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

Section 1: Guidelines for Behavior

When we cultivate awareness to eliminate the gross defilements of bodily action, we must first recognize them as they arise and become totally convinced that they are a hindrance to unfoldment and happiness. It is only through this recognition that we develop a will to use the tools that the teaching gives us. In Buddha Dharma the most rudimentary training level is the five precepts. These can roughly be translated as:
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The Five Precepts
  1. I undertake to train myself to abstain from killing.
  2. I undertake to train myself to abstain from stealing.
  3. I undertake to train myself to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake to train myself to abstain from false speech.
  5. I undertake to train myself to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness and cloud the mind.
1) I undertake to train myself to abstain from killing.
Virtue should be seen as giving up the killing of living beings and abstaining from such actions. Restraining the mind so that we do not automatically strike a mosquito. Virtue should be understood as not transgressing this precept. Because the wholesome is generated through one’s intention, the volition to abstain from such actions should be considered virtuous. It is important to remember that in the Buddha’s teaching, volition determines karma. It is our intentions, our motivation that produces wholesome, unwholesome or neutral karmic results.
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The Five Methods
When we cultivate right action, right speech and right livelihood we use the five-fold method of restraint; the first step in this process is abstinence, the second is effort, the third is patience, the fourth is mindfulness and the fifth is wisdom.

The ancients saw abstinence or abandoning the unwholesome as virtuous, using our effort to abstain from the unwholesome as virtuous, using our patience to restrain the habitual mind as virtuous and holding fast with mindfulness not to transgress the precepts as virtuous. Wisdom is in knowing this process leads to happiness. Each of these descriptions indicates a particular attitude. Abandoning has the quality of renouncing association with the killing of living beings. Using our effort to abstain means we renounce this activity with the power of our self-control. Using our patience means that we check and curb the unconscious impulse again and again so that we do not strike or injure another living creature. In this way we use our mindfulness to cultivate virtue by not transgressing the precept, by not killing living beings. It is wisdom that brings this precept to perfection.

And so we use our discipline to abstain from or abandon a particular activity. In other words we cultivate a deliberate training of our habits in regards to our physical activities. When we are walking we are mindful of other living creatures and we are careful not to destroy life by being unaware. For instance, one of the reasons why the Buddha prohibited the community of elders from undertaking journeys during the rainy season was because it was likely they would kill creatures as they walked the footpaths or roads at that time. To North Americans this may not make very much sense, but in a tropical environment in the rainy season many creatures are forced out of their burrows; by walking on the paths it is likely that many of them would be killed. Another example is the type of structure or house that a member of the community was allowed to build; this was limited to one that would not necessitate the killing of living creatures. Therefore, in this manner of training we investigate our activities and ask ourselves if these activities are likely to injure other beings. Our intention and volition is the key factor here.

When we speak about effort as being virtuous we are recognizing that karma is determined by volition. When we use effort to reside in a state of loving-kindness, then knowingly taking the life of another living creature becomes impossible. However, if we were to step on an ant unknowingly, without the intention to kill, it would not be considered an unwholesome action that produces a karmic result. It may be that we need to increase our awareness so that this does not occur, however, it is not technically considered an unwholesome action unless there is the conscious intent to harm another living being. If we commit such an action with the intention of harming another it will produce a karmically resultant state corresponding to the unwholesome action.

When we speak about patient restraint of the mind we are referring to not allowing unaware, careless and indifferent wanderings of the mind to cause an accident that would injure another. An example would be if we injured someone while driving in an agitated state of mind. We should train ourselves in such a way that we do not allow these situations to arise because we see the danger in them. In other words, we restrain our minds and we use our volition and patience to do so. Non-transgression means that we do not give up the states of loving-kindness towards living beings, we do not transgress our intentions or wish for all beings to be happy. The five methods to develop virtue, abstention, effort, patience, mindfulness, and wisdom apply to all the various forms of training.

2) I undertake to train myself to abstain from stealing.
The training precepts have many levels of understanding. For instance the precept to abstain from stealing can be translated more precisely as not to take anything that has not been 'freely' given. This precept has different implications for a member of the order or one who lives by begging for alms than for a person who works at a job. In the case of the person working at a job it might mean they would refrain from taking office supplies for their own personal use, although commonly most of the staff might think nothing of it. In the order, the story is told of an elder on a journey who had not been able to beg for alms because he was passing through a forest. He came to a mango tree and because he was old and fatigued from his journey, he rested there. It was before the sun crossed the meridian and the elder looked around him and saw the many mangos on the ground. He knew that it was permissible according to the rules to eat the mangos because they did not belong to anyone. However, they were not "freely given". Although the elder was tired and hungry he refrained from eating the mangos because he understood that receiving alms that are freely given is of benefit to others. Travelling along the path sometime later, a lay person saw the elder sitting beneath the tree. Seeing the mangos and the weakened state of the elder he surmised what had occurred. Because of the elder's discipline of not eating solid food after midday the layman could not offer him one of the mangos. Seeing the elder's weakened state, compassion arose in the layman and so he picked up the elder and carried him home on his back. On the way, the elder due to his virtue, attained Arahat and the layman due to his virtue, attained Path. This story gives us an idea of the spirit in which we should practice the precepts. No one is looking over our shoulder and we have no super ego dictating our behavior. We should practice virtuous behavior because it is of benefit to ourselves and to others. By holding to the precept the office worker builds strength in his resolve. Those who observe his behavior are encouraged in their own sense of the wholesome. If we look at these two examples we will develop insight into the interwoven nature of karma. Our actions are a reflection of our mind and others perceiving these actions are inspired or ashamed.

