Day Five


The Pāli term for virtue, sīla, can also mean morality, precept, or habit. Here the perfection of virtue is a matter of developing the moral virtue of restraint. As we pointed out at the very beginning, one of the insights that come from discernment is that all things are rooted in desire. The desire that underlies virtue is the desire to exercise restraint over your unskillful intentions, both as a kindness to yourself and as a kindness to others.

This kind of virtue is related to the five precepts. Sometimes, when referring to the precepts, the Buddha would replace the word sīla with sikkhāpada, which literally means “training rule.” The precepts are training rules that you take on for the purpose of reaching the goal—abstaining from activities that would harm the mind or get in the way of the goal—in the same way that an athlete would undertake training rules as part of his or her regimen: abstaining from certain foods and activities that would harm the strength and fitness of the body.

The fact that these are rules for the purpose of training carries some important implications. They are not meant to be rules for creating a perfectly harmless world. They’re meant instead to cover only the range of actions for which you are directly responsible: what you do and what you tell others to do. If you’re very careful in these areas, that’s good enough for the purpose of training the mind to get out of the world entirely.

Now, the precepts are very short: no killing, no stealing, no illicit sex, no lying, no taking of intoxicants. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. In other words, these are precepts that, once you’ve chosen to take them, you try to follow at all times, in all cases. At the same time, you don’t tell anyone else to break them, and you don’t express approval when other people have broken them.

Sometimes you hear people complaining that they don’t like the idea of short rules like this and that they’d prefer to have virtue expressed in more general principles—such as kindness or gentleness—but for the purpose of training, it’s really good to have rules that are clear-cut because they draw clear lines between what should and shouldn’t be done. If the lines are not clear, it’s very easy to make excuses for making exceptions. Unskillful desires can come in and change the precept to something else. You find that when you train children, if you provide them with very clear-cut rules, the children are much happier because they can have a clear sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. And you know that if you’re following the rules, there’s a sense of self-esteem that comes from your ability to stick with the rules.

A couple of the precepts require special explanation. For instance, the precept against illicit sex basically refers to having sex with minors, having sex with someone who is married to somebody else or in a committed relationship, or having sex with someone who’s taken a vow of celibacy. If you’re already in a committed relationship and you go outside the relationship, that would also be breaking the precept as well.

Then there’s the precept against lying. “Lying” here is defined as misrepresenting the truth. It doesn’t cover all forms of wrong speech, because wrong speech also includes divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter. Divisive speech is anything said with the intention of breaking friends apart or of preventing a relationship from developing. Harsh speech is when you say something with the intention of hurting someone’s feelings. Idle speech is when you say something without really knowing what your intention is. You just open your mouth and see what comes out.

The reason there’s no precept against those three kinds of wrong speech is that there are actually some cases where they can be skillful. For instance, with divisive speech: Suppose you know that Mr. A is a very harmful person and he’s beginning to get interested in having a relationship with Miss B. It might be a good idea to warn Miss B about Mr. A. It’s because of examples like this that there’s no absolute precept against divisive speech. Similarly with harsh speech: There are some cases where you have to use strong terms to say something very critical of other people for their own good, in order to get their attention. That’s why there’s no precept against harsh speech. As for idle chatter, every social situation requires a little social grease to keep things going smoothly, so you speak about things that help put everyone in a good mood. Just make sure that you don’t put too much grease in the machine, because that can gum up the works.

So, those are the five precepts. As I said earlier, there’s a certain amount of self-esteem that comes when you can follow these rules, but these are not rules just for the sake of rules. They really are for your benefit.

By following the five precepts, we’re embodying what we’ve learned from the perfections of discernment, truth, and goodwill. At the same time, we provide the conditions for strengthening the perfections of renunciation—in the practice of concentration—and discernment.

To begin with, in line with the primacy that right view gives to your intentions, the precepts focus your attention directly on your intentions in action. That’s because you can break a precept only intentionally. For example, if you happen to walk down the middle of the room here and step on a bug unintentionally, you’re not breaking a precept. It’s only if you see the bug and deliberately squash it, that’s when you break the precept. The difference has to do with the state of your mind. Basically, the precepts are taught for helping you to train your intentions. If you notice the desire to break the precept, you realize, “I’ve overstepped the bounds of what’s skillful.” This is why training in virtue is a good exercise for observing your mind in action.

The precepts also apply the distinction between skillful and unskillful to all of our actions. When you know something is against a precept, you realize, “I may want to do this, but if I look at it from a more objective perspective, it’s unskillful. It’ll cause long-term suffering, so I’ll stop.”

In practicing the precepts, we’re also exercising what right view tells us about our freedom to choose our actions. For instance, you may be tempted to say or do something wrong, but you realize, “I’m free to say no.” And in exercising that freedom, you develop something of value in yourself.

I’ll give you an example from the monks’ precepts. One of the precepts for the monks is that if someone comes and asks a monk where something should be given, the monk should say, “Give where you feel inspired or where you feel it would be well used.” Several years ago, I had a student whose mother was going to give a gift of two million dollars to a Buddhist center. He called me up and asked, “What can I tell her so that she’ll give the money to the monastery?” I said, “Tell her to give where she feels inspired and where she feels it would be well used.” So, she gave it to another organization. I told myself, “I now have a precept that’s worth more than two million dollars.”

So, you have to remember that your virtue is something of value and it lies in exercising your freedom to say no to something that might be tempting. Notice here that freedom is not an issue of simply being free to do what you want to do. It means being free to do what you know will lead to good long-term results.

These, then, are some of the lessons of right view that are taught with the practice of virtue.

As for the perfection of truth, remember, last night we talked about truth as a quality of the person. When you decide that you’re going to stick with these training rules in all situations with no exceptions, you’re putting your long-term well-being ahead of short-term unskillful pleasures. When you can stick with this decision, day in and day out, you develop your truth as a person.

