Developing Ethical Self-Discipline


Ethical self-discipline is a fundamental part of the Buddhist path. But ethics is something that we find in all spiritual traditions; and not only in spiritual traditions, ethics is found in all social systems. To determine what makes Buddhist ethics “Buddhist,” we need to examine it in the context of the Four Noble Truths – the basic teaching that Buddha gave.

Ethical Behavior in the Context of the Four Noble Truths

The First Noble Truth: We All Face Suffering

The first truth in life is that we all face true suffering. First, there is the ordinary suffering of pain and unhappiness. Then, there are the problems that are associated with our ordinary type of happiness, such as the fact that happiness never lasts and never satisfies. We never know what is coming next, and when we actually achieve happiness, it usually changes into unhappiness. For example, eating too much ice cream will result in a stomachache. Finally, there is all pervasive suffering, which is the basis for the first two types of suffering. All pervasive suffering is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth (Skt. samsara), which has been caused by our compulsive karmic actions, which in turn have been motivated by disturbing emotions and attitudes. These disturbing emotions and attitudes have come about because of unawareness, or ignorance, of behavioral cause and effect and of how things exist. That unawareness causes us to continue to take the type of rebirth that will be the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering. So, unawareness causes us to have disturbing emotions and attitudes, which in turn cause us to act compulsively, which creates karmic potentials that cause us to take uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Uncontrollable rebirth is the basis for experiencing the ups and downs of the first two types of suffering: unhappiness and our ordinary happiness that never lasts or and never satisfies.

The Second Noble Truth: The Causes of Suffering

The second noble truth is the true causes of suffering. The true cause of suffering is our unawareness (unawareness of behavioral cause and effect, and unawareness of reality), the disturbing emotions (greed, lust, anger, naivety) caused by that unawareness, and the compulsive karmic actions that are motivated by that unawareness.

The Third Noble Truth: It Is Possible to Stop Suffering

The third noble truth is that it is possible to achieve a true stopping of that unawareness, so that none of the three types of suffering ever recurs.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering

The fourth noble truth is the true pathway of mind or way of understanding that will bring about the cessation of suffering. The true pathway is a correct understanding of behavioral cause and effect, and reality. If we develop this correct understanding, with the strong determination to be free from this uncontrollably recurring rebirth, then we are free of the first two noble truths (true suffering and its cause), and we attain what is called liberation. But in order to best help others we need to go deeper; we need to overcome the obstructions that are preventing our mind from understanding the interrelatedness of everything.

If we understand how everything is connected, we will understand behavioral cause and effect completely, which means that we will know how best to help others; we will know what the effect of anything we teach them will be. 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), we develop the exceptional resolve with which we take on the responsibility to lead everyone all the way to liberation and enlightenment. But realizing that in our present state we are unable to do this, we develop bodhichitta. With bodhichitta we set our aim on attaining enlightenment ourselves in order to be able to actually accomplish the goal of leading all others to a similar state. If we combine our understanding of reality with this bodhichitta motivation, then we achieve enlightenment – we become a Buddha.

So, in a few sentences, that is the Buddhist path. With ethical self-discipline, we refrain from acting destructively so that we avoid worse states of rebirth and attain instead happier rebirth states. Many other spiritual traditions, however, teach ethical discipline in order to achieve higher rebirth in heaven; the goal of reaching a higher rebirth is not exclusively Buddhist. In Buddhism, that level of ethical practice (to refrain from negative, destructive behavior in order to get a better rebirth) would be a stepping-stone on the path to achieve liberation and enlightenment. We need to have many higher rebirths in order to do the work necessary to achieve enlightenment, so there is a very positive purpose for practicing ethical behavior. What makes this level of practice Buddhist, then, is that we are practicing ethical discipline with a bodhichitta motivation in order to ultimately achieve liberation and enlightenment.

The Three Higher Trainings

In Buddhism we speak of the three higher trainings, which can be practiced either with a motivation to achieve individual liberation, or with a motivation to achieve enlightenment. The highest training is the training in higher discriminating awareness. This is the ability to tell the difference between what is reality and what is fantasy or illusion. Thus discriminating awareness is like a sharp axe for cutting through confusion or ignorance.

