There are three levels of virtue –
1. Heṭṭhima-sīla: normalcy of word and deed, which consists of three kinds of bodily acts – not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct; and four kinds of speech – not lying, not speaking divisively, not saying anything coarse or abusive, not speaking idly. If we class virtue on this level according to the wording of the precepts and the groups of people who observe them, there are four – the five precepts, the eight, the ten, and the 227 precepts. All of these deal with aspects of behavior that should be abandoned, termed pahāna-kicca. At the same time, the Buddha directed us to develop good manners and proper conduct in the use of the four necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, and medicine – so that our conduct in terms of thought, word, and deed will be orderly and becoming. This aspect is termed bhāvanā-kicca, behavior we should work at developing correctly.
Observance of these precepts or rules – dealing merely with words and deeds – forms the lower or preliminary level of virtue, which is what makes us into full-fledged human beings (manussa-sampatti).
2. Majjhima-sīla: the medium level of virtue, i.e., keeping watch over your words and deeds so that they cause no harm; and, in addition, keeping watch over your thoughts so as to keep your mental kamma upright in three ways –
a. Anabhijjhā-visamalobha: not coveting things that do not belong to you and that lie beyond your scope or powers; not focusing your thoughts on such things; not building what are called castles in the air. The Buddha taught us to tend to the wealth we already have so that it can grow on its own. The wealth we already have, if we use our intelligence and ingenuity, will draw more wealth our way without our having to waste energy by being covetous or greedy. For example, suppose we have a single banana tree: If we water it, give it fertilizer, loosen the soil around its roots, and protect it from dangers, our single banana tree will eventually give rise to an increase of other banana trees. In other words, if we’re intelligent we can turn whatever wealth we have into a basis for a livelihood. But if we lack intelligence – if our hearts simply want to get, without wanting work – then even if we acquire a great deal of wealth, we won’t be able to support ourselves. Thus, greed of this sort, in which we focus our desires above and beyond our capacities, is classed as a wrong kind of mental action.
b. Abyāpāda: abandoning thoughts of ill will, hatred, and vengeance, and developing thoughts of goodwill instead; thinking of the good aspects of the people who have angered us. When people make us angry, it comes from the fact that our dealings with them – in which we associate with and assist one another – sometimes lead to disappointment. This gives rise to dislike and irritation, which in turn cause us to brood, so that we develop hurt feelings that grow into anger and thoughts of retaliation. Thus we should regard such people from many angles, for ordinarily as human beings they should have some good to them. If they don’t act well toward us, they may at least speak well to us. Or if they don’t act or speak well to us, perhaps their thoughts may be well-meaning to at least some extent. Thus, when you find your thoughts heading in the direction of anger or dislike, you should sit down and think in two ways –
(1) Try to think of whatever ways that person has been good to you. When these things come to mind, they’ll give rise to feelings of affection, love, and goodwill. This is one way.
(2) Anger is something worthless, like the scum floating on the surface of a lake. If we’re stupid, we won’t get to drink the clean water lying underneath; or if we drink the scum, we may catch a disease. A person who is bad to you is like someone sunk in filth. If you’re stupid enough to hate or be angry with such people, it’s as if you wanted to go sit in the filth with them. Is that what you want? Think about this until any thoughts of ill will and anger disappear.
c. Sammā-diṭṭhi: abandoning wrong views and mental darkness. If our minds lack the proper training and education, we may come to think that we and all other living beings are born simply as accidents of nature; that ‘father’ and ‘mother’ have no special meaning; that good and evil don’t exist. Such views deviate from the truth. They can dissuade us from restraining the evil that lies within us and from searching for and fostering the good. To believe that there’s no good or evil, that death is annihilation, is Wrong View – a product of short-sighted thinking and poor discernment, seeing things for what they aren’t. So we should abandon such views and educate ourselves, searching for knowledge of the Dhamma and associating with people wiser than we, so that they can show us the bright path. We’ll then be able to reform our views and make them Right, which is one form of mental uprightness.
