The First Level of Ethical Self-Discipline


The topic of karma is central to the Buddhist teachings and relates very closely to ethical self-discipline. We use ethical self-discipline to overcome and rid ourselves of karma. This fits nicely within the context of what are known as the “four noble truths,” Buddha’s most basic teaching:

  • We all have a great deal of suffering and problems in life.
  • Our suffering comes from causes.
  • There is a situation in which all suffering and its causes can be gone forever.
  • This situation can be attained through a pathway of correct understanding of reality, ethics, and so on.

This scheme is a structure that you find in general in Indian philosophy and religion. However, Buddha said the others before him had not identified these deeply enough, so he called what he had realized true sufferings, their true causes, their true stopping and the true path that leads to that stopping. Although others might not agree, these points are seen as true by aryas, the highly realized beings who have non-conceptually seen reality.

It’s interesting that Buddha used the term “arya.” That’s the name of the people who invaded and conquered India about 500 years before the Buddha and brought the Vedas. However, these aryas that Buddha spoke of aren’t those same conquerors. These are the ones who have not only seen what true suffering and its causes are, but have overcome them. They are the victors. This is a term that’s used throughout Buddhist terminology.

Understanding the Meaning of “Karma”

Karma is one of the true causes of true suffering, but what exactly is karma? The Sanskrit word derives from the root kr, which means “to do.” When you add the -ma ending to it, you get “that which acts” or “that which drives actions.” Similarly, the word “Dharma” comes from dhr, which means “to protect.” With the -ma ending, it becomes “that which protects us,” as in, “that which protects us from suffering.” Thus, karma is that which drives us into acting and brings about suffering, and Dharma is that which will protect us from suffering.

Karma, then, does not refer to our actions themselves. But, because karma was translated into Tibetan with the word that means “actions” (las) in the colloquial language, most Tibetan teachers, if speaking in English, will refer to karma as “actions.” This is very confusing, because if the true cause of suffering were our actions, then all we would need to do would be to stop doing anything and then we would be free! That doesn’t make sense at all.

What karma refers to is actually compulsion, the compulsion that drives us to act, speak, and think in ways that are mixed with confusion: confusion about how we exist, how others exist, and about reality. Because we’re confused about who we are and what’s going on in the world, we act in very compulsive ways. These ways can be compulsively negative, such as always yelling at and being cruel to others, or compulsively positive, like being a perfectionist.

Consider the latter case. You may be neurotic or compulsive about being perfect, and think things like, “I have to be good” or “Everything has to be clean and in order.” Such compulsive thinking produces a lot of suffering, although being good and keeping things clean and orderly are positive. So, with the discussion of karma, we’re not talking about ceasing to act in a positive manner. We’re talking about getting rid of the neurotic compulsiveness behind our actions, because that is the cause of suffering. Behind our perfectionism is confusion about how we exist. We think of ourselves as a solid “me, me, me” and believe this “me” has to be perfect and good. Why? So that mommy or daddy will pat “me” on the head and call “me” a good girl or good boy? As one of my teachers said, “Then what are we going to do? Wag our tail like a dog?”

Karma in the Context of the Lam-rim Graded Path Training

When we’re working on ridding ourselves of karma, the compulsiveness that is one of the true causes of suffering, we work in stages according to the presentation of the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path to enlightenment. The “graded path,” however, is not actually something that you walk on. Rather, it refers to states of mind, levels of understanding, and internal development that, like a path, lead us to progressive goals step by step. With each step, we’re broadening the scope of our motivation, our goal, and our aim, and each step entails a deeper overcoming of karma through ethical self-discipline.

Very briefly, there are three levels of motivation. The classic presentation of lam-rim assumes the existence of and belief in rebirth, and so each level of motivation revolves around this point. Even if we don’t accept rebirth and think only in terms of improving this life, we can still work on overcoming karma according to this graded scheme. But, let’s look at how karma is involved in what I call the “Real Thing Dharma” version.

  • With an initial scope motivation, we work to overcome worse rebirths so that we continue to have better future lives. Specifically, we want to attain not just better rebirths, but rebirths with a precious human life so that we can continue to have the best circumstances for working to develop ourselves further to higher goals. Because our compulsive destructive behavior leads to worse rebirths, we aim to rid ourselves of such compulsiveness of karma at this initial stage.
  • With an intermediate scope, we want to overcome rebirth altogether. You may have heard of the term samsara, which refers to uncontrollably recurring rebirth, filled with more suffering and problems no matter what rebirth we take. The compulsiveness of karma, both destructive and constructive, is one of the main forces driving our samsaric rebirths. Therefore at this intermediate stage, we are aiming for liberation from that.
  • With an advanced scope, we want to reach a state in which we are best able to help everybody else become liberated from samsara. This means we work to become a Buddha, an omniscient being, so that we understand everyone’s karma and thus know how best to help them. Therefore, karma is involved on all three levels of lam-rim.

