The Perfection of Ethical Self-Discipline: Shilaparamita

Discipline. The word might conjure up images of school detentions for some, or restrictive diets for others. In Buddhism, ethical self-discipline allows us to become aware of the effects of our behavior on ourselves and others. Rather than restricting us, following ethical self-discipline gives us the freedom to be of best benefit to ourselves and the people around us.


The second of the six far-reaching attitudes (perfections) is ethical self-discipline. This isn’t the kind of discipline needed to learn a musical instrument or excel at sport, but is to do with our ethical behavior. It’s also not to do with policing other people, training your dog, or controlling people in the army. We are only talking about our own discipline, of which we have three types.

Refraining from Destructive Actions

The first kind of ethical self-discipline is to refrain from doing destructive actions, referring to how we act, speak, and think. This means that in general we refrain from the ten types of destructive actions such as killing, stealing, lying and so forth, and if we’ve taken vows to avoid behavior that would hinder our spiritual development, then we keep these vows.

When we speak about avoiding certain destructive behaviors, there are two types. One is behavior that is naturally destructive, like killing and stealing, which are easy to understand. Then there are behaviors that might not be destructive unto themselves, but Buddha said were better to avoid for certain people, or at certain times. For example, monks and nuns are meant to avoid eating at night, but this doesn’t apply to everybody. This rule comes from the fact that if we want to have a clear mind at night and in the morning with which to meditate, then it’s simply better not to eat at night. Another example is the advice not to keep long hair as a monk or nun, because doing so can increase attachment to one’s own beauty and it’s also a waste of time to style it every day! Obviously, this advice isn’t for everyone, but just monks and nuns.

Engaging in Constructive Actions

The second type of ethical self-discipline is to engage in positive, constructive actions, which build up the positive force we need to achieve enlightenment. This means to have the discipline to go to teachings and study, contemplate and meditate upon the Dharma, and to complete our ngondro (preliminaries for advanced tantra practice) like prostrations, offerings, and so forth.

Again, ethical self-discipline is the state of mind rather than the actual behavior. It’s the discipline that comes from our minds and which shapes the way we behave – making sure we engage in positive things and refrain from destructive and inappropriate behavior. Without this discipline, we’re completely out of control and easily come under the influence of disturbing emotions.

Ethical self-discipline is based on discrimination and discriminating awareness. To refrain from acting destructively, we discriminate and are decisive about the disadvantages of acting destructively. With engaging in positive behavior, we discriminate the benefits of meditating, doing preliminary practices, and so on. With discrimination, we automatically know how to act and are confident about it.

Working to Benefit Others

The third type of ethical self-discipline is to work to actually benefit and help others. Here, we have the discrimination of the benefit of helping others and refraining from not helping them because we don’t feel like it or we don’t particularly like someone.

There are many aspects involved with helping others, but generally speaking, we have the discipline to engage in what is called “the four ways to gather others under our positive influence.” In other words, we act in ways that make others more receptive to us, so that we can teach them further, deeper things.

These four ways are:

  1. Being generous
  2. Speaking in a pleasing manner
  3. Moving others to reach their aims
  4. Being consistent with these aims.

The teachings on the six far-reaching attitudes specify a list of the 11 types of people that we need to work especially hard to try and help and benefit. We shouldn’t think of it just as a list, but as a very specific instruction to actually help such people when we come across them, rather than ignoring them.

  1. Those who are suffering
  2. Those who are muddled about how to help themselves
  3. Those who have helped us
  4. Those filled with fear
  5. Those overcome with mental grief
  6. Those who are poor and needy
  7. Those who are attached to us
  8. Those whom we’re able to help in accordance with their wishes
  9. Those who lead upright lives
  10. Those who lead destructive lives
  11. Those requiring us to use any extraordinary abilities we might have.

Shantideva on Ethical Self-Discipline

Shantideva discusses ethical self-discipline in two chapters in his text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. The first chapter, called “The Caring Attitude,” is the basis for ethical self-discipline, where we care about the effect of our behavior, and care about not coming under the influence of disturbing emotions. We take it seriously that other people have feelings too, and that if we act destructively then we’ll hurt them. We care about the consequences of our behavior on ourselves in the future. All of this creates the basis for ethical self-discipline. If we really don’t care about hurting others or our own future, then we won’t feel any need to act in an ethical way.

In many languages, this caring attitude is a very difficult term to translate. It includes being caring and therefore careful about how we act, but it also refers to what follows from that, taking seriously the effect of our behavior on ourselves and others.

The second chapter that Shantideva devotes to the topic deals with mindfulness and alertness. Mindfulness is the state of mind that keeps a mental hold on discipline, not succumbing to disturbing emotions. It’s the mental glue that sticks to the discipline, like when we pass a bakery when we’re on a diet and see our favorite cake, but we somehow manage to hold off. We don’t let go of our diet: “I’m not going to buy that cake, under the influence of my greed and attachment.” This is because of mindfulness, and it’s very important for ethical discipline. With alertness, we watch out when we start to waver from our diet and say, “Well, maybe just a little piece of cake!” Our alertness rings an internal alarm so that we refrain and return to our self-control. We need to watch out for these things. Mindfulness and alertness are the supports for ethical discipline. They’re the tools with which we’re able to keep our discipline, and that we can later use to develop concentration.

Finally, Shantideva points out three factors that help us to develop and maintain mindfulness:

  • Stay in the company of our spiritual teachers. If we can’t, we can think that we’re in their presence. If we were in their presence, we simply would not act stupidly or destructively, out of our respect for them. It’s good to think, “Would I act like this or say these things in the presence of my teacher?” If we wouldn’t, then Shantideva advises us to “remain like a block of wood.” Just don’t do it. It helps to keep us mindful – obviously if we were having dinner with our teacher, we wouldn’t stuff our face with cake or yell at somebody.
  • Follow the advice and instruction of our teacher. Trying to remember what they’ve said helps to keep us mindful.
  • Dread the consequences of not being mindful. It’s not that we’re scared, but that we don’t want to experience the effects of not being mindful, based on a sense of self-dignity and self-worth. We think enough of ourselves, in a positive way, that we don’t want to just go downhill by acting under the influence of anger, greed, and so on.

Hand in hand with the above, we need to develop a sense of awe toward our spiritual teachers. “Awe” is a difficult word. It doesn’t mean we’re at all afraid of our spiritual teachers – as if they’re going to scold us. Awe implies that we respect our spiritual teachers and Buddhism so much that it would make us feel terrible if our negative behavior were to reflect badly on them. We fear how awful it would be if, because of us, people were to think, “Oh, students of this teacher act like this?” or “You’re supposed to be a Buddhist?! But you keep on getting drunk and fighting and getting angry.” Out of a sense of awe and respect, we keep our mindfulness and act in accord with ethical discipline.


We’ve all experienced the fact that discipline is an incredibly important element in making progress in our lives. Whether it’s learning the alphabet, studying for exams or trying to lose weight – without discipline, it’s difficult to get anywhere.

It’s exactly the same with Buddhist practice, where we need discipline in terms of our behavior in order to make progress on the path. If we care about ourselves and others, then ethical self-discipline isn’t some far-out idea, but is natural, common-sense stuff. In carefully cultivating constructive behavior and trying our hardest not to harm others, we create the basis and the causes for a happier now, and a happier tomorrow.