Foundations of Virtue and Right View


 by Ajahn Passano


A talk given by Ajahn Pasanno, co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, during a visit to Cittaviveka, October 2001

I came to England to attend the meetings of the Elders of the community that were held at Amaravati. One of the striking impressions from them was of the first meeting when we were together in the Temple. It was a meeting for the Theras and Theris -- those of us, monks and nuns, who have been in the robes for over ten years. There were thirty-seven of us; it was quite powerful to have that amount of experience in one place. Just sharing a space with people who have that kind of commitment to the Holy Life was a real treat, to recognise the strength of the commitment and practice that is in the community.

The other day I was asked what we had decided in those meetings. But that wasn't the point of them. I don't think anybody was trying to decide anything, to come out with great new edicts. But the fact that we were able to come together in harmony, talk with each other in harmony and then to disperse in harmony, that was enough, that was extraordinary in itself. Just having people coming from different ends of the globe with different kinds of practice and different ideas of what the training is, and just to delight in each other's company and not to get into arguments was enough. So the time spent at Amaravati was extremely fruitful. I think it's good for everybody to know, to realise that the Sangha does come together from time to time, that there is an underlying harmony and commitment which is really worthy of delighting in.

Whether we're looking at the external form of the Sangha, the people who are practising, or whether we are looking at ourselves, so often we're measuring, comparing, trying to come up with something, trying to pin down a detail of what we're accomplishing, of what we're gaining. Oftentimes we overlook the fundamentals of our own personal practice or what the fundamentals for a community to practise and dwell in are. Certainly what Ajahn Chah would emphasise over and over again, and this is corroborated in the suttas, is the foundation of sila (virtue) and samma ditthi (Right Understanding). If the practice of either a group or an individual is going to flourish and grow, they need to rely on those fundamentals.

When we think of sila (virtue), oftentimes we think of taking the precepts. That's one aspect of virtue, having precepts, having rules of conduct which we adhere to, but it's not really the whole picture of what virtue is. It's good to have parameters that you take as standards for conduct, but it's essential to be able to reflect, 'Well, what are those precepts for?' Whether they're the five precepts for lay-people living in the world, whether they're the eight renunciate precepts, whether they're the Siladhara precepts, whether they're the two hundred and twenty seven precepts of the Bhikkhus, what are the principles that underlie them? Certainly the qualities of harmlessness, of honesty, of restraint, of integrity, of composure, of trustworthiness, these are what really underlie them. You can expand on them in terms of precepts and training rules, but those fundamental wholesome qualities are what the precepts are for. One takes precepts on in order to learn and understand how our conduct affects the world around us and how it affects ourselves.

What kind of intention comes up in the mind that impels us towards particular actions? Because the intention, the volition within the mind, within the heart is compelling us to act, to perform in certain ways. As long as we don't understand that we keep following patterns that are a product of habit or conditioning and are not really grounded in wisdom and clarity. Until we can understand intention we'll be following moods, feelings, habits and conditioning. So precepts and training help us to reflect on what is going on internally so that we can learn. That's exactly what the meaning of the Pali word which we translate as a 'precept' is. Sikkhapada means a foundation for training or learning; sikkha means learning or training, and pada is basis or foundation. This shines light on what a Buddhist precept is for. It's not for forcing us into a particular mould, pattern, or a disciplinary code; it's something that's assisting us in understanding ourselves and what our actions do, where they come from and what they lead to.

There are other aspects of sila (virtue), which we may not consider very much. Oftentimes when we think of sila, we think of precepts and rules, but from the Buddhist perspective, that's never enough, it has to encompass all of our actions of body and speech -- how we engage with the world around us. So another aspect of sila is sense-restraint. When we come into contact with the world around us -- sights, sounds, smells, taste, touch -- do we get excited? Do we get agitated? Do we follow our impulses of liking and disliking? Or do we have a composure that allows us to reflect upon that sense-contact? That sense of composure is called indriya-samvara. It's talked about as having enough composure and restraint so that with the sense-contact, the sensory-impingement that we're experiencing we have enough clarity to not follow the patterns of desire or grief, like or dislike that would normally arise if we weren't restrained in the senses. The usual story of our lives is of the constant ups-and-downs of our moods, of liking and disliking, being happy or being unhappy because of what we experience around us.

We had a fair amount of meetings at Amaravati, and then outside the meetings we were connecting with people we hadn't seen for quite some time. With one of the monks I was talking about the times living at Wat Pah Pong with Ajahn Chah. He was telling me about an occasion when he was at Wat Pah Pong in the morning time before the meal. That could be a highly charged time, a time when Ajahn Chah said 'you don't admonish anybody -- wait until they're full and happy.' Anyway, this monk did not heed Ajahn Chah's advice and got into an argument before the meal over the distribution of food. The passions could arise over it because there would be a few monks who would volunteer to distribute food, they'd go down the line putting the food into the bowls. And there were those who used mindfulness and consideration, and those who just slopped it in. So this monk got into an argument with one of the other Venerables and was still fuming about it after the meal had finished and he'd washed his bowl. Then he heard a voice behind him say, 'Good morning.' He turned around and it was Ajahn Chah, who never spoke English. He heard this 'Good Morning' and saw Ajahn Chah smiling at him. So he thought, 'Isn't that wonderful!' He was so touched by that and uplifted. The whole mood of being angry and upset blew over completely and he was just feeling joy from Ajahn Chah's friendly contact.

