The Other Two Levels of Ethical Self-Discipline


On the initial level of spiritual development, we exercise ethical self-discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. Our aim is to avoid things getting worse not just in this lifetime, but in future lives as well. We strive for better rebirths and the ordinary types of happiness that we can experience in them. We’re moved to achieve that goal by our dread of experiencing more and more suffering and unhappiness. But we understand that there is a way to avoid it, namely to exercise self-control and refrain from acting destructively. When we feel like doing, saying or thinking something destructive, based on some disturbing emotion like greed or anger, we notice that feeling and then just don’t act on it. Although we need to slow down quite a lot to catch that space between feeling like doing something and compulsively doing it, and that is certainly difficult at first, we can train ourselves to be able to notice it.

Think of when you’re sitting and trying to do some work, and you become bored. The feeling arises to check your Facebook wall or the news again on your phone, or text a friend. At this level of our development, we would notice when such a feeling arises and clearly decide, “If I act this out, I won’t get my work done and that will create problems. So it doesn’t matter what I feel like doing, I’m not going to do it.”

The Second Level: Working to Overcome Rebirth Altogether

The intermediate level of lam-rim motivation is working to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. Remember, that’s the meaning of “samsara,” rebirth that uncontrollably recurs, is filled with problems that also uncontrollably recur, and you can’t stop it. These are not only the problems of unhappiness, but also the other two aspects of the true sufferings that Buddha pointed out: the suffering of change and all-pervasive suffering.

Ordinary Happiness

The suffering of change refers to our ordinary happiness; unfortunately, it has a lot of problems associated with it. To start with, it doesn’t last – that’s why it’s called the “suffering of change” – and it never satisfies, because we always want more. If we have too much of it and for too long, we become bored or it turns into suffering. For instance, being outside in the sun: it feels very nice for a while, but you wouldn’t want to stay out in the hot sun forever. After a while, it’s too much and you have to go into the shade. Or think about when a loved one is fondling and stroking your hand. Well, if they were to do that non-stop for three hours, your hand would get very sore! So, like that, there are problems with ordinary happiness.

Our ordinary happiness is the result of acting in constructive, positive ways, but it’s still mixed with confusion, as in the example of being a neurotic perfectionist who compulsively cleans their house and makes sure everything is in order. When they finish cleaning, they’re happy for a little while, but then dissatisfaction sets in and they think, “It’s not clean enough. I might have missed a spot. I have to clean it again.” Any kind of happiness such persons experience doesn’t last very long. They feel their house can always be cleaner.

The All-Pervasive Problem

The third type of suffering is called the “all-pervasive problem.” Referring to the uncontrollably recurring rebirths we take, it’s the fact that in each rebirth, we have the type of body and mind that automatically produces problems and difficulties. Think about it. With this type of body we have now, there’s no way that you can walk without stepping on something and killing it. There’s no way that you can eat anything without an insect or something else having been killed in the production of that food, even if you’re a vegetarian. Our bodies get sick and both our bodies and minds get tired. We have to rest; we have to eat; we have to make a living. It’s not easy, is it?

Then in our next life, if we’re fortunate enough, we’re reborn human again and now we’re a baby. How horrible! You can’t express yourself except by crying; you can’t do anything for yourself and have to learn everything all over again. That’s really boring! And the horrible thing is that we have to do all this over and over again countless times. Imagine having to go to school again! Would you like to go to school another million times, and do endless homework, and take endless exams?

So, this is the all-pervasive problem that we have as the consequence of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Even if we’re reborn in a much better state, even with a precious human rebirth, we still have these all-pervasive problems. This is what we want to attain liberation from and, to do that, we need to overcome all forms of compulsive karma, not just the negative type, but also the positive.

The Happiness That Comes from Liberation

Consider again our ordinary happiness. Technically, it’s called “tainted happiness” because it’s stained or mixed with confusion, in the sense that it arises out of confusion, is accompanied with confusion and, unless we change our attitude toward it, generates even more confusion. What we want, instead, is to attain the type of happiness that is not mixed with confusion. This is the type of happiness that lasts and which satisfies. It’s a completely different type of happiness from our ordinary kind. It’s a happiness that comes from being free of all disturbing emotions. There’s nothing confusing about it.

