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Buddhist Ethical Behavior: A Practical Approach

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, October 2009

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:44 hours)

This evening we’re going to be speaking about ethical self-discipline and the Buddhist view of it. This is a very fundamental thing, and it fact it’s something that we find in all spiritual traditions, and not only spiritual traditions; in all social systems we find ethics. If we ask what makes Buddhist ethics “Buddhist,” then we have to see it in the context of the four noble truths, the basic teaching that Buddha gave.

Without going into tremendous details here, the first truth in life is that we all face true sufferings. There’s our ordinary suffering of pain and unhappiness; there’s the problems that are associated with our ordinary type of happiness, that it never lasts, it never satisfies, we never know what’s coming next, and the more we have of it, it usually changes into unhappiness: like if we eat too much ice cream, it will give us a stomach ache. Then there’s the all-pervasive suffering, which is the basis for this, which is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, which has been caused by our karmic actions, which have been motivated by disturbing emotions. And these have come about because of unawareness, or ignorance, of cause and effect and of how things exist. That causes us to continue to take the type of rebirth that we have that will be the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering.

The second noble truth is the true causes of this, and we already mentioned that. It’s our unawareness – unawareness of cause and effect, unawareness of reality – and the disturbing emotions – greed, lust, anger, naivety – caused by that, and the karmic actions that are motivated by that.

The third noble truth is that it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of that, so that the suffering never recurs. And the fourth noble truth is the true pathway of mind or way of understanding that will bring this about, which is a correct understanding of behavioral cause and effect and reality. And if we develop this correct understanding, with the strong determination to be free from this uncontrollably recurring rebirth – “samsara” it’s called in Sanskrit – then we are free of these first two noble truths – true suffering and it’s cause – we attain what’s called liberations. And in order to be able to best help others we have to go deeper, we have to overcome the obstructions that are preventing our mind from understanding the interrelatedness of everything. So if we understand how everything is connected, we will understand cause and effect completely, which means that we will know how to help others: what will be the effect of our actions. So, based on love, the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness; and compassion, the wish for others to be free of suffering and its causes; and the exceptional resolve in which I take the responsibility to do it myself, to bring them happiness and get rid of their suffering; and then with bodhichitta, we aim to become a Buddha, in order to be able to actually accomplish this – if we combine our understanding of reality with all of this type of motivation, then we achieve enlightenment, we become a Buddha.

So, in a few sentences, that’s the Buddhist path. And ethical discipline becomes Buddhist ethical discipline if it is practiced as a method for achieving liberation or enlightenment. Many other spiritual traditions teach ethical discipline in order to achieve higher rebirth in heaven. So that’s not necessarily Buddhist. So, that level of practice of ethics in Buddhism, to refrain from negative, destructive behaviour in order to get a better rebirth, this would be as a stepping stone to be able to achieve liberation and enlightenment. So, this is what makes it Buddhist. We are practicing ethical discipline in order, ultimately, to achieve liberation and enlightenment. We see the necessity of doing it in those terms. So, we see a very positive purpose for practicing ethical behaviour. And, it needs to be based on understanding why it’s necessary to have ethical discipline in order to achieve liberation and enlightenment.

We always speak of the three higher trainings in Buddhism, which can be practiced either with a motivation to achieve liberation or a motivation to achieve enlightenment. So, the highest one is the training in highest discriminating awareness. This is the discriminating awareness to discriminate what is reality from what is our fantasy, or illusion. And this is like the sharp axe – the analogy is used – for cutting through our confusion, or ignorance. But the basis for being able to apply this high discriminating awareness is what’s called higher concentration, absorbed concentration. In other words, to be able to focus on an object, particularly the reality of things – that it doesn’t exist in impossible ways – with our attention not flying off to something else, and to be able to stay focused for as long as we wish. And so, this is analogous to having to a good aim with the axe; we have to be able to always hit the mark with the axe, to actually hit the point where we want to cut the confusion.

The basis for that, however – this higher concentration – is higher ethical self-discipline, this is where our topic of discipline comes in, of ethics. In order to be able to concentrate, we have to have the discipline to correct our attention when it goes astray, and correct our attention when we are getting very dull and sleepy. So for that we need discipline. And this is analogous to having the strength to be able to use the axe.

