by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

No description available...

Chapter 32 - The Three Abstinences

Virati Cetasikas

There are twenty five sobhana cetasikas in all which arise only with sobhana cittas. Nineteen among these arise with every sobhana citta, whereas six of them do not arise with every sobhana citta. Among these six sobhana cetasikas there are three which are abstinences or virati-cetasikas. They are:

  1. abstinence from wrong speech, vaci-duccarita virati
  2. abstinence from wrong action, kaya-duccarita virati
  3. abstinence from wrong livelihood, ajiva-duccarita virati

As regards abstinence from wrong speech, this is abstinence from lying, slandering, harsh speech and idle, frivolous talk. Abstinence from wrong action comprises abstinence from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Abstinence from wrong livelihood is abstinence from wrong speech and wrong action committed for the sake of one's livelihood.

We read in the Atthasalini (I, Book I, Part IV, Chapter I, 131) about the three kinds of abstinences:

... As regards characteristic, etc., it has been said that each of these three does not trespass nor tread on objects of the other two. They have the function of shrinking from the same; and they have faith (saddha), sense of shame (hiri), fear of blame (ottappa), contentment and more, as proximate antecedents. They should be regarded as produced by the averted state of the mind from evil action.

The Visuddhimagga (XIV, 155) gives a similar definition.

We read that each of the three does not tread on objects of the other two. In the case of cittas of the sense-sphere (kamavacara cittas) these three kinds of abstinence arise one at a time, since there is abstinence from one kind of evil at a time. when we, for example, abstain from harsh speech, the cetasika which is abstinence from wrong speech accompanies the maha-kusala cittas and we do not abstain from wrong action at the same time, since there is only one citta at a time. When we are harshly spoken to and we do not answer back there is not always kusala citta with abstinence from wrong speech.

We may keep silent with citta rooted in ignorance or with citta rooted in aversion and then there is akusala citta. If we abstain from retorting unpleasant speech with kindness and patience there is kusala citta accompanied by the cetasika which is abstinence from wrong speech.

As we have seen, confidence in wholesomeness ( saddha), shame (hiri), fear of blame (ottappa) and contentment are among the proximate causes of the abstinences. When there is contentment or fewness of wishes there are favourable conditions for observing morality.

As regards abstinence from wrong livelihood' for laymen, we read in the Gradual Sayings (III, Book of the Fives, Chapter XVII, 7) about five kinds of trades laymen should abstain from:

Monks, these five trades ought not to be plied by a lay-disciple. What five?
Trade in weapons, trade in human beings, trade in flesh, trade in spirits and trade in poison.
Verily, monks, these five trades ought not to be plied by a lay-disciple.

As to trade in flesh, the commentary (Manorathapurani) explains: "He breeds and sells pigs, deer, etc." It is also wrong livelihood to receive bribes for services which are one's duty to perform, or bribes for something one ought not to do.

There is also wrong livelihood for monks. The monk should not try to obtain the requisites of robes, almsfood, dwelling and medicine with unlawful means, such as by way of hinting or talking in a clever way. He should not disparage others in order to obtain gain and honour.[1] The monk's life should be a life of contentment with little. If he realizes that the observance of the Vinaya should not be separated from the development of right understanding he will be able to lead a life of purity.

When someone lies or uses dishonest means in order to obtain something for himself he acts in this way because of selfish desire. He hopes to gain something, but sooner or later he will suffer unpleasant results. Whenever we give in to wrong speech or wrong action. we are enslaved and we are blinded, we do not realize the consequences. At that moment there is no shame which shrinks from evil and no fear of the consequences of evil. While we abstain from evil there are confidence in wholesomeness, shame and fear of blame and there is no selfish desire. Understanding, panna, may or may not accompany the kusala citta which abstains from evil.

As right understanding develops there will be less clinging to the concept of self and consequently there will be more conditions to abstain from wrong speech, wrong action and wrong livelihood.

