness in thought, word, and deed; and blemished
virtue, i.e., virtue torn into pieces or cut into holes. For example,
to observe two precepts but to break three that come in succession, is
virtue torn into pieces. If the precepts that are broken don't come in
succession, this is called stained virtue or virtue cut into holes.
This is how to develop a bad character. People of bad character
do have virtue, but they don't take care of it. They don't make the
effort to maintain the precepts and so let evil come flowing in
through their words and deeds. Stained virtue, torn virtue, and virtue
cut into holes: Even though these are classed as evil, they're still
better than having no virtue at all. To have torn virtue is better
than having no virtue to tear, just as wearing torn clothes is better
than wearing no clothes at all. Everyone born has virtue built into
them; the only exceptions are those who have died.
If this is the case, why do we have to observe precepts? To
observe precepts means that we take the virtue we already have and
cleanse it, not that we go gathering the virtues that grow on monks
We've already seen that virtue means a mind with sound
intentions; blemished virtue means a mind with unsound intentions.
This is enough to show that all of us in the world have virtue,
because who doesn't have a mind? Even crazy people have minds. The
only person without a mind is a corpse. Any and every human being who
breathes in and out has virtue, the only difference being whether or
not that virtue is pure. As the Buddha said to his followers,
//cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami//:
The intention, monks, is what I maintain to be the action.
An evil intention blemishes virtue. A good intention helps keep it
pure. This ends the discussion of the fourth topic.
5. The fifth question -- "What is needed for virtue to be
maintained?" -- can be answered as follows: Virtue here means purity
of virtue. For purity to be firm and lasting depends on the support of
casual factors, just as a new-born child depends on the support of its
parents to survive and grow. If its parents feed it plenty of food, it
will escape from the dangers of malnutrition and grow to be healthy
and strong; if they underfeed it, it'll become thin and frail. In the
same way, for virtue to be maintained depends on our being mindful and
self-aware: These two qualities are the guardians of purity. At the
same time, we have to nourish virtue and give it food. If it isn't
fed, it'll wither away and die. Even if it has mindfulness and
self-awareness watching over it, it can never grow plump, just as a
child who has parents but isn't fed is sure to waste and wither away.
For virtue to grow strong requires food, and the food of virtue is:
a. //metta// -- good will, love for oneself and all others,
hoping that all living beings will be happy;
b. //karuna// -- compassion for oneself and others, hoping
that we will all escape from suffering;
c. //mudita// -- appreciation, ungrudging delight in the
goodness of all living beings;
d. //upekkha// -- equanimity, letting go in those cases where we
should remain indifferent, being unruffled -- neither pleased nor
upset -- where we are no longer able to be of help, as when an
executioner is beheading a criminal who has broken the law.
These four Sublime Attitudes are the food of virtue.
Mindfulness is the father,
Self-awareness, the mother,
And the "immeasurables" are the food.
Whoever can do this will have virtues that are fat and strong. In
other words, when good will, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity
are expressed in thought, word, and deed, then virtue will be firm and
lasting and will head straight toward //nibbana//. This translates as
fat virtues, plump virtues, rich virtues, the virtues taught by the
Buddha Gotama. Whoever can't do this will end up with poor virtues,
sickly virtues, orphaned virtues, withered-and-wasting-away virtues.
To have virtue is to have character,
To have character is to have wealth,
To have wealth is to be happy;
The happiness of virtue is something supreme.
