Detail about the Perfection of Ethical Self-Discipline

The second far-reaching attitude is ethical self-discipline. We’re not talking about discipline to play a musical instrument or kick a ball, but it has to do with our ethical behavior. And it’s not that we are the policeman trying to discipline somebody else, train the dog or people in the army, but we’re talking about our own discipline.

Ethical Self-Discipline to Refrain from Doing Destructive Actions

There are three kinds of ethical self-discipline. The first is the ethical self-discipline to refrain from doing destructive actions. This is referring to either the way we act, we speak, or we think. So this would be in terms of keeping various vows that we’ve taken to avoid certain types of destructive behavior. And even if we haven’t taken vows, to refrain from acting generally in terms of the ten destructive types of actions – killing, stealing, lying, etc.

And when we speak about things to avoid, there are naturally destructive types of behavior, like killing or stealing, and then there are those which are not destructive in themselves but Buddha said that for certain people, or at certain times, this is something to avoid. For example: for monks and nuns, then, what they need to avoid is eating at night. That doesn’t apply to everybody, but if we want to be able to have a clear mind at night to be able to meditate, and a clear mind in the morning, then it’s better not to eat at night. And so for those specific persons Buddha recommended to avoid such things. Or shave your head as a monk or a nun; not everybody has to do that, obviously. So these are, again… the ethical discipline to refrain from doing these things is this first kind.

Ethical Self-Discipline to Engage in Constructive Actions

The second type of ethical self-discipline is the discipline to engage in positive, constructive actions, which are going to build up positive force and so on to achieve enlightenment. So this is referring to the ethical discipline to study, to think about the teachings, to meditate, to do the ngondro (sngon-’gro, preliminary practices) – make prostrations, make offerings – go to the teachings, these types of things, the discipline that’s involved in doing them.

So you see, ethical self-discipline here is again a state of mind. We are not referring to the actual behavior. It’s that state of mind that is going to refrain from doing something that would be inappropriate, like doing these destructive things in terms of the vows, but also in terms of engaging in positive things, when we refrain from not doing it. So it’s the discipline. It sort of shapes, coming from our minds, how we’re going to behave. So it’s a state of mind. Without it, we’re completely out of control and we just come under the influence of the disturbing emotions: “I don’t want to do it. I don’t feel like doing it,” etc.

And this ethical self-discipline is based on a discrimination and discriminating awareness. With the ethical self-discipline to refrain from acting destructively, we discriminate the disadvantages of acting destructively. We see what that is – we’re very decisive – the disadvantages to this, and so we refrain from it. Or with the second one (to engage in positive things), we discriminate the benefits of meditating, the benefits of doing the preliminary practices, and so on, and so we engage in them.

Ethical Self-Discipline to Work to Benefit Others

The third type of ethical self-discipline is the discipline to actually work to benefit others, to actually help others. And here we have the discrimination of the benefit of helping others. And we refrain from not helping them because: “I don’t feel like it or I don’t like you, so I don’t want to help you.”

The Four Ways of Gathering Disciples

For helping others – there are many aspects of that. If we speak in general, then there is the discipline to engage in the four ways… it’s actually called literally the [four] ways to gather disciples (bsdu-ba rnam-pa bzhi). In other words, to act in such a way with others that it makes them receptive for us to be able to teach them further, deeper things.

Being Generous

And the first of these is being generous with them. Somebody comes to visit us – you offer them a cup of tea. Just very simple things.

Speaking in a Pleasing Manner

Then the second one is to speak in a very kind and pleasant way with them. Of course that requires discipline to do that. And this means to speak to them in a way that they can understand, using the type of language that they can understand, and speaking in terms of their interests – not in a trivial way, but in a way that helps them. And teach them in a way that… Like if somebody’s interested in the football games, you don’t just say, “Oh, this is stupid. This is a waste of time.” You can speak in a way that is going to make them feel comfortable and relaxed with us. This is very important; otherwise they are not going to be receptive and think we’re talking down to them. We don’t have to go into detail, like: “Oh, who won the game today?” We don’t care who won the game, but it makes the other person feel accepted.