As for the perfection of goodwill, virtue is an expression of goodwill for others and for yourself. In terms of others, as the Buddha said, if you hold to the precepts in all situations, you’re giving universal safety to all beings. Now, this doesn’t mean that you’re protecting them from all dangers. Instead, it means that no one anywhere will be subject to these dangers coming from you. When you give this kind of universal safety to others, you have a share in universal safety yourself. Another way in which the precepts are helpful to others is that if you take on a precept, it’s not just that you decide that you’re not going to break the precepts. It also means that you’re not going to tell anyone else to break the precepts, and you’re not going to condone other people breaking the precepts. In this way, you’re also protecting other people, in that you’re not getting them to do something unskillful, which means that you’re not trying to persuade them to take on bad kamma.

It’s interesting to note that, from the Buddha’s point of view, benefiting others means getting them to follow the precepts, whereas benefiting yourself means that you follow the precepts. The point here seems to be that we are agents, choosing how we act, and that by getting others to follow the precepts, you show respect for their role as agents and try to get them to exercise that role in a way that will lead most directly to their long-term benefit. In the same way, when you follow the precepts, you respect your role as an agent and try to exercise it skillfully.

This means that you’re expressing goodwill for yourself as you follow the precepts.

The Buddha says that the long-term benefits of observing the precepts can be experienced both in the present life and in future lives. If you conduct your life in a virtuous way, your wealth tends to be more solid; you have a good reputation for being a reliable person; if you go to a meeting of people, you can expect that people won’t rightly accuse you of misbehavior; and you die unconfused. When people approach death and recall ways in which they’ve been harmful in their behavior, they tend to fall either into extreme sorrow or denial. This is actually one of the reasons for dementia as people get older. They don’t want to think about the past, they don’t want to think about the future, and so their minds just wander off.

Now, the Buddha does recognize there are times when following the precepts can lead to certain kinds of losses in daily life, in terms of wealth, health or relatives. Say, for instance, that you have a relative who wants you to lie in a court case. In a situation like that, the Buddha would say not to lie, because loss in terms of your relative is a minor issue, whereas loss of your virtue is a major one.

There was an interesting story in the news a couple of years back. A young Iranian man was murdered, and the murderer was caught and sentenced to death. Apparently, in Islamic law, if the parents of someone who has been murdered are still alive, they have the right to choose whether or not the death sentence will be carried out. Originally, the parents were going to go for revenge. But then the mother started having dreams in which the son came to her and said, “Please, Mom, don’t go for revenge.” The mother did not want to have that dream, but it kept coming back again and again.

So, on the day of the execution, the murderer is sitting there with a noose around his neck. The mother goes up, she slaps him as hard as she can, takes off the noose, and then walks away. Afterwards, when she was interviewed, she said she felt a tremendous and unexpected sense of peace and relief, so she was glad she had listened to the dream.

These examples show some of the benefits in this lifetime of following the precepts. There are also benefits in terms of future lifetimes. The Buddha says that if you don’t kill, when you’re reborn you’ll tend to have a longer lifetime. If you don’t steal, your things will tend not to be stolen. If you avoid illicit sex, you won’t be subject to rivalry and revenge. If you don’t tell lies, people will tend not to lie to you. And if you don’t take intoxicants—which include wine—then you will tend not to be crazy in the next lifetime.

The Buddha didn’t go into further detail on that last point.

These are some of the ways in which the practice of the precepts develops the perfection of goodwill in your dealings with others—and with yourself.

As for the perfection of renunciation, following the precepts helps to develop qualities of mind that you will need in the practice of concentration, which builds on the practice of right mindfulness.

To begin with, following the precepts makes it easier to be mindful in general. (And remember here that mindfulness means the ability to remember what was done and said long ago, and to keep that memory in mind.) When you look back and you see that you haven’t harmed anyone with your actions, it’s a lot easier for your memory to go back further into the past, and then you can learn lessons from the past much more easily. If you’ve been harming others and breaking the precepts, the mind will tend to put up a wall so that you won’t remember that harm, and that will get in the way of your mindfulness.

Also, as you’re practicing in line with the precepts, you’re developing your mindfulness, alertness, and ardency, which are the three qualities that you need in practicing right mindfulness and right concentration. In terms of mindfulness, you have to remember that you’ve taken the precepts. This is often a problem for people who have just begun taking the precepts. They start doing something and say, “Whoops! I took a precept against that.” So, you have to keep these precepts in mind.

Secondly, you have to be alert to what you’re doing.

Ardency is involved when, if it’s difficult to follow the precept, you make the extra effort to make sure that you stick with it.

When I was new to taking the precepts, I happened to go back to my childhood home to visit my relatives. We were staying in a cabin near the seashore, and one afternoon one of my cousins said, “You know, Grandpa used to like to go clamming not far from here, and then he’d make clam chowder. Let’s go clamming.” So, five or six of us went out to go clamming. I was digging down in the sand under some shallow water and I found a clam. As I started to pick it up, I realized, “Whoops! I have a precept against doing this.” So, I put the clam back down on the sand and went off someplace else, pretending to search for clams elsewhere. In the meantime, one of my cousins went to the spot where I had been and found the clam right on top of the sand and said, “Here’s a clam! We can take it.” Another cousin said, “No, if the clam is on top of the sand, that means it’s dead. Leave it.” So, I saved the clam’s life in spite of myself. That was a lesson in how much more mindfulness and alertness I needed to develop.

Following the precepts also gives you practice in the kind of restraint you’re going to need to get the mind into concentration and to keep it there. You’re going to have to learn how to say no to yourself when distractions come into the mind, and the precepts give you good practice in learning to say no to yourself effectively in daily life. As my teacher used to say, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can control your mind.”