Virtue on this level, when we can maintain it well, will qualify us to be heavenly beings. The qualities of heavenly beings, which grow out of human values, will turn us into human beings who are divine in our virtues, for to guard our thoughts, words, and deeds means that we qualify for heaven in this lifetime. This is one aspect of the merit developed by a person who observes the middle level of virtue.
3. Uparima-sīla: higher virtue, where virtue merges with the Dhamma in the area of mental activity. There are two sides to higher virtue –
a. PAHĀNA-KICCA: qualities to be abandoned, which are of five sorts –
(1) Kāmachanda: affection, desire, laxity, infatuation.
(2) Byāpāda: ill will and hatred.
(3) Thīna-middha: discouragement, drowsiness, sloth.
(4) Uddhacca-kukkucca: restlessness and anxiety.
(5) Vicikicchā: doubt, uncertainty, indecision.
(1) Ill will (byāpāda) lies at the essence of killing (pāṇātipāta), for it causes us to destroy our own goodness and that of others – and when our mind can kill off our own goodness, what’s to keep us from killing other people and animals as well?
(2) Restlessness (uddhacca) lies at the essence of taking what isn’t given (adinnādāna). The mind wanders about, taking hold of other people’s affairs, sometimes their good points, sometimes their bad. To fasten onto their good points isn’t too serious, for it can give us at least some nourishment. As long as we’re going to steal other people’s business and make it our own, we might as well take their silver and gold. Their bad points, though, are like trash they’ve thrown away – scraps and bones with nothing of any substance – and yet even so we let the mind feed on them. When we know that other people are possessive of their bad points and guard them well and yet we still take hold of these things to think about, it should be classed as a form of taking what isn’t given.
(3) Sensual desires (kāmachanda) lie at the essence of sensual misconduct. The mind feels an attraction for sensual objects – thoughts of past or future sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or tactile sensations – or for sensual defilements – passion, aversion, or delusion – to the point where we forget ourselves. Mental states such as these can be said to overstep the bounds of propriety in sensual matters.
(4) Doubt (vicikicchā) lies at the essence of lying. In other words, our minds are unsure, with nothing reliable or true to them. We have no firm principles and so drift along under the influence of all kinds of thoughts and preoccupations.
(5) Drowsiness (thīna-middha) is intoxication – discouragement, dullness, forgetfulness, with no mindfulness or restraint watching over the mind. This is what it means to be drugged or drunk.
All of these unskillful qualities are things we should eliminate by training the heart along the lines of:
b. BHĀVANĀ-KICCA: qualities to be developed –
(1) Mindfulness (sati): Start out by directing your thoughts to an object, such as your in-and-out breathing. Use mindfulness to steady the mind in its object throughout both the in-breath and the out-. Vitakka, thinking in this way, is what kills off sensual desires, in that the discipline of mindfulness keeps the mind from slipping off into external objects.
(2) Vicāra: Evaluate and be observant. Make yourself aware of whether or not you’ve received a sense of comfort and relaxation from your in- and out-breathing. If not, tend to the breath and adjust it in a variety of ways: e.g., in long and out long, in long and out short, in short and out short, in short and out long, in slow and out slow, in fast and out fast, in gently and out gently, in strong and out strong, in throughout the body and out throughout the body. Adjust the breath until it gives good results to both body and mind, and you’ll be able to kill off feelings of ill will and hatred.
(3) Pīti: When you get good results – for instance, when the subtle breath sensations in the body merge and flow together, permeating the entire sense of the body – the breath is like an electric wire; the various parts of the body, such as the bones, are like electricity poles; mindfulness and alertness are like a power source; and awareness is thus bright and radiant. Both body and mind feel satisfied and full. This is pīti, or rapture, which can kill off feelings of drowsiness.