If we’re aspiring to be a bodhisattva, it’s important to take interest in everybody and in what they’re interested in, and to know at least a little bit about as much as possible, so that we can actually relate to others. And to speak pleasantly and kindly also means, when it’s appropriate, with humor.

Once – actually, I know the person – His Holiness the Dalai Lama was visiting at this very prestigious university in the United States, and this person left, in His Holiness’s room, a mask of an American comedian called Groucho Marx, and it had big eyebrows and glasses and a big nose, and so on, and big mustache. And the big professors and so on, these very self-important people, came to His Holiness’s room at the hotel to have a very intellectual discussion with His Holiness. And they’re sitting there in their suits and looking very serious and very proper, and His Holiness walks into the room wearing the Groucho Marx mask. It was brilliant, because these people were so uptight and so serious, and they couldn’t help themselves except to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing, and His Holiness was just hysterical with laughter. And then after that they were able to have a much more relaxed discussion; before, they were just so uptight that it would have been too terrible for them. It really is wonderful in terms of somebody like His Holiness. It’s hard to imagine the president of a country doing that. His Holiness isn’t concerned about what they think about him or things like that, but he saw this as a very skillful way to make the people more comfortable and at ease.

Moving Others to Reach Their Aims

Then the third method here is to move others to reach their aims. To accomplish this, we need to act in a meaningful way. A meaningful way means to… not just wasting time, but to try to encourage others to be receptive to positive measures to work on themselves. His Holiness wasn’t just playing a joke to show how clever he was, but, in a meaningful way, to help to relax the people who were there and not take themselves so terribly seriously. It doesn’t mean that every minute you have to be deep and intense and: “Let’s have a deep and meaningful conversation.” That’s too much.

Being Consistent with These Aims

And then the fourth one is being consistent with these aims, which means living accord to what we encourage and teach others to do. . In other words, if we’re going to teach, the discipline to be a good example of it ourselves – not just teach something but we’re the opposite way. This is the way in which people will be receptive to learning from us, for us to be able to help them on a deeper level. So this requires discipline to be like that. Not just act stupidly all the time or waste time with people.

The Eleven Types of People to Help

Then also the ethical self-discipline of helping others is the discipline to work to benefit… there’s a list that is going to appear over and over again on the teachings on the six far-reaching attitudes: the eleven types of persons that we need especially to work on trying to help them and benefit them.

Those Who Are Suffering

The first is those who are suffering, those who are in pain. (This is a very helpful list, by the way. You shouldn’t just think of this as a list, but it gives us an idea that when we meet people like this, especially don’t ignore them.)

Those Who Are Muddled about How to Help Themselves

The second is people who are muddled about the means to help them. So they don’t really know what to do, how to help themselves, how to deal with some difficult situation. These people that need help. They need some advice, or at least they need some understanding if we don’t know what to do – someone to listen to them.

Those Who Have Helped Us

And then working to help those who have previously helped us. It’s important to appreciate the kindness that other people have shown us and not just neglect our parents or anybody who’s been kind to us. Not out of a feeling of obligation, but just having the feeling of appreciation.

Those Filled with Fear

And then working to help those who are filled with fear overcome the fear. Trying to comfort them.

Those Overcome with Mental Grief

Helping those who are overcome with mental grief. Somebody who has lost a loved one – they died or divorced or something like that – and they’re really depressed.

Those Who Are Poor and Needy

Helping those who are very poor and needy. Because sometimes we need the discipline to actually do that, especially if the people are dirty and they’re not very attractive looking or we don’t like to be in their presence or go where they are. We need the discipline not to withdraw but actually help them.