It is not easy to know when there is kusaIa citta accompanied by one of the three abstinences. So long as it is not known precisely when there is kusala citta and when akusala citta, the characteristics of the cetasikas which are abstention from wrong speech, wrong action and wrong livelihood cannot be known either. It is of no use to try to focus on these realities since there are many sobhana cetasikas accompanying the kusala citta while we abstain from evil and it is difficult to know their different characteristics. When the characteristic of abstinence appears there can be mindfulness of it in order to be able to realize that it is not self who abstains.

There are different degrees of abstinence and the Atthasalini ( I, Book I, Part III, Chapter VI, 103, 104) distinguishes between three kinds: abstaining "in spite of opportunity obtained", abstaining because of observance (of precepts) and abstaining by way of eradication. As to the first kind we read:

When they who have not undertaken to observe any precept, but who reflecting on their own birth, age, experience, etc. and saying "It is not fit for us to do such a bad thing" do not transgress an object actually met with, the abstinence is to be considered as "in spite of opportunity"...

Thus, also those who have not undertaken the precepts can have shame and fear of blame and abstain from wrong speech, wrong action and wrong livelihood. Although the opportunity for wrong speech or wrong action presents itself, they abstain from it when they take into consideration the family they belong to, the education they have had and their experience. They do not want to behave like fools and they fear the consequences of evil conduct.

The second kind of abstention is by way of observance of the precepts. When someone has undertaken the precepts and he considers it beneficial to observe them this can be a condition to abstain from wrong conduct. There are many degrees of observing the precepts. One's morality, sila, may be limited (Vis. I, 31) Someone may have the intention not to kill living beings, but when his health or his life is in danger, or his relatives insist that he should kill, for example, insects, he may not be able to observe the precept which is abstention from killing. Thus his morality is limited, it h not enduring. Only through the development of right understanding can morality become enduring.

The sotapanna has eradicated wrong view and thus, when he observes the precepts, he does not take the observing for self. He will never transgress the five precepts, even if his life is in danger, and thus his morality is of a higher degree than the morality of the non-ariyan. We read about the third kind of abstinence, abstinence by way of eradication, mentioned by the Atthasalini, that it should be understood as associated with the ariyan path :

... When that Path has once arisen, not even the thought, "we will kill a creature ", arises in the ariyans.

If right understanding of realities is not developed all kinds of defilements can arise on account of the objects which are experienced. When a pleasant object is experienced through the eyes, we tend to be immediately infatuated with it. We should realize that what is seen is only visible object, a kind of rupa which does not last. Visible object can be seen just for a moment, it cannot be owned. Still, we make ourselves believe that we can own it. We want to get it for ourselves and because of it we may even commit evil deeds. In the ultimate sense there are no people or things, only nama and rupa which arise and then fall away immediately.

When we realize the consequences of evil conduct we will be urged to develop right understanding which can eradicate defilements. We read in the Gradual Sayings (III, Book of the Fives, Chapter XXII, 3, Morals) about disadvantages of evil conduct:
Monks, there are five disadvantages to one wanting morals, failing in morals. What five?

Consider, monks, the man without morals failing in morals --- he comes to suffer much loss in wealth through neglect.

This, monks, is the first disadvantage to one wanting morals, failing in morals.
Or, an evil rumour spreads about him. This is the second disadvantage...
Or whatever group he approach, whether nobles or brahmans, householders or recluses, he does so without confidence and confused. This is the third disadvantage...
Or he dies muddled (in thought). This is the fourth disadvantage,..
Or on the breaking up of the body after death he arises in the wayward way, the ill way, the abyss, hell. This is the fifth disadvantage,..
Verily, monks, them are the true disadvantages to one wanting morals, failing in morals. (The opposite is said of one perfect in morals.)

The Visuddhimagga (I, 154) mentions the following dangers of failure in virtue:

... Furthermore, on account of his unvirtuousness an unvirtuous person is displeasing to deities and human beings, is uninstructable by his fellows in the life of purity, suffers when unvirtuousness is censured, and is remorseful when the virtuous are praised...

We then read about many other disadvantages. For example, the unvirtuous are always nervous, like a man who is everyone's enemy, he is unfit to live with and incapable of reaching the distinction of attainment. Although he imagines that he is happy, yet he is not, since he maps suffering.