The basis for being able to apply this higher discriminating awareness is called higher concentration or higher absorbed concentration. Concentration means to be able to focus on an object, particularly the reality of things, without our attention flying off to something else or becoming dull – to be able to stay focused like that for as long as we wish. This ability to concentrate is analogous to having good aim with the axe; we need 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 higher concentration is higher ethical self-discipline, and this is where our topic of ethics and discipline comes in. In order to be able to concentrate, we need to have the discipline to correct our attention when it goes astray, and we need to be able to correct our attention when we are getting very dull and sleepy. For that we need discipline, which is analogous to having the strength to be able to use the axe. So ethical self-discipline is the basis or prerequisite for concentration, which in turn is the foundation for higher discriminating awareness.

Concentrating does not apply only to when we are meditating on voidness or meditating on another object. It means to focus in a productive way in all situations. For example, if you are trying to help someone, you need to concentrate on what the other person is saying. You need to listen; your mind cannot wander off to something else, such as: When is it time for lunch? And you need to pay attention in order to stay alert and not become spaced out. You need to be able to concentrate in order to discriminate (here is another meaning of discriminating awareness) between what would be the proper thing to say, what would be helpful to say, what would be helpful to do, and what would be improper and unhelpful. So again, you need discipline to be able to stop thinking about what you want to do (which might be to go have lunch), and instead think about what would be best for the other person.

So there is a great need for ethical self-discipline; and in the Buddhist context that means to be able to have the concentration to focus with discriminating awareness on reality, and on helping others.

Now if we talk about concentration, we are talking about a mental activity, and we need discipline – primarily discipline of the mind. Obviously we need the discipline to be able to sit in meditation, to overcome laziness, and to overcome distractions. However, disciplining our minds is much more difficult than disciplining the behavior of our body and our speech. So, how do we get the strength to be able to discipline the behavior of our mind? We gain that from first having discipline of our body and speech.

Ethics in a Western Context

It is important to understand the difference between the Buddhist approach to ethics and other approaches. Most of us have grown up in a Western or Middle Eastern culture, and in Western culture and Middle Eastern culture, ethics is basically a matter of laws. There are divine laws that are given by God or by Allah, and in the civil sphere there are laws that are made by either a king or a legislative government. In Western culture, the whole idea of ethics is really based on obedience – obeying either divine laws, civil laws, or both. If we obey, then we are considered to be a good person or a good citizen; if we disobey, then we are considered to be a bad person or a bad citizen. In the religious sphere, the person is labeled a sinner, and in the civil sphere the person is labeled a criminal.

So in a Western or Middle Eastern context, transgressors are considered to be morally bad, and the culture stresses the phenomenon of guilt. We are judged to be guilty – guilt in a legal sense, and in the psychological sense. In the West, much of our ethics is based on this idea of obedience to the law. Some members of society can avoid punishment; if they are very clever and have enough money, they hire a lawyer in order to find loopholes in the law so that they can somehow get around the laws.

Ethics in a Buddhist Context

The Western or Middle Eastern attitude toward ethics is very different from the Buddhist view. Ethics in Buddhism is not based on obedience; rather, it is based on what is called “discriminating awareness” (shes-rab). We have seen this term earlier, in terms of discriminating between reality and fantasy. But here, it is primarily differentiating or discriminating between what is helpful and what is harmful. It is quite different from discriminating between what is legal and what is illegal in a judicial context. Remember, the whole Buddhist context is that 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 need to discriminate correctly what is the cause of suffering. And then, we need a motivation to get rid of that cause or to overcome that cause. Of course, everyone wants to be happy; that is a natural impulse that is associated with the survival instinct, and it is a very basic instinct. But most of the time we do not really understand what will help us to bring about an absence of suffering, or help to bring us happiness.

So, discriminating awareness goes together with ethical self-discipline. We discriminate correctly that “If I act in this way, this is going to cause problems – 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 as well.” And then, whether we avoid destructive behavior or not is really our own choice; it depends on how seriously we take ourselves, and how much we care about the suffering that we might experience in the future. It could be the case that someone simply does not know what would be helpful, and so if we encounter someone who is acting destructively simply because they do not know any better, we can try to help them to understand.