Virtue is an adornment that can be worn by people of every
variety. Young and old alike are attractive when wearing it, for no
matter who wears it, it never looks incongruous or out-of-place,
unlike external ornaments. External ornaments look good only in the
right circumstances, but virtue can be worn at all times. Whoever can
maintain virtue will escape from danger and animosity in this life and
the next. For this reason, people of discernment are careful to
safeguard their virtue. People without discernment go looking for
chains: golden chains for snaring their wrists, ankles, necks, and
earlobes. Even if they watch after them carefully and wear them only
on the right occasions, they still can't escape from harm -- as when a
thief rips off the chains, tearing their ears, scraping the skin from
their arms and legs. Consider, then, just how much good comes from
As for virtue, when it encircles our thoughts, encircles our
words, and encircles our deeds, who can destroy it, what thief can
steal it, what fires can burn it away? After we die, we'll enjoy
ourselves in heaven, as guaranteed by the verse,
//silena sugatim yanti silena bhogasampada//
//silena nibbutim yanti//
The attainment of heaven, wealth and nibbana all depend on
//silam loke anuttaram//
Virtue is unexcelled in the world.
//candanadinam gandhanam sila-gandho anuttaro//
Among all scents, such as sandalwood, the scent of virtue
//silo rahado akuddamo//
Virtue is like a limpid pool.
//sukham yava jara silam//
Virtue brings happiness to the end of old age.
//silam yava jara sadhu//
Virtue is good to the end of old age.
Thus all who aspire to goodness that is limpid and pure should be
diligent in nourishing their virtues to the full with the four Sublime
Attitudes. Having done this, whoever then aspires to the middle part
of the Path -- concentration -- will attain quick results.
This ends the discussion of the fifth topic.
* * *
CONCENTRATION: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
1. How does one go about practicing concentration?
2. What benefits come from practicing it?
3. How many kinds of concentration are there?
4. What is needed for concentration to be maintained?
5. What is the essence of concentration?
1. The first question -- "How does one go about practicing
concentration?" -- can be answered as follows: The first step is to
kneel down with your hands palm-to-palm in front of your heart, and
sincerely pay respect to the Triple Gem, saying as follows:
ARAHAM SAMMA-SAMBUDDHO BHAGAVA
BUDDHAM BHAGAVANTAM ABHIVADEMI (bow down)
SVAKKHATO BHAGAVATA DHAMMO
DHAMMAM NAMASSAMI (bow down)
SUPATIPANNO BHAGAVATO SAVAKA-SANGHO
SANGHAM NAMAMI (bow down)
Then showing respect with your thought, words, and deeds, pay homage
to the Buddha:
NAMO TASSA BHAGAVATO ARAHATO SAMMA-SAMBUDDHASSA (three times)
And then take refuge in the Triple Gem:
BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
DUTIYAMPI BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
DUTIYAMPI DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
DUTIYAMPI SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
TATIYAMPI BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
TATIYAMPI DHAMMAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
TATIYAMPI SANGHAM SARANAM GACCHAMI
Make the following resolution : "I take refuge in the Buddha, the Pure
One, completely free from defilement; and in his Dhamma -- doctrine,
practice, and attainment; and in the Sangha, the four levels of his
Noble Disciples, from now until the end of my life." Then formulate
the intention to observe the five precepts, the eight precepts, or the
ten guidelines -- according to how many you are normally able to
observe -- expressing them in a single vow. For those observing the
IMANI PANCA SIKKHAPADANI SAMADIYAMI (three times)
For those observing the eight precepts:
IMANI ATTHA SIKKHAPADANI SAMADIYAMI (three times)
For those observing the ten precepts:
IMANI DASA SIKKHAPADANI SAMADIYAMI (three times)
For those observing the 227 precepts:
PARISUDDHO AHAM BHANTE PARISUDDHOTI
MAM BUDDHO DHAMMO SANGHO DHARETU
Now that you have professed the purity of your thoughts, words, and
deeds toward the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, bow down
three times and sit down. Place your hands palm-to-palm in front of
your heart, steady your thoughts and develop the four Sublime
Attitudes: good will, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. To
spread these thoughts to all living beings without distinction is
called the immeasurable Sublime Attitude. A short Pali formula, for
those who have trouble memorizing, is:
"METTA" -- thoughts of good will (benevolence and love for
oneself and others, hoping for their welfare),
"KARUNA" -- thoughts of compassion (for oneself and others),
"MUDITA" -- thoughts of appreciation (taking delight in one's own
goodness and that of others),
"UPEKKHA" -- thoughts of equanimity (imperturbability with regard
to those things that should be let go).