The precepts, then, are good practice for the skills you’re going to need as you develop mindfulness and concentration, which are directly connected to the perfection of renunciation.

They’re also a practice for further developing the perfection of discernment, in that you have to use your ingenuity to stick to the precepts in ways that don’t lead to unfortunate circumstances. For instance, if you take the precept against killing, you have to figure out, “How am I going to arrange my house so that I don’t have to kill pests? How do I live in such a way that I don’t attract termites? How do I live in a way that I don’t attract ants? And if the ants do come in, how do I get rid of them without killing them?” This develops your discernment. Similarly, if you have some information that you know that some people might abuse, how do you prevent that information from getting to them without lying? As you figure this out, it’s good training in discernment.

In these ways, the practice of following the precepts is an expression of right view, an expression of goodwill, and an expression of truth. It helps to develop the perfections of renunciation and discernment.

And it gives rise to a sense of self-esteem that you’re able to live in a way that causes no harm to anybody at all. I don’t know if this is an issue here, but in America we have a problem where psychologists have been so insistent about the need for children to learn self-esteem that children now receive inflated grades to make them feel good, and teachers put gold stars on their papers, saying, “Rock Star.” The result is that we now have plenty of people with high self-esteem but with no substance to back it up. However, one of the ways to foster genuine self-esteem backed up by real substance is through developing virtue. And this works not only for children. It’s also important for adults, because we’re judged by so many things in life that are out of our control and that have nothing to do with the skillfulness of our choices, as when we’re judged by our beauty, our cleverness, our wealth, or our social position. But if we can learn how to judge ourselves by our virtue, our self-esteem can be based on the genuine skillfulness of our own actions and our own choices. This puts the power for our self-esteem and self-respect into our hands.


Q: The presentations of generosity, virtue, and the precepts often mention the benefits that will come to the person who is generous, to the person who is virtuous, leading to the attainment of awakening. But it sounds like playing by the principle of the ends justifying the means, even though here the means are good for others. This seems to be a little bit selfish. In the Jātakas, one sees the future Buddha develop all of these qualities, but how does he develop generosity and goodness without knowing that there would necessarily be any attainment of awakening?

A: When the means are really good for yourself and for others, they don’t need to be justified. Still, they require effort, and if you’re going to stick with that effort, you have to see that it’s worthwhile. A good way of motivating yourself to stick with the path of goodness is to remember that it will also lead to happiness.

One of the basic principles of Buddhism is that when you really do good, you benefit and other people benefit as well. The practice of these virtues is designed to make you see that, yes, there is a way that you can make other people happy that makes you happy, too. In other words, as you help them, you’re helping yourself; when you help yourself, you’re helping them. That’s the kind of goodness and happiness you want to look for. Remember, the Buddha never asks us to deny our desire for happiness. He simply points out how to find happiness in a way that’s wise and compassionate, both toward ourselves and toward others.

There’s a sutta where the Buddha lists four kinds of people, and they go in this descending order: the person who benefits himself and benefits others, the person who benefits himself but does not benefit others, one who benefits others but doesn’t benefit himself, and the person who doesn’t benefit either himself or others. It’s interesting the way the way number 2 and number 3 are ranked. The person who benefits himself and not others is listed higher than the person who benefits others without benefiting himself. The basic principle is that if you don’t know how to benefit yourself, you can’t really benefit others properly.

At the same time, it’s good to remember that if you’re not benefiting from your practice, it’s going to be hard for you to continue with it. In the bodhisatta’s case, he wasn’t sure about the correct path to follow, but he definitely was looking for results. That’s what his quest was all about: all the actions he did in the hope that they would lead to a happiness that doesn’t age, grow ill, or die. Because you can’t use that deathless happiness to arrive at a deathless happiness, you have to practice with a clear sense of ends and means.

Q: Do the five precepts belong to all the different traditions of Buddhism? And is their interpretation different?

A: You find them in all the Buddhist traditions, but there are some differences in the interpretation. The major difference is that in some traditions, they say not to break them at all, and in other traditions they say if you have a compassionate motive, you can go ahead and break them. We belong to the tradition that says not to break them.

Q: On the subject of the precept about lying: It doesn’t count as a lie if it avoids useless suffering. Isn’t that right?

A: Any misrepresentation of the truth counts as a lie. Even if you do it for what you think is a kind or sympathetic purpose, it still counts as a lie, and it still breaks the precept. If you feel that a certain truth is going to cause suffering for someone, you don’t misrepresent the truth. Instead, you try to change the subject. If they’re really insistent and want to know, only then do you tell them. When I teach in America and the topic of lying comes up, this issue always arises—that there must be some conditions where it’s okay to lie. When I was teaching in Massachusetts, the scenario given to me was, “What if I’m filling out my tax forms?” In California, the question is, “What if your friend is wearing an ugly dress and asks, ‘How do I look?’” But in both cases the answer is: You can’t lie. When filling out the tax form, you fill out the tax form correctly. As for your friend, you think to yourself, “This dress is better than if she were naked. So, yes, it’s fine.”

Q: What about social lies like Santa Claus? Do we break one of the precepts if we spread them?

A: Yes. When I was four years old, I thought it would be nice to leave some milk and cookies for Santa Claus, so I placed them on a plate on the mantle of the fireplace in the house. The next morning, there was a note from Santa Claus, thanking me for the cookies and milk, but it was in my mother’s handwriting, which I recognized as hers. I don’t know whether I was more upset that there was no Santa Claus or that my mother would lie to me. So, it’s best not to spread lies, because when the little child finds out, he or she is going to feel betrayed.

Q: I have lots of problems around the first precept. First of all, I have a hornet hive in the roof of my house. My neighbors, who have a small daughter, want me to have it destroyed. Is it necessary to save the life of the hornets and risk being responsibility for the possible death of a little girl?