The most common example is young children. Young children do not know that, for example, you do not break other children’s toys or take their toys away; we need to teach them. Our Western indoctrination might cause us to label that naughty child a “bad girl” or a “bad boy,” but actually they simply do not know any better. So, there is no need to make the child feel guilty – it is not a matter of guilt at all – it is just matter of education. If we teach children that they will suffer as a result of their behavior, if we can help them to understand that when they behave badly, other children will not like them, then they will learn.

If we see someone who acts in a destructive way because he is confused, that person is an appropriate object for compassion – not an appropriate object for anger or punishment. The form that compassion might take could include putting the person in prison, if they are hurting other people. But that action should be taken out of compassion – we put the person in prison to prevent him from hurting or killing others, and to prevent him from causing more problems for himself. The Buddhist approach is a very different attitude toward civil disorder, as compared to a judicial context of guilt and punishment.

Do Not Project Western Ethics onto Buddhism

It is very important, when we are practicing Buddhism, not to project our Western ideas of ethics onto Buddhism. Many problems come about in our practice of Buddhism because we, as Westerners, inappropriately project our Western idea of ethics onto our Buddhist practice. Some people may feel that they must do their meditation practice in order to be “good” Buddhists. Some Westerners may feel that they should obey their teacher, which is quite a strange concept from a Buddhist point of view. Actually, we should take the teacher’s advice, but we should also use our discriminating awareness. Sometimes the teacher will tell us absolutely outrageous things in order to encourage us to use our own intelligence.

There is an account from a previous life of the Buddha, when he was one student among many, studying with a particular teacher. The teacher told all the students to go out into the local village and steal something for him. All the students went out to rob something and bring it back to the teacher, except for the previous incarnation of Buddha – he just stayed in his room. The teacher went to his room, and asked him: “Why didn’t you go out and steal for me? Don’t you want to please me and make me happy?” And the previous incarnation of the Buddha said, “How can stealing make anyone happy?” So the lesson of this tale is that to blindly obey the teacher, as if the teacher were a policeman or army officer, is not the Buddhist way. Rather, the teacher gives advice and the teacher gives guidelines. The teacher is helping us to learn to use our own discriminating awareness, so that we become Buddhas ourselves. We are not aiming to become a servant of a Buddha; we are aiming to become a Buddha ourselves.

The Western Concept That Laws Are Immutable

Another difference between Western ethics and Buddhist ethics is the belief in the West that laws are sacred – that they almost have a life of their own. People feel that a divine law, which is given by God, cannot be changed. And civil laws, while they are in effect, are also considered quite sacred, even though they can be changed by working through the legislative process. 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. In understanding voidness we need to identify impossible ways of existing, and realize that they are not referring to anything real. And one of the most major impossible ways of existing is that there is something inside an object (in this case, a law) that establishes it, or makes it exist, by its own power, independently of anything else. In the context of civil laws, the impossible thinking is: “This is the law. It does not matter what the circumstances are, it does not matter what the specific situation is, or what the context is. The law is established by itself and it stands by itself.”

Recently there was a case in Switzerland where the film director Roman Polanski was arrested, at the demand of the United States government, so that he could be extradited to the United States for a sexual abuse crime that he allegedly committed more than 30 years before. This is a good example of the mindset that “It does not matter that the allegations were made 30 years ago. It does not matter that the woman involved wants to drop the legal charges against him. The law is the law. No one is above the law. He must be punished.” This is a very good example of the idea that the law has a life of its own, that independently of any other factors, the law is the law, and it must be obeyed. This is a false belief, from the Buddhist point of view.

Buddhist Ethics as Guidelines

Buddha gave various guidelines regarding actions that will either naturally cause suffering or will be detrimental to spiritual progress. For example, monks and nuns are prohibited from eating after noon, because that makes their mind dull for meditation in the evening. While Buddha did teach many guidelines for behavior, the Buddhist precept or ethical guideline (for example, the precept to avoid killing) is not a law that is a commandment, carved in stone. It is not that the guideline is sacred and completely independent of the situation, context, or any mitigating factors. Instead, Buddhist ethical guidelines are “dependently arising” phenomena. They have arisen, or have come about, dependent on causes and conditions, and in the context of situations and circumstances.

