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 protect your virtues means to protect the world and to help it advance, not to ruin it. 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, we complain about it, 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 delusion.

Example (c): Illicit sex. 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 express his thoughts. 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 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 no 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 ugly in ways that people in general don’t 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 habit.

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 harm 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 you?”

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 money.”

“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, sīla, 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 toward 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 corrupt 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 action 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 the world.

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 isn’t easily wasted. 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 quickly falls into ruin. 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 all they do—sitting, standing, walking, and lying down—so they can know they haven’t done anything evil. A person who isn’t mindful in his actions is like a person without any clothes: Wherever he goes, he offends people. There’s even the story of the man who 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 isn’t mindful in his actions.

A person who isn’t mindful in his speaking makes a mess of his words. He’s like a rice pot without a lid: When the water boils, it’ll overflow and put out the fire. A person who isn’t mindful in his speaking—talking until his saliva turns to foam—is sure to harm himself. A person who isn’t mindful in his thinking—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 they think too much. 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 mind.

From another standpoint, there are two: primary virtues (ādi-brahma-cariya-sikkhā), 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 (abhisamācāra) 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 nibbāna. They are virtues that can rule out rebirth in the four realms of deprivation (apāya-bhūmi).

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 or eight 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-identity views (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) 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-identity views 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 (dhātu), 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.

(a) If we view the body as our own, we become possessive of it and are unwilling to expend it in ways that are skillful. We get stuck on the level of physical pleasure—and that pleasure is what kills off our merit and skillfulness. When physical pain arises, that pain is what kills off the skillfulness we should attain. This can be classed as a form of pāṇātipāta (taking life): using pleasure and pain to kill off the merit and skillfulness that living beings are looking for. This is one aspect of self-identity view that stream-enterers have abandoned.

(b) Adinnādāna: Stream-enterers don’t cling to 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-identity view.

(c) Kāmesu micchācāra: 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-identity view.

(d) Musāvāda: 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-identity view.

(e) Surāmeraya: Stream-enterers are not intoxicated or heedless with regard to sights, sounds, smells, flavors, tactile sensations, or ideas. Thus they abandon another aspect of self-identity view.

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-identity view has been shed through the power of discernment. As for sīlabbata-parāmāsa (“groping” with regard to habits and practices), stream-enterers no longer grope in their behavior, because they’ve seen for sure that it’s right. And as for vicikicchā (uncertainty), they’ve abandoned all doubts concerning the value of their 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 on to 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 on to 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 (cetanā-virati), from the expressions of virtue, which are of three kinds: sampatta-virati, samādāna 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 spoken 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 doing evil; or seeing another person’s belongings that would be good to take, but not taking them, for fear of doing evil.

Samādāna-virati means to take the precepts as a spoken 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 expressions 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 check 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 in their thoughts, words, and deeds, and so let evil come flowing in through them. 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 and novices.

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,

cetanāhaṁ bhikkhave kammaṁ vadāmi

I tell you, monks, that intention is the action.

An evil intention blemishes virtue. A good intention to abandon evil 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 causal factors, just as a newborn 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 alert: 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 alertness 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. mettā—good will, love for oneself and all others, hoping that all living beings will be happy;

b. karuṇā—compassion for oneself and others, wanting us all to escape from suffering;

c. muditā—empathetic joy, ungrudging delight in the goodness of all living beings;

d. upekkhā—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 seeing an executioner beheading a criminal who has broken the law.

These four sublime attitudes are the food of virtue.

Mindfulness is the father,

alertness, 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, empathetic joy, and equanimity are expressed in thought, word, and deed, then virtue will be firm and lasting and will head straight toward nibbāna. 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 external adornment.

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,

sīlena sugatiṁ yanti sīlena bhoga-sampadā

sīlena nibbutiṁ yanti

The attainment of heaven, wealth and nibbāna all depend on virtue.

sīlaṁ loke anuttaraṁ

Virtue is unexcelled in the world.

candanādinaṁ gandhānaṁ sīla-gandho anuttaro

Among all scents, such as sandalwood, the scent of virtue is supreme.

sīlo rahado akuddamo

Virtue is like a limpid pool.

sukhaṁ yāva jarā sīlaṁ

Virtue brings happiness to the end of old age.

sīlaṁ yāva jarā sādhu

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.