The Three Trainings

Basic Buddhist practice entails training ourselves in three areas. We can train in them in order to overcome our own problems and sufferings, because of concern for our own well-being. Or we can train in them with love and compassion in order to be of more benefit to others.

What are the three trainings?

  • Ethical discipline – the ability to refrain from destructive behavior. The way for us to develop this is to engage in constructive behavior. This first training is about self-discipline – we are not trying to discipline other people.
  • Concentration – the ability to focus our mind so that we don’t experience mental wandering with all sorts of extraneous thoughts. We make our mind sharp and focused, not dull. Aside from mental stability, it’s also necessary to develop emotional stability, so our minds don’t get overcome by anger, attachment, jealousy and so on.
  • Discriminating awareness – the ability to discriminate or differentiate between what’s to be adopted and what’s to be discarded. Just like when you go shopping for vegetables, you discriminate, “Well, this one doesn’t look good, but that one looks very nice.” Here, we discriminate in terms of behavior – what is inappropriate and what is appropriate, depending on the circumstances we are in, and whom we’re with. On a deeper level, we discriminate between what is actually reality and what are just our projections of fantasy.

Buddhist Science, Buddhist Philosophy and Buddhist Religion

Whether we practice these three trainings for our own benefit or the benefit of others, we can approach either of them from two points of view. These two derive from a division His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes when he speaks to a general audience. There, he describes Buddhism as having three parts: Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion.

Buddhist science mainly refers to the science of the mind – how it works, our emotions, and what the Dalai Lama likes to call mental and emotional hygiene. Buddhism has a very detailed analysis of all the various emotional states and how they work and go together.

Included in Buddhist science are also:

  • Cognitive science how our perception works, the nature of consciousness, and various training methods to help us develop concentration
  • Cosmogony – a detailed analysis of how the universe starts, endures and ends
  • Matter – a detailed analysis of how matter, energy, subatomic particles and so on work
  • Medicine – how energy within the body works.

Anybody can study, learn and benefit from the above topics, and the Dalai Lama often holds discussions with scientists on these matters.

The second division, Buddhist philosophy, includes things like:

  • Ethics – the discussion of basic human values such as kindness and generosity that are not necessarily related to any religion, and that anybody can benefit from.
  • Logic and metaphysics – a detailed presentation of set theory, universals, particulars, qualities, characteristics and so on, how they work together and how we know them.
  • Cause and effect – a detailed analysis of causality, what reality is, and how our projections distort reality.

Again, Buddhist philosophy is not necessarily limited to Buddhists, but is something that everybody can benefit from.

The third division, Buddhist religion, includes the actual sphere of Buddhist practice and so encompasses things like karma, rebirth, ritual practices, mantras and so forth. It is therefore specific for those who are following the Buddhist path.

The three trainings can be presented simply in terms of Buddhist science and philosophy, making them applicable and appropriate for anyone, or they can be presented in terms of both that and Buddhist religion. This corresponds to a division that I call “Dharma-Lite” and “The Real Thing Dharma.”

  • Dharma-Lite – practicing methods from Buddhist science and philosophy just for the sake of improving this lifetime.
  • The Real Thing Dharma – adopting the three trainings for the sake of the three Buddhist goals: a better rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and enlightenment.

When I speak of Dharma-Lite, it’s usually in terms of it being a preliminary step for Real Thing Dharma, because we need to recognize the need to improve our ordinary lives before we can think of further spiritual goals. Buddhist science and philosophy, however, are not necessarily a preliminary to Buddhist religion, so we can look at how to use the three trainings to improve our lives, regardless of whether we think of it in terms of a preliminary to a Buddhist path, or just in general.

The Four Noble Truths

From Buddhist philosophy, we have a general presentation of the way in which Buddhist thinking works, which is usually called the Four Noble Truths. We can also think of them as four facts of life, as follows:

  • Looking at the suffering and problems that we all face, the first fact is that life is difficult.
  • The second fact is that our problems in life come from causes.
  • The third fact is that we can stop these problems; we don’t have to shut up and accept our problems, we can solve them.
  • The fourth fact is that we get rid of our problems by eliminating the cause. We do that by following a path of understanding that provides advice on how to act, speak and so on.

So, if the way we act or speak causes us problems, we need to change that. The three trainings are part of what we need in order to get rid of the causes of our problems. This is a very helpful way of understanding the three trainings, because it indicates why we would train in them. So, if we’re having problems in life, we look:

  • Is there a problem in my ethical discipline, with how I act and speak?
  • Is there a problem in my concentration – am I all over the place, am I an emotional mess?
  • Especially, is there a problem in my way of differentiating between reality and my crazy projections?

We can apply this just to our ordinary life in this lifetime, or it can be extended to the problems we may encounter in future lives. At a beginner’s level, we should consider these trainings just in terms of our everyday life: how can they help us? What are we doing that’s causing our problems? What can we do to alleviate them?

The Cause of Suffering

From the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, the cause of our suffering is unawareness. We’re unaware of, or confused about, two things in particular.

The first thing that we’re unaware of is cause and effect, especially in terms of our behavior. If we have disturbing emotions, such as anger, greed, attachment, pride, jealousy and so on, we act destructively. We get angry and yell at people, we get jealous and try to harm people, we get attached and cling onto people – all of this causes us problems. Because these emotions cause us to act destructively, or rather, self-destructively, the end result is unhappiness.