This finished, sit in a half-lotus position, right leg on top of the
left, your hands placed palm-up on your lap, right hand on top of the
left. Keep your body straight and your mind on the task before you.
Raise your hands in respect, palm-to-palm in front of the heart, and
think of the qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha: BUDDHO ME
NATHO, DHAMMO ME NATHO, SANGHO ME NATHO (The Buddha, Dhamma, and
Sangha are my mainstay). Then repeat, BUDDHO BUDDHO, DHAMMO DHAMMO,
SANGHO SANGHO. Return your hands to your lap, and repeat one word --
BUDDHO -- over and over in your mind, at the same time focusing on
your in-and-out breath until your mind settles down into
This is the beginning step in practicing concentration. If you're
steady and persistent, the desired results will appear in your heart.
For people who are really intent, even just this is enough to start
seeing results. Those who don't see results either aren't intent on
what they're doing or, if they are intent, aren't doing it right. If
you're intent and you do it right, you're sure to reap rewards in
proportion to the strength of your persistence.
This ends the discussion of the first topic.
2. To answer the second question -- "What benefits come from
practicing concentration?" -- A person who practices concentration
benefits in the following ways:
a. The heart of a person who practices concentration is radiant,
steady, and fearless. Whatever projects such a person may contemplate
can succeed because the mind has a solid footing for its thinking.
Whatever work such a person may undertake will yield results that are
substantial, worthwhile, and long-lasting.
b. Whoever has trained the mind to be steady and firm will be
solid from the standpoint both of the world and of the Dhamma. A solid
heart can be compared to a slab of rock: No matter whether the wind
blows, the rain falls or the sun shines, rock doesn't waver or flinch.
To put it briefly: the eight fetters, i.e., the eight ways of the
world (//lokadhamma//) -- gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise
and censure, pleasure and pain -- can't chain the heart of a person
who has concentration. The five weevils, i.e., the five hindrances
(//nivarana//) -- sensual desires, ill will, drowsiness, restlessness,
and uncertainty -- can't bore into such a person's heart.
c. A heart made firm is like a tree with solid heartwood --
Indian rosewood or teak -- which, once it has died, is of use to
people of ingenuity. The goodness of people who have trained their
hearts in concentration can be of substantial use, even after they've
died, both to themselves and to those surviving, an example being the
Buddha who -- even though he has nibbana-ed -- has set an example that
people still follow today. A person who practices concentration is
like someone with a home and family; a person without concentration is
like a vagrant with no place to sleep: Even though he may have
belongings, he has nowhere to keep them.
A person with a mind made firm in concentration, though, has a
place for his belongings. In other words, all major and minor acts of
merit and wisdom come together in a mind that has concentration. A
person without concentration is like a softwood tree with a hollow
trunk: Poisonous animals, like cobras or crocodile birds, will come
and make their nests in the hollow, laying their eggs and filling the
hollow with their urine and dung. When such a tree dies, there's no
use for it but to throw it into the fire. If people haven't trained
their hearts with concentration, all the defilements -- greed, anger
and delusion -- will come and make their nest there, causing harm and
pain. When these people die, they are of no use except as food for
worms or fuel for a pyre.
d. A person without concentration is like a boat without a dock
or a train without a station: The passengers are put to all sorts of
Concentration is not something exclusive to Buddhism. Even in
mundane activities, people use concentration. No matter what work you
do, if you're not intent on it, you won't succeed. Even our ordinary
everyday expressions teach concentration: "Set your heart on a goal."
"Set your mind on your work." "Set yourself up in business." Whoever
follows this sort of advice is bound to succeed.
