The Psychology of Virtue
April 11, 2024

Back in the early years of the last century, the monks in Bangkok came out with a series of Dhamma and Vinaya textbooks that became the standard all over Thailand, and still are today. In the Dhamma textbook for the first level of the exams that these books were designed for, they defined virtue as “restraint of body and speech.” Someone brought this to Ajaan Mun’s attention, and he said, “That’s wrong. It doesn’t mention the mind at all. The mind is the important part of the virtue.”

When you look at the training rules, you see that they deal with intentional actions, so they sort out what intentions in your mind you should and shouldn’t act on, and they give importance to that. That creates a standard. When an unskillful intention comes up in the mind but you don’t act on it, you’re not breaking the precept, so it’s not as serious as the unskillful intentions that you do act on.

That creates an interesting standard right there because it’s going to be very useful for the practice of concentration—and for simply living with yourself on a day-to-day basis. All kinds of things come popping into the mind. Remember what the Buddha said: The things we experience in terms of sight, sound, smells, taste, tactile sensations, ideas come from past karma, and you want to see them as past karma. Then the question is, how do you relate to your past karma? Some things you develop into your present karma, and others you can let go. You have that choice. If your present-moment choice is not to act unskillfully, that’s what counts. You haven’t made any bad karma, even though the past-karma idea was unskillful. That’s an important point.

There were people in the time of the Buddha who insisted that you had no choice, that whatever you’re going to experience in the present moment has already been predetermined from the past, which would mean that you just have to go with whatever’s coming up. As the Buddha said, that idea leaves you unprotected. You have no way of convincing yourself that you actually even could make a difference. So you’re bewildered and unprotected. But if you realize that when things come up, what really matters is what you do with them right now, and you do have the choice of treating them in many different ways, then you have some protection—or at least there are grounds for protection. Based on that, you can decide what standards you’re going to use to act on.

In the precepts, the Buddha focuses most attention on the precept around speech. As he said, if you feel no shame in telling a deliberate lie, the idea of something you shouldn’t do just is not there anymore. You can do all kinds of things.

So restraint has to start with the mouth. That’s because the mouth is closest to the mind, and it really reflects what’s going on in the mind. So you learn some restraint over your mouth. This is going to be hard for some people, but for other people it’s not quite so hard.

Still, there are a lot of areas in life where we speak mindlessly, and the purpose of the precepts is to stop your mindlessness. When you say something, you want to be very clear about what your intention is, whether it’s good, whether it’s not, whether it’s going to be harmful, whether it’s not going to be harmful.

This standard, of course, is going to be useful as you meditate. You have to be clear about your intention to stay here, and your external speech reflects your internal speech. How do you talk to yourself? Do you tell yourself lies? Do you tell yourself divisive things? Harsh things? Or do you engage in idle chatter throughout the mind, throughout the day?

After all, the precepts do come into the mind. Even though thinking unskillful things and talking to yourself in unskillful ways is not going to break the precept, at least the fact that you’ve been trying to observe the precept means that you’re going to be more careful about what comes out, and that requires that you look more carefully at what’s going on inside.

One of the important lessons of meditation is learning to see an impulse coming up in the mind in earlier, earlier stages of the impulse, until you get to the point where it’s just a stirring of energy, halfway between what’s physical and what’s mental, and then you slap a perception on it, saying, “This is a thought about x,” and then you ride with it—you start spinning out tales. What’s that point where you slap the perception on? That’s present karma. You want to get that detailed.

With the precepts, you start working in this direction, saying, “When an unskillful thought comes up, I’m just not going to act on it,” and you learn some restraint that way. You learn to be mindful, alert, and put forth the effort to make sure you don’t act on those things. Then as you sit down to meditate, the same process goes deeper and deeper inside. But the basic attitude is still the same: When unskillful things come springing up, you don’t have to feel guilty about them. Just realize, “I don’t need these thoughts.”

Ajaan Lee even recommends that you think that maybe they’re not even your thoughts to begin with. There are all these worms and germs going through your blood system, going through your blood vessels: Maybe these thoughts are their thoughts. Maybe these are the thoughts of your old karmic debt collectors, as they call them in Thai, which means they don’t necessarily mean you well.

So you learn how to judge your thoughts as skillful and unskillful, and decide that you’re going to identify only with the skillful ones. This is the pattern that got the Buddha on the path to begin with: judging his thoughts not as to whether he liked them, whether they were entertaining, whether they were fun to think, but basically by where they came from in the mind, what sort of intentions, and where they were going to lead: what kind of actions they would inspire. In other words, he would see them as part of a causal process, not so much in terms of their content but simply in terms of the process of thinking.

Here again, this way of approaching your mind is going to be really useful when you start dealing with issues of becoming—your sense of your identity in a particular world of experience. The way to overcome becoming is not to try to destroy the worlds of experience you already have, because that, as the Buddha saw, just leads to more becoming. Instead, you look at the process: How does this world get started? What are the processes that’ll lead up to it?

This is where dependent co-arising comes in. Here we are, all the way from the precepts to dependent co-arising, and yet it’s all the same pattern, looking at things as processes in the mind, and realizing you have the choice of whether to go with them or not. If you see the processes that give rise to becoming are causing you suffering, you can say, “I don’t have to engage in them. I don’t have to create a world around them.”

Because that’s what we do—we create worlds. We focus on something we really want, and then we take on an identity as the person who might be able to get that and will enjoy having it; and then there’s the world in which that, whatever it is, is going to be located: That’s becoming.

So you’ve got to learn about how to undo these things—not so much, as I said, in terms of destroying what you already have but by looking to see the steps by which the new becomings begin to form, before there really is an identity, when they’re just processes in the mind, events in the mind: attention, intention, perceptions, feelings. Can you keep it at that level?

This is the psychology of virtue and it can take you far. It starts you looking at the processes in the mind and realizing there are certain things going on there that you don’t have to identify with. There is a choice. Then you take that basic principle and you trace it all the way through, developing concentration, developing discernment, getting more and more precise in and having a sense of what the choices are.

In terms of the precepts, it’s simply the choice between acting on an intention and not acting on it.

In terms of concentration, it’s staying with that original intention to with then breath, or allowing yourself to wander with other intentions, and you decide to stay. Then you do whatever is necessary to stay—to maintain that intention.

Then in terms of discernment, you say, “Well, how do these intentions create states of becoming? And where in that process is the craving that leads to the clinging, which is the suffering?”

So this is all of a piece, this triple training—virtue, concentration, discernment—in getting you to step back from what’s going on in your mind and realizing that you have choices in these processes so that you can direct them to where you really want them to go. As you do that, your sense of what you really want to do or accomplish will get more refined as well.