Now, when we talk about concentrating, don’t just think that this has to do with sitting and meditating on voidness or meditation on whatever. If we’re trying to help somebody, you need to concentrate. We need to concentrate on what they’re saying. When we speak with them, you have to listen; our mind can’t wonder off to something else – on when is it time for lunch? – and we have to pay attention not to get sleepy or spaced out. We need to be able to concentrate in order to discriminate – here is another meaning of discriminating awareness – discriminate what would be the proper thing to say, what would be helpful to say, what would be helpful to do, what would be best not to say. So again we need discipline to be able to stop just thinking about what I want to do, which is to go have lunch, and think what would be best for the other person.

So, this is very clear, I think, that we have a great necessity for ethical self-discipline; and in the Buddhist context that’s to be able to have the concentration to then be able to focus with discriminating awareness on reality, and helping others.

Now if we talk about concentration, we’re talking about a mental activity, and we need the discipline, primarily to discipline our minds – although obviously we need the discipline to be able to sit, to overcome laziness, to overcome all sorts of distraction and so on – but to discipline our minds is much more difficult than disciplining the behavior of our body and our speech. And so, how do we get the strength to be able to discipline the behavior of our mind? We gain that from having discipline of our body and speech.

So, with this in mind, we have, I think, a clearer idea of what, in general, we’re talking about when we’re talking about Buddhist ethics. Now, we need to understand very well what the difference is in the Buddhist approach to ethics and other approaches. Most of us have grown up in a Western system and in our Western or Middle Eastern ways of thinking, ethics is basically a matter of laws. So, we have divine laws that are given by God or by Allah, and in the civil sphere we have the laws that are made by either a king of a legislator government. And the whole idea of ethics is really based on obedience, obeying the laws – either the divine laws or civil laws or both. And if we obey, then we are a good person or a good citizen, and if we disobey, then we are a bad person. In the civil sphere we’re called a criminal; in the religious sphere we’re called a sinner. So we’re basically bad and we have the whole phenomenon of guilt; we are guilty. So we have guilt in a legal sense, and we also have guilt in the psychological sense.

And so, so much of our ethics is based on this idea of obedience to law. And if we are very clever and we have enough money, we hire a lawyer in order to find loopholes in the law so that we can somehow get around the laws and still be OK, still be legal. And so we can do this in a civil sense; we can also have all sorts of debates about religious law.

Now, this type of attitude toward ethics is, as I say, typically Western or Middle Eastern, and it is not at all the Buddhist view. Rather, the Buddhist is something very, very different. It’s not based on obedience; rather it’s based on what’s called “discriminating awareness.” We had this term already, in terms of discriminating between reality and fantasy. But here, it’s primarily differentiating, or discriminating, between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. It’s quite different from discriminating between what’s legal and what’s illegal, like a lawyer. Remember, the whole Buddhist context is we want to get out of, or get rid of, suffering. And the way to do that is to eliminate the cause of the suffering. That means we have to discriminate correctly what is the cause of suffering. And then, we need a motivation to get rid of that, to overcome that. And, everybody of course wants to be happy – that’s a natural instinct; it’s associated with the survival instinct. It’s very basic. But most of the time we don’t really understand what will help us to bring about an absence of suffering, our happiness.

So, this discriminating awareness goes together with ethical self-discipline. We discriminate correctly, “If I act in this way, this is going to cause problems – problems for me and maybe problems for others, but primarily for me. And if I act in a constructive way, it will be of help to me and maybe of help to others.” We can’t guarantee what the effect of our behavior will be on others. And then, whether we avoid destructive behavior or not is really our own choice; how seriously we take ourselves, how much we care about what we might experience in the future. I mean it could be the case that we just don’t know what would be helpful, and so if we encounter somebody else who is acting destructively simply because they don’t know any better, we try to help them to understand.

The most basic example, the most common example, is little children. Little children don’t know that, well, you don’t go and break other people’s toys or take their toys from them and this kind of things – you have to teach them. Now our Western indoctrination might cause us to label that child: “You’re a bad girl,” “You’re a bad boy,” but actually they just don’t know, they don’t know any better. So, there’s no need for guilt, or trying to make the child feel guilty. It’s not a matter of guilt at all; it’s just matter of education. [And I think anybody who’s dealt with children knows that, if we say: “Do this just because I say to do this, obey,” this causes rebellion, doesn’t it?] But if somehow we can get the child to understand that: “If you do this, the other children aren’t going to like you,” [and “Nobody will want to play with you,”] and in some way teach them that they’re going to suffer if they act like this – then they learn.