Those Who Are Attached to Us

Working to help those who are attached to us and who want to be with us all the time. You don’t want to make them dependent on us, but if they have such a strong connection and attachment to us – well, try to help them by teaching them Dharma and things like that if they’re interested. In other words, make it meaningful. And it doesn’t have to be in a heavy, missionary way, but just general. There’s obviously some karma there that is bringing you together.

Helping Others in Accordance with Their Wishes

And working to benefit those in accordance with their preferences and wishes. Somebody asks to be taught a certain type… say if we’re a teacher, if we’ve been studying the Dharma, if they ask us to teach them a certain practice – well, it might not be our practice or our favorite, but if this is something which could be quite appropriate for them, teach them according to what they want. It’s like if we’re going out to a restaurant with somebody – we don’t have to insist that we always go to have the kind of food that we like; we go along with what they would like. Obviously in a relationship one has to compromise and not always do what the other person wants, but it’s important not to insist that it always be my way.

Those Who Lead Upright Lives

And then working to benefit those who lead upright lives – that’s the expression – those who are following a really positive path and doing a good job at things. To help them by encouraging them, praising them, and so on. But again, when it is appropriate and helpful: if it’s only going to increase their pride and arrogance, then it’s better not to.

For instance, I was very proud and arrogant when I was much younger, and I worked and helped my teacher Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, doing so much for him – translating, and arranging all his tours, and doing all the correspondence, and running around for all the visas, and things like that. And in nine years he only thanked me and said, “You did a good job” twice – in nine years. And for me that was very appropriate. For other people, let’s say if they have very low self-esteem, that would be most inappropriate. But for somebody that is very arrogant, this is extremely helpful. And it was. As some of my teachers said – Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – “What are you doing? Standing around like a dog and waiting to be patted on the head after you’ve done a good job so that you wag your tail?”

So actually Serkong Rinpoche was helping me very much. I was doing very positive things, and he helped me by not thanking me – that’s how he benefited me – so that I would help simply because I wanted to help other people to benefit from his teachings and from his travels. It was like he never taught me anything [privately] until the very end of our time together. He never taught me anything by myself; I always had to translate it for somebody else. He would only teach me if I was translating it for somebody. Very, very helpful.

And he helped me by… I was doing a lot of positive things, and he helped me by never failing to call me an idiot when I was acting like an idiot. It was very helpful. For other people it might not be very helpful. He was very tough on me.

Now, as a teacher or as somebody who’s helping others, this is very, very difficult to do. It requires a tremendous discipline. Why? Because when we’re in that position, we want the other person to like us. And you don’t want to give them a hard time, because maybe they won’t like us and maybe they’ll go away. So this really requires a tremendous discipline, to act in a way that really will benefit the other person and not just what we think is going to benefit us.

Sometimes we might not want to punish our children for acting improperly, for misbehaving, but we need that discipline to be very strict with them, because it’s for their benefit. “I’m not going to give everything to you. You have to work yourself and earn it so you appreciate it.” That requires a lot of discipline on the side of the parent, especially when they have the means to be able to give everything to the child.

Those Who Lead Destructive Lives

Then the next one is to work to benefit those who are leading very destructive and negative type of lives. In other words, we don’t just dismiss them and reject them or condemn them, or things like that, but if there’s any way to help them to overcome this type of behavior, then we try to do that. There are some Dharma teachers who go and teach in prisons, for example, or help people who are heroin addicts. Obviously they need to be receptive and not reject them because: “Ooh, a junkie. You’re a bad person.”

Using Our Extraphysical Powers to Help Others

Then the last one is working to benefit others by using our – if we have – extraphysical powers or extrasensory abilities. To help others by using them when all other methods fail – only when it’s absolutely necessary.

My teacher Serkong Rinpoche certainly had extrasensory abilities. I saw it several times. Once I was with him in a jeep. We were driving up to the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamsala. We had almost reached there, and Serkong Rinpoche said, “Hurry up. Drive faster, drive faster. There’s a fire starting in the gompa, in the altar room.” So we went there and we ran there, and sure enough, a candle had fallen over and a curtain had caught on fire. So there it was a situation in which he didn’t feel bashful to hide his, or shy, to hide his extrasensory abilities, but used it to benefit others. He was very impressive. He was the one that most other lamas would say, “If you want to see the real thing, not just somebody with a name, he’s the example of the real thing.” He was.