A: My experience has been that there are ways that you can remove nests like this without killing the hornets. You have to look around to find the people who can do that. We had that problem with killer bees in our guesthouse at the monastery. It took a while, but we were able to find someone who was able to remove the bees without killing them. So, taking a precept like this means that you have to go a little bit more out of your way to find ways of solving the problems without breaking the precept.

Q: Second question: What about the uses of antibiotics?

A: The precept against killing covers only things that you can see with the naked eye. Things that are too small to be seen don’t count under the precept. There are medicines allowed in the Vinaya that do have an antibiotic effect. As for parasites in the body that are large enough to see, there are medicines that allow them to come out of the body without killing the parasite. Basically, they make the parasite faint. When it faints, it lets go and comes out of the body.

Q: The next question is: What about abortion?

A: In the Buddha’s time, abortion was legal. He didn’t campaign to make it illegal, but he didn’t condone it. So, as part of observing the precept, you would not commit an abortion, and you would not advise other people to have an abortion.

Q: What about this precept of not killing in relationship to mosquitoes that carry dengue and zika, etc.?

A: I’m always amazed at how few places in Brazil have screens on their windows. Because no matter how many mosquitoes you kill, more will come. It’s like those horror movies: You know—you kill one zombie, and then a hundred zombies come in its place. In Thailand, they tried to get rid of mosquitoes with an eradication program, and they discovered that the mosquitoes quickly developed a resistance to the insecticide. So, the best way to deal with this type of problem is to realize that we have to live in a world with mosquitoes and do our best to protect ourselves from them by creating safe spaces, for example, by putting screens on windows and finding mosquito repellents that will drive the mosquitoes away without killing them.

I speak of these issues with experience. I’ve had malaria twice, but I still say: Don’t kill mosquitoes.

Q: The precept against killing is often translated into adopting a vegetarian diet. Is this necessary? Aren’t you also killing these poor vegetables, stripping their skin off while they’re still alive and boiling them?

A: For the monks, our rule is that we’re not allowed to eat meat if we either know or suspect that it was killed for the purpose of feeding us. The precept against killing is specifically against either killing something on your own or telling someone else to kill. Now, if you want to take the precept further and adopt a vegetarian diet, that’s perfectly fine. But the precept doesn’t require it. Just make sure that when you go to a seafood restaurant and they have a fish tank with live fish, don’t choose any of the live fish.

As for vegetables, they don’t come under the concept of sentient being—they don’t feel pain—so the precept doesn’t cover them.

We’ve received several questions on the issue of the relationship between the first precept and a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet. You have to remember that the precept is a training rule. It’s not a principle for trying to create a perfect society or a perfect world. Its purpose is to focus you on the things that you are directly responsible for doing.

Also, it doesn’t guarantee that, if you abide by the precept, you’re not going to have any bad kamma. In other words, the precept is phrased in such a way that eating meat does not go against the precept, but you still have the kamma of eating the flesh of the animal that had to die for that.

This is one of the reasons why monks have a reflection every day on the food they eat, which is that they’re incurring a debt and only through the practice can they get beyond that debt. You take the time to reflect on the fact that simply having a body requires that you place a burden on many other beings, which gives you a good motivation for trying to find a happiness that doesn’t need to feed. One of Ajaan Lee’s reflections is that when you’re about to die, the spirits of all the animals whose bodies you ate are going to come thronging around, asking for some merit. If you don’t have any merit to give them, they’ll take you with them. But if you have lots of merit to dedicate to them, they’ll be happy to take your merit instead.

Q: You said that eating meat does not break the precept against killing. How can you say that the consumer of the meat does not play any role in supporting the killing of the cow? How can this not be breaking the precept?

A: It’s not the case that eating meat does not support the killing of the cow. It does play a role in supporting that, but the precepts cover only two things: One is what you do yourself, and the other is what you give the order to do. That’s all that’s covered by any of the precepts. Beyond that, if you feel inspired not to support the cow-killing industry, then don’t eat meat. But that goes beyond the precept. We’re not trying to create an ideal society with the precepts. We’re trying to focus directly on what we’re doing so that our own personal behavior is conducive to getting the mind into concentration and then gaining the insight so that we don’t have to come back to this process that needs to keep on eating. Only when you train the mind to the point where it doesn’t need to feed can it can be really pure.

Q: We had a long question from a mother with a 14-year-old child who wanted to be a vegetarian. The child did not like the fact that his mother was not a vegetarian and was giving her many, many, many reasons for becoming vegetarian. No matter how she would argue with him, he wouldn’t listen to her reasoning. She wanted to know how I would reason with the kid.

A: I would basically say, “If you’re providing the food for the family, then you have the right to have a say in what kind of food is being fixed. Until you reach that point, the mother is the one making the decisions.”

Q: From the point of view of kamma and the precepts, what should we think about euthanasia, putting an end to the suffering of a domestic animal, rather than prolonging life unreasonably?

A: There is no need to prolong life unreasonably in order to stick by the precept. This means that it’s not against the precept to pull the plug on a life-extension machine. If the body cannot survive on its own, its death is not an act of killing.

However, euthanasia would be against the precept. Most of our feelings around euthanasia come from the belief that the animal has only one life and if it dies, then it’s not going to suffer after death. From the Buddhist point of view, though, the animal after death will go on to another life, and you have no idea how much suffering there’s going to be in that next life. What you do know is whether or not you’ve made the choice to kill the animal. So, from the point of view of the precepts, the best thing is to give the animal some painkiller and try to keep it in as pain-free a condition as possible. Let nature take its course.

Q: Second question: If someone who’s close to me is sick and asks me to accompany him or her to Switzerland or Belgium to have an assisted suicide, would it be a breaking of the precepts?