If we examine the story of the elder we will understand that he was living in a profound state of trust. He trusted that whatever was necessary for the maintenance of his life and for the purpose of awakening would be provided or freely given. This is a very profound state and it demands great discipline to train the mind to not worry about obtaining the requisites for life. We, in our present life style in North America, may not practice the precepts in the same manner as the elder, however it would be good for us to aspire to the purity of his intent.

3) I undertake to train myself to abstain from sexual misconduct. In sexuality, virtue should be seen as abstaining from unwholesome activity. Traditionally this precept is translated as abstaining from adultery, however, in a broader sense sexual immorality could be defined as sexuality that somehow injures another person or ourselves. This includes unrestrained indulgence or engaging in sexual activity without being in a state of love. These can all be defined as sexual misconduct. Since lust is a defilement of consciousness, sexuality that is based in lust is also immoral. For the average North American it would seem impossible to have sex without being in a state of lust, because from a very young age, the media has fed us a steady diet of lust-producing images. This is not to imply that individuals in earlier societies weren’t subject to lust, however, what I am saying is that because of the media in our society it seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Individuals in societies that are more natural and have a closer association with their biological roots may have an easier time resolving the primordial conflicts coming from lust. In developing the spiritual life it is critical that we come to know the bodily formations as a phenomena of nature. The life energy that we are born with can be used as a vehicle to liberation, or it can be a cruel slave master. If we lived without all the propaganda, we would see that lust diminishes our wholesome energy. True sexuality would be understood as an exchange of energy not too different from that of trees to earth or vegetation to the biosphere. Sexuality is an enlivening energy that is part of our physiology from the moment of conception. It becomes warped and abused when it serves ego-centered non-loving motives.

4) I undertake to train myself to abstain from false speech.
In the case of speech, virtue should be seen as abstaining from false speech. Notice that this isn't translated as lying, but it implies that if we refrained from false speech the truth would be spoken. Also, it should be understood that silence under certain circumstances could be considered false speech. For example, if someone was wrongly accused of something and we knew about it, it would be a form of false speech or deceit to not speak of our knowledge. Volition is the key to maintaining all of the precepts and in this case we should have a strong motivation to be truthful in all of our interactions. It is a matter of knowing whether or not the effect of our speech has promoted truthful understanding. We may not be able to know for sure whether this has occurred but if we are properly motivated eventually the truth will be communicated. On the other hand, if our speech is motivated by the mere amusement of undermining others, this will become clear in time and the results of these actions will be suffering for ourselves and for others. A further example of unwholesome speech is if we engage in mindless chatter simply to ingratiate ourselves with a group. The quality of our mind deteriorates over time and in fact we gradually lose our ability to speak the truth. Another unwholesome manifestation is when we engage in verbal gymnastics out of an effort to defeat an opponent. Although we may not break the precept in the sense of lying, our mind becomes blocked off - as if covered in scar tissue ­ and we end up closed to constructive criticism, loosing the council of the wise.

Our intention, of course, is what determines whether our speech is malicious. Although we may not be consciously lying about someone, our speech can still be malicious; it is our intent that defines the action as malicious. To malign someone in order to make ourselves look good is a very unwholesome motivation.

If we engage in harsh speech when our mind is agitated, this attitude of harshness should be viewed as unwholesome. The words we are speaking could be correct, even our conscious intention may not be wrong, but there is an unconscious agitation present and it results in harsh speech. Psychologically speaking, harsh speech is usually coming out of frustration, and because we rarely speak harshly to our superiors, our frustration is often taken out on an innocent or weaker person. When we have frustration it is because we are not directly confronting a problem - this then becomes unconscious and is projected onto someone else. We may not be speaking an untruth but we are projecting our frustration onto someone and because we are driven unconsciously to do so, we are not in a state of truth; in effect whatever we say in this state is a lie.

Another form of false speech is gossip. What wholesome content can gossip have? It is a waste of our valuable energy and time and clutters up our mind with the drivel of mediocrity. It is false speech because there is no truth in it. Individuals with superior minds speak about creative possibilities, individuals with mediocre minds speak about events, those with inferior minds speak about other people and their mishaps. For the mind that is unfolding there is no tolerance for this nonsense.

5) I undertake to train myself to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness and cloud the mind.
In the case of intoxicants that cloud the mind, virtue should be understood as restraint, non-transgression and a strong volition to be clear and unclouded. Ingesting substances that cause us to have impaired judgement results in unconscious and unaware actions. Notice how there is a relative aspect to this precept. First we must determine what substances cause heedlessness, or impair our judgement, then we have to determine the amount. For instance a glass of beer after a long hike may be refreshing to some and not cause any impaired judgement. In contrast I knew a monk who would not take a drop of alcohol even if it were in a medicine. We are left to determine for ourselves how best to implement this precept. Traditionally it refers to alcohol, but there are many substances today that can be seen as causing impaired judgement, so, of course, all these should be included. In other words, we have to know what is a clear mind and what produces an unclear mind. When we recognize this it becomes simple to refrain from anything that clouds the mind. There is something important about refraining from all mind-altering drugs because they have a tendency to create a state of passivity in the user. This is against our practice in the sense that we are striving to be conscious, aware and responsible for our actions. Some might argue that certain drugs increase awareness. My reply to them would be, even if this were the case, our will to achieve those states in a natural way is being undermined by the quick and easy fix. Very often the results of mind-enhancing drugs is a great drain of energy so that we are depleted and dull when we return to the normal state. Considering all of these factors, we should be very careful about what substances we ingest, and in our experimentation, err on the conservative side.
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