But apart from mundane activities, whoever comes to put the
Buddha's teachings into practice is sure to perceive the great worth
of concentration. To be brief: It forms the basis for discernment,
which is the central principle in the craft taught by the Buddha, the
craft of the heart. "Discernment" here refers to the wisdom and
insight that come only from training the heart. People who haven't
practiced concentration -- even if they're ingenious -- can't really
be classed as discerning. Their ingenuity is nothing more than
restless distraction -- an example being the person who thinks to the
point where his nerves break down, which goes to show that his
thoughts have no place to rest. They run loose, with no concentration.
People with responsibilities on the level of the world or of the
Dhamma should train their hearts and minds to a state of
concentration. Then when the time comes to think, they can put their
thinking to work. When the time is past, they can put their thinking
away in concentration. In other words, they have a sense of time and
place, of when and where to think. People without concentration, who
haven't developed this sense, can wear out their minds; and when their
minds are worn out, everything breaks down. Even though they may have
the energy to speak and act, yet if their minds are exhausted, they
can't accomplish their purpose. Most of us use our minds without
caring for them. Morning, noon, and night; sitting, standing, walking,
and lying down, we don't rest for a moment. We're like a man who
drives a car or a boat: If he doesn't let it rest, he's headed for
trouble. The boat may rust out or the parts may break down, and when
this happens, he's in for a difficult time. When a person's mind
hasn't been developed in concentration, it can create difficulties for
its owner's body, as well as for the bodies of others.
Thus the Buddha saw that concentration can be of value on the
level of the world and on the level of the Dhamma, which is why he
taught it in various ways to the people of the world. But some people
are deaf, i.e., they can't understand what concentration is about; or
else they're blind, i.e., they can't stand to look at the example of
those who practice, and so they become detractors and fault-finders.
Those of us who hope to secure ourselves -- on either the level
of the world or the level of the Dhamma -- should thus give firm
support to the message of the Buddha. We shouldn't claim to be his
followers simply because we've been ordained in his order or have
studied his teachings, without putting those teachings into practice.
If we let ourselves be parasites like this, we'll do nothing but cause
Buddhism to degenerate.
Thus people who train their minds to attain concentration are of
use to themselves and to others; people who don't train their minds to
attain concentration will cause harm to themselves and to others. To
attain concentration is like having a strategic fortress with a good
vantage point: If enemies come from within or without, you'll be able
to see them in time. The discernment that comes from concentration
will be the weapon enabling you to wage war and destroy defilement.
Whatever is worthwhile, you will keep in your heart. Whatever is
harmful, you will throw out. The discernment that comes from
concentration will enable you to tell which is which.
These, then, are the benefits reaped by those who practice
concentration, and the drawbacks suffered by those who don't.
This ends the discussion of the second topic.
3. To answer the third question:
a. There are two kinds of concentration, general (//sadharana//)
and exclusive (//asadharana//). General concentration refers to the
type of mental training found throughout the world and not restricted
to any particular religion, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or
Hinduism. All of these religions are based on concentration, which can
thus be called "general concentration." Exclusive concentration is a
type of concentration specifically Buddhist and not shared by other
religions. When practiced, it gives to the transcendent states: the
paths, their fruitions, and //nibbana//. Thus it can be called
General and exclusive, though can be understood in still another
sense: General concentration means concentration that can be focused
on any of your postures -- sitting, standing, walking, or lying down.
Exclusive concentration has nothing to do with your posture, but is
done exclusively in the heart: You focus attention solely on the
in-and-out breath, without getting involved in actions or speech; your
attention is directed solely to the activities of the mind.
b. With regard to its levels, there are three kinds of
concentration: momentary (//khanika//), threshold (//upacara//), and
Momentary concentration can arise when you're intent on your work
or when you see a visual object, hear a sound, smell an aroma, taste a
flavor, when the body comes into contact with a tactile sensation, or
a mental notion arises to the mind -- as when you become firm in your
repetition of //buddho//. When the mind becomes still for a moment
under conditions like these, this is classed as momentary
concentration. Momentary concentration is like a person diving down
into a pond and then climbing up onto the bank when he resurfaces.