A: It wouldn’t be a breaking of the precepts, but still it’s taking a person to a place where you know he or she is going to be killed. So, it would be best to let your friend know your feelings about the whole issue. If the friend still wants you to go, you could still go and not break the precepts. However, in the time of the Buddha, there were people who actually did assisted suicide, where they would hire someone to stab them to death. According to the monastic code, having someone else do that is even worse kamma than simply committing suicide yourself because you’re getting that person to take on the bad kamma of having killed you.

Q: Is there a difference in kamma between a person who dies from a natural death such as a heart attack, etc., or a person who commits suicide?

A: Dying of a natural cause is the result of past kamma, whereas a suicide is based on a decision you make now. When you’re dying a natural death, you’re simply receiving the results of past kamma, whereas if you commit suicide, you’re creating new bad kamma.

Q: The next question: Is there a difference between the kamma of someone who commits suicide due to an event in life such as a disappointment in love or the loss of a job, as opposed to someone who commits suicide when suffering from a mental depression or anxiety?

A: It’s hard to measure the karmic consequences of a particular act, because in each case they’re going to depend on many other actions in that person’s life. I have a friend who is a psychic. All her life, she’s had to deal with a lot of spirits of people who’ve passed away. And in every case of a suicide, she says, there’s always what she called the “Oh shit!” moment, with a lot of regret. So, whenever possible, if you can discourage someone from committing suicide, you’ve done that person a big favor.

Q: Why do the precepts ask us not to watch shows?

A: This is only for the eight precepts, which are basically the five precepts augmented with the factor of sense restraint. For example, when you don’t watch shows, that’s putting a little more restraint over your eyes. Not listening to music puts some restraint on your ears. Not wearing perfumes and garlands puts some restraint on your nose. Not eating after noon puts some restraint on your tongue. And not lying down on luxurious beds puts some restraint on your body. Most people take these precepts only occasionally. Traditionally, in Theravāda countries—and this is a tradition that goes back to the Pāli Canon—some people choose to take the eight precepts on the uposatha days. These days correspond to the full moon, new moon, and half moons. Taking these days off to practice the eight precepts and listen to the Dhamma provides a good context for practicing meditation.

Q: Reflecting on the fact that suffering comes from internal causes in the mind makes me reflect on the fact that not all professions are conducive to developing mindfulness and virtue. Please clarify.

A: There is such a thing as wrong livelihood: a livelihood based on breaking the precepts, a livelihood based on developing unskillful qualities in your own mind or one in which you’re trying to give rise to unskillful qualities in the minds of others. So, if you realize that your livelihood is wrong livelihood, it might be a good idea to change if you can. There was a cartoon in the magazine The New Yorker in the United States where two men were carrying a corpse, and the corpse had its feet stuck in cement—in other words, these were criminals taking a corpse to throw into the river. And one of the men is saying, “I wish there were another way to make a living.” There are other ways.

Q: In the readings on virtue, there’s a sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya 8:40, which talks about the kamma generated by certain kinds of actions. What happens if the mind changes and no longer does that kind of action? Will it still have to be responsible for the opposite kamma that was generated in the past?

A: The results of past kamma will be there, but—assuming that the past kamma was bad—the good kamma of changing your mind and changing your behavior will then compensate. Be patient when unfortunate kamma does bear fruit, and remember that the important factor is your state of mind right now. As you keep the mind developing unlimited goodwill, as you train it to not be overcome by pleasure or pain, that, in and of itself, will make the results of past bad kamma weaker, and will keep you from creating any bad new kamma right now.

Q: I’m a sinner. I know I will go to hell because of my past actions. Every day I try to live with my precepts, and I’m proud of this, but in my dreams and nightmares, the bad things I did in the past come to mind, and I’m very regretful about it. How can I let this feeling go away so I die without confusion? Should I go to everyone I hurt and ask for forgiveness?

A: It’s important to realize that just because you’ve broken the precepts does not mean you’re going to go to hell. As the Buddha said, if you realize that you’ve been doing wrong and you make up your mind not to repeat that mistake again and you hold to the precepts, that good kamma can protect you from going to hell. He added that the right response when you learn about the precepts and you realize that you did break the precepts in the past is to tell yourself, “Okay, that was a mistake. That was not a good thing to do, but if I have remorse or regret for that, the remorse will not go back and erase the mistake.” The proper course is to make up your mind that you’ll restrain yourself in the future and to spread thoughts of goodwill: goodwill for the people whom you’ve harmed, goodwill for yourself, and then goodwill for all beings. So, the next time you have bad dreams in which you feel feelings of regret or remorse, when you wake up, spread thoughts of goodwill to everybody involved in the dream and then goodwill for yourself.

Now, while you’re in the course of dying, it’s as if different doorways open up to you. If there’s one door that goes to hell, don’t tell yourself, “I am a sinner. I’ll have to go to hell,” because that thought will take you through that door. Keep reminding yourself of the good you’ve done ever since you started taking the precepts, and keep telling yourself, “I do not have to go to hell.” That will help you to go through a better door.

As for asking forgiveness of others: Try to put yourself in their place. If you think they would appreciate the fact that you now realize the harm you did to them, and it would calm their mind to hear your apology, then go ask forgiveness. But if you think that seeing you again would simply disturb them, and that they’d rather you stayed out of their lives, then leave them alone. Spread lots of goodwill in their direction, and leave it at that.

Q: I want to prepare for the moment of my death so that I won’t go to a bad destination. How do I prepare so that I don’t believe the committee member in my mind who says that I’m a bad person?

A: One of the reasons why we meditate is so that we’ll be alert at the moment of death. Then remember that any voice that comes into the mind is just one member of the committee, and as a meditator, you should have learned not to believe everything that every member of the committee says. This is one of the reasons why one of the meditation topics is reflection on your own virtue and your own generosity, so that you get skilled at recalling these things when you need them.