And also, somebody that acts in a destructive way because they’re confused, basically, when we understand that, then they are an appropriate object for compassion. It’s not that they are an appropriate object for punishment. Now, what form that compassion might take might include putting the person in prison, if they go around killing people. But that’s out of compassion – to prevent them from killing other people and from causing more problems for themselves. And so that’s a very different attitude toward civil disorder, people that go around killing and robbing and so on.

So, this is very important when we are practicing Buddhism, not to project onto Buddhism our Western ideas of ethics. We find so many problems come about in our practice of Buddhism as Westerns because we inappropriately project this Western idea of ethics. So we feel that: “I must do my meditation practice in order to be a good Buddhist, and if I don’t do this I’m not a good Buddhist, I’m bad.” I suppose you have to be serious enough to actually care about doing any practice in order to reach that point of feeling guilty about not doing it. And we want to obey our teacher – well, that’s quite a strange concept from a Buddhist point of view. We take the teacher’s advice, but also we use our discriminating awareness. Sometimes the teacher will tell us absolutely outrageous things to do in order to get to use our own intelligence.

There’s an account from a previous life of the Buddha, when he was studying with many other students with a teacher, and the teacher told everybody to go out and steal something for him. And all the students went out to rob, but the previous life of Buddha just stayed in his room. And the teacher went to his room, and asked him, “Why don’t you go out and steal for me? Don’t you want to please me, make me happy?” And this previous life of the Buddha said, “How can stealing make anybody happy”? So just to obey the teacher blindly, as if the teacher was the police or something like that – this is not the Buddhist way. The teacher gives advice: the teacher gives guidelines; and eventually, what the teacher is helping us to do is to learn is to use our own discriminating awareness so that we become Buddhas ourselves. We’re not aiming to become a servant of a Buddha; we are aiming to become a Buddha ourselves.

Also, we have this concept in our Western ways – of thinking, I supposed – that there’s something about a law which is sort of sacred. It has almost a life of its own. A divine law, given by God, can’t be changed; and civil laws, although working through a legislature, depending on the system of a country, they can be changed. But while they are in effect, they also are quite sacred. And what we need to recognize here is similar to what we do with voidness meditation. Voidness is talking about an absence of impossible ways of existing. So, we need to identify impossible ways of existing and realize that they’re not referring to anything real. And what is one of the most major impossible ways of existing is that there is something inside an object – in our case here a law – that establishes it, or makes it exist, by its own power, independently of anything else. “This is the law. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances, it doesn’t matter anything. The law is established, basically, by itself, stands by itself.”

Think of a current example. I don’t know if it’s advertised here, but it got a lot of publicity in Western Europe – I’m speaking about the director Roman Polanski, the film director. He was arrested, in Switzerland, on the demand from the United States that he be returned to the United States for a sexual abuse crime that he committed I forget how many years ago, more than thirty years ago. And this is a good example of, “It doesn’t matter that it was thirty years ago. It doesn’t matter that the woman involved said, ‘Forget about it, I don’t want to have legal charges against him.’ The law is the law. Nobody is above the law; he must be punished.” This is a very good example of what I’m talking about, this idea that the law has a life of its own in a sense, that independently of anything, the law is the law, and it must be obeyed. This is a false view, from a Buddhist point of view.

When we talk about Buddhist ethics, we’re talking about various guidelines that Buddha gave that either are naturally going to cause destructive actions, cause suffering, or for a certain group it will be detrimental for their spiritual progress – like for monks and nuns to eat after noon, it makes their mind dull for meditation in the evening and the morning. But when see a Buddhist precept, Buddhist guideline of ethics, avoid killing, for example, it’s not a law that is just sacred, carved in stone, some sort of commandment, it’s not like that at all, that it’s sacred and has a life of its own. Any of these guidelines are what we would refer to as a dependently arising phenomenon. They have arisen or have come about dependently on causes and conditions and situations and circumstances.

We can see this very clearly from the evolution of the monastic vows. In the beginning, there weren’t any vows. But various situations arose in the community that caused problems – either problems among the community themselves or problems with the lay community that was supporting them, giving them food. And so Buddha said, “To avoid this problem, don’t do this,” and so you got the vows. And when you study Vinaya – the vows, rules of discipline – then for each of them it usually gives the account of how this vow came about: what was the situation that called upon Buddha to make this vow. But, with all of these vows, then there’s always the provision that when necessity overrides the prohibition, then you may have to violate the vow.

