The second step is to develop full and perfect virtue.
There are many ways of studying virtue in each tradition, and there are a lot of similarities among them: patience, tolerance, conscious love, humility, chastity, charity.
What does it mean to develop full and perfect virtue? It is not just to have a concept. It is not just to respect virtues, to say, “I have heard patience is a virtue, and I respect that, but get out of my way. I am in a hurry.” To really develop full and perfect virtue is to be it, to actualize it. This is not to force it on yourself; it is not to force yourself into a rigid behavior because you “have to do it.” It is to do it spontaneously, without force, because you realize you need to, that it is important, that it is beneficial for you and for others. True virtue is natural and spontaneous. It cannot be imitated, faked, or forced.
If you are angry with someone, and they are angry with you, and you are thinking “I have to be loving and forgiving,” and you go to them and say resentfully, “Humph. I forgive you.” That does not work; that is not honest. It is good as an action, and it does take courage. But it is far less powerful than a sincere apology. You can only be sincere when you have understood that your anger was wrong.
By understanding how an action creates suffering, we also can understand how an action can create happiness. Yet for happiness to emerge, the cause of suffering has to be removed; otherwise, it will remain a threat.
Liberation from suffering has three stages. The first stage is comprehension. The second stage is judgment. The third stage is elimination.
Many spiritual people love to talk about the elimination of desires or ego, and they love to do different practices to eliminate their egos. But rarely do you hear them talk about judgment and comprehension, which have to happen first, before you can reach elimination. You cannot eliminate something that still has your consciousness trapped in it; comprehension must come first. Nagarjuna, in the following quotation, is talking about this.
“A wise person is one who has accurately analyzed all their actions and always acts for the benefit of self and others.”
Comprehension comes from analysis of oneself. Studying the scriptures, studying religion, is very important because it gives us a foundation, but comprehension, wisdom, comes from inside. That is why the Oracle of Delphi said, “Man, know thyself.” This is the prerequisite. This is Gnosis: self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge is comprehension. Comprehension is knowledge in the heart.
Comprehension is not found by making a list of your defects. It would be great if spiritual advancement were that easy. It might take us a while to write them all down, but that is not comprehension.
Comprehension does not emerge from reading books, theories, or beliefs.
Comprehension is very simple: it is when you know something, not in your intellect, but in your heart—when you truly know it. If you have ever said something and seen the person who heard it react with pain, and then you felt pain and regret for saying it, that is comprehension. If you have ever given a gift, and saw how much gratitude that person had who received it, and you felt in your heart so much gratitude for the opportunity to give, that is comprehension.
Comprehension is not intellectual; it is emotional; it is intuitive; it is in your heart. Comprehension is not something that you develop by making lists and by making complicated explanations like, “Pride has this and that aspect, and these attributes, and it can manifest here and here.” That is fine; we need to understand it in the intellect, but that is not comprehension.
When you have understood that an action is harmful and you have stopped it, you can then act virtuously, for the benefit of yourself and others. This type of action is the origin of all happiness in the world.
The development of virtue occurs naturally through comprehension of our actions and their effects. When you stop letting your anger control your mind, love naturally begins to emerge. Love for others is a source of immense happiness for everyone.
When we comprehend how our defects harm ourselves and others, we will spontaneously seek to act in ways that benefit others and give them happiness.