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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Developing Ethical Self-Discipline

Developing Ethical Self-Discipline

Alexander Berzin
Mexico City, Mexico, September 2001
lightly edited transcript


Before making prostration, it is very important to calm down, so that our prostration is not mechanical. To do that, we will focus on the breath while standing. We breathe normally through the nose. If our mind is distracted, we can count the cycles of breath, out and in being one cycle. If our mind is not so distracted, we can just focus without counting. As we do this, we can look at the floor in front of us. If we are very distracted and stressed from a difficult day, it is okay to close the eyes, but it is better to look at the floor. Try to relax. Have your shoulders down.

Next we examine why have we come here? What is our aim or goal? We are going in a positive safe direction in life, a direction of refuge. In other words, we are trying to achieve the Dharma Gem, which is the total elimination of all our shortcomings and problems and the realization of all our good qualities, the way the Buddhas have done in full and the way the Arya Sangha (the highly realized community) have done in part. We are here to learn about ethical self-discipline as one of the steps in our chosen direction, which is to go all the way to enlightenment to be of best help to everyone. If we have no discipline, how can we possibly help anyone?

We look at the representation of the direction we are going in, this Buddha image before us, and think of the good qualities of the Buddha’s body, speech and mind. We remind ourselves, for example, of the ability to understand everything, especially how to help everyone, how to communicate perfectly to everyone, and the ability to act in ways that will lead everyone to enlightenment. We want to be able to help everyone in the way that a Buddha does. With this thought in mind, we make prostration, throwing ourselves fully, with deep respect, in this direction. In doing so, we show respect to those who have achieved enlightenment, our own future enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve with bodhichitta, and our own Buddha-natures that will allow us to achieve that enlightenment. After making prostration, we imagine that a replica of the Buddha dissolves into us, inspiring us to reach this state. Then we take our seats.

I think this is a meaningful way to start not only study sessions and class but meditation sessions as well.

Now we imagine making offerings. We are willing to give everything and anything to benefit others – our time, our energy, our whole hearts. If we are doing this preliminary at home, we can arrange at least one bowl of water on our altars, which can just be a shelf with a nice cloth on it and an image representing our safe direction, a Buddha image. Before sitting down, we go to the altar and actually make the offering. We stick the fourth finger of our clean left hands into the bowl of water and then flick it three times, imagining that we are giving everything of ourselves to help others and to reach enlightenment in order to do so.

The great Sakya master Chogyel Pagpa (Chos-rgyal 'Phags-pa) taught a wonderful way of making offerings, which I find very helpful. It is called the offerings of absorbed concentration (ting-nge-'dzin-gyi mchod-pa; the offerings of samadhi). We imagine that we offer to the Buddhas all of the reading and study that we have done, which means that we offer it to others – we are going to help others with it. We offer it in the form of water. It is everything that we have or will read and study in the past, present or future. Then we offer all of the knowledge that we have gained, or will ever gain, in the form of flowers. All of the discipline we have developed or will develop, the discipline to apply this knowledge, we offer in the form of incense. All of the insight that we have gained or will ever gain, we offer in the form of light, with the wish to bring light and clarity to everyone.

The firm conviction that we have or will gain in the Dharma, we offer in the form of cologne, or perfumed water, to cool and refresh everyone. We are not someone who has no idea what is going on in our lives. We are secure. We know what is going on. It is incredibly refreshing. We are not panicking about the possibility of a war and so on. We just think, "Of course, what do you expect from samsara?" We offer our concentration of the three times in the form of food. We offer it so that when we are actually with others we are concentrated, rather than thinking of what we want to do next. Lastly, all of our past, present or future abilities to explain and teach, we offer in the form of music.

We openly admit that we have difficulties, specifically difficulties in relation to ethical self-discipline. We regret very much that we sometimes act destructively. We would like very much to overcome that. We will try our best not to repeat these shortcomings. We reaffirm the direction we are going in in life with refuge and bodhichitta. Whatever we learn we are going to apply to the overcoming of our difficulties with discipline.

We rejoice that we have the ability to be disciplined. After all, we did learn to be toilet trained and we don’t just start crying when we are hungry. We do have the ability to be disciplined, to restrain from acting in childish, destructive ways. It is great. We have Buddha-natures. We rejoice in the Buddhas, who have achieved the full development of ethical self-discipline, and the great masters, especially the great Indian master Shantideva, who has given such clear teachings on how to develop ethical self-discipline in his great text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-'jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacharyavatara). Thank you very much, Shantideva.