We can see this very clearly from the evolution of the monastic vows. In the earliest days of the Buddhist community, there were no vows. But various situations arose in the Buddhist community that caused problems – either problems between monastic community members, or problems between the monastics and the lay community, which was supporting the monastics. So Buddha said, “To avoid this problem, do not do this action,” and from that came the vows. When you study the Vinaya (the vows and rules of discipline), you find that for each rule the text usually gives the account of how the vow came about – what the situation was that caused Buddha to declare this vow. However, with all of these vows, there is always the provision that when other factors override the guideline, the vow may need to be violated.

As an example, the Vinaya says that a monk should not touch a woman, in order to avoid lust. But if the woman is drowning, the monk does not just stand there and watch – the monk must help her. It is very clear that sometimes necessity overrides the prohibition, and that is specifically allowed in the Vinaya. In Buddhism, ethics and guidelines are relative – they are relative to the specific situation. If there is a necessity to act in a destructive way, and that action will bring about suffering, then we proceed very consciously. We are aware that “I will accept the suffering to myself that will be caused by this action, in order to benefit others.”

Another story from a previous lifetime of the Buddha illustrates this point. The previous incarnation of Shakyamuni Buddha was the navigator on a boat, and the boat was carrying 500 merchants. There was one oarsman who was going to kill all the merchants in order to rob them; Buddha could see this through his clairvoyance. And Buddha knew that there was no way to stop this murder except to actually kill the oarsman himself. So, he willingly and consciously took on the karmic consequences of killing the oarsman, in order to save 500 lives, and also to prevent the oarsman from incurring the terrible consequences of such behavior.

Ethics and the Bodhisattva Vows

The bodhisattva vows include root vows and auxiliary (secondary) vows. Most of the secondary vows are arranged according to the categories of the six far-reaching attitudes, which are also known as the six perfections (Skt. paramitas). (The six perfections are: generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability, and discriminating awareness.) The bodhisattva vows are commitments to refrain from a faulty action that would be detrimental to the development of bodhichitta. Two of the vows are relevant in terms of the development of ethical self-discipline. First, we will avoid being petty or small-minded when it concerns the welfare of others. A petty attitude could cause us to think: This person is not worthy of my help. She has so many flaws – why should I even bother trying to help her? Or: It is time to do my meditation, so I cannot help you; according to my schedule I should be meditating and I can’t make an exception for you – maybe another time. This is being petty.

Another example of a small-minded attitude is: Perhaps there is a monk at your Dharma center who needs help in carrying something heavy, but he is not wearing his robes correctly. The small-minded attitude is: I am not going to help him until he readjusts his robes exactly correctly. This is being petty about unimportant matters, rather than paying attention to what is most important, in this case helping the monk carry the object. In another example, let’s say a volunteer is interpreting my lecture from English into German. It would be very petty for me to start correcting his grammar or pronunciation. That kind of criticism is not helping to achieve the real goal, which is to help the audience understand what I am saying.

The second relevant bodhisattva vow is not to refrain from committing a destructive action when love and compassion call for the action to be committed. If my child is sick with intestinal parasites, I could decide that I will not give the child medicine to kill the parasites, because one of the ten destructive actions in Buddhism is taking the lives of others; I might believe that it is important to follow the rules without exception. But clearly, I should have love and compassion for the child; I should take the child to the doctor; and I should give the child the medicine to kill the parasites. Of course it is true that the worm has been my mother in previous lifetimes, and it is true that I should treat the worms with equanimity. But to make an extreme decision to not treat the child’s illness is being an idiot with the Dharma, being fanatic. It is 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 do not kill the worm with hatred and anger (“You bad worm!”); we have compassion for the worm, we wish the worm well, and we take no joy in killing. But even so, we sometimes need to perform a destructive action out of love and compassion.

The Disadvantage of Being Inflexible

This is the type of problem that we get into if we have the idea that: laws are laws, Buddhist ethics are based on laws, and if is written then it is sacred and inflexible. We are always taught to analyze the situation and to determine the true problem. If we analyze this situation, of holding fiercely to the letter of the law, what is the real problem, or the root cause of fanatical belief in the law? The problem is grasping at a false “me.” We have a dualistic view of ourselves. There is a solid “me,” who is naughty and must be disciplined; and then there is another “me” that is the disciplinarian. We think “I must stop myself from doing that,” as if there is a “me” on one side, who is going to stop “myself” on the other side, from doing something stupid. When we have this mindset, we have a strong belief in two solid “me’s” – the potential criminal and the policeman. And the alertness we post to watch that “me” becomes like having a truly-existent KGB agent in our mind, who is spying on our own behavior. We also believe that the law is solidly existent. And what is the result of this belief in the solidly existing “me” as a spy? The result is that we are very, very stiff and inflexible.