When we neglect morality we may suffer afterwards from remorse. When we, for example, give in to slandering we may enjoy it at that moment, but afterwards remorse may arise and then there is no joy, no peace of mind. If we abstain from slandering there is no opportunity for remorse. When we abstain from slandering with kindness and consideration for others the citta is quite different from the citta which is forgetful of morality and gives in to slandering. We may be able to learn the different characteristics of such moments.

When one begins to develop insight one cannot expect to have purity of morality immediately. We are still full of attachment, aversion and ignorance, and these unwholesome roots can condition wrong speech, wrong action and wrong livelihood. Only the sotapanna has no more conditions to commit akusala kamma which can lead to an unhappy rebirth.

We should have determination to develop right understanding of whatever reality appears. When we become angry and utter harsh speech there can be moments of awareness of nama and rupa in between the moments of anger. Also anger should be known as it is, as only a type of nama which is conditioned, not "my anger", otherwise it can never be eradicated. We find the unpleasant feeling which accompanies anger very disagreeable and we may have desire for just calm. Then there is clinging again. Also the subtle desire for calm should be known as it is. We should consider what our aim is: only calm, or right understanding of whatever reality appears.

We may think that it is too difficult to develop understanding of whatever reality appears, we want to delay it when we are tired, depressed or in an angry mood. However, if there is no beginning of the development of right understanding, even at those moments we consider unfavourable, it will always be difficult. If one perseveres in developing understanding of the present moment, understanding can grow.

One may neglect the precepts because one thinks that they are too difficult to observe. But if one considers the teachings more often and starts to develop understanding, there will be more conditions for remembering what is right and what is wrong in the different situations of one's daily life. The aim of the development of right understanding is the eradication of wrong view, ignorance and all the other defilements. We cannot be perfect immediately, but we may see the danger of neglecting morality and the benefit of observing it.

We may not kill or steal, but we may be forgetful as far as out speech is concerned. A word which can harm ourselves and others is uttered before we realize it. We tend to disparage others because we are attached to talking and want to keep the conversation going. When we ate slighted by someone else we are easily inclined to answer back. Our self-esteem may be hurt and then we want to defend ourselves. Most of the time we think of ourselves; we want to be honoured and praised. We forget that it is beneficial to abstain from wrong speech and to speak with kusala citta. How often in a day do we speak with kusala citta?

The Buddha reminded the monks about right speech. We should remember what the Buddha said about right speech in the Parable of the saw (Middle Length sayings I, no. 2 ii :

... Monks. when speaking to others you might speak at a right time or at a wrong time: monks, when speaking to others you might speak according to fact or not according to fact; monks, when speaking to others you might speak gently or harshly: monks, when speaking to others you might speak about what is connected with the goal or about what is not connected with the goal; monks, when speaking to others you might speak with a mind of friendliness or full of hatred.

Herein, monks, you should train yourselves thus:

"Neither will our minds become perverted nor will we utter on evil speech, but kindly and compassionate will we dwell, with a mind of friendliness, void of hatred; and we will dwell having suffused that person with a mind of friendliness; and. beginning with him, we will dwell having suffused the whole world with a mind of friendliness that is far-reaching, wide-spread, immeasurable, without enmity, without malevolence."

This is how you must train yourselves, monks.

When we give in to wrong speech there is no kindness and consideration for other people's welfare. When there is loving kindness there is no opportunity for wrong speech. We can and should develop loving kindness in daily life and we should at the same time see the value of observing morality, otherwise loving kindness cannot be sincere. Many wholesome qualities have to be developed together with right understanding so that eventually defilements can be eradicated.

The abstinences which accompany cittas of the sense-sphere, kamavacara cittas, arise only one at a time, but when lokuttara cittas arise, all three abstinences accompany the lokuttara cittas and then nibbana is the object. Thus, the object of the abstinences which are lokuttara is different from the object of the abstinences which are of the sense-sphere. The abstinences which are lokuttara are the right speech, right action and right livelihood of the supramundane eightfold Path.

We read in the Atthasalini (II, Part VIII, Chapter 1, 219, 220) about the right speech which is Iokuttara, that is does not allow the commission of wrong speech, that it cuts off the base of misconduct and fulfils the-path-factor. The same is said about right action which cuts off the base of bodily misconduct and fulfils the path-factor, and about right livelihood which cuts off the base of wrong livelihood and fulfils the path-factor.[2]

Thus, in cutting off the conditions for wrong conduct the three abstinences which are lokuttara fulfil their functions as path-factors.