Threshold concentration: When you practice mindfulness immersed
in the body (//kayagatasati//), mentally scrutinizing the parts of the
body until you are struck by the fact that they are filthy and
repulsive, simply compounds of the four physical properties of earth,
water, fire, and wind: Thinking in this way is termed //vitakka//; to
come to this sort of realization is termed //vicara//. The mind will
then come to a halt, still and at ease for a short period, and then
withdraw, like a person who dives down into a pond, resurfaces, and
then swims around for a while before climbing up onto the bank. This
is called threshold concentration because it comes on the verge of
Fixed penetration: The mind is steady and firmly concentrated --
paying no attention at all to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or
tactile sensations -- being completely absorbed in a single mental
notion. It takes shelter in a subtle preoccupation (//arammana//), and
so is able to hide away from the five hindrances, although it can't
yet kill them off absolutely. Even so, this is still termed fixed
penetration because it can be entered for long periods of time, like a
person who dives down to the bottom of a pond, resurfaces, and then
swims around in all four directions (the four levels of //jhana//).
All three of these levels of concentration are classed as
general. They're practiced all over the world. The only form of
concentration particular to Buddhism is transcendent concentration.
Viewed from this standpoint, the forms of concentration are only two:
mundane and transcendent. Mundane concentration is further divided
into two sorts: that which is accompanied by the hindrances, and that
which is accompanied by the discernment of liberating insight
(//vipassana//). Transcendent concentration is also divided into two
sorts: that which has abandoned the five lower fetters (//sanyojana//)
but is still accompanied by a number of the hindrances; and that which
is accompanied by the realization of liberating insight, eradicating
all the hindrances.
The three levels of concentration (momentary, threshold, and
fixed) form the basis of discernment. Both mundane and transcendent
discernment have to depend on one or another of these three levels of
concentration, but concentration is not what constitutes Awakening.
Awakening is accomplished by discernment. If discernment is lacking,
no amount of concentration, however great, can lead to Awakening.
Once you have attained concentration, the arising of discernment
can depend on one of two factors: an experienced friend makes a
suggestion that sparks a realization of the opening leading onto
discernment; or external events -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or
tactile sensations -- strike the mind, which stirs for a moment and
sets out to scrutinize them (this is called //vitakka// and
//vicara//) so as to ferret out an understanding of their nature. If
you see that any of these two kinds of events give beneficial results,
then fix your attention on them and keep after them, using the power
of your discernment and ingenuity to gain true insight into their
nature. But if you see that your discernment is still no match for
them, focus back on the original object of your concentration. If you
focus back and forth in this manner, you'll give rise to liberating
insight; and once you've given rise to liberating insight, you will
attain transcendent discernment, the understanding that will enable
you to abandon once and for all your views of self-identification.
Transcendent concentration derives its name from the discernment
it gives rise to: The discernment itself is what constitutes
Awakening. But for discernment to be effective in line with the aims
of the Buddha's teachings, it requires the back-up and support of
This ends the discussion of the third topic.
4. The fourth question -- "What is needed for concentration to be
maintained?" -- can be answered as follows: Concentration means for
the mind to be firmly intent on a single preoccupation, but for the
mind to be firm, it needs a footing to hold onto. In general, if your
mind lacks a solid footing, nothing you attempt will succeed. Just as
the body needs a shelter as a basis for its well-being, and speech
needs a listener as a basis for being effective, in a similar way, the
mind -- if it's to become trained and firm in concentration -- needs a
//kammatthana//: an assignment or exercise. A //kammatthana// is like
medicine or food. To know the theme of your exercise is enough to
start getting results in your practice of concentration.
Here we will first divide the exercises into two categories:
external and internal. External exercises deal with sights, sounds,
smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas; the internal exercises
deal with the five aggregates (//khandha//): physical phenomena
(//rupa//), feelings (//vedana//), labels (//sanna//), mental
fashionings (//sankhara//), and cognizance (//vinnana//). If you're
alert and discerning, both categories -- external as well as internal
-- are enough to achieve concentration unless you neglect to treat
them as exercises. If you attend to them, they are all you need to
attain concentration. But beginners, whose powers of discernment are
still weak, should start first with the internal exercises. Start out
by studying the body -- "physiology from the inside" -- by
scrutinizing the four properties of earth, water, fire, and wind.