So he had a pleasant day and then that evening he went over to Ajahn Chah's dwelling. There were several other monks there and he asked if he could massage Ajahn Chah's feet. When the bell for evening chanting went Ajahn Chah told all the other monks to go to evening chanting and said to this monk, 'You can stay massaging my feet.' So he was sitting massaging Ajahn Chah's feet, everything was all warm and friendly when the evening chanting started. Normally when you're in the chanting, especially in Thailand where it's usually chanted in Pali and then translated into Thai, you're sort of bored and wondering when it's going to end. But he said that night, listening to it from outside, it was just an ethereal sound coming from the Dhamma Hall. It was just this wonderful evening, the moon was coming up, the sound of the chanting, sitting there with Ajahn Chah; he was having these waves of joy coming over him, even tears were coming to his eyes he was so happy. Then, all of a sudden, Ajahn Chah took his foot and kicked him in the chest! Hard enough to knock him flat on his back and send him flying. Ajahn Chah rebuked him very strongly, saying, 'You're really a fool. Somebody says something you don't like and you get angry. Somebody walks over to you and says 'Good morning' and you get happy. You hear things that you like and you feel good. That's not the way of a practitioner! You're just going to spend your life going up and down with moods and feelings about the impingements around you. If you want to practise you're going to have to learn to have some sense-restraint and some composure, and not get caught up in things.'

Point taken! A very, very direct admonishment and teaching. And it's true, when we experience the things that we like we enjoy them and we want them to stay, and when we experience the things that we don't like we try to push them away. We get caught into the movement in the mind and heart of going back and forth, pushing 'this' away and trying to get 'that' experience. We don't have an internal foundation, an abiding place of clarity, this fundamental mindfulness and wisdom that comes from sense-restraint and composure with the contact of the senses. Sense-restraint is a fundamental virtue for someone who really wants to experience the fruits of this practice. This is important because if we think virtue is just going to come from keeping rules, getting the system down -- and then we'll be all right -- that's not it, there's a whole other realm that we need to consider.

Another aspect of virtue that the Buddha talked about is having Right Livelihood -- whether one is a monastic or a layperson. To consider how we live in the world, how we maintain ourselves in the world, looking after our needs in a way that is not harming or creating more suffering for others or ourselves. For a monastic, there are the aspects of Right Livelihood which are about establishing the relationship that we have to the lay-community; not manipulating, not being dishonest, not trying to get some kind of gain through praising, giving something or being deceitful. For the lay-community, there are elements of Right Livelihood around what kind of things there's involvement with, particularly avoiding those kinds of livelihood which are involved with weapons or substances which would harm others, or ways of doing things which are fundamentally dishonest. As human beings we need to have a livelihood of some sort. There has to be a fundamental honesty and integrity otherwise we undermine our aspiration for peace.

Another aspect of virtue that the Buddha talked about is how we relate to the requisites. Again, whether one is a monastic or a layperson, there are our fundamental requisites of clothing, of shelter, of food, and medicines for when we're sick. So, with both the acquiring of those requisites and the use of those requisites, we reflect on, 'what is my need?' Rather than, 'what are the standards of the society?' or, 'what are my desires?' Particularly being in a modern society that is based on consumption, 'what is just enough?' So that takes real reflection and investigation -- 'what is it that is just enough?' And not getting caught up into our desires, into constantly seeking security, comfort and gratification. Not trying to pump ourselves up in terms of our material well-being so that we can have a sense of security and a sense of self that is somehow elevated when one looks at one's fellow human beings. We have to learn how to function in the world, and to relate skilfully to the things that we rely on for living in the world, the basic requisites that we consume and rely on each day.

Considering our food, 'what is just enough for our well-being?' How often do we consume something just because there's nothing else to do? How many times do you just go to the cupboard or the fridge because there's nothing else to do? The Buddha said there's certain fundamental qualities which are developed and need to be developed in terms of the use of the requisites. Wisdom is the dominant quality that needs to come to the forefront of consciousness, in terms of what is enough and what's not enough. When one investigates with wisdom, you start seeing all that food is supporting is just the four elements, the basic elements which make up a sentient being -- fire, earth, water and air. When we say there's fire element, it doesn't mean there's fire burning somewhere, but it's that element of heat or cool. Water is the element of cohesion; the element of earth is the element of solidity. Anything that we consume is just those elements also. Just reflecting on the interplay of these elements we see they're not a personal thing.