This incorrect understanding of discipline could be reinforced by a misunderstanding of some verses in Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. If you are about to do something stupid, or you are about to say something destructive (there is a long list of negative behaviors in the text), the text says: “remain like a block of wood.” We could misunderstand that to mean: be stiff like a block of wood, be like a robot. If we take this posture of stiffness we may think “I am not going to act; I am not going to react; I am not going to do anything.” That is not the correct interpretation of the advice. Being like a block of wood means “be firm in refraining from that negative action;” it does not mean “be stiff like a block of wood.” When we are thinking of this false “me” we become stiff like a robot; we think “I need to discipline this naughty ‘me,’ otherwise I am bad.”

The Skillful Way to Approach Buddhist Ethics

So, we need to relax. And it is important to relax while still maintaining proper ethical discipline. How do we do that? First of all, we need to understand that we are not talking about laws – we are talking about guidelines. A guideline says that if we want to avoid or minimize suffering, it is recommended that we avoid this course of action, if possible. It is not a law that we feel compelled to follow, even though we have no idea what the purpose of the law is, even though we think that it is a stupid law. It is not like that. Buddhist ethics are not stupid laws. Buddha pointed out certain issues, out of compassion, in order to help us avoid bringing problems on ourselves. The guidelines arose dependently upon compassion, dependently on an understanding of what causes problems and what will avoid problems. Every situation that we encounter is different; we need to use our discriminating awareness to decide, in each situation, what is the beneficial way to act, or conversely what action do we need to refrain from. This understanding (knowing what to do or not to do), needs to come naturally, spontaneously, not in terms of the dualistic policeman disciplining the potential criminal.

Ethical Self-Discipline as a Mental Factor

What do we actually mean by ethical self-discipline in Buddhism? 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, which are called the five aggregates. We are experiencing a moment – right now. Right now, this moment, what is making up my experience? There are many, many parts to it. Obviously my body is part of my experience; the various sensory systems are present, such as the cells of my eyes. I am aware of objects that are present by utilizing several different types of consciousness, such as sight and hearing. There are different emotions involved, different types of mental factors such as concentration, attention, and interest. So, all of these phenomena that make up each moment of our experience can be organized into five groups called the “five aggregates.” Distributed among them is something called “mental factors.” Ethical self-discipline is a mental factor.

First of all, what is a mental factor? We differentiate a mental factor from what is called a “primary consciousness.” In each moment, we are receiving information and processing information. That information is going to the brain in the form of electrical and chemical impulses. Primary consciousness is what is able to know what type of information is coming to the brain. Primary consciousness would be aware that a particular piece of information is visual information, for example, or it is audio information, or it is a physical sensation such as hot or cold. All of us are familiar with this “knowing” phenomenon that is happening – if we did not have primary consciousness, there would only be the raw electrical impulses, without any interpretation.

The mental factors accompany the primary consciousness. They help that consciousness to deal with the incoming information. The mental factors could include paying attention, being interested, or feeling happy or unhappy about the information. The mental factors could be an emotion, either positive or negative. There are many mental factors. And a variety of mental factors accompany each moment of our experience. Ethical self-discipline is one of these mental factors.

Ethical self-discipline is a sub-category of a mental factor called a “mental urge.” A mental urge is what causes our mental activity to go in the direction of something specific; it is what causes us to do something. The mental urge could be an impulse 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 it could be the urge to go to the refrigerator.

The urge to go to the refrigerator is a mental urge that could accompany watching the television. While watching television, there are many images reaching our brain via the body (the photosensitive cells of the eyes) and the eye consciousness (sight), but there is also the urge to go to the refrigerator. That impulse to get up is accompanying the experience of seeing the television. So we could act on that urge or choose not to. When the desire to go to the refrigerator arises, we could have ethical self-discipline not to act it out, based on the decision “No, I will not go to the refrigerator, even though I would like to. I want to go to the refrigerator and get a piece of cake, but I will refrain, because I am on a diet.”