Let’s give an example. A monk is not supposed to touch a woman, in order to avoid lust, this sort of things. But obviously if the woman is drowning, the monk doesn’t just stand there and watch, the monk has to give a hand. So, that’s very clear in this type of things that sometimes the necessity overrides the prohibition. Everything is relative; it’s relative to the situation. [It’s not a matter of being good or bad.] If we have to act in a destructive way that will bring about suffering, because there’s a necessity to do that, then we do this very consciously, “I will accept the suffering that will be caused by this in order to benefit others.”

Like the example of another previous lifetime of a Buddha. He was the navigator on a boat, and the boat had five hundred merchants on it. And there was one of the oarsmen, somebody who rowed the boat, who Buddha saw was going to kill all the merchants in order to rob them. And Buddha saw that there was no way to stop this murder except to actually kill this oarsman himself. So, Buddha very willingly took on the karmic consequences, the suffering that could come from killing, in order to save the life of all these others, and to prevent this oarsman from building up such terrible consequences of his behavior. So, this is a very useful example.

If we look at the bodhisattva vows, there are the root vows and the auxiliary or secondary vows. And the secondary vows are arranged, most of them, in the categories of the six far-reaching attitudes or perfections, and what we’re doing with this is we are vowing to refrain from a faulty action that would be detrimental to our development of this far-reaching attitude. So, there are two of these vows that are relevant here. This is in terms of our development of ethical self-discipline. First is that we are going to avoid being petty when it concerns the welfare of others. So that means, “Well, you know, this person is not exactly like this or not exactly like that, they don’t exactly fit this or that” and “Oh, it’s time to do my meditation and I can’t help you because this is the time I’m supposed to do this.” This is being petty.

For instance, here’s a monk who needs to be helped with something; they’re having a problem. But, they’re not wearing their robes exactly correctly. And so, “I’m not going to help them until they get their robe on exactly correctly” – this is being petty about tiny little things, rather than paying attention to what’s most important for helping somebody. So, we understand that, I mean to see what’s important. Let’s say you’re translating my lecture. Well, it would be very petty for me or somebody else to start correcting your grammar, or your pronunciation. This is petty, this is not important in terms of helping other people in the room to understand what I’m saying.

The second relevant bodhisattva vow here, what we want to refrain from is not committing a destructive action when love and compassion call for it. Our child is dying from worms or parasites or something like that, and, “I’m not going to kill them, because it says here in the book, ‘Don’t kill.’” Out of love and compassion for the child, one would take the child to a doctor, give the child something to get rid of the worms. Now of course you could say, “Well, but the worm has been my mother in previous lifetimes and all of that, and equanimity, everybody same-same.” But again, this is being an idiot with the Dharma, being too fanatic, you know, “But it’s written here, everybody’s equal, everybody’s been my mother.” But it’s quite obvious that in the child’s present life, the child can be of much more benefit to others than the worm in his stomach can be. So, we don’t kill the worm with hatred and anger – “You bad worm” – we wish the worm well, better luck next time – compassion – but still, this is the bodhisattva vow, we sometimes out of love and compassion have to do a destructive action.

You see, this is the problem that we get into if we have this idea that the laws are the laws and Buddhist ethics are based on laws and it’s written and it is sacred and inflexible. And if you analyse – as we are always taught to do – this situation, what is the problem here? The problem is of course grasping at a false “me,” we would call it. We have a dualistic view of ourselves. There’s this “me,” solid “me,” who is naughty and has to be disciplined; and then there’s this other “me” that has to discipline – the police. “I’ve got to stop myself from doing that,” as if there’s an “I,” on one side, who’s going to stop “myself,” on the other side, from doing something stupid. So we’re thinking of a very solid “me” here – two solid “me’s,” the potential criminal and the policeman – and if we have alertness and this sort of things to keep a watch, then this is the truly existent KGB agent in our mind, the spy, “Oh, what are you doing?” And the law – that also is solidly existent. And what is the result of that? The result is that we are very, very stiff and inflexible.