Consider a small example that’s a little bit like such happiness, but certainly not the same thing: You’re wearing really tight shoes all day long. At the end of the day, you take your shoes off and there’s this feeling of relief. “Ah! I’m free of this restriction and pain in my feet!” That’s a different type of happiness than the happiness of eating something we like, isn’t it? We’re talking about almost a sense of relief at being free of neurotic thoughts, free of worry, free of insecurity, all these sorts of things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you never were emotionally unbalanced, insecure or worried again? What a relief that would be!

This is a hint of what we’re talking about when we talk about liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth – liberation from all the true sufferings, which include such rebirth itself. To do this, we need to overcome the compulsiveness of all forms of karma, not only the destructive types. We need to overcome the compulsion to act even in positive ways. There’s nothing wrong with being clean and trying to do things well. The problem is when it’s a compulsive, neurotic syndrome that disturbs our peace of mind and is out of control; that’s what we have to get rid of.

Distinguishing between Positive Emotions and a Disturbing Attitude

When we act in positive ways, there are positive emotions that go along with that, such as:

  • Detachment – not clinging to anything. It’s the opposite of attachment.
  • Not wanting to cause harm
  • Not being naive – being sensitive to the effect of our behavior on ourselves and others.

Then there are other constructive mental factors that also accompany positive or constructive behavior:

  • Respect for good qualities and for those who possess them
  • Self-control to restrain ourselves from acting negatively
  • A sense of moral self-dignity, so that we have respect for ourselves and for our feelings
  • Care about how our actions reflect on others.

None of these are troublemakers. They accompany our positive, constructive behavior; we don’t want to get rid of them. However, the troublemaker here that also accompanies our compulsive positive behavior is a disturbing attitude. To put it in simple language, this is grasping for a solid “me.” For example, out of confusion about how we exist, we imagine we exist as a solid, concrete entity, “me,” with a permanent true identity, for instance, as someone that has to be good all the time, that has to be perfect. “I have to be good. I have to be helpful. I have to be useful.”

A common example is of parents who have grown-up children. The parents still want to be needed and useful, so they offer their advice and help, even when their children don’t want it. It’s compulsive because they have this sense of a solid “me” and think, “I’m only worthwhile and only exist if my children still need me.” They cling to this as the true identity of this solid “me” as a way to make that “me” secure. It’s as if they feel, if I help my children, then I exist.”

The emotion behind their offer of advice and help is positive. They’re offering them because they love their children. They want to be kind and helpful. There’s nothing wrong with that. The troublemaker is their attitude about themselves, about that “me”: “I’m only a worthwhile person if my children still need me.” This is what causes the neurotic, compulsive aspect of offering to help even when it’s totally unnecessary and inappropriate.

You can sense if you are experiencing this neurotic aspect because, again, “disturbing emotion” and “disturbing attitude” both include the same word, with the same definition – “disturbing.” Both the attitude and the emotion cause us to lose peace of mind and self-control. When you’re a parent whose attitude about themselves is “I only have value as a person if I can do something for my children,” what do you feel that indicates that you lack peace of mind? It’s a feeling of insecurity; you’re insecure, so you feel you always have to push yourself into your children’s affairs, for instance into how they raise their own children. You have no peace of mind and obviously no self-control, despite the positive emotions of love and concern that are there. This is what we need the self-discipline to work on.

We need ethical self-discipline, then, to overcome the compulsiveness of our constructive positive karma, which brings only ordinary happiness – the short-lived happiness that soon changes into an unpleasant scene. When, out of insecurity and wanting to feel worthwhile, we feel like offering our unwanted advice out of love and concern, we realize that although it might make us feel happy for the moment, it will soon change into unhappiness when our daughter voices her resentment that she wasn’t pleased with what we said. Therefore, we exercise self-discipline and do not say anything. But that’s quite difficult to keep our mouths shut!