The Initial Scope Motivation: Working to Overcome Worse Rebirths

Buddha spoke about true suffering or true problems in life. On the initial level we work to overcome the most basic problems and difficulties that we face, which are physical and mental sufferings – namely unhappiness, pain, horrible things happening to us, and so on.

Worse rebirths are going to be filled with really terrible suffering. It’s not a very pleasant prospect to think of being born as a fish swimming around in the ocean, and then suddenly a larger fish comes and bites us in half, or to be born as a small bug and then get eaten by a larger insect or bird. It’s not something that we would like to experience. Think of the paranoia and fear of animals that always have to look around to make sure that no bigger animal comes and takes their food away. Think of the chickens in what His Holiness the Dalai Lama calls “chicken prisons.” They’re penned up so they can’t move and are raised to eventually be eaten in a McDonald’s, and have half of their bodies thrown in the garbage!

Buddhism describes situations that are much worse than those, but we don’t need to go into that at the moment. The point is that we want to avoid all that, we really do, and what we want to attain is happiness. Everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s a basic axiom in Buddhism. What we’re talking about here is just our ordinary happiness, which we will go into further when we get to the second scope or level.

The Buddhist Concept of Ethics

What is the true cause of unhappiness and this gross suffering of worse rebirths? Negative karma is the primary cause. It’s the compulsion to act in destructive ways, brought on and accompanied by disturbing emotions. This is very important to understand. When we talk about destructive or negative behavior, we’re not talking about an ethical system that is based on laws of divine origin or civil laws made by a government. In those systems of ethics, to be an ethical person means that we have to obey the laws, either as a good citizen, a good religious believer, or both. Moreover, in conjunction with law comes judgments of guilt or innocence. This is completely not the Buddhist concept of ethics.

Instead, Buddhism teaches an ethical system that is based on correct understanding and discrimination between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. When we act in a destructive way, it’s not because we’re disobedient, bad people; rather, we’re just confused about reality. For instance, if you put your hand on a hot stove, it’s not because you were disobeying a law that decreed, “Don’t put your hand on a hot stove.” You put your hand on it because you didn’t know that it was hot. You were confused; you didn’t know that if you put your hand on it, you would get burned. You were unaware of the causal relation.

Another example is, suppose I said something innocent to you and it hurt your feelings. It wasn’t that I was bad because I said it. I honestly didn’t know that it would hurt your feelings. I didn’t know what effect my words would have; I was confused.

Disturbing Emotions and Destructive Behavior

When we act in a destructive manner, this is brought on and accompanied by some disturbing emotion.

What is a disturbing emotion? It’s an emotion that, when it arises, makes us lose our peace of mind and self-control.

That’s a very useful definition. We can usually sense when we’re feeling nervous, don’t have peace of mind, and are acting compulsively. That tells us there is a disturbing emotion behind what we sense.

What are the major disturbing emotions? First, there is a cluster of longing desire, attachment, and greed. With all three we exaggerate the positive qualities of something, and totally ignore or deny any of its negative aspects. As disturbing states of mind, they prevent us from enjoying anything:

  • Longing desire – yearning to get what we don’t have
  • Attachment – not wanting to let it go of what we do have
  • Greed – not being satisfied with what we have and just wanting more

Then there’s anger, which has many shades: resentment, antagonism, ill will, hatred, grudging, spite, vengefulness and so on. All of these exaggerate the negative qualities of someone or something and are blind toward its good aspects. Based on that, we develop repulsion to get rid of or even destroy what we don’t like.

Another major disturbing emotion is naivety, for instance about the effect of our behavior on ourselves and on others. An example is being a workaholic and pushing ourselves too hard. We’re naive that it’s going to be harmful to both our health and our family, so it’s self-destructive. Or we’re always late and don’t keep our appointments with others. It’s naive to think that it’s not going to hurt the other person’s feelings and make them feel bad, so again it’s destructive.