Now we can look at the definition of ethical self-discipline. Ethical self-discipline is the mental urge to safeguard the actions of one’s body, speech and mind. “Safeguard” means to guard against doing something; the urge to safeguard comes from having turned one’s mind away from any wish to cause harm to others. So, because I do not want to hurt others, I will safeguard my actions; I will refrain from acting in a destructive way. It is the urge that says “No, I am not going to do that. I am not going to hit my daughter for spilling her juice. I am not going to yell at her for making that mistake.” This urge can also come from having turned one’s mind away from the disturbing and destructive mental factors that have motivated one to harm others in the past. We could have the urge to refrain from acting out of anger. Based on trying to overcome anger, I have the urge of self-discipline, which will help me to refrain from being angry and acting on that anger.

Ethical self-discipline is not simply an urge that occurs in the moment (for example, at the moment when I want to yell at my daughter, I refrain), but it is a general form of this principle that is present in our mental continuum as a general guideline: “I am going to refrain from a certain type of behavior. I am going to use mindfulness, which is like a mental glue, to hold myself back from yelling, and I will use alertness to watch myself in case I go astray.”

In addition to refraining from destructive behavior that would cause harm to others, there are many sub categories of ethical self-discipline. So, more generally, discipline means 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, I have the discipline to do positive things such as to meditate, to study, or to do various spiritual practices. And also, there is the ethical discipline to help others.

So there are three types of ethical self-discipline: refraining from destructive behavior, engaging in constructive behavior, and helping others. Ethical discipline is the mental factor that is moving the mind in a certain direction, which is to safeguard our behavior in terms of: not acting destructively, acting positively, and helping others. Ethical discipline is safeguarding our behavior – guarding it with care.

The Mental Factor Called “The Caring Attitude”

Another mental factor, one that goes with self-discipline, is called the “caring attitude.” The caring attitude is defined as a mental factor that takes seriously the situations of others and oneself, and because of that situation, the caring attitude causes one to build up a habit of constructive attitudes and helpful behavior, and safeguards against leaning toward destructive attitudes and harmful behavior. The caring attitude can sometimes be translated as “to be careful.” For example, I take seriously that if I yell at you, it is going to make you feel bad; in addition to you feeling bad, if I yell at you, I will be very upset. Afterwards I may not be able to go to sleep and I will suffer. Do we take this seriously? The caring attitude helps me to consider the consequences of my behavior on others and on myself. It helps me to build up some constructive behaviors and to avoid destructive behaviors.

The caring attitude is necessary in order to have ethical self-discipline. It helps us to take seriously that if I act destructively it will cause a problem, or if I do not help, that will also cause problems. For example, let us imagine that I see a woman with a baby carriage who is having difficulty bringing the carriage up the stairs. The caring attitude causes me to think: “If I do not help her to carry the baby and the baby carriage up the stairs, that is selfish of me. If I were the one with the baby, I would certainly want someone to help me.”

With ethical discipline, I always want to go in the direction of being helpful. So I am keeping discipline all the time, because I have this caring attitude; I am using mindfulness to keep myself glued to discipline; I use alertness to be aware if there are any deviations; and I use discriminating awareness to determine what is appropriate, what is inappropriate, and what fits the situation – not blindly following a law. We are doing this without being stiff, because we do not have a dualistic feeling of a potential criminal “me” on the one hand, and a policeman “me” on the other hand, who has to always guard the potential criminal.

When we talk about “me” from a Buddhist point of view, there is what is known as the “conventional me.” So, we can refer to each moment as “me” – I am doing this, I am doing that. And “me” is not just the word or the concept; it is referring to something. It is not an independent entity sitting inside us somewhere. If you take apart the body or take apart the brain, you cannot find the “me.” We have this whole set of functions – body, mind, and emotions – which is working, so we can differentiate between “me” and “someone else.” With a caring attitude, we care about the effect of our behavior on the conventional “me.” If we did not have any sense of a conventional “me,” or any awareness of a conventional “me,” then we would not care about anything. I would not care about becoming enlightened; I would not care about getting out of bed in the morning. So, this conventional “me” is not to be negated. However, when we view ourselves as a solid “me,” then we get the dualism: potential prisoner and the policeman who has to guard the prisoner; 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 does not exist at all, this is quite difficult to do. It involves a great deal of investigation and introspection. 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 at ease – in other words, we are not comfortable – then probably we are practicing discipline on the basis of thinking of an impossible “me,” a solid “me.” If we are more relaxed, then probably we are practicing ethical discipline in a healthier manner. “Relaxed” does not mean sloppy; it means to be more flexible and so more comfortable in terms of ethical discipline. If we are able to act in a way that fits with each situation, taking into consideration what is of benefit to others and what is beneficial or harmful to myself, then we are most likely practicing ethical self-discipline as it is intended in the Buddhist teachings on the far-reaching attitudes.

