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An Overview
The Practice of Virtue
The Development of Insight
An Overview

Section 2: Basic Standard of Conduct

So what is virtue? First, it is a state of mind in which we are motivated to live an ethical life. This motivation usually comes from seeing the suffering that unwholesome actions produce in ourselves and others. In the Buddha's teaching our training begins with the five precepts. In the development of ethical behavior we are studying karma on a personal level, and because all karmic activity on this level originates from volition in the mind, a person's intention is critical. When we examine our speech, bodily actions and livelihood in relationship to our motivation we should do so from the point of view of the five precepts. We will study these precepts later in the text, however before doing this I would like to present a broad general view of ethical behavior. In considering this very important topic we go back to the very first thing that is taught a novice when they begin to study Buddha Dharma: ‘All beings live by nutriment.’ How we obtain sustenance for life is critical if we wish to live without blame. For instance, any livelihood that would involve deceit would definitely be wrong. False representation of one's self as having certain abilities, when in fact that is not the case, would be wrong. Another livelihood that is completely wrong is one that is gained through the sale of armaments, or a livelihood that somehow enslaves others, such as the sale of drugs, prostitution or the like. In fact the principles of the teaching suggest that one should not engage in a livelihood for the sole purpose of acquiring wealth. In other words, we should not spend our life energies acquiring material possessions beyond the necessities dictated in living a simple healthy life. Nevertheless, it is also important to develop refinements such as the arts, music, sciences or exploring an unknown territory of the planet earth - these are not sustenance in the conventional sense, however they still may be necessary for the higher development of a given individual. In the development of right livelihood we should seek a way of life that first does not injure others; it also should not be a livelihood that is destructive to the environment.
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The Community
In the future, when considering the question of right livelihood, we may have to entertain some notions that today most consider quite radical. I believe we are rapidly approaching a time when it will be possible for our species to collectively care for all the physical needs of its members, at least on the most rudimentary level. This would be food, clothing, shelter and medicine. In the ancient teaching these are called the four requisites, and when these have been provided, it is then possible to develop the higher qualities of the human potential. I am aware that many people of the world today would consider this an unattainable utopian ideal. However, if we consider the rise in human population and the growing shortage of natural resources, such an ideal may not be impractical but actually a necessity - unless we are willing to have large segments of the population starving to death and functioning as a breeding ground for disease and revolution.