People whose powers of discernment have been sufficiently developed
can then give rise to concentration using any of the themes of
meditation, whether internal or external.
The internal exercises should be done as follows: Focus on the
properties of earth, water, fire, and wind that appear in the body.
Don't let your thoughts wander outside. Focus exclusively on your own
body and mind, fixing your attention first on five examples of the
earth property: //kesa// -- hair of the head; //loma// -- hair of the
body; //nakha// -- nails; //danta// -- teeth; //taco// -- skin, which
wraps up the body and bones. Scrutinize these five parts until you see
that they are unattractive, filthy, and repulsive, either with regard
to where they come from, where they are, their color, their shape, or
If, after focusing your thoughts in this way, your mind doesn't
become still, go on to scrutinize five examples of the water property:
//pittam// -- gall, bitter and green; //semham// -- phlegm, which
prevents the smell of digesting food from rising to the mouth;
//pubbo// -- pus, decayed and decomposing, which comes from wounds;
//lohitam// -- blood and lymph, which permeate throughout the body;
//sedo// -- sweat, which is exuded whenever the body is heated.
Scrutinize these things until you see that -- with regard to origin,
location, color, smell and the above-mentioned aspects -- they are
enough to make your skin crawl. Focus on them until you're convinced
that that's how they really are, and the mind should settle down and
If it doesn't, go on to examine four aspects of the fire
property: the heat that keeps the body warm; the heat that inflames
the body, making it feverish and restless; the heat that digests food,
distilling the nutritive essence so as to send it throughout the body
(of the food we eat, one part is burned away by the fires of
digestion, one part becomes refuse, one part feeds our parasites, and
the remaining part nourishes the body); the heat that ages the body
and wastes it away. Consider these four aspects of the fire property
until you see their three inherent characteristics, i.e., that they
are inconstant (//aniccam//), stressful (//dukkham//) and not-self
If the mind doesn't settle down, go on to consider the wind
property: the up-going breath sensations, the down-going breath
sensations, the breath sensations in the stomach, the breath
sensations in the intestines, the breath sensations flowing throughout
the entire body, and the in-and-out breath. Examine the wind property
from the viewpoint of any one of its three inherent characteristics,
as inconstant, stressful, or not-self. If the mind doesn't develop a
sense of dispassion and detachment, gather all four properties
together -- earth, water, fire and wind -- and consider them as a
single whole: a physical phenomenon. That's all they are, just
physical phenomena. There's nothing of any substance or lasting worth
to them at all.
If this doesn't lead to a sense of dispassion and detachment, go
on to consider mental phenomena (//nama//), which are formless:
//vedana//) -- the experiencing of feelings and moods, likes and
dislikes; //sanna// -- labels, names, allusions; //sankhara// --
mental fashionings; and //vinnana// -- cognizance.
Once you understand what these terms refer to, focus on the
feelings that appear in your own heart and mind. In other words,
observe the mental states that experience moods and feelings, to see
at which moments there are feelings of pleasure, pain, or
indifference. Be aware that, "Right now I'm experiencing pleasure,"
"Right now I'm experiencing pain," "Right now I'm experiencing a
feeling that's neither pleasure nor pain." Be constantly aware of
these three alternatives (the feeling that's neither pleasure nor pain
doesn't last for very long). If you're really composed and observant,
you'll come to see that all three of these feelings are, without
exception, fleeting, stressful, and not-self; neither long nor
lasting, always shifting and changing out of necessity: sometimes
pleasure, sometimes a little, never satisfying your wants or desires.
Once you see this, let go of them. Don't fasten onto them. Fix your
mind on a single preoccupation.