Shantideva on Ethical Self-Discipline

Just a few more points about ethical self-discipline. Shantideva discusses it in two chapters in his text on Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. The first chapter is called “The Caring Attitude,” and this is the basis for ethical self-discipline. In other words, we care about the effect of our behavior and we take it seriously. We care about not coming under the influence of our disturbing emotions. We care about and take seriously that other people are human beings and have feelings, and if we act in a destructive way, it’s going to hurt them. And we care about the consequences of our behavior on ourselves in the future. We take it seriously. This is the basis for ethical self-discipline. If we don’t care – “Well, it’s equal to me. I don’t care what happens. I don’t care if you’re hurt by my being late” – then we don’t act in any sort of ethical way.

In many languages, that caring attitude (bag-yod, Skt. apramada) is a very difficult word to translate. The German or Spanish is very difficult, for example. Russian as well? It doesn’t mean to be… I mean, being careful is a little bit part of it, but it doesn’t mean to be worried or only to be careful. It’s to take seriously the effect of our behavior.

And the second chapter that Shantideva devotes to the topic deals with mindfulness (dran-pa, Skt. smrti) and alertness (shes-bzhin, Skt. samprajanya). And mindfulness means to keep a mental hold on the discipline, on the type of behavior, and not come under the influence of a disturbing emotion. So it’s like a mental glue, to hold on. It’s like we are on a diet, and we walk past the bakery shop and we see this delicious cake, our favorite cake, in the window, and we just hold on – not let go of our diet – “I am not going to go in there and buy this piece of cake, and not come under the influence of my greed and attachment.” This is very important for ethical discipline. And then alertness to watch out when we start to waver from that and say, “Well, maybe just a little piece,” or something like that. Or as my sister says when she’s on a diet: she won’t take a piece of cake; but the crumbs, they don’t count. The crumbs, the little pieces that are left on the plate – that doesn’t count; that you can take. So we have to watch out for these things. So these are the supports for ethical discipline, the tools with which we are able to keep our discipline, and then we can use it later on for concentration.

And finally Shantideva points out three factors that will help us to develop and keep this mindfulness.

  • The first, he says, is to stay in the company of our spiritual teachers or always think that we’re in their presence. If we were in their presence, we wouldn’t act stupidly or destructively, because of our respect for them. That’s very helpful. “Would I act like this or speak like this in the presence of my teacher?” And if we wouldn’t, then Shantideva says, “Remain like a block of wood” – don’t do it. That helps us to keep mindful. Stuff myself with all the cake or yell at somebody: obviously we wouldn’t do that if we were having dinner with our teacher.
  • And the second is to follow the instructions and advice of our teacher, remember what they said. That keeps us mindful.
  • Then the third one is dread of the consequences of not being mindful. It doesn’t mean fear but “I really dread… I don’t want to experience what are the effects of not being mindful.” This is based on a sense of self-dignity, self-worth. I think enough of myself, in a positive way, that I don’t want to just go downhill, downhill, downhill by always acting under the influence of anger, greed, and so on.

And what goes together with that is, he says, awe of our spiritual teachers. That’s a difficult word. It doesn’t mean that we’re afraid of our spiritual teachers, that they’re going to scold us or anything like that, but awe means that I respect my spiritual teachers and I respect Buddhism so much that it would make me feel terrible how my negative behavior would reflect what other people would think of – “This is how the students of such and such a teacher act?” Or they would think very negatively of Buddhism and spiritual training – “You’re supposed to be a Buddhist? You’re carrying on and getting drunk and destroying things, getting so angry, and so on.” So it’s out of this sense of awe and respect that we would keep our mindfulness and ethical discipline.