Last night we talked about how the desire to put an effort into the practice comes from meeting a reliable teacher and deciding that the Dhamma the teacher teaches makes sense. But the desire to practice comes from more than that. The Canon tells the story of one of the Buddha’s relatives who died. The Buddha said that if that person had put an effort into the practice when he was young, he would have become fully awakened. If he had put an effort into the practice when he was middle-aged, he would have reached a lower level of awakening. If he’d put an effort into the practice when he was old, he would have reached the first stage of awakening. But he never put an effort into the practice at all, and so he missed out on the opportunity to gain awakening in this life.

That’s a chilling story. It should give rise to the desire that you don’t want to miss out on what can be attained through human effort. That desire is what lies at the basis of the perfection of persistence, which is our topic for tonight.

The Pāli word for persistence, viriya, can also mean “energy” and “effort.” It’s identical with right effort in the noble eightfold path. As the Buddha explains, right effort works closely with right view and right mindfulness. Right view tells you what is skillful and what’s not. Right mindfulness helps you remember the lessons of right view. Right effort is what actually puts those lessons into practice, so as to abandon the wrong factors of the path and to develop the right factors in their place. So tonight, I’d like to look into the different ways in which discernment, or right view, and right mindfulness work to develop the perfection of persistence.

Persistence is directed by discernment in four ways:

• The first way is seeing the distinction between what is skillful and what’s unskillful.

• The second way is giving you the motivation to want to put forth effort to abandon what’s unskillful and to develop what’s skillful.

• The third is teaching you the different types of effort that can be skillful.

• And the fourth concerns the amount of effort that is skillful.

So let’s look at each of these four.

The first one doesn’t require much explanation, because we’ve already been talking a lot about what’s skillful and what’s unskillful. Unskillful qualities are those that lead you to do harm. Skillful qualities are those that help you to avoid doing harm.

The second way in which discernment guides your persistence, though, requires more explanation. That’s in providing motivation. There are many different ways in which you can motivate yourself to want to practice. The Buddha says that the primary motivation underlying all skillful activity is heedfulness, in which you see the dangers that come from not acting in skillful ways and the benefits that can come from acting in skillful ways. For example, you focus on the drawbacks of ordinary sensual pleasures as a way of motivating yourself to want to find a non-sensual happiness, such as the happiness in concentration, which is higher and more secure.

All the other ways of motivating yourself to practice derive from heedfulness.

For example, you can motivate yourself to practice through developing compassion. This is based on heedfulness because you realize that by practicing, you will benefit, and people around you will benefit, too. After all, the less greed, aversion, and delusion you have in your mind, then the less you’ll suffer from them and also the less other people will be inflicted by them as well.

Another way of motivating yourself is to try to develop a sense of humor around your defilements. If you can see them as ridiculous, it’s easier to give them up. This is based on heedfulness because a healthy sense of humor comes from stepping back and looking at something objectively, seeing where it’s incongruous and doesn’t make sense. Heedfulness is what inspires you to step back.

Most people miss the examples of humor in the Canon, largely because they’re most prominent in the Vinaya, which is the section concerning the rules that the monks have to follow, and very few laypeople read that section. Each rule has an origin story to explain the reasons why that rule was formulated, and often those stories contain an element of humor.

I think this is interesting because, first, it helps you see how ridiculous the mistake would be if you broke the rule, and that helps to distance you from any desire within yourself to break the rule. That’s the objective viewpoint that comes from stepping back from your defilements. Second, it’s a lot easier to live by a system of rules if you can see that the people who formulated the rules had a good sense of humor. It helps you appreciate that the rules are not grim, punitive, or dull.

For example, one of the origin stories concerns a monk with psychic powers who has defeated a fire-breathing serpent. The laypeople hear about this and want to make merit with him. So, they ask the monks, “What is it that monks usually don’t receive on alms rounds?” However, they ask the wrong monks. The monks say, “We never get any hard liquor.” So, the next morning, everybody in the city has prepared a glass of hard liquor for the monk who defeated the fire-breathing serpent. He drinks the liquor at house after house after house, and then passes out at the city gate.

The Buddha comes along with a group of monks and sees the monk lying there, so he has the monks take him back to the monastery. They lay him down on the ground with his head toward the Buddha. Now, he doesn’t know where he is, he tosses and turns, and he ends up with his feet pointed straight at the Buddha, which in India is a sign of great disrespect. The Buddha asks the monks, “In the past, didn’t this monk show respect to me?” “Yes.” “Is he showing respect now?” “No.” “And didn’t he do battle with the fire-breathing serpent?” “Yes.” “Could he do battle with a salamander now?” “No.” This is why the monks have a rule against drinking liquor.

So, that’s another way of motivating yourself to want to do what is skillful: by using your sense of humor to see how ridiculous your defilements are.

Another way of motivating yourself is to take inspiration from the examples of the Buddha and the great teachers, because they expand your idea of what human beings can do. There’s a story in the Canon where a monk is out in the wilderness and he’s ill. He asks himself, “Am I going to try to go back to the city to find a doctor?” Then he thinks of the example of the Buddha and the great noble disciples who treated their diseases by developing the factors for awakening and the five faculties, and he decides, “I’ll try that, too. I’ll stay on in the wilderness.”

Another way of motivating yourself is by cultivating healthy versions of what the early texts call craving and conceit. In other words, you think, “Other people can gain awakening. I’d like that, too.” That’s healthy craving. “They’re human beings, I’m a human being. They can do it, so why can’t I?” That’s healthy conceit. Even though you eventually have to abandon craving and conceit, there are stages in the path where you need to use healthy versions of them to convince yourself that the goal is worth pursuing and that you’re capable of attaining it.