And this incorrect understanding of discipline could be reinforced by a misunderstanding of some verses in Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. If you’re about to do something stupid, or you’re about to say something destructive, or whatever – there’s a long list of them – “remain like a block of wood.” We could misunderstand that to be stiff like a block of wood, like a robot. And then we are stiff like this and, “I’m not going to act. I’m not going to react. I’m not going to do anything.” That’s not correct. Being like a block of wood means “don’t do it,” it’s doesn’t mean “be stiff like a block of wood.” We become stiff like a robot when we’re thinking of this false “me” – “I have to discipline this naughty ‘me,’ otherwise I’m bad.”

So, somehow we need to relax. So how do we do that? And relax while still maintaining proper ethical discipline, this is the important point. First of all, it means to understand that we’re not talking about laws here; we’re talking about various guidelines – if we want to avoid or minimize suffering, this is what we need to avoid, when possible. It’s not some law that, “I have no idea why they made this law; this is a stupid law, but I have to follow it.” It’s not like that. These aren’t stupid laws. Buddha pointed these things out out of compassion, to help us to try to avoid bringing problems on myself. So, these guidelines arose dependently on compassion, dependently on seeing what causes problems, what will avoid problems, and every situation is different – that we encounter, that people in general encounter – every situation is different. And we have to use our discriminating awareness to decide, in this situation, what is the beneficial way to act, what do we need to refrain from. And it needs to come just naturally, spontaneously, not in terms of this dualistic policeman disciplining the potential criminal.

So, what is helpful then is to understand what we actually mean by ethical self-discipline in Buddhism. What is it? And in the Buddhist context, every moment of our experience is made up of many, many different parts. These parts can be organized into five groups, called the five aggregates. We have a moment of experience – right now. And right now, this moment, what is making up my experience? There are many, many parts to it. Obviously my body; the various sensor apparatus – cells of my eyes and so on; there’s objects that I’m aware of; there’s different types of consciousness – seeing, hearing; different emotions; different types of other mental factors like concentration, attention, interest. So, all of these can be put into five groups, just as a way of organizing – it’s not that there are these groups existing somewhere – just as an organizational scheme. Those are called the “five aggregates.” There’s no need to go into details what these five are, but distributed among them are something called “mental factors.” So, there are mental factors that are part of these groups. And, ethical self-discipline is a mental factor, so we need to understand what it is in terms of it being a mental factor.

What is a mental factor? Well, we differentiate a mental factor from what’s called a “primary consciousness.” Let us speak in terms of a little bit like a Western way of explaining. In each moment, we are getting information and processing information. And that information is going to the brain in the form of electrical and chemical impulses. So, primary consciousness is what is able to know what type of information this is. So it would be aware that this is visual information, or it’s aware that this is audio information, or physical sensation – like hot and cold – information. Obviously that’s going on; otherwise how does the brain work and process this information? It’s just electric impulses.

And now the mental factors accompany this – accompany this primary consciousness. And they help that consciousness to somehow deal with that information. So it can be to pay attention, it could be interest, it could be feeling happy or unhappy about it, it could be some emotion – either positive or negative – there are many, many, many mental factors. And there’s lot of them accompanying each moment of our experience, of life. And ethical self-discipline is one of these.

OK, so what is its definition? First of all, it is a sub-category of one mental factor called a “mental urge.” A mental urge is what causes our mental activity to go in the direction of something, to do something. It could be an urge to scratch our heads; it could be an urge to say something; or, it could be an urge not to say something, to refrain from saying something, or to refrain from going to the refrigerator.

So that’s a mental factor that could accompany watching the television. So there’s all these images and visual stuff going on, but then there’s the urge to go to the refrigerator. And that’s accompanying seeing the television. And, we could act on that urge or not. Or that could be a desire to go to the refrigerator – that’s another mental factor – and we could have an ethical self-discipline urge, which says, “No, I’m not going to go to the refrigerator, even though I would like to. I want to go to the refrigerator and get whatever it is that I like – a piece of cake or chocolate or whatever – but with the discipline, I would refrain from that because, well, I don’t really need it. I’m on a diet or whatever.”

So, now we can look at the definition of ethical self-discipline. It’s the mental urge to safeguard the actions of one’s body, speech and mind – “safeguard” means to guard against doing something – and this comes from having turned one’s mind away from any wish to cause harm to others. So, because I don’t want to hurt others, I’m going to safeguard, I’m going to refrain from acting in a destructive way. It’s that urge that is going to say, “No, I’m not going to do it; I’m not going to yell at you for making a mistake; I’m not going to hit somebody; whatever.” And it can also come from having turned one’s mind away from the disturbing and destructive mental factors that have motivated one to harm others.” Like anger: “I’m not going to act on anger, I’m going to try to overcome my anger,” and based on that, I have this urge that will help me to refrain from being angry.