The Second Level of Ethical Self-Discipline in Accord with the Intermediate Lam-rim Motivation

Although using self-control – the first level of ethical self-discipline – can help in avoiding the problem of the suffering of change as above, there is still the all-pervasive problem of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. A simpler version of it is that this syndrome of offering our unwanted advice repeats over and over again, and we have no control over it. We can’t stop ourselves from interfering with a good motivation – love – but out of insecurity.

To truly overcome the suffering of change and the all-pervasive problem, we need to apply the second level of ethical self-discipline. This is applying self-discipline to rid ourselves of the confused, disturbing attitude of grasping for a solid “me.” It’s not that we want to stop helping and it’s not that we want to stop loving our children, but what we want to stop is this neurotic insecurity and this grasping for a solid “me” that is behind our compulsive repetitive behavior.

Let’s give an example of what we need to work on: for instance, love. The Buddhist definition of love is the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, regardless of what others do. However, it could be mixed with confusion, attachment and insecurity. “Don’t ever leave me!” “Why didn’t you call me?” “You don’t love me anymore.” “I need you.” “Me, me, me.” We still want the other person to be happy, but “Don’t ever leave me” and “You have to call me every day!” Love is not the problem. The problem is the attachment and that big “me” behind all of it. On this intermediate level, we use ethical self-discipline to overcome this self-defeating disturbing attitude of “me, me, me.”

Reflection on the Second Level of Ethical Self-Discipline

Before we go on to the third level, why don’t we again take a few minutes to digest everything? Try to discern what we’ve discussed in your own lives. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Don’t have the mirror of the Dharma face outward to reflect the problems in others (like our parents), but turn it inwards to face yourself.” So try to discern in your own life, in your own experience, how, even when you’re acting constructively, if you’re doing so in a neurotic self-preoccupied way, it still makes problems. Try to recognize the big solid “me” behind the syndrome, with which we feel, “I have to be perfect. I have to be good. I have to be helpful. I have to be needed and useful.” Recognize the problems that this brings.

Try to realize that there’s nothing that we have to prove. We don’t have to prove that we’re a good person by always offering our help, even when unwanted. We don’t have to prove that we’re a clean person or that we’re perfect. Are we thinking, “I’m clean, therefore I am” or “I’m perfect, therefore I am,” like “I think, therefore I am?” It’s only because we feel insecure about “me, me, me” that we feel we have to prove that we are good or worthwhile.

We don’t have to prove anything. Think about that. What are we trying to prove by being so perfect, by being so good, by being so clean, by being so productive? That’s the whole secret: there’s nothing to feel insecure about, and there’s nothing that you have to prove. Just do! Be helpful to others.

Obviously, it’s not so easy to use just ethical self-discipline to say, “Stop feeling insecure.” It needs understanding that the insecurity is based on confusion about how we exist, and that confusion is not based on anything that corresponds to reality. What is it that we’re insecure about? A myth! A myth that if I’m productive or useful, therefore I exist. If I’m not productive, do I stop existing? That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? What do I have to prove by being a fanatical workaholic? If we want to help others, fine. Help others, but don’t be compulsive about it. That’s the problem. This is what we have to stop. That’s the second level, or intermediate scope of ethical self-discipline. We use self-discipline to understand that there is nothing to prove and, with that understanding, we dispel the insecurity that underlies our compulsive karmic behavior.

The Third Level: Overcoming Not Knowing the Karma of Others

With the advanced level of lam-rim motivation, we work on overcoming not knowing the karma of others. We want to help others. If we’ve gained liberation, we’re free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth so that we’re no longer compulsive, we don’t act in destructive ways, and we don’t have the neurotic drive to compulsively act in constructive ways even when it’s inappropriate. Even so, the problem is that, although we have the strong wish to help others, we don’t know what is the best way to do so. We don’t know the karmic reasons and background for why everybody is the way that they are now. Also, we don’t know what the effect will be of anything that we teach them – not only the effect on them, but on everyone else that they’ll interact with. Because we have no idea what will follow from what we advise and teach, we’re very limited in how we can help others.