We make requests. Please, I want to learn how to develop discipline. Please teach me, Shantideva. I am receptive. I am open. I really need these teachings. How can I help others if I have no discipline?

Then we beseech the Buddhas and great masters to stay with us. Please, don’t go away. Teach me all the way to enlightenment. I am serious about this.

Finally, may whatever positive force is built up by our study, listening and practicing function as a cause for enlightenment, not just as a cause to be able to succeed in samsara with more discipline. May this act as a cause for achieving all the bodies of a Buddha and the full discipline of a Buddha to be of best help to everyone.

We then make a conscious decision to listen to the discussion with concentration. If our attention wanders, we shall try to bring it back and if we become tired, we shall try to wake ourselves up. To lift our energies if they are a bit low and we feel heavy, we focus on the point between the eyebrows with our eyes looking up and the head staying level. To settle the energies if we are feeling a bit nervous or stressed, we focus just below the navel with our eyes looking downward and our head staying level. While doing this, we breathe in normally, holding the breath until we need to breathe out.


This evening, I would like to discuss ethical self-discipline based on the very extensive treatment that Shantideva gives it in his Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. If we wish to be bodhisattvas, and wish to know how to work on ourselves and help others, this text is the greatest source agreed upon by all Indian and Tibetan masters.

Ethical Self-Discipline as a Far-Reaching Attitude

Ethical self-discipline is one of the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa, Skt. paramita). These attitudes are often called "perfections." Many people find the word perfection difficult because they think, "How can I be perfect?" I prefer a more literal translation. They are attitudes that take us far, all the way to the far shore of enlightenment.

We are not just talking about the discipline needed to be a good athlete or a good musician, but the discipline to reach enlightenment and help others. Shantideva’s discussion is within the context of developing bodhichitta. This shows us is the importance of our motivation, which is our goal or aim. Why do we want to develop discipline? What do we want to use it for? All the limited beings in the universe are really having problems and suffering, and we ourselves are a mess. How can we help others if we are like this? We have to get ourselves in a proper shape so that we'll be able to help others as much as is possible. We have to work on ourselves and reach enlightenment to be of help to others. And to do so, we need discipline. If we are very clear on why we want discipline and what we want to use it for, it is much easier to develop it. Otherwise, when we hear about discipline, we think of athletics, the performing arts, or the military. That is not what we are talking about. We are not talking about the discipline of following orders.

First, we develop the aspiring or wishing state of bodhichitta. We really want to reach enlightenment because that is the only way to help everyone as much as is possible. We are not going to turn back from this no matter how difficult it becomes or how long it takes. We are fully decided. This is what we are going to do. The engaged state of bodhichitta means that we actually engage into it. We actually jump into it and do it with a firm commitment to the bodhisattva vows.

It is fantastic that the Buddhas and the great masters have pointed out to us, with the bodhisattva vows, the mistakes that we make in relating to others. The first bodhisattva vow is to avoid the downfall of praising ourselves and abusing others for the sake of honor and personal gain. It is like saying we are the greatest teacher, our competitors are no good, they are bad. We want others to come to our Buddhist center and our teachings, because of our wish for power, money, fame, and so on. Who is going to trust us if we act like that?

These bodhisattva vows are how we shape our behavior. They are very important in showing us what to avoid. They delineate the road that will take us to enlightenment. If the boundaries were not clearly marked, we would have no idea how to get to enlightenment. That is really a very helpful way of looking at the vows: boundary markers on the road. If we need an object of rejoicing, the fact that there are bodhisattva vows is an unbelievable thing to rejoice in. How fantastic that the road is actually delineated like that! It is wonderful.

What are the main things that we practice on the road to enlightenment? We try to put into practice as much as possible the six far-reaching attitudes. They are attitudes, states of mind, that we would like to accompany everything we do, say and think. They are not some isolated things that we practice unrelated to the rest of life. We are talking about certain states of mind with which we try to live our lives, all the time.

Ethical Self-Discipline as a Mental Factor

Ethical self-discipline is a mental factor (sems-byung) – in other words, a way of being aware of something that accompanies our sensory or mental cognition. It is a certain mental attitude that can accompany us, whether we are actually with people or alone.