There are even some instances when the Buddha recommends some fairly unskillful motivations to get yourself to do something skillful. For example, when it’s very difficult to have goodwill for someone you’re angry at, you can remind yourself that if you acted on your anger, you’d probably do something very stupid, and that would please your enemy. Do you want to give pleasure to your enemy?

It’s not a very skillful thought—it’s actually quite spiteful—but it can prevent some unskillful behavior. And it, too, is based on heedfulness: the desire to use a lesser unskillful state to avoid a more damaging unskillful state.

I know in my own case, when I was a monk in Thailand, I came to realize that some people there view Western monks like dancing elephants. The simple fact that they can dance is enough. They don’t think they’re going to dance well. In the same way, there were people who would say, “These Westerners, can they really understand the Dhamma?” So, I said to myself, “I’ll show them.” Which may not be the most skillful thought, but it got me to meditate a lot more.

Now, you’ll notice that all of these forms of motivation require a healthy sense of self. This is a point that has to be underlined many times. We hear so much about the teaching on not-self that we tend to forget that the Buddha said we should try to make the self its own mainstay. You do that by developing a healthy sense of self: that you’re responsible, you’re capable, and you will benefit from developing skillful actions. This also requires a resilient sense of self that’s willing to admit mistakes and learn from them.

There’s a medical university in the United States that has, as one of its specialties, brain surgery. Of course, everyone who applies to a brain surgery school will have good grades, but not everybody with good grades would make a good brain surgeon. So, the administrators at the university tried to find a way of asking questions during the interview that would help weed out the people who would not make good surgeons. They found two questions to be especially helpful in this area. The first was, “Can you tell us of a mistake you made recently?” If the candidate said, “No, I can’t think of any mistakes I’ve made recently,” the candidate would be rejected. The second question: “If you had to do it again, how would you do it differently?” If the candidate hadn’t thought of how to do it differently, again the candidate would be rejected. What you’re looking for in a good brain surgeon is someone who recognizes mistakes and thinks about how not to repeat those mistakes. This requires a sense of self that’s very solid, that’s not threatened by admitting mistakes and doesn’t try to deny mistakes. This is precisely the kind of healthy sense of self you need as you practice, to motivate yourself to develop the path even further.

In fact, you want to be proud that you can learn from mistakes. This relates to another one of the teachings that the Buddha gave to his son. He said, “Before you meditate, try to make your mind like earth. People throw disgusting things on the earth, but the earth doesn’t react.” The Buddha says the same thing about wind, fire, and water. Wind can blow disgusting things around, but the wind doesn’t get disgusted by them. Water can be used to wash dirty things away, but the water doesn’t get upset. Fire burns things that are disgusting, but the fire isn’t disgusted by them. In the same way, you need to have a solid attitude toward looking at your past mistakes. When you can admit them and not be shaken by them, you put yourself in a position where you can learn from them.

These, then, are some of the ways in which discernment gives guidance in how to motivate yourself to put forth effort.

As for the types of skillful effort, there are basically four: The first is to prevent unskillful qualities from arising, the second is to abandon unskillful qualities that have arisen, the third is to develop skillful qualities that have not yet arisen, and the fourth is to develop and maintain skillful qualities that have already arisen.

Now, it’s important that we notice that there are four different kinds of right effort. All too often we hear that there’s just one, which is letting go, letting go, letting go. But there are a lot of things that you should not let go of, or that you should develop first before you can let them go later. For example, when concentration arises, you don’t just let it go and think that you’ve gained insight into the impermanence of your concentration. When concentration arises, you should try to maintain it and develop it further. That’s when you’re engaging in right effort.

Now, of these four different kinds of effort, the one that gets discussed least is the act of preventing, so that’s what I’d like to focus on tonight.

One way of preventing unskillful qualities from arising is by exercising restraint over your senses. In other words, when you’re looking at or listening to something, ask yourself why. What purpose do you have? Or you might ask another question: “Which member of the mind’s committee is in charge of the looking or the listening?” Only if one of the skillful members is in charge should you continue looking or listening. For example, you’re walking down the street. You see something that you’d really like to have, and you’re looking at it in a way that aggravates your greed. You have to ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” And if you realize that you don’t really need it, then you should look at the object in a way that helps to undercut your greed.

Nowadays, most of our problems with sense restraint don’t happen so much while we’re walking down the street. They happen when we turn on the computer or we look at our phone. You have to remind yourself: These things do not turn themselves on. You’re turning them on and you have to ask yourself why. If you’re not really clear, don’t turn them on. You can prevent a lot of unskillful mind states that way.

Another way of preventing unskillful qualities from arising is by contemplating what the Buddha calls your requisites. We live in dependence on four requisites: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Each time you use these things or think of getting new ones, you have to realize they have a proper purpose, which is to help you develop skillful qualities of the mind. If you’re going to use them in ways that give rise to unskillful qualities, you’re misusing them. So, it’s good to reflect on these requisites with these questions in mind each time you use them. That will undercut a lot of unskillful behavior. For example, when you go out to get something to eat, remind yourself that you eat simply to keep the body alive and healthy. Anything beyond that is a waste of your resources, which could be put to better purposes, and you’re placing unnecessary burdens on other people. So, it’s good to reflect on these things on a daily basis.

Another way of preventing unskillful qualities from arising is, at the end of your meditation every morning, to think about what you expect to happen during the day. If you anticipate any situations in which you might do or say something unskillful, ask yourself, “How could I prepare for that situation so that I don’t do anything unskillful?” Run a few scenarios through your mind until you can think of a skillful way to avoid doing or saying something unskillful, even when the people around you do or say things that would ordinarily provoke you. All too often, we emphasize the present moment in our meditation and forget that we can use the meditation to prepare for the future—and that’s a perfectly legitimate way of using our meditation.