Working for the Benefit of Others

How will self-discipline help in this predicament? First, we need to work with discipline not to be apathetic and complacent. “Now that I’m free of suffering, I’m just going to sit here, meditate, and be blissful and happy all the time.” We need ethical self-discipline to work further for others. You get a taste of that before this stage when you’ve had some significant success in meditation. You’re sitting, your mind is free of wandering and dullness, and it’s very blissful – not in a disturbing way, but you feel really good. You’re very content to stay like that. If you’re really advanced, you could stay in that state for a very long time, and if you’re liberated, you could stay like that forever.

What gets you out of that complacency and contentment? If you’re in fact liberated from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, you don’t even have this type of ordinary body, so you’re never hungry or anything. What rouses you are thoughts of others. “How can I just sit here being so blissful and feeling wonderful when everyone else is miserable?” We need ethical self-discipline to overcome this concern for our own welfare alone and to think and work for others.

It’s very significant that this comes as the step after we’ve worked for our own benefit. If we try to help others while we’re still miserable and neurotic ourselves, it’s going to make problems. We’re going to get cross and annoyed with others when they don’t take our advice and they’re not making enough progress quickly enough. Or we become attached to them, and we get jealous if they go to another teacher. Perhaps even worse, we become sexually attracted to them, and that creates tremendous problems in trying to help the person. We really need to work on ourselves first. However, it’s not that we have to become completely liberated before we try to help others – that’s going to take a very long time. The point is not to neglect working on ourselves in the process of working to help others.

In working on ourselves, we still need to focus on overcoming our disturbing emotions and attitudes and the compulsiveness of karma. We still need the self-discipline to overcome our self-centeredness; but at this stage we also need discipline to work on overcoming the limitations of our mind that prevent us from being all-knowing. Because we’re not omniscient, we don’t see the full picture; we don’t see how everything is interconnected. Whatever happens is the result of a combination of many, many causes and conditions, and all those causes and conditions each have their own causes and conditions.

At our present stage, our minds are limited; we can’t see everything that’s involved in what’s happening with others. Even worse, we think that only one cause produces an effect, especially when we think that we were the cause. For instance, if someone we interact with becomes depressed, we imagine that it’s our fault simply because of something we said or did. This doesn’t correspond to reality. Whatever happens to people is a result of many, many causes, not simply what we did. What we did might have contributed – we’re not denying that – but it’s not that the whole thing stemmed from just one cause. Or perhaps we’re trying to help somebody and we say, “The cause of your problem is that you didn’t get a good education.” We reduce what happens to being the result of only one cause. Or we say, “Your problems are all because your parents did this or that when you were a child.” We just don’t see the whole picture. It’s so much bigger than that.

Our Thinking Doesn’t Correspond to Reality

We need a much greater understanding than we have now. The problem is that our minds project categories, like boxes, and we compartmentalize everything into these boxes. We isolate things as if they existed in boxes, independently of everything else, and we believe that this corresponds to reality. We don’t see the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything. “This is the one cause. This is bad, this is good.” We categorize.

Well, this is not how things exist. Things don’t exist isolated from everything else. We need the discipline to understand that although it might feel that way, it doesn’t correspond to reality. Here’s a simple example: You’re home all day with the kids. Your partner comes home from work and doesn’t speak to you. They just go in the bedroom, close the door and lie down. In our minds we put our partner into the box called “people who don’t love me.” In fact, we also throw them in the boxes of “terrible persons” and “unkind persons.” Underlying this is our preoccupation with the big “me.” They’re in the “terrible persons” box because “I” – me, me, me – want to speak with them. I want, I want, I want! I want something from them. Because we put them in a box, we don’t see the interconnectedness of everything that they experienced before they came home and how they acted when they came in. They might have had a difficult day at work, and this or that might have happened to them on the way home, and so on, and so on.