If your mind still isn't firm, though, consider mental labels
next. What, at the moment, are your thoughts alluding to: things past,
present, or future? Good or bad? Keep your awareness right with the
body and mind. If you happen to be labeling or alluding to a feeling
of pleasure, be aware of the pleasure. If pain, be aware of the pain.
Focus on whatever you are labeling in the present, to see which will
disappear first: your awareness or the act of labeling. Before long,
you'll see that the act of labeling is fleeting, stressful, and
not-self. When you see this, let go of labels and allusions. Don't
latch onto them. Fix your mind on a single preoccupation.
If your mind still isn't firm, go on to consider mental
fashionings: What issues are your thoughts forming at the moment: past
or future? Are your thoughts running in a good direction or bad? About
issues outside the body and mind, or inside? Leading to peace of mind
or to restlessness? Make yourself constantly self-aware, and once
you're aware of the act of mental fashioning, you'll see that all
thinking is fleeting, stressful, and not-self. Focus your thoughts
down on the body and mind, and then let go of all aspects of thinking,
fixing your attention on a single preoccupation.
If the mind still doesn't settle down, though, consider
cognizance next: What, at the moment, are you cognizant of -- things
within or without? Past, present, or future? Good or bad? Worthwhile
or worthless? Make yourself constantly self-aware. Once your powers of
reference and presence of mind are constant, you'll see immediately
that all acts of cognizance are fleeting, stressful, and not-self.
Then focus on the absolute present, being aware of the body and mind.
Whatever appears in the body, focus on it. Whatever appears in the
mind, focus on just what appears. Keep your attention fixed until the
mind becomes firm, steady, and still in a single preoccupation --
either as momentary concentration, threshold concentration, or fixed
penetration -- so as to form a basis for liberating insight.
Thus for concentration or steadiness of mind to arise in a fully
developed form and to be firmly maintained depends on the sort of
internal exercises mentioned here, dealing with the body, feelings,
labels, mental fashionings, and acts of cognizance. These are the
foods of concentration. The four frames of reference
(//satipatthana//) are its guardian nurses. Whoever wants his or her
concentration to be strong should nourish it well. Once the mind has
been properly nourished and put into shape, it can be put to effective
This ends the discussion of the fourth topic.
5. The fifth question -- -"What is the essence of concentration?"
-- can be answered as follows: Concentration means for the mind to be
firmly intent. To be firmly intent can mean either (a) intent on a
mental prop or preoccupation, which is termed //appana jhana//, fixed
absorption; or (b) intent exclusively on the mind itself, which is
termed //appana citta//, the fixed mind. The mind that's intent forms
the essence of concentration.
If we were to put this another way, we could make a distinction
between //cetana samadhi//, concentration that is intent on
concentration, and //cetana-virati samadhi//, concentration that is
intent on abstinence. In //cetana samadhi//, the mind has cut itself
off from external preoccupations through the power of concentration.
In //cetana-virati samadhi//, the mind is set on finding a technique
for letting go of all preoccupations, both within and without.
//Cetana samadhi// means to be focused directly on the mind. In other
words, the mind doesn't think of using any other way to straighten
itself out. Simply focusing down is enough to repress the defilements,
because we all are bound to have defilements intermixed in our minds,
and the very mind that has defilements can cure the mind of its
defilements, without having to look for any other means -- just like
using heat to cure heat, cold to cure cold, or wind to cure wind.
For example, suppose a man is slightly singed by a small flame,
but then is burned by a glowing ember or lantern flame: The pain from
the first burn will disappear. Or suppose you feel a little chilly and
have to wrap yourself up in a blanket: If you then get exposed to a
bitter cold winter wind, you'll feel that the slight chill you had
earlier didn't warrant getting wrapped up in a blanket at all. As for
an example of wind curing wind: Suppose a person suffers a slight
disorder of the internal wind element, causing him to belch. If he
then suffers a violent disorder of the wind element, causing cramps in
a part of his body, his belching will immediately disappear. In the
same way, the mind can use defilement to suppress defilement. This is
called //cetana samadhi//. In //cetama-virati samadhi//, though, the
mind has to search for strategies both within and without, using a
good preoccupation to cure a bad one, such as making reference to the
ten themes for recollection (//anussati//).