(4) Sukha: Now that feelings of restlessness and anxiety have disappeared, a sense of pleasure and ease arises for both body and mind. This pleasure is what kills off restlessness.
(5) Ekaggatā: Doubts and uncertainty fade into the distance. The mind reaches singleness of preoccupation in a state of normalcy and equilibrium. This normalcy of mind, which is maintained through the power of the discipline of mindfulness (sati-vinaya), forms the essence of virtue: firmness, steadiness, stability. And the resulting flavor or nourishment of virtue is a solitary sense of calm for the mind. When freedom of this sort arises within us, this is called the development of sīlānussati, the mindfulness of virtue. This is virtue that attains excellence – leading to the paths, their fruitions, and nibbāna – and thus can be called uparima-sīla, higher virtue.
To summarize, there are three levels of virtue: external, intermediate, and internal. In ultimate terms, however, there are two –
1. Mundane virtue: virtue connected with the world, in which we maintain the principles of ordinary human morality but are as yet unable to reach the transcendent levels: stream entry, once-returning, non-returning, and arahantship. We can’t yet cut the fetters (saṅyojana) that tie the heart to the influences of all the worlds. This is thus called mundane virtue.
2. Transcendent virtue: virtue that’s constant and sure, going straight to the heart, bathing the heart with its nourishment. This arises from the practice of tranquility meditation and insight meditation. Tranquility meditation forms the cause, and insight meditation the result: discovering the true nature of the properties, aggregates (khandhas), and senses; seeing clearly the four noble truths, in proportion to our practice of the Path, and abandoning the first three of the fetters –
a. Sakkāya-diṭṭhi (self-identity views): views that see the body or the aggregates as in the self or as belonging to the self. Ordinarily, we may be convinced that views of this sort are mistaken, yet we can’t really abandon them. But when we clearly see that they’re wrong for sure, this is called Right View – seeing things as they truly are – which can eliminate such wrong views as seeing the body as belonging to the self, or the self as the five aggregates, or the five aggregates as in the self.
b. Vicikicchā: doubt about what’s genuine and true, and what’s counterfeit and false. The power of Right View allows us to see that the quality to which we awaken exists at all times and that the true qualities enabling us to awaken also exist and are made effective through the power of the practices we’re following. Our knowledge is definite and true. Our doubts about the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha are cleared up for good. This is called becoming a niyata-puggala, a person who is certain and sure.
c. Sīlabbata-parāmāsa: When the heart abandons this fetter, it no longer fondles theories concerning moral virtue; it’s no longer stuck merely on the level of manners and activities. Good and evil are accomplished through the heart; activities are something separate. Even though people who reach this level do good – taking the precepts, making gifts and offerings, or meditating in line with the good customs of the world – they’re not caught up on any of these things, because their hearts have reached the nourishment of virtue. They aren’t stuck on the particulars (byañjana), i.e., their activities; nor are they stuck on the purpose (attha), i.e., the meaning or intent of their various good manners. Their hearts dwell in the nourishment of virtue: tranquility, stability, normalcy of mind. Just as a person who has felt the nourishment that comes from food permeating his body isn’t stuck on either the food or its flavor – because he’s received the benefits of the nourishment it provides – in the same way, the hearts of people who have reached the essence of virtue are no longer stuck on activities or manners, particulars or purposes, because they’ve tasted virtue’s nourishment.
This is thus classed as transcendent virtue, the first stage of nibbāna. Even though such people may be destined for further rebirth, they’re special people, apart from the ordinary. Anyone whose practice reaches this level can be counted as fortunate, as having received dependable wealth, like ingots of gold. Just as gold can be used as currency all over the world because it has special value for all human beings – unlike paper currency, whose use is limited to specific countries – in the same way, a heart that has truly attained virtue has a value in this life that will remain constant in lives to come. Thus, a person who has reached this level has received part of the Noble Wealth of those who practice the religion.