How often do things appear to us like that? Somebody comes home and it’s as if they came out of nowhere – nothing was happening to them before they arrived and everything starts from the moment they enter the door. Look at it from the other way round. If the other person was the one staying home with the kids and you come home from work, how does it appear to you? There our partner is, fresh, as if nothing happened to them during the day before you walked inside.

If you think about it, of course it’s not like that! We’re talking about how our minds make things appear. It makes them appear as though our interaction with our partner starts here, at this moment when we walk through the door, and nothing went on before then. Everything appears in the boxes with which we categorize things. This deeply engrained habit of putting people, things and situations in boxes is what we need discipline for in order to overcome. We need to realize that this compartmentalized view of the world doesn’t correspond to reality.

Just to make sure you get the point, let’s look at another common example. We put people in the box of “my partner” and don’t consider the fact that they have relationships and friendships with many other people besides us. Because we put them in this mental box, we think, “They’re only mine. They should be available to me at any time I want, because that’s the only thing that they are: my partner. There’s nothing else going on in their lives.” We don’t think in terms of them having obligations to their parents, having other friends, or having other activities. No, they’re only in this one box. The horrible thing is that it feels as though that is true, and we believe it corresponds with reality. Obviously on the basis of that, we have attachment to them and get angry if they have to go meet somebody else.

The Third Level of Ethical Self-Discipline in Accord with the Advanced Lam-rim Motivation

On the advanced level of lam-rim motivation, we work to attain the omniscient state of a fully enlightened Buddha in order to be of best help to everyone. To be of best help, we need to understand fully each person’s karma. We need to understand all their compulsive behavior in the past, plus all the other affecting variables of causes and conditions that have led to their present state, and we need to know the consequences of anything we teach them. To see the full interconnectedness of cause and effect, especially the causal connections involving karma, we need to stop isolating everything from each other and putting them into mental boxes of categories and imagining that that is truly how they exist.

Thus, we need to develop not only the ethical self-discipline to overcome being concerned with only ourselves and to develop, instead, sincere concern for others. We also need self-discipline to realize that the way our minds make things appear in boxes does not correspond to reality. We need to try to see the larger picture.

Reflection on the Third Level of Ethical Self-Discipline

In accord with the structure of the lam-rim graded path, there are the three levels of ethical self-discipline, then, in connection with karma:

  • The discipline to refrain from compulsive destructive behavior
  • The discipline to overcome the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are behind compulsive behavior, be it negative or positive
  • The discipline to overcome the limitations of the deceptive way in which our mind makes things appear – to stop thinking in small ways that put things in mental boxes – and the discipline not to be apathetic and complacent with our own situations so that we can then understand other people’s karma and help them to overcome it.

Using discerning meditation, let’s try to recognize how our minds make things appear in boxes, isolated from everything else. Think about the people in this room, or if you’re reading this at home, think about the people you see on the bus or subway. You see them and it’s as if they came out of nowhere. They just showed up here, and it doesn’t appear to us what was going on in their homes this morning, or whether or not they have children, or if it was difficult to get here – none of that appears to us. Because of that, we really don’t know what kind of mood they’re in, and we don’t know what the effect is going to be of anything we might say them. They might be very tired, or annoyed, or upset from what went on this morning, or maybe they didn’t get enough sleep. How do we know? When it appears as though people came out of nowhere with no background, how can we possibly know how best to help them?

Somehow we have to not believe in that appearance and eventually get our minds to stop making things appear in that way. Then, even at this stage, even if we don’t know what happened to someone this morning, at least we can appreciate the fact that something happened to the person before we see them. If we’re really interested, we’ll ask, and I don’t mean interested like we’re doing a scientific survey. We’re talking about really caring, with love and compassion: “I wish you to be happy and not to be unhappy.”

Try to recognize, then, how our minds make these deceptive appearances. Try to see how limiting they are when we believe that they correspond to reality, and how that causes problems.