But the discipline here, the ethical self-discipline, is not simply – at that moment when I want to yell at you – that I refrain, but it’s a general form of this that’s going on our mental continuum that is a general guideline: “I’m going to refrain from a certain type of behavior. And I’m going to use mindfulness – which is like a mental glue, to keep myself holding on to this – and alertness – to watch if I go astray.” And we’re not talking simply here about refraining from destructive behavior that would cause harm to others, but there are many sub-categories of ethical self-discipline. So, more generally, to refrain from destructive behavior that would be harmful to me, not just to others, and to refrain from avoiding positive actions. In other words, the discipline to do positive things like to meditate, to study, to do various spiritual practices. And also, there’s the ethical discipline to help others.

So three types of ethical self-discipline: refrain from destructive behavior, engage in constructive behavior, and help others. And this ethical discipline is the mental factor that is moving the mind in a certain direction, and that’s to safeguard our behavior in terms of not to act destructively, to act positively, and to help others. So it’s safeguarding it, it’s guarding it. You have to understand what it means, to safeguard. Safeguard is being careful.

So, one factor that goes with it – another mental factor – is called the “caring attitude.” And it’s defined as a mental factor that takes seriously the situations of others and oneself, [and takes seriously the effects of one’s actions on others and on oneself,] and which, consequently or because of that, causes one to build up a habit of constructive attitudes and behavior, and safeguards against leaning toward destructive attitudes and behavior. It can also sometimes be translated as “carefulness,” careful. So, I care about, I take seriously that if I yell at you, it’s going to make you feel bad; if I yell at you, I’m going to be very upset and even immediately afterwards I’m not going to be able to go to sleep and I’m going to suffer. Do we take this seriously, what will be the consequences of our behavior on other and on ourselves? And so, it helps me to build up some constructive behavior and avoid destructive behavior.

Obviously, we need this in order to have ethical self-discipline. “I take seriously that,” as I say, “if I act destructively it will cause a problem, or if I don’t help, this just really won’t do. If I don’t help this lady with the baby carriage who is having a difficulty going up the stairs by herself – if I don’t help her to carry the baby and the baby carriage up the stairs, this is terrible. If I were the one with the baby, I would certainly want somebody to help me.”

So then we have this ethical self-discipline is that I always want to go in this direction. So I’m keeping discipline all the time, because I have this caring attitude; and I am using mindfulness to keep myself glued to this; and alertness to watch out if there’s any deviation; and discriminating awareness to discriminate what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, what fits the situation, not just what is the law, with law number two point three seven six. Now, we’re doing this without being stiff, because we don’t have this dualistic feeling of there’s the potential criminal “me” and the policeman “me” over here that has to always guard the potential prisoner.

When we talk about “me” from a Buddhist point of view, there’s what’s known as the “conventional ‘me.’” So, we can refer to each moment as “me” – I’m doing this, I’m doing that. And “me” is not just the word or the concept; it’s referring to something. It’s not an independent entity sitting inside us somewhere. If even as a surgeon, you take apart the body or take apart the brain, you can’t find the “me.” We have this whole thing, – body, mind, emotions, everything – it’s working, functioning – OK, “me,” not somebody else. So, with a caring attitude, we care about the effect of our behavior on the conventional “me.” If we didn’t have any sense of a conventional “me,” any awareness of a conventional “me,” then we wouldn’t care about anything. I wouldn’t care about becoming enlightened; I wouldn’t care about getting out of bed in the morning. So, this is not to be negated. However, when we view ourselves as this solid “me” – this entity, this thing inside me – then we get this dualism: potential prisoner and the policeman guard that has to guard, and we become very stiff, very inflexible, and that produces problems.