These are the most common disturbing emotions that cause us to lose peace of mind and self-control. They accompany the compulsion to act in destructive ways. A few additional disturbing attitudes also cause us to act in compulsively negative manners:

  • Lack of respect for good qualities and those who possess them
  • No self-control to restrain ourselves from acting negatively
  • No moral self-dignity or self-respect – self-respect is very important. For instance, we respect ourselves so much, we’re not going to go crawling after somebody and beg them, “Don’t ever leave me!” We have a sense of self-dignity. When we act destructively, we lack this sense.
  • No concern for how our actions reflect on others – for instance, if, as a German, you go on holiday and act in a rowdy manner, always getting drunk, being loud and trashing your hotel room, it would give a bad name to German tourists. With this destructive attitude, you don’t care about how this would reflect on your fellow countrymen.

These are the cluster of emotions and attitudes that accompany compulsive destructive behavior and lead to the suffering of unhappiness and terrible things happening to us. This is the case not only in this life but, on the initial level of lam-rim, we realize that they will cause even more problems and unhappiness in worse future rebirths, and we certainly want to avoid that.

The First Level of Ethical Self-Discipline in Accord with the Initial Lam-rim Motivation

To avoid worse rebirths, as well as worse situations in this life, we need ethical self-discipline to refrain from negative actions. We develop that ethical self-discipline by dispelling our confusion about behavioral cause and effect. We understand that if we let ourselves be controlled by our disturbing emotions, we become compulsive and act in destructive ways that bring unhappiness and problems for ourselves and others.

It’s very important to understand that we’re talking about the first level of ethical behavior, which is simply to exercise self-control. Self-control, however, is not based on wanting to be an obedient good citizen or good follower of a religion or simply a good boy or girl. Rather, we exercise self-control because we understand that if we act compulsively, completely out of control, it’s going to produce a lot of problems and unhappiness. This is a very important thing to emphasize in our understanding of Buddhism. If our ethics are based on obedience, then we know from experience that many people rebel against having to obey laws and rules, especially teenagers. Criminals, as well, think that somehow they can get around the laws, or as we say in English, “Get away with it,” meaning that they’re not going to be caught. Here, ethics are simply based on understanding, so rebellion isn’t really an issue.

Of course, it’s not so easy to understand the relationship between destructive behavior and unhappiness and suffering. You might not believe it, in which case you would say, “This ethics thing is ridiculous!” However, on one level, when you have some life experience, you see that if you’re always acting in negative ways, you’re not a terribly happy person. Other people don’t like you and they’re afraid of you. They’re afraid to meet you because you might get angry with them. So from our experience, we can understand that on a very basic and superficial level, thinking only within the context of this life, acting negatively and destructively brings unhappiness.

That’s an interesting point because we could act in a destructive way and feel very happy about it. For instance, suppose there’s a mosquito buzzing around your face when you’re trying to sleep. You smack it and feel, “Oh, yeah! I got him!” and you’re really happy about that. But if you examine more deeply, you see that you’re still paranoid and uncomfortable. Because your habitual way of dealing with something that annoys you is to kill it, you’re on the lookout for another mosquito to come. You’re not considering finding a peaceful solution. If you’re in a place with a lot of mosquitoes, a peaceful solution would be a mosquito net, or putting screening on the windows.

This definition of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that go with destructive behavior is very helpful in this context. It’s exactly the meaning of the word “disturbing” – we lose peace of mind and we lose self-control. That’s not a happy state of mind, is it? “I’m paranoid and afraid that another mosquito is going to come and upset my sleep!” You don’t have peace of mind, and you don’t have the self-control to be able to relax and go to sleep, because you’re afraid. The way that you’re acting is neurotically compulsive, as if you’re about to jump up from bed and put on one of those pith helmets that the British used to wear when they went on safari in Africa. Now you are on safari, hunting in the room to see if there’s another mosquito!

That’s the first level of ethical self-discipline, working to overcome worse rebirths by exercising ethical self-control so that when we feel like acting in a negative way, we don’t do it.

Closing Meditation

Let’s spend a few moments digesting what we’ve learned by thinking about it from our own experience in the form of a so-called “analytical meditation.” I prefer to call it “discerning meditation.” “Discern” means to try to see in our lives a certain point in the teachings. Here, we examine our lives and try to recognize that when I acted in such and such a destructive way, it was very compulsive. There was a lot of attachment or a lot of anger behind it. And what was the result? I was really quite miserable. We confirm this point by discerning it in our own experience, and so become increasingly convinced that this is really true. It’s only on the basis of that belief or conviction that “this is a fact of life” that we will actually start to change our behavior.