Ceasing and restraining from evil,
Abstinence from intoxicants,
Diligence concerning all phenomena;
This is the greatest blessing.
We are accelerating toward the end of this sutta. Having started with the most basic wholesome actions that lay the foundation for a contented life, we now come to the culmination of the “personal ethics” section. Bhikkhu Bodhi says that this verse describes a life of moral integrity.
He points out that ceasing from evil and abstaining (restraining) from evil actions are two separate activities. The first has to do with stopping any ways (in the present) we are causing harm to ourselves and others. The second is vigilance that keeps (future) unwholesome actions from coming up, presumably by filling our minds and hearts with good intentions (or at least mindfulness) so relentlessly that our unwholesome tendencies are crowded out.
It would be easy to take this as an absolute command and feel badly about being unable to fulfill it (as most of us would be unable to do). However, I believe it is meant to give us a lofty or pure goal to keep in mind, with the understanding that if we keep oriented toward this goal, we will keep going in the right direction and eventually get there. Where? Where would we be if we were absolutely wholesome in our intentions and actions? The last verses in the Mangala Sutta will describe the result.
Refraining from intoxicants is part of the package when we get far along the path. As our sensitivity to our motivations increases, it’s impossible not to notice that intoxicants lead to thinking and behavior that is at least somewhat less careful than without intoxicants. However, if you can’t stop using intoxicants without resentment and relapse, better to try to moderate your use rather than quit altogether.
Diligence concerning all phenomena means relating to things and people in a wholesome way, that is, noticing not just how they relate to ME/MINE, but seeing them as they are in themselves, without reference to ourselves. Author Frank McCourt used a plaint in one of his novels (not the precise quote): “Why do they have to interfere with people?”. The idea is that people are doing what they do; why do we feel compelled to interfere with them? Let them be. If someone is annoying you, it is almost never their objective to annoy you. They are just doing what they would do whether you were there or not. Let them be; let them work things out for themselves. It’s not our job to fix the world; silent compassion or just not paying attention is usually a more helpful (or at least less harmful) response. Can we learn not to take everything in the world personally?