The pyramid of virtues

How are the five precepts, kamma from this and past lives and vipassana all related with each other? Actually, it seems like they really are, in a very intriguing way, and in this post we will explain how. But first of all, some background knowledge.

The most fundamental moral rules which the Buddha outlined to his followers (both monks and lay people) are the famous “5 precepts”. They are considered the most basic training in virtue and are considered essential for leading a happy life both in this world and the next – let alone if someone tries to develop his or her mind. That is the obvious part.

The five precepts are:

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks, drugs which lead to states of carelessness.
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Now, all of those 5 guidelines set up boundaries which we keep in check through concentration and mindfulness. While following along the line of these essential guidelines we will encounter situations in our life (= karmic playground that samsara is) where those forces in and around us weigh heavy towards breaking those moral boundaries (see here for details) – creating a challenge, which will test our intentions, which will create a new positive or negative karmic force pushing us up or down and immediately starting to effect the next steps in our life:

“Monks, the taking of life — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from the taking of life is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to a short life span.

“Stealing — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from stealing is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to the loss of one’s wealth.

“Illicit sexual behavior — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from illicit sexual behavior is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to rivalry & revenge.

“Telling falsehoods — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from telling falsehoods is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to being falsely accused.

“Divisive tale-bearing — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from divisive tale-bearing is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to the breaking of one’s friendships.

“Harsh speech — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from harsh speech is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to unappealing sounds.

“Frivolous chattering — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from frivolous chattering is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to words that aren’t worth taking to heart.

“The drinking of fermented & distilled liquors — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from drinking fermented & distilled liquors is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to mental derangement.” (AN 8. 40 – here the 4th sila is split into the 4 kinds of right speech)

It is interesting to note, that the five precepts seem to have been formulated by the Buddha specifically to counteract or to keep in check certain very strong negative karmic forces (past baggage) which may have devastating effects on ….well, on what exactly? On our current life? Yes, probably, but was that the only reason why the Buddha came up with the five silas? Many people do believe that the Buddha just formulated them so that society and individuals could profit by getting along well with each other. But, beware, that is just a side-effect!

Why are those 5 precepts so paramount to meditative practice? After all, wasn’t Nibbana the goal of the Buddha’s own renunciation and his effort to teach for the next 45 years?

Ultimately, viewing the situation of living beings with the eyes of a doctor, the Buddha’s main intention was to help reduce suffering. But, whereas political, social, medical interaction with the world fights symptoms not causes, his discovery of Nibbana meant an end to the blazing fire of samsara as such. So, anyone who embarked on the journey the Buddha propagated, anyone who was interested in probing his path to attain to the deathlessness in this very life needed, first of all…a life! Here we go:

  • 1st precept -> Life. Not killing or harming other living beings leads to a long life, or reduces the chances to encounter a sudden untimely death. This is the most fundamental necessity for someone who wants to study meditation. He has to be alive. If you cannot stick around, you won’t be able to meditate for long 😉
  • 2nd precept -> Material support/Wealth. Now, that the meditator is alive, he needs to get food and clothing and at least find some material support in his environment. It will be very hard to meditate while starving to death.
  • 3rd precept-> Noble Friendship. Given the “luck” (support and blessing accumulated through keeping the appropriate silas in this and former lives) of being alive and having at least some wealth, he needs to be able to find friends. Good friends. People who will lead him and guide him on the path of insight. Breaking the third sila, whether in this or past lives, can result in the loss of friendships. This is not a good thing for someone looking for spiritual development.
  • 4th precept -> Truth. As you can see, the enumeration of the precepts follows a plan. From the more basic and material foundation for progress on the path of spiritual development we come to higher and subtler but more and more important positive intentions which will be the necessary foundation for developing concentration and insight. Truthfulness is the moral counterpart of insight meditation. It is the daily training in this and past lives, of looking at reality (according to one’s understanding) and not to deviate from what one has seen to be true. Always bound to truthfulness before anything else (be it opinions, views or material reasons). Keeping this precept prepares for the battleground of insight, where the meditator faces his biggest challenge yet to come – just noting the six sense impressions as they are, but not adding to them, not deviating from the pure knowing. Giving up, as soon as one knows “this is not myself”. So, here too, we see a karmic (intentional) training in a quality which will be a foundation for meditation
  • 5th precept: A clear mind. So, even if we ultimately face reality in complete truthfullness, gained by keeping our precepts pure in this and former lives, still, breaking through to Nibbana will need a huge strength in “wisdom”, which (as we saw in prior posts) means “the power of knowing”, the ability “know and see”. This power of wisdom is reflected in someone keeping the 5th precept – and it is a sign by itself, that this precept is probably taken less serious by many than the previous 4). What a pity. The enjoyment of and the intention towards alcohol and other drugs is a fostering of intentions towards carelessness, heedlessness, mental dullness…as sharpness, discernment and mental alertness (and the regard/appreciation for them!!) slip away, so does awakening, Nibbana.

If you look at the 5 precepts the way we did in this post, all of them form a beautiful pyramid, layer by layer, logically resting on each other and ultimately, they all point to just one goal: Aiding the realization of Nibbana.

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