It’s helpful to look at the definition of a disturbing emotion. It’s a state of mind which, when it arises, causes us to lose our peace of mind and self-control. When we yell at someone out of anger, it may or may not upset them. They might not even hear what we say, or they might just laugh and think we’re stupid. But we do lose our peace of mind, and we get emotionally upset, which often lasts well after the yelling stops. It’s an unpleasant experience. And because we lost self-control, we said things that we might later regret.

We act in this way because:

  • We really don’t understand cause and effect. We often don’t understand that if we act in certain ways, under the influence of certain disturbing emotions, it’ll bring us unhappiness.
  • Or, we’re confused about cause and effect and understand it in an opposite way. We often think, “Well, if I yell at this person it’s going to make me feel better,” which, of course, it never really does. Or, when we’re really attached to someone we might say, “Why don’t you call more often, or visit me more often?” which often just chases them away, doesn’t it? We don’t accomplish what we want, because we’re confused about how cause and effect works.

The second type of unawareness we have is in regard to reality. Because we are confused about reality, we get disturbing attitudes. An example of this would be self-preoccupation, where we’re always thinking of me, myself and I. It can be very judgmental, as it can spiral into a syndrome where we feel we have to be perfect. Even if we act constructively, trying to be perfect, getting everything in order – it becomes quite compulsive. Although we might have some temporary happiness, it changes quickly to dissatisfaction, because we’ll still think “I’m not good enough,” and push and push to improve ourselves.

Let’s take as an example somebody who is a cleaning freak – a perfectionist when it comes to cleaning their house. They’re under the misconception that they can control everything and keep it all clean and in order. It’s impossible! You get everything clean, you make it perfect, you feel good, and then the children come home and mess everything up; you get dissatisfied and have to clean it again. In this way it becomes compulsive. And every time you feel a bit of happiness, “Ahh, now it’s all in order” – this feeling goes away very quickly. There’s always a spot that you missed!

By repeating these states of mind, whether it’s a disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude, and through repetition of this type of compulsive behavior, you get what is called “all-pervasive suffering.” It’s about how we build up habits so that they actually perpetuate our problems.

It doesn’t just affect us mentally, but physically too. For instance, if we’re always angry, we also get high blood pressure, and then we get an ulcer from worrying, and so on. Or, if you’re a cleaning freak, it’s difficult to relax. You’re always tense because everything has to be perfect, but nothing ever is.

How the Three Trainings Help to Eliminate the Causes of Our Problems

What we really need are the three trainings:

  • We need discriminating awareness to get rid of our confusion. For instance, when it comes to being a cleaning freak, where you have the fantasy of “everything must always be perfect and clean and I have to control everything,” you replace it with “of course my house is going to get dirty, nobody can control this.” You become more relaxed because yes, you still clean your house, but you know you don’t need to obsess over it. Traditional texts use the example of cutting down a tree with a sharp axe.
  • In order to cut down the tree with this axe, we need to consistently hit the same spot, which is concentration. If our mind is always distracted, then you lose that discriminating awareness. So we must have concentration so that we can always hit the same place with the axe.
  • Using this axe actually requires strength. If you don’t have strength, you can’t even pick the axe up, and this strength comes from ethical self-discipline.

In this way, we come to understand how the three trainings can help us to overcome the source of our problems. We can apply all of the above without any reference to Buddhist religion, so it’s suitable for anyone. Before we move on, let’s quickly digest what we’ve learned:

  • We use discriminating awareness to see the difference between fantasy and reality, so we can see the cause and effect within our own behavior. When we don’t have discriminating awareness, our behavior and attitudes create unhappiness, or a type of happiness that never really satisfies us.
  • In order to properly understand the above, we need to have good concentration, so that we can stay focused.
  • To develop good concentration, we need discipline, so that when our mind wanders, we can bring it back.
  • We want to apply these three trainings, to help us deal with our problems and improve the quality of our lives.

The key insight to take away from all of this, is that the happiness and dissatisfaction we experience in our lives comes from our own confusion. Instead of blaming our problems on others, or society, economics and so on, we focus on a deeper level. We look at our state of mind dealing with these situations. We might meet a lot of difficult situations, but here we’re talking about our general feeling of unhappiness, and the type of fleeting happiness. We should aim for more than this, a type of happiness that comes with peace of mind, and is much more lasting and stable.

When we meet with difficulties, we could get all depressed and be absolutely miserable. Or we can face it with more peace of mind, because we look at the situation more clearly, we see what’s involved and that there are ways to deal with it, instead of just feeling sorry for ourselves.

Consider the case of when your child goes out at night and you’re really worried, “Are they going to get home safely?” Again, the source of our anxiety and unhappiness is this attitude that “somehow I can be in control of the safety of my child,” which is, of course, a fantasy. When they come home safely and you feel happy, you feel relieved, but the next time they go out, again you worry. So that type of feeling at ease doesn’t last, does it? And then we’re always worried, so it perpetuates – we’ve made it into such a habit that we worry about everything – and it affects our health. That’s a very unpleasant state.

The real key is understanding that the cause of all this is our own confusion. We think that certain ways of acting will bring happiness, or that an attitude where we can control everything is correct, but it’s not. We cut through this thinking – “this is absurd!” – and stay focused on this.


When we reflect on the four facts of life, we become encouraged by seeing that our problems and negative emotions are not static but can be improved, and even further that this, they can be completely removed. Once we deal with the causes of suffering, the suffering ceases to exist, but these causes don’t just disappear by themselves.

An incredible way of living our lives is within the context of the three trainings in ethics, concentration, and discriminating awareness. They work together simultaneously to bring us closer to that thing we are always looking for: happiness.