So wisdom is the quality that is needed in terms of relating to the requisites. The dominant virtue that comes with the relationship to livelihood is the quality of effort or energy, applying effort or energy in the appropriate ways. The quality that is dominant in terms of sense-restraint is the quality of mindfulness, awareness, the ability to be attentive to moods, to feelings, to contact, to sensation. The dominant quality or virtue that is cultivated and needs to be relied upon for the keeping of training precepts is faith. So these different elements are cultivated through virtue. With sila as a foundation for practice, we start to expand into something that carries through into all the different aspects of our cultivation.

The other element that Ajahn Chah emphasised was Right View (samma ditthi). Right View can be expounded on in many different ways but fundamentally it is understanding the nature of kamma, the fact that all actions have some sort of result. That is a fundamental basis for Right View; particularly from the perspective of the mundane, day-to-day level of how we live. It is being able to consider and reflect on how our actions bring results.

I was reading a manuscript by somebody I know in California who was asked to write a book about his life. This person has a very strong practice, but he came to it through a lot of pain and suffering, through confusion, drug-addiction and jail. He talks about what brought him to a spiritual practice; it was really seeing, 'Oh, yeah. What we do has results'. It was interesting reading the point where he decided, 'I've really got to start meditating.' He was in jail for one more time, having to go through withdrawal one more time and thinking, 'I can keep repeating this or I can look for a way out.' Most of us don't go to those extremes, but we still have to come to that point where we really see, 'I don't have to follow the patterns that I have set for myself. What I'm experiencing, whether it's painful or pleasurable, I've had a hand in that. It didn't just drop down from the sky; it wasn't foisted on me by some divine intervention, it was very much about what I chose to do. I chose to incline my mind and actions in that way'. The more clearly we see that, then the more able we are to really take responsibility for our actions.

One of the reflections that the Buddha encouraged us to chant on a daily basis ends on the refrain 'I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, all that I do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir'. This is a fundamental truth: this is the basis of Right View. There are all sorts of ways we try to duck out of it, duck around it, moan and groan about what we're having to put up with and how miserable things are, but it comes back to what we're putting into the universe. Our actions have results.

There's a very nice story of an American who went to study in a Zen monastery. He wasn't quite sure what he was doing there, but he knew he was supposed to be practising, so he tried to meditate and follow the routine. He was there for many weeks and when he was ready to leave the Abbot of the monastery invited him to have an interview. The person was both a bit nervous and honoured as this was an old, very well known temple in Japan and the Abbot was highly respected. Fundamentally the Abbot said, 'You've been practising and training here, that's very good, but you have to understand one thing, come with me'. So he took him to the entrance way to the monastery. There was a very old scroll set up there. The Abbot said that the calligraphy was a poem that was written by one of the founding teachers six or seven centuries before. The essence was this -- There's nothing really to do. There's nothing really to gain. There's nothing really to become. There's nothing really to achieve. And although this is true, still, when it rains the ground gets wet, and when there's a fire things get hot.

This is what you need to understand. Everything has results. Although on an ultimate level of Buddhist philosophy, there's a concept of emptiness and non-attainment, that isn't how you live. You have to live in a realm of cause and effect. When you go out in the rain, you've got to have an umbrella. When it's hot, you've got to protect yourself. In the same way, our actions have results, and if we act on impulses that are unskilful, then we'll reap the fruits of that. Also, when we act on those intentions and feelings which are wholesome, the fruitful benefits will come from that; well-being, harmony and peace will come from that. It's with the same kind of surety that if you spill water on the carpet, it's going to get wet -- it's just that sure.

So, really being attentive to our actions, recognising that we can choose between that which is going to bring benefits into the world around us, creating well-being and happiness for ourselves and others, or those things that are unskilful and will create disharmony, create a sense of dis-ease within our heart or conflict with others. To be really clear because we have to live with the fruits; that's a fundamental Right View.

These two qualities, virtue and Right View, are what Ajahn Chah used to emphasise over and over and over again. These are what we need for laying the foundations for practice. You might ask, 'Well, why didn't he talk about meditation?' Well, he did. But if we don't get those foundations of virtue and Right View, then our meditation is not efficacious.

If you're doing a building (I'm doing a lot of building work these days!), if you're laying the walls out and you're just a little bit off when you're at one end, by the time you get to the other side of the building it can be a foot off. It makes for a wonky building! It's just so important to get those foundations, those bases right, precise and clear, then everything else falls into place. With virtue and Right View as the foundation, then our meditation falls into place. The qualities of reflection and investigation, of wisdom, they fall into place. It's natural. One of the images that the Buddha used was of when the rain falls on the mountain. It then gathers in rivulets, it gathers in streams, it gathers into rivers and it flows out into the sea. It's just natural; it's ordinary. In the same way the cultivation and the looking after of our virtue and Right View leads us into the deep body of wisdom and freedom.

Forest Sangha Newsletter: July 2002, Number 61

Source : http://www.forestsangha.org


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