I refer to it as ethical self-discipline because we are not disciplining anyone else. Also, it is ethical. It is not just self-discipline to learn to play an instrument. It is defined as the mental factor or attitude that safeguards or holds the mind from going astray. Implicit in this definition is that many other mental factors accompany this state of mind. One of the main ones being discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna; wisdom), a state of mind which is fully convinced of the benefit of not going astray and the disadvantages of doing so. Therefore, we stick with something constructive and do not wander off to something else, because we see the disadvantages of losing it.

The Three Types of Ethical Self-Discipline

There are three varieties of ethical self-discipline. The first is the discipline to restrain from acting, speaking or thinking destructively. This is an attitude of holding ourselves back from acting destructively because we are firmly convinced of the disadvantages of acting destructively and the advantages of not doing so. For example, when the urge comes to our heads to speak badly about someone else, we discriminate that it would be destructive and cause a lot of suffering. So, the discipline here is the mental attitude of holding back from acting on the urge to say something nasty.

The second type is the ethical self-discipline to engage in positive actions. This is referring specifically to the discipline to meditate, to go to classes, to study, and to practice the Dharma. It keeps us sitting down and meditating, and holds us back from putting on the television instead. It is based on the discrimination that surfing through the channels of the television for something entertaining is a waste of time and meditation will help bring us to enlightenment. If we use the simple example of keeping to a diet, this type of ethical self-discipline is the state of mind that holds us back from going to the refrigerator and stuffing our mouths with cake, because we discriminate that if we do that we will get even fatter and we don’t want that for whatever reasons.

The third variety is the ethical self-discipline to actually help others. It holds us back from saying we are too busy or too tired. We discriminate that we would not like someone to tell us, "I am too busy to help you, sorry. I have to sit here and meditate on love."

These three varieties of ethical self-discipline will bring us to enlightenment. Shantideva devotes two chapters to this far-reaching attitude. It is the only one to which he devotes two chapters. Each of the two is about the other mental factors that accompany ethical self-discipline, so we get an idea of how to develop it and how it will work.

A Caring Attitude

The fourth chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior is about the mental factor of a caring attitude or concern (bag-yod, Skt. apramada). It is not an easy term to translate. This is what I sometimes refer to in Sensitivity Training as a caring heart. We care about what we do, say or think. There is no connotation of worry, but rather it considers these things to be important, we take them seriously. We really pay attention to the effects of our actions, speech and thinking. We care about the consequences on ourselves and on others. If we do not care about the effects of our behavior on ourselves and others, we will not actually refrain from acting destructively nor will we act constructively.

It is not just an intellectual interest. If we don’t care about our health and our weight, for instance, we will not go on a diet. The consequences of our behavior on ourselves and on others need to be important to us. We have to work on this caring attitude to be able to develop ethical self-discipline. Shantideva discusses this attitude in terms of not coming under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes. There is a long list of disturbing emotions and attitudes. We don’t want to come under the influence of attachment for the cake in the fridge, for example.

If we do not take ourselves seriously, we will not care about our health or our weight in the first place. What we start to discover, when we take ourselves seriously, are the two mental factors that are always present in a constructive state of mind. The first is a sense of moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha shes-pa, Skt. hri). We think enough of ourselves that we do not act like an idiot. If we have no self-dignity, we don’t care. The second factor is caring how our actions reflect on others (khrel-yod, Skt. apatrapya), for instance on our families, our spiritual teachers, our religions, our countries, and so on. If we don’t care about their honor, we act in any old way. If we do care, then we exercise ethical self-discipline.

Mindfulness and Alertness

The fifth chapter deals with mindfulness (dran-pa, Skt. smrti) and alertness (shes-bzhin, Skt. samprajanya), two more mental factors that we need with ethical self-discipline. As these are also difficult terms to translate, we need to look at their definitions. Mindfulness, to put it in simple terms, is like mental glue. It is not well translated by the English word "mindfulness." It is the factor with which we keep hold of something and don’t let go. It is the state of mind that holds on to the diet as we pass the bakery. The main thing to work on in keeping our discipline is holding on and not letting go. We hold on even though we feel like doing something else. Why? We want to be able to help others; we discriminate that saying, doing or thinking something negative will be damaging for that aim; and we care about the effects of our behavior. It is how we maintain the discipline. Discipline and the mental glue go hand in hand.