Those are some thoughts on the different types of effort.

As for the amount of effort, you try to find an effort that’s just right, and this is going to depend on two factors: One is the task at hand, and the other is the amount of energy you have.

In terms of the task at hand, the Buddha said the causes of suffering in the mind come in two forms. Some of them will go away easily if you simply look at them. These are cases where you should look at them with equanimity. There are other causes for suffering in the mind, though, that when you look at them, they stare right back. They don’t go away easily. They have no sense of shame. This, the Buddha said, is the time when you have to “exert a fabrication.” Remember what the three kinds of fabrication are: You learn to breathe in a different way, you learn to talk to yourself in a different way, and you bring new perceptions to the issue. This requires that you can take apart your unskillful state, analyzing it into the three types of fabrication, and then use skillful versions of those three fabrications to create something skillful in its place.

So, those are cases where the amount of effort that is just right will depend on the task at hand.

The second issue is the amount of energy that you have. There’s a story in the Canon of a young man, gently brought up, whose feet were so tender that they had hair growing on their soles. The story is quite long, but eventually this young man ordained as a monk. One night, he was doing walking meditation, and it was so hard on his feet that they started bleeding. Feeling discouraged, he sat down and thought, “Maybe I should disrobe. I could still make merit as a layperson.”

Well, the Buddha was on top of Vulture Peak, and so he disappeared from Vulture Peak and appeared right in front of the monk. He said, “Were you thinking of disrobing just now?” Can you imagine? You’re sitting and meditating, and you’re thinking, “I might as well give up,” and all of a sudden, the Buddha appears in front of you. So, the young monk said, “Yes, I was.”

The Buddha asked him, “When you were a layperson, were you skilled at playing the lute?” The monk said, “Yes.” The Buddha said, “When you tuned the strings of the lute so they were too tight, did it sound good?” “No.” “And when they were too loose, did they sound good?” “No.” “How about if they were tuned just right? Did the lute sound good then?” “Yes.” Then the Buddha concluded, “In the same way, when you’re practicing meditation, you tune your effort to the level of energy you have, and then you tune the rest of your five faculties—your conviction, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment—to that, and then your practice will go well.”

In the same way, as you’re meditating at home—it’s been a long day, you’re tired, all you can think about is wanting to sleep—that’s not the time to say, “I will not get up from my meditation until I’ve achieved full awakening.” You tell yourself, “Okay, I’ll sit and meditate for the hour”—or however long you’ve determined—“and try not to fall asleep.” However, on other days when you do have more energy and you’ve set the timer for half an hour, if the alarm sounds and you still have energy, give yourself another half-hour.

That’s determining how much effort is just right based on how much energy you have.

So, these are the four different ways in which discernment gives guidance to your effort and persistence:

• in pointing out what’s skillful and what’s not,

• in giving you ideas for how to motivate yourself,

• in pointing out the different types of effort that are appropriate, and

• in determining the amount of effort that’s just right.

For your persistence to be right, it’s best guided by right view as to what issues in life are important and what qualities in mind will keep you on track. Remember, right effort focuses on skillful and unskillful qualities in the mind, and as your discernment points out, the mind is the most important factor in your life. So, that’s where you have to focus your right efforts. Discernment also teaches you how to determine which efforts are right for attaining the goal.

Now, right mindfulness remembers these lessons and it keeps you alert so that you can apply them at all times. In this way, you’ve got mindfulness working together with discernment. Now, it’s interesting to note that in Thai, the words for mindfulness and discernment, sati and paññā, when you put them together—sati-paññā—form a compound that means “intelligence.” And here we’re talking about the kind of intelligence in which you’re alert to what needs to be done, you have presence of mind to remember what should be done, and you use your knowledge to good effect. True intelligence requires more than just mindfulness and discernment. It also requires effort. In other words, if you learn something but then don’t try to remember it, that’s not really intelligent. If you learn and remember but don’t try to put it into action, that’s not very intelligent either. It’s when you try to learn, try to remember, and try to put into action what you’ve learned: That’s when you’re really using your intelligence. And that’s when your efforts, your persistence, become the perfection of persistence.


Q: How can I meditate to overcome laziness in daily life?

A: Ajaan Maha Boowa once said his least favorite question was, “What’s an easy way to overcome laziness?” You have to remind yourself that if you want anything good out of life, you have to put in effort. Think of the bad things that happen to lazy people, the things they miss out on, and then think of all the good things that come from putting in effort. Then the question is “What is the appropriate effort for this task I have right now?”

Q: Why do we feed on the vicious cycle of not doing what we know is good for us?

A: There’s part of the mind that doesn’t really believe that what is good for you really is good for you. You have to find which part of the mind that is and ask it, “Why? What’s the allure of being lazy?”

Q: I have a lot of psychological defects, including laziness, ill will, and attachment to material things. What can I do to fight this?

A: With ill will, consciously try to develop thoughts of goodwill, and the members of the committee that like ill will will start to complain. Then you can get in a dialogue with them. Ask them, “Why do you like ill will? What do you get out of it? It’s miserable food for the mind.” As for attachment to material things, make a practice of giving things away. Here again, part of the mind will complain, and then you can get into a dialogue with it. As for laziness, give yourself little rewards for being more energetic, and after a while your energy will develop momentum.

Q: If any unskillful thought arises and you acknowledge it as unskillful, does it still have negative kammic effects?

A: No.

Q: In other words, does the arising of unskillful thoughts cause bad kamma or is it just our reaction to them?

A: It’s our reaction to them that can cause bad kamma. The fact that the thought arises is the result of old kamma. What you do with it is your new kamma. If you simply acknowledge it and it goes away, or if you think skillful thoughts that counteract it and make it go away, then the new kamma is good new kamma.