Putting the Dhamma first

From Food for Thought, First Things First (by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo)

Putting the Dhamma first: This is an important principle for those who practice. The duties of every Buddhist are:

  1. to develop virtue by observing the precepts,
  2. to center the mind in concentration, and
  3. to use discernment to investigate the truth without giving rein to defilement.


The basic level of virtue protects our words and deeds from being evil. The intermediate level protects our senses and keeps them clean — which means that we don't let the three defilements of passion, aversion, and delusion be provoked into action by what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or think.

As for the highest level of virtue — inner virtue — this means giving rise to Right Concentration within the mind:

(1) On this level, "not killing" means not killing off your goodness. For instance, if bad thoughts arise and you aren't careful to wipe them out, their evil will come pouring in and your goodness will have to die. This is because your mind is still caught up on good and evil. Sometimes you use good to kill evil. Sometimes you use evil to kill good: This is called killing yourself.

(2) "Stealing" on this level refers to the way the mind likes to take the good and bad points of other people to think about. This sort of mind is a thief — because we've never once asked other people whether they're possessive of their good and bad points or are willing to share them with us. For the most part, what we take is their old dried up garbage. I.e., we like to focus on their bad points. Even though they may have good points, we don't let ourselves see them. We take our own opinions as our guide and as a result we end up as fools without realizing it.

(3) "Illicit sensuality" on this level refers to the state of mind that is stuck on sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and ideas, or that lies fermenting in greed, anger, and delusion. In other words, the mind is impure and is always involved with sensual objects and moods.

(4) "Lying" on this level means not being true. How are we not true? We come to the monastery but our minds are at home. We listen to the sermon but our hearts are thinking of something else. Our bodies may be sitting in the meditation position, just like the Buddha, but our minds are roaming around through all sorts of thoughts, gnawing on the past, nibbling at the future, not finding any meat at all. This is called lying to yourself and to others as well. How is it lying to others? Suppose you go home and someone asks, "Where did you go today?" and you answer, "I went to the monastery to listen to a sermon." Actually, your body came, but you didn't come. Your body listened, but you didn't listen. This has to be classed as a kind of lying.

(5) "Intoxication" on this level refers to delusion and absentmindedness. If we're going to contemplate body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities, our minds have to be still and really focused on these things. But if we're absentminded and forgetful, our minds go down the wrong path, weaving in and out, back and forth like a drunkard. Sometimes we end up falling down in a stupor and lying there on the side of the road. Nothing good will come of it.

Those who are careful to keep their minds firmly centered in concentration and to keep the five precepts on this level pure and whole, though, are said to be developing the highest perfection of virtue — showing respect for the Dhamma above and beyond the world, above and beyond themselves. This is called putting the Dhamma first in a way befitting those who practice it. This is what it means to be a true Buddhist in a way that will eventually lead us to release from all suffering and stress.


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