The factor of alertness comes with the mental glue. It is actually part of the mental glue. It is the part that keeps a check to make sure that we don’t lose the hold and come under the influence of disturbing emotions. If it notices that we are starting to come under their influence, it sounds an alarm and another mental factor called attention (yid-la byed-pa, Skt. manasi) reestablishes the glue. We first train the factors of mindfulness, alertness and attention in terms of our behavior and ethical self-discipline and then we apply them to concentration. Our Western words don’t really correspond to these mental factors.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that instead of putting all of our focus on keeping watch, on the alarm system, the main thing to emphasize is the glue. If we do so, the alarm system is automatically engaged. If we focus just on the alarm, we lose the glue.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s guideline instruction is unbelievably helpful. Think about it. What happens when we put all our focus on the alarm system? We become paranoid about mental wandering or disturbing emotions. It makes us very nervous and very uptight. Then we get into a whole guilt trip. His Holiness points out that it is a big fault in normal behavior and in meditation as well. The main thing is to keep hold on what we are doing because we care about the consequences; we care about not losing all that we are aiming for. We put our focus on that, not on being paranoid.

Developing Mindfulness

Shantideva goes on to explain how we develop this mental glue. The first factor is to stay in the company of our spiritual teachers. If we are with our spiritual teachers, those we greatly respect, of course we are not going to behave like idiots. We respect them too much and have too much self-dignity. Obviously, we cannot always stay in the presence of our spiritual teachers, so we just think that we are always in their presence. This goes back to caring about how our behavior reflects on our spiritual teachers. If we were meditating in front of our spiritual teacher, we wouldn't get up and walk away in the middle to watch television, would we? We would keep the mental glue and sit there.

The second aid is following their instructions, which means remembering the words of our teachers, the great masters, the texts, and so on. If we are going in the direction of enlightenment to help all beings and we have full confidence that the Dharma teachings are going to lead us there to help others, then we keep that mental glue with whatever we are doing. The instructions point out various destructive actions and various constructive actions, the ways of helping others, and so on. We remember them and keep to them. We take the teachings seriously. It is stressed in the tantric vows that we not consider any teaching as trivial. Buddha did not teach just for fun. He taught to benefit us. That is the only reason he taught. The point of any teaching is to benefit us. If we really take refuge, we take the teachings seriously. So, if we don’t understand how a particular teaching might benefit us, it is up to us to figure out how.

The third factor that Shantideva mentions is dreading the consequences of not holding that mental glue. We think about where it will lead. Shantideva goes on for verse after verse addressing different situations with the refrain: remain like a block of wood. We hold still like a block of wood and do not act when the urge comes up to act, speak, or think in a destructive manner.


These are the ways to develop the ethical self-discipline to restrain from acting destructively, to engage in positive Dharma practices, and to actually help others as much as we can. Why do we want to have ethical self-discipline? Because we are aiming for enlightenment in order to help others as much as possible. We discriminate the benefits of sticking with these things and the disadvantages of going astray. How? By caring about the consequences of our behavior because of moral self-dignity. We also care about how our behavior reflects on people we respect, family, teachers and others. We use the mental glue to hold on to what we want to do, with the alarm system in place, so that in case we fall under the influence disturbing emotions or attitudes, attention will bring us back. What helps us to do this is to act as if we are always in the presence of our teachers. We are convinced that the teachings are to benefit us, so we hold onto them, and we dread the mess and chaos that would follow if we don’t keep them.

We can be very happy and rejoice in the fact that a great master like Shantideva has outlined so clearly how to do something, which from the outside looks very difficult. The teachings are there. This is wonderful. So just do it. Don’t mess around. If you are going to jump in the pool, jump in. Don’t just put a toe in. Indecisive wavering (the-tshom, doubt) is counted as one of the six root disturbing emotions because it can absolutely paralyze us so that we don’t do anything. We need to make up our minds and just do it.

Question and Answer

Question: When we keep a diet or are trying to gain concentration or ethical self-discipline, maybe we don’t have such a deep understanding of why we are doing it, but we are fundamentalist about it. There is a lot of stress and inner conflict. Can you comment on how to find a healthy balance?

Alex: Shantideva says that when we are considering whether or not to do any action, we need to think carefully beforehand about whether or not we can do it. If we see that we can’t do it, we should not even start. If we do start it, we need to continue it all the way to the end. We have to restrain from undisciplined enthusiasm. One of the reasons for the stress may be from not considering whether or not we can do something. If we have considered the disadvantages and benefits of something and we are firmly convinced of them, and we have considered our ability to do it and we are firmly convinced that we can, then it is not so stressful – especially if we don’t put our main emphasis on the alarm system.