So, to differentiate between the conventional “me,” which does exist, and the impossible, false “me,” which doesn’t exist at all – this is obviously quite difficult to do. It involves a great deal of investigation, introspection, etc. But when we are an ethical person, and we have ethical discipline, if in the process of being like that, we are very stiff, inflexible, and not really at ease – in other words, we’re not comfortable, [mentally, emotionally] – then probably we are practicing discipline on the basis of thinking of an impossible “me,” this solid “me.” If we are more relaxed – and “relaxed” doesn’t mean sloppy, but more comfortable in terms of ethical discipline, and we are able to act in a way which fits with each situation, taking into consideration what is of benefit to others, what is beneficial or harmful to myself, without getting angry about, “Oh, I can’t do that” – then probably we are practicing ethical discipline – we call them the far-reaching attitudes.

The far-reaching attitudes, or paramitas, are when we practice ethical discipline, patience, etc., with a bodhichitta motivation – then it becomes a far-reaching attitude. Actually you have paramitas also in Hinayana – that’s when it’s practiced with the determination to be free, or renunciation. In Mahayana, it’s when it’s when it’s practiced with bodhichitta. So we have actually paramitas or far-reaching attitudes in both. But in any case, my point being that when you practice the far-reaching attitudes, these perfections, then it is always advised that with each of the six far-reaching attitudes you practice the other five at the same time, together with them. And so, with ethical self-discipline, we need to have discriminating awareness about the “me” that’s involved, the “you” that’s involved, the discipline itself – all these things – very, very important.

OK, so that’s a basic presentation of ethical self-discipline in Buddhist. We can see that it’s a very central thing, very central practice. It’s practiced and developed in order to reach liberation and enlightenment, not just to be a good citizen or a good person. It’s not based on obeying laws, either given by some divine power or by a government. There’s no concept involved here of being a good person or a bad person, or guilt, or reward or punishment. And it is a mental factor, this ethical discipline, either to avoid destructive behavior – destructive to others and to myself; to engage in constructive, positive things, like meditation; and to help others, in whatever way we can. And, it’s something which is drawing our behavior in this direction – a mental urge – [to guard against not doing these things – not helping, not doing positive things, not refraining from destructive things]. We are guarding against acting destructively, not acting constructively, and not helping others. We want to avoid not helping them. “I’m too busy to help you. I don’t care. That’s your problem, tough luck.” And this mental factor of ethical discipline, it’s accompanied with a caring attitude, mindfulness and alertness, and discriminating awareness.

OK, so, that’s it. Do you have some questions? Yeah.

Question: We know the method how to develop these states, and the question is if we need this method forever, or at some point we will be able to maintain these states of mind without efforts, without any methods?

Alex: Yes, this is correct. The actual procedure with all the positive things that we try to develop in our Buddhist practice is first we hear about it, and so we practice based on just hearing about it. But then we have to think about it until we understand it and are convinced that it’s really true – so probably just hearing about it, we might not practice it. But then we practice it on the basis of meditation, which means that we actually build up through causes, and the procedures and the methods, this ethical discipline. So, using mindfulness, alertness, etc. – we have various methods – we develop the caring attitude, etc., that will support this ethical discipline. And staying next to the spiritual teacher, or being always mindful of the teacher – there are many methods that help us to develop ethical self-discipline – being in a proper community that supports it, other people acting likewise. So this is called a labored development – we have to develop it with labor, work, effort. But eventually it becomes unlabored, and “unlabored” means the actual thing, that you don’t need to rely on going through some process to remind yourself why I want to do this and so on; it just comes naturally. So, it’s like that.

We have the bodhisattva vows, there are in the secondary vows a list of nine things to avoid, that would be detrimental to our development of ethical self-discipline. We mentioned some of them – being petty when in concerns the welfare of others, for example. So, we have to remind ourselves of these, to put this into practice because I want to avoid this, this is going to harm my development. So when our ethical self-discipline becomes unlabored, that doesn’t mean that we ignore these bodhisattva vows, that “I don’t need them anymore.” It just means, “I don’t need to remind myself every day of this, because I remember it. It’s there.” And not just, “I remember it” like “I remember the words” or “I can recite it by heart;” we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about, it’s actually integrated into my behavior, and it’s not forced. In the beginning a lot of these practices that we develop, it’s going to be very artificial. But only through repeated familiarity does it become natural and integrated. Although, this is not using the terminology precisely, but if we use the terminology very loosely it’s the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual understanding, realization. But that’s not a technically correct usage of those words, but in the West we tend to use those words loosely like that.

Anything else?

Fine, then we will end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. Not just for me to reach enlightenment, but for everybody to reach enlightenment.