When we observe the Five Guidelines for Wholesome Living we ensure that our behavior is at least ethical. However, when we feel more confident in the rightness of our path, we can deepen and broaden our commitment by also practicing the Ten Virtues (sometimes called the Ten Meritorious Deeds). What are the Ten Virtues? They are ways to help us become pure and virtuous in our body, our speech, and our mind. If we are already observing the Five Guidelines, then moving on to the Ten Virtues will not be that hard because the first four virtues are also part of the Five Guidelines. One may ask, if the Ten Virtues are in some respects similar to the Five Guidelines, why bother practicing them? The reason is that the Ten Virtues give us additional protection and additional help on the path towards realizing compassion and wisdom.
To better understand the Ten Virtues, we can think of them as methods for purifying the body, for purifying speech, and for purifying the mind.
Virtues that purify the body:
- No killing
- No stealing
- No improper sexual activity.
The first group of three virtues – no killing, no stealing, and no improper sexual activity – help us refrain from harmful bodily actions, which can cause suffering and violence to a greater extent than verbal or mental actions. We cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants and the nature, practicing generosity by sharing our time, energy, skills and resources with those in real need. By doing so, we purify our bodily actions, bringing peace to ourselves and others, making the world a better place to live.
Virtues that purify speech:
- No lying
- No slandering
- No harsh words
- No gossip
The next group of virtues helps us to purify speech. Not lying is also part of the Five Guidelines, but no slandering, no harsh words, and no gossip are also added to that. These virtues say that we should pay close attention to what we say, to whom we say it, and how we say it. We refrain from lying, engaging in divisive speech, harsh words, and meaningless gossip. When we are not mindful of the impact of our words, even though there may be no intent to harm, carelessness in speech can cause enmity, conflict, and division. Therefore, observing the virtues that purify speech, we do more than just avoid harming others; we cultivate a positive sense of harmony which can operate at three levels: within oneself, within one’s family and close relations, and with society at large.
Virtues that purify the mind:
- No coveting
- No aversion
- No incorrect views.
This last group of the Ten Virtues — no coveting, no aversion, and no wrong views — deals with the content of the mind and clearly extends the scope of the Five Guidelines. The emphasis is to purify our minds of negative thoughts. We cultivate mindfulness to prevent our mind from becoming ensnared with desire for irrelevant things, with anger and hatred, and with wrong beliefs and delusions. Through these practices we gradually dissolve the three fundamental poisons of greed, aversion, and ignorance. These mental poisons are deeply rooted in our minds, and are at the root of all vexations.
The Ten Virtues are not merely a set of passive restraints. On the contrary, they should be seen as a positive ways of nurturing a caring attitude for others. For example, not taking life is not just a passive attitude — it means positively arousing compassion towards all living creatures, however small. The difference is that in the first case, we refrain from doing harm, and there is merit and virtue in that. In the second case, we take a more encompassing view, which can be called compassion.
Therefore, one way to see that the Ten Virtues are really active — not just passive — attitudes is to take each one and ask: “How would my practicing this virtue result in my having compassion for others?” We can reflect on our own patterns of acting, thinking, and speaking, and find ways to improve. Seen this way, the Ten Virtues are not a static set of rules, but a “living document” that one constantly updates as one progresses on the path. If one does this, one will see that the Ten Virtues are really about helping others while helping oneself, and helping oneself while helping others.