Defilements are eradicated subsequently at the different stages of enIightenment. When the path-consciousness, the magga-cittas, of the sotapanna arises, the bases of the three kinds of wrong action which are killing, stealing and sexual misconduct, and of the kind of wrong speech which is lying and also the base of wrong livelihood are cut off. The kinds of wrong speech which art slandering, harsh speech and idle talk have not been eradicated, but they cannot have the intensity anymore of akusala kamma patha (unwholesome course of action) which can produce an unhappy rebirth.

The sakadagami, the person who has attained the second stage of enlightenment, has not eradicated these kinds of speech, but at this stage the tendencies to such speech have decreased.

The anagami, the person who hag attained the third stage of enlightenment, has eradicated the tendency to slandering and harsh speech but not yet the tendency to idle talk The tendency to idle talk has only been eradicated by the arahat. We may not lie, slander or utter harsh speech, but still our speech may not be motivated by kusala citta which is generous and intent on helping others or on explaining the Dhamma to others. Instead we may indulge in idle, useless talk. we may, for example, chat with akusala citta about accidents or other events which happen during the day.

However, we can also talk with kusala citta about events such as accidents; for example, we may talk about an accident in order to remind ourselves and others of the shortness of life. Idle talk is done with akusala citta.

The monk should train himself to speak only about subjects which lead to the goal, such as fewness of wishes and mental development, and he should not indulge in idle talk. A layman does not lead the monk's life, but even while one talks about useless things with akusala citta there can, in between, be moments of awareness of nama and rupa. The arahat has no more conditions for the laylife and no more tendencies to idle, useless talk.

Summarizing the cittas which can be accompanied by the abstinences, they are :

  • eight maha-kusala cittas which are of the sense-sphere (kamavacara kusala cittas)
  • eight (or forty) lokuttara cittas which are accompanied by all three abstinences

In the case of tile maha-kusala cittas, only one kind of abstinence arises at a time, as the occasion presents itself; not each maha-kusala citta is accompanied by one of the abstinences. The abstinences are not among the nineteen sobhana cetasikas which accompany each sobhana citta; they do not accompany vipaka-cittas since they ire the actual abstinence from wrong conduct. Neither do the three abstinences accompany the maha-kiriyacittas of the arahat since there are for those who have eradicated all defilements no more opportunities for abstention.

The three abstinences do not accompany rupavacara cittas (fine-material jhanacittas) and arupavacara cittas ( immaterial jhana-cittas) since there is no opportunity for abstention when the citta is jhanacitta, the citta which does not experience sense-impressions.

The three abstinences which together accompany the lokuttara cittas are the three factors which are the right speech, right action and right livelihood of the eightfold Path. They accompany the magga-cittas and they also accompany the phala-cittas (fruition- consciousness). The phala-cittas are the results of the magga-cittas, but they are different from other types of vipakacittas.

The phala-cittas are lokuttara vipakacittas experiencing nibbana, and they immediately succeed the magga-citta which produces them, in the same process.

Thus we see that there are many kinds and degrees of the three abstinences. There is abstinence without right understanding and with right understanding. when lokuttara citta arises all three abstinences accompany the lokuttara citta and they are also lokuttara.


  1. Why can, in the case of cittas of the sense-sphere, only one of the three abstinences arise at a time?
  2. At which moment do all three abstinences arise together? Which function do they have in that case?
  3. Can the abstinences accompany maha-vipikacitta of the sense-sphere?
  4. Why can the abstinences not accompany jhanacitta?
  5. When is wrong livelihood eradicated?
  6. What is idle talk?
  7. When we talk about an accident is it always motivated by akusala citta?
  8. Why is fewness of wishes one of the proximate causes of abstinence from wrong conduct?
July 1, 2001

Footnotes and references:


see Visuddhimagga 1, 60 Vis, and following.


see Dhammasangani, Part I. Chapter V. 299-301.

Let's grow together!

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: