The Internal Lawyer

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The Internal Lawyer

Ajahn Karunadhammo, 26 September 2012

Last night at the vinaya class we were going over some of the rules around speech. For some of the lay guests who might not know the patimokkha so well, the precept about speech in the five precepts is broken down into many different rules in the monks’ vinaya. The general principle is expounded in much more detail with separate rules, such as a rule against telling lies, one against insulting speech, rules against malicious tale bearing, criticizing people; and other different kinds of aspects of wrong speech. We were talking about them last night and one of things that came to my mind is that some of the rules are very complicated and very precise and very detailed as to what actually constitutes an offense, or not, in terms of wrong speech. They’re very specific. And we can and should spend quite a bit of time trying to understand the specifics and nuances of what’s an offense and what’s not, so we understand what the guidelines are and can practice accordingly with those.

It is also good to see when the mind starts to work with these kinds of precepts in a legalistic or mechanistic kind of a way, and we’re always trying to sort out things, “Well, I said something that was maybe a bit unskilful, but if you look at the detail in the actual rule, the specifics of the offense, maybe it wasn’t an offense. Or maybe it was a lesser offense, or…” We can find ourselves always trying to work out a way to exonerate ourselves when we’ve done something unskilful by looking at the technicalities. Ajahn Amaro used to use the term, “the internal lawyer”, it’s going to work, trying to work up arguments for and against, trying to justify whatever it is that, in our heart, we know is an unskillful thing.

We were talking about one of the rules and Tan Pesalo mentioned that, “When I do it with this motivation I really know I’m wrong. It feels different than when I’m doing it with some other kind of motivation.” When anybody does something, they can tell the difference based on looking inside and seeing what it feels like, for example you might say something that you might have regretted.

The patimokkha rules mostly deal with expressions of inner states through the body and through the speech, and that’s what our benchmark is when we’re using using precepts of any kind: bodily and speech action, but it’s always important to go back to the level of mind. What’s actually the experience, what’s the motivation, what’s the underlying mind state for our speech and our actions? As the Buddha says, “mind is the forerunner of all action”, even if we can find some sort of loophole or escape clause or whatever for explaining it to ourselves, deep inside our hearts we know if we have done something that just doesn’t feel right, that goes against Dhamma. Maybe not going against vinaya by the letter, but going against what is going to result in greater happiness. Perhaps we can be a bit more circumspect, a bit more careful, a bit more attuned to what our inner mind-state is.

So we should review whenever there’s a question in our mind, whether it’s an obvious transgression of a standard we’ve set for ourselves, going back and asking “What does it actually feel like? What was my motivation? Where was I coming from when I said or did that? And using that as a practice to really start to get a handle on where greed, hatred and delusion take over the mind and take over the heart, even in subtle ways.

That’s where using the precepts - using the vinaya - really helps to transform the heart, and transform the mind. Rather than it being just a following of rules in a legalistic way.