There are nine secondary bodhisattva vows associated with helping us keep ethical self-discipline. Among them is not insisting on restraining from something when the necessity to do it overrides the prohibition. If we are keeping a diet but are going to a big family dinner and they would be offended if we just took some diet powders and didn’t eat the meal, the necessity overrides the prohibition. It is part of the bodhisattva vows not to be fundamentalist. If one keeps that in mind, one does not become so stressed.

Question: What books would you recommend we read about Shantideva’s presentation on this?

Alex: Shantideva’s text itself, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. If one had to choose one book among all the Buddhist teachings which would be like the Buddhist bible, it would be this text. I think most Tibetan masters would agree on that. Certainly, it is the favorite text of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If you ever have the opportunity, study it very slowly, verse by verse, over a span of several years. It is very worthwhile to do so. Don’t just read it quickly. It is important for students to request teachings on it. It is very important to request.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.]

Question: You said to refrain from negative action, speech and thoughts. The first two I can relate to, but the third one I can only understand as nurturing a mind in which positive thoughts arise. I don’t have a sense of controlling my thoughts. How to restrain ourselves from such negative thoughts?

Alex: It is exactly the same thing. First, we have to recognize destructive ways of thinking. If someone did something negative a month ago and we are still thinking about it, that type of thinking is destructive, very negative. We are not happy when we are doing that, are we? It is a very unhappy state of mind and it just depresses us. When thoughts about such an incident arise, we have to recognize as soon as possible that this is not helpful at all. Then we make the firm decision that we are not going to go on this mental trip.

It is not so easy to just stop thinking about something, so what is usually recommended is to think about something else. The easiest thing to keep in mind and to substitute for negative thoughts is a mantra. Start saying "OM MANI PADME HUNG" instead. And try to generate some thought of love or compassion with it. As our minds start to wander while reciting the mantra, the alarm goes off. We bring our mindfulness back and hold on to the mantra. This is very helpful, not only with negative thoughts, but also with music. I find that if I hear a song, I cannot get it out of my head. I find that so incredibly stupid. The only thing to do is to say a mantra. That will stop it.

In terms of commentaries to Shantideva’s text, there are now several commentaries by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – on the sixth chapter concerning patience, on the ninth chapter concerning discriminating awareness, and so on. These are the best texts to read.

Question: My experience has been that I can control my negative thoughts, but I cannot control strong emotion. It becomes overwhelming like a physical part of me. How do we control emotions?

Alex: Our English word emotion is a very broad term. Feeling sadness about the death of someone is very different from feeling hatred, although we would call both "emotions." Love and compassion are also emotions, but these are not negative and do not need to be curbed, although they may be accompanied by attachment, which is negative. Even the emotion of sadness can be healthy. For example, one needs to go through a period of mourning after the loss of a loved one. It is a problem if we get trapped in the grief, but that is something else.

Other emotions are not very helpful, like fear. But then again, there is a healthy fear and an unhealthy fear. We fear being hit by a car, so we look before crossing the street – that's a healthy type of fear. With uncontrollable devastating fears, like fear of the dark, on the other hand, that is not healthy. It cripples us, preventing us from doing what might be beneficial. The main thing with such unhealthy emotions is to recognize them before they get out of hand. Then we use discipline to apply some opponent. If it is really severe, the opponent may be some sort of breathing practice. Then what is always recommended for fear is Tara mantra.

If the emotion is hatred, vengeance, and so on, think of the disadvantages. Don’t just block the negative emotion, but substitute it with something positive. In Buddhism, disturbing emotions and attitudes are covered with one term, nyon-mongs (Skt. klesha; afflictive emotions), and happiness and sadness are a different term, tshor-ba (Skt. vedana), translated as "feeling." In the West, we have one word that covers both, either emotion or feeling, and this produces confusion.


We have done a positive act. There is some positive force from our listening to and learning about ethical self-discipline. We don’t want this to be a samsara-building positive act, but one that is enlightenment-building. So we dedicate it to the goal of enlightenment.

May whatever we have learned act as a cause for becoming a Buddha and helping everyone as fully as possible. May this understanding go deeper and deeper, network with everything else that we have learned and start to network with all our other constructive acts, so that all along the way to enlightenment we will be able to develop more and more ethical self-discipline and be of increasing benefit to everyone. May everyone throughout the universe be able to develop ethical self-discipline, especially in our present difficult times.

Thank you very much.