It should be obvious that amassing an undue amount of wealth and power does not lead to fulfillment, however, the development of higher states of consciousness does. These qualities, when developed, become a gift and enrichment to all sentient life. It is by these basic principles that the Buddha founded the Sangha, an order of aspirants to awakening. Great emphasis is placed on not accumulating anything beyond what is necessary for the simple maintenance of life. In this way, we as practitioners can have most of our life energy devoted to the cultivation of higher states of consciousness. If we look at this ideal in its most general application in society, it would include all the wholesome conditions that enrich us. In this way the development of virtue is seen as a public and interactive occurrence.
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Different Ways of Developing Virtue
To Serve a Teacher
In the ancient teachings of awakening there are many methods given to develop virtue; one such discipline is to serve a teacher who resides in a state of holiness. When one undergoes the training of serving a holy one, the highest levels of virtue can be attained. We should not think of this discipline as an emotional eulogizing of another individual. Instead it should be seen as a sincere commitment to serve and uphold the holy state; it is this intention that purifies us of unwholesome states.
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The Study of Consciousness
Virtue can also be fostered through the study of consciousness as an amalgam of feelings, perceptions and formations. Feelings are categorized as pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral. Perception is the five senses functioning in a clear way - pure cognition without the projections of the conditioned mind. The sixth sense, which we refer to as the mind door, is where we come to know formations or objects of mind. In other words, virtue is developed through the study of these aspects of consciousness and seeing how the unwholesome produce suffering and the wholesome produce freedom. It is in this way we become blameless in our thoughts, words and actions.
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Virtue can also be developed through restraint. Here we take up the discipline of the Patimokkha, which are the full rules of a Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni, in a community of elders. The Buddha, in proclaiming the rules for the order, did so to help those who needed these restraints so they were not swept away by the currents of the world. In this discipline the Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni understands suffering to be endless if ignorance is not eradicated. Seeing delusion as being the root of greed and hatred we remove ourselves from the world and exercise restraint by developing mindfulness. When we take up this discipline of restraint we use our knowledge, our patience and our energy. The exercise of restraint is to prevent the mind from being unconsciously consumed by the data coming from the five senses. In this way we restrain our sense faculties, and through this restraint fulfill all the qualities of virtue.
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Sila or the Cool Clear State
So how do we recognize virtue in ourselves and others? Sometimes, in the ancient texts, etymology is used as a way to trace the various meanings of a word and to get a broader sense of its implications. For instance the words for ‘virtue’ in the Pali language are sila and silana, which mean to be composed, not be ruffled by circumstances. A person who is in a mindful and aware state is not disturbed by the activities of daily life. There is no inconsistency between their actions and their intent. Sila or this cool clear state is also the basis for cultivating all positive states of consciousness. Others however, approach the word sila as being related to the word csiras meaning ‘head’. In this sense we could say that it literally means to have a cool head. In other words, not to be agitated and subject to the burning states of mind that arise from anger, hatred, jealousy and covetousness. Unwholesome states are characterized by the way they consume our energies in the heat of passion.
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Virtue as a Physical Base
It has often occurred to me in my studies - not just of Buddha Dharma, but also of science - that virtue has a physical base as well as a mental one. In his book ‘Notes on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony’, the eminent biologist, Lewis Thomas, put forward the idea that it actually stressed the body to lie and this stress is what is being recorded by a lie detector. He argued that at an earlier time in our evolution, humans could notice this stress - see and smell it - and that this played an important role in creating trust and cohesion in early human tribes and communities. I believe that it will be born out in the future that morality is part of the very fabric of our body and evolution. Perhaps the only difference between the human being and the rest of the animal world is that a human being can actually develop virtue as a conscious discipline. I know that this appears to be going against the grain of most evolutionary theory at present, but it may be discovered in the future that an organism is more able to adapt to its environment when it is not in a state of internal conflict.
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In the West we sometimes use different words to describe the problems in practicing morality. For instance, we use the word hypocrisy to denote a discrepancy in a person's behavior and their philosophy or the teaching they are following. In the ancient text this is referred to as being uncoordinated and awkward. The conflict in the mind is being expressed in a lack of coordination and composure on the physical level. To an aware person the body presence of an individual demonstrates their inner state.
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The Function of Virtue
Now, let us contemplate this subject from a different perspective. If we look at the different methods of cultivating wholesome consciousness, they still fundamentally have only one purpose: the true function of the wholesome is to be a basis for purely objective observation. In other words, if the wholesome is merely cultivated for its own sake and not as a base for higher understanding it may become stagnant, rigid and not lead to complete unfoldment. On the other hand, it is only from a clear base that we can cultivate the higher states of consciousness including Nibbana. When this wholesome base is achieved we are said to be blameless; we are not harried by conflicting emotions, guilt or regret.

Natural & Conventional Morality
The first step in the development of virtue is to avert those actions and activities that produce guilt and regret. Here I think we have to take a bit of time to look at this from the psychological point of view. In our society guilt has been seen as a crippling aspect of consciousness rather than a beneficial one. This, in my opinion, is due to social conditioning and the discrepancy between natural morality and conventional morality - the first being a part of nature and physiology, and the second being determined by the collective norm. In fact the collective norm can be quite opposed to natural morality. For instance, society may say that you are a good and honorable person if you go to war and kill others in defense of your nation's ideals. But such a person will in fact suffer a great internal conflict, because the act of killing another human being goes against natural morality. When we speak about guilt as being a positive force in the human psyche we take for granted that the person is in touch with their 'natural' morality.
What we call ‘guilt’, the ancients referred to as conscience and shame. Conscience would prevent an unwholesome action and shame would be the result of an unwholesome action. These are said to be the cause of virtue, because when these two are in existence, virtue arises and develops. When conscience and shame have been clouded over by rationalization, we are no longer in touch with our true experience and virtue does not grow and flourish within us.
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Bodily Purity
When virtue is understood as the purification of bodily actions we train ourselves not to injure others in any way. The spontaneous results are bodily actions motivated not only to preserve life but also to benefit others.
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Verbal Purity
Virtue, when manifest as verbal purity, does not engage in unwholesome speech such as slander, lies, or speech that is an attack on another person. We also restrain ourselves from engaging in useless speech such as babble that only creates confusion. Wholesome speech that is of benefit to us on the path arises spontaneously when the unwholesome has been eliminated.
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Mental Purity
Virtue, when manifest as mental purity, is a discipline that does not tolerate states of greed, hatred or sloth to persist in the mind. When these defilements have been eliminated from the mind we naturally reside in harmony, and spontaneously this state gives rise to the beautiful such as love, compassion and sympathetic joy.

The body, speech and mind of a wholesome person naturally move towards fulfilling our highest potential. We must bring into being a clear mind that recognizes the wholesome, the unwholesome, and their resulting states. This is the true purpose of the practice of virtue. The development of conscience and shame at the slightest transgression produces a strong unshakable mind.
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Benefits of Virtue
It is instructive and insightful to look at what the ancients saw as the benefits of virtue. The first and most important benefit is that when we have fulfilled the prerequisites of virtue we have no remorse or regret about the way in which we live. This has a tremendous impact on our lives because it is only through this non-remorse that there can arise true confidence. When we attempt to be confident without the support of a virtuous mind this discrepancy results in an inward feeling of inadequacy. No matter how successful such a person becomes they are still plagued by feelings of inferiority, which produce great anxiety. On the other hand, when we are possessed of virtue we can, without hesitation, fearlessly enter any assembly, whether it is of celebrities, the heads of state, religious dignitaries or our neighbors next door. In other words, because there is no residue of guilt or shame, we are not paranoid or fearful about what others think of us. We are not plagued by the dread of self-blame. It is obvious that such an individual has an immense advantage in the pursuit of any of life's endeavors. It is also said that a person who has lived a virtuous life dies in an unconfused state. At the dissolution of the body there is no fear or apprehension. A virtuous person is easily loved and admired by all good people everywhere.
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Degrees of Virtue
We can now look at various degrees of virtue. First, it is a method of strengthening the mind by training ourselves to abstain from unwholesome activities. Second, it is the base from which we cultivate relationships with wise members of the community, so that we can test ourselves and receive instruction in our practice. Ideally we would be able to relate to elders who have accomplished the discipline of virtue and study with them in a tranquil environment. Thirdly, when the development of virtue is no longer dependent upon practice nor is dependent on associations for support, then the practitioner resides in a state of virtue that is not shaken by the many trials and difficulties of life. These three stages are a progression in development: first the work of restraint that strengthens the mind, second the support for good associations, and third the unshakable realization that is not dependent on restraint or associations.
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Limited or Unlimited Benefits
Virtue can have limited benefit or unlimited benefit. When it is done for outward recognition, such as praise from others or wanting to be accepted into a group, it is limited in its benefit. When it is done for its own sake, spontaneously manifesting in the moment, it is unlimited.

It is also categorized as being mundane or super-mundane. All virtuous states that are being cultivated as a way to become free of unwholesome qualities are mundane. All virtue arising spontaneously, in one who has completely freed themselves from the unwholesome, is super-mundane. The development of mundane virtue is for the purpose of escaping from the endless cycles of blind becoming in states of loss. It is the method of achieving a state where we are no longer subject to becoming. Super-mundane virtue is the natural result of the attainment of the Paths and their fruit in the holy life.
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