The Six Far-Reaching Attitudes

The far-reaching attitudes, or paramitas, of ethical discipline, patience, generosity, joyful perseverance, mental stability, and discriminating awareness become far-reaching when practiced with a bodhichitta motivation. (There are also paramitas in Hinayana. Hinayana means practicing with the determination to be free, practicing with renunciation. Mahayana is when one is practicing with bodhichitta. So the paramitas, or far-reaching attitudes, exist in both Hinayana and Mahayana.) But in any case, if you practice the far-reaching attitudes, the six perfections, then it is always advised that with each of the six you practice the other five at the same time. So, with ethical self-discipline, we need to have discriminating awareness about the “me” that is involved, the “you” that is involved, the discipline itself; to be cognizant of how all these factors exist is very, very important.


This has been a basic presentation of ethical self-discipline in Buddhism. It is a very central practice. Ethical self-discipline is practiced and developed in order to reach liberation and enlightenment, not just to be a good citizen or a good person. It is not based on obeying laws, either laws decreed by some divine power or by a government. There is no concept of being a good person or a bad person; there is no guilt, nor is there reward or punishment. Ethical discipline is a mental factor that involves one of three activities: (1) avoiding destructive behavior (destructive to others and to myself), (2) engaging in constructive, positive behavior (such as meditation), or (3) helping others, in whatever way possible. It is a mental urge that draws our behavior in a particular direction. We rely on ethical self-discipline to guard against acting destructively, to avoid not acting constructively, and to avoid not helping others. This mental factor of ethical discipline is accompanied by a caring attitude, mindfulness, alertness, and discriminating awareness.


If we know the method for developing these states, do we need this method forever, or at some point will we be able to maintain these states of mind without effort, without any methods?

Yes, eventually it will come naturally. The actual procedure, with all the positive things that we try to develop in our Buddhist practice, is (1) first we hear about it, and so we practice based on just hearing about it. But then we need to (2) think about it until we understand it and are convinced that it is really true. If you only hear about ethical self discipline, you might not practice it. But after hearing about, and thinking about it, we need to (3) practice it on the basis of meditation, which means that we actually generate ethical discipline through causes, procedures, and methods. So, using mindfulness, alertness, and various other methods, we develop the caring attitude that will support the ethical discipline. There are many methods that help us to develop ethical self-discipline. The methods include: staying close to the spiritual teacher or being always mindful of the teacher, being in a proper community that supports our development, and having other people around us who are acting likewise. This is called a labored development; we need to develop ourselves with labor, work, and effort. Eventually the practice becomes unlabored; unlabored means you do not need to rely on going through some process to remind yourself of your goal; it just comes naturally.

Included in the bodhisattva vows (specifically in the secondary vows) is a list of nine things to avoid – behaviors that would be detrimental to our development of ethical self-discipline. I mentioned some of them; for example, being petty when it concerns the welfare of others. We need to remind ourselves of these. We need to remind ourselves to put this into practice because we want to avoid a negative outcome which will harm our development. When our ethical self-discipline becomes unlabored, that does not mean that we ignore the bodhisattva vows; it does not mean that we do not need them anymore. It just means that we do not need to remind ourselves constantly, because we automatically remember the vow – it is always present. And it is not just “I remember it” as in “I remember the words” or “I can recite it by heart;” rather, self-discipline is actually integrated into my behavior, and it is not forced. In the beginning, many of these practices will feel very artificial. Only through repeated familiarity do they become natural and integrated. If we use the terminology very loosely, it is the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual understanding. (That is not a technically correct use of the words conceptual and non-conceptual, but in the West we tend to use those words loosely like that.) In other words, at first we have a conceptual understanding of self-discipline, but eventually we achieve non-conceptual understanding of it, and self-discipline becomes integrated into our behavior in a natural and spontaneous way.

Original Audio from the Seminar