The mind is what is intent; the intent mind forms the essence of
concentration. The term "fixed mind" (//appana citta//) refers to the
mind that is resilient, firm, and uninfluenced by its preoccupations.
In fixed penetration or fixed absorption, though, the mind is firmly
implanted in its preoccupation, but is still in bad straits because it
doesn't yet know the true nature of that preoccupation. It can't yet
let it go. For the mind to let go of its preoccupations, you have to
use discernment to keep after it, safeguarding it so that it doesn't
move in line with them. Only then will the mind be on the verge of
purity, in line with the statement, "The mind, when disciplined by
discernment, is freed from all mental effluents."
For the mind to arrive at these two forms of concentration --
which we have termed //cetana samadhi// and //cetana-virati samadhi//
-- it must first be disciplined by virtue. Concentration then
disciplines discernment; discernment disciplines virtue; discernment
disciplines concentration; discernment disciplines the mind. Once we
are able to follow through with this, we are bound to see the true
essence of concentration. Most of us, though, simply use virtue to
discipline concentration, and concentration to discipline discernment,
without using discernment to discipline the mind, which is why we get
attached to our own views and our own way of doing things. This is
called self-identification (//sakkaya-ditthi//), the way of viewing
things that leads us to latch onto them as belonging to us or as being
the self. We're unable to let go and so get stuck on virtue, or stuck
on concentration, or infatuated with our own discernment. We drown in
a flood of views and opinions (//ditthi ogha//) simply because we
don't know what lies at the essence of concentration.
To be able to know, we have to vary our practice slightly, by
cleansing virtue so as to foster concentration, cleansing
concentration so as to foster discernment, cleansing discernment so
that our views are right, and then using that discernment to cleanse
virtue and concentration once more. Once virtue and concentration have
been made pure, we don't need to use discernment to cleanse them any
further. We simply practice them as a matter of course, and use
discernment to cleanse directly at the mind. The aspects of virtue and
concentration that are concerned with methods and rules will
disappear, leaving just discernment working at cleansing the mind
until it is steady and firm -- but not firm in the preoccupations of
concentration, though; firm in the preoccupations of discernment.
If we were to classify the mind at this stage, it is //appana
citta//, the fixed mind. As for concentration, it is momentary
concentration. Momentary concentration is the basis for the tempered
discernment of liberating insight. The mind can't stay long with any
preoccupations, for it is constantly wiping them out, like the bubbles
formed by rain on the surface of a lake: As soon as they appear, they
vanish flat away, like a sea without the striking of waves. When
discernment is tempered through the power of a fixed mind, the
preoccupations of momentary concentration constantly disband and
disappear, not letting the heart get caught up on them. This is termed
release (//vimutti//): The mind is freed from all preoccupations,
among them the effluents of sensuality, becoming, views, and
unawareness. It becomes a mind beyond all effluents. Thus it is said,
//khina jati vusitam brahmacariyam
naparam itthattayati pajanatiti//
which means, "The Noble Disciple discerns that birth is ended, the
holy life is completed, the task done. There is nothing further to be
done for the sake of this state."
So ultimately, when the practice of concentration reaches the
true essence of the mind, discernment is attained.
This ends the discussion of the fifth topic.
The issues discussed here
People of wisdom should chew over well.
Chew them up fine
So they don't stick in your throat.
If they aren't well-chewed, they'll have no flavor.
If you chew them well, you'll know their taste.
If you have no teeth, you'll waste away.
If you don't crack open the Dhamma,
You'll end up in doubt,
And won't get out and away from stress.
If you don't get release,
You'll only get to heaven.
The worthiness of our own actions
Is what counts
Both in the Dhamma and in the world.
So inspect this
With this, //Mastering Virtue// is completed.
Phra Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
The Forest Temple
* * * * * * * *