09/08/2012 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

Moral Discipline


In my last blog, I explained the use of mindfulness as a mind-training technique. A bodhisattva needs to be vigilant constantly in walking the path to Budddhahood -- mindful of her or his thoughts and feelings and alert to those that are non-virtuous. Alertness is a mind-training skill that is employed in concert with mindfulness. Alertness is awareness of the character of a mental content as either virtuous or non-virtuous. In order to be alert, you must know what mental contents are non-virtuous and use this knowledge to assess the contents of your mind. As you progress on the path, you will attain greater and greater knowledge of non-virtuous states of mind, but a good starting point is knowledge of the three root delusions and the 10 types of non-virtuous action. The three root delusions are grasping attachment, anger and ignorance. I state the 10 types of non-virtuous acts below, when I explain one of the forms of moral discipline. In this blog, I will explain in detail neither the three root delusions nor the 10 types of non-virtuous action, but I will explain them in future blogs. In this blog, I will give a general explanation of the perfection of moral discipline.

Moral Discipline is the perfection which aims

To renounce every Bodhisattva flaw.

It's a mental decision -- this to do, or a mind which

Blocks a verbal or bodily faux pas.

As the above passage from Ocean of Compassion says the bodhisattva's perfection of moral discipline is defined as the mental decision to renounce all non-virtuous actions or employing a mental strategy that blocks a vicious act. Making the mental decision to renounce non-virtuous actions is an intention to refrain from doing something in the future, and, like all intentions to do something in the future, there are times when one has the urge to ignore it. When a desire to act non-virtuously arises, a bodhisattva must exercise moral discipline by bringing to mind a thought or feeling that prevents him or her from acting on the non-virtuous desire. There are many types of mental act that can block a negative urge. For example, one might remember the negative consequences of acting on this particular urge, or bring to mind an emotion that directly counters the emotion creating this urge or repeat a mantra that replaces thinking about the urge with thinking about the mantra. "Mantra" is a Sanskrit word that means "mind protection." A mantra can protect your mind from being overcome by a negative urge because the mesmerizing effect of the repetition of inspirational words reduces or eliminates the urge. There are many traditional Buddhist mantras, and each of the following verses from Ocean of Compassion could be used as a mantra:

"Our mind first puts into motion a vice
By contemplating a foolish aim.
Carefully scrutinize each step you consider:
Is it found on the path without blame?"

"Moral Discipline shields us from
Troubling agitation.
It stops the dangerous invasion
Of the foe contrition."

"Moral Discipline is indispensable;
It's prerequisite for a mind at rest.
This perfection is the foundation for
The Concentration all Buddhas have blest."

We can cultivate the intention to abandon all non-virtuous actions by meditating on the benefits of having attained this perfection or the negative consequences of acting non-virtuously. We cultivate the minds that block non-virtuous actions by learning what counter-measures are most effective for us and putting to use these counter-measures in our activities outside of meditation. For the following three reasons, it is absolutely essential for a bodhisattva to cultivate moral discipline. First of all, as one of the six perfections, it must be brought to full fruition in order to become a Buddha. It is brought to full fruition only when a bodhisattva flawlessly acts as the virtue requires every time circumstances calling for the virtue to be expressed in action occur. Secondly, acting viciously results in negative karmic consequences that ripen in the form of suffering. Finally, neither the perfection of concentration nor the perfection of wisdom can be attained unless moral discipline is mastered first, and we become Buddhas when we employ concentration to attain the perfection of wisdom. Acting viciously causes mental agitation that blocks the ability to concentrate on a virtuous mental object perfectly, and only a perfectly concentrated mind can observe the mental object of the perfection of wisdom, which results in Buddhahood.

There are three forms of moral discipline: the moral discipline of restraint, the moral discipline of gathering virtuous dharmas, and the moral discipline of benefiting others:

  • The moral discipline of restraint vows to abandon vice, keeps in mind the negative consequences of vicious acts, and maintains fidelity to the vow. Specifically, this form of moral discipline abandons the 10 non-virtuous acts of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, speaking hurtfully, speaking divisively, idle chatter, malice, covetousness and believing erroneous spiritual tenets.
  • The moral discipline of gathering virtuous dharmas gathers merit by intentionally choosing to act in accordance with one of the six perfections -- joyful effort, generosity, patience, moral discipline, concentration and wisdom -- and by engaging in what are known as "the precious, noteworthy Dharma actions." When "dharma" with a lower-case "d" is used, it refers to an effect of acting rather than the spiritual teachings, which are referred to as "Dharma" with a capital "D." When gathering virtuous dharmas, one is accumulating merit and blocking the possibility of acting viciously. Accumulating merit helps to purify the mind of negativity and enables one to make progress on the path. The 10 noteworthy Dharma actions are actions of writing Dharma, reading Dharma, memorizing Dharma, reciting Dharma, making offerings to Dharma, giving Dharma books to others, explaining the meaning of Dharma, listening to Dharma teachings, thinking about the meaning of Dharma, and meditating on the meaning of Dharma teachings.
  • The moral discipline of benefiting others also blocks non-virtue by keeping one busy in the activity of helping others. There are 11 main ways you can benefit others: alleviating suffering and assisting others in their work, teaching Dharma skills and worldly skills that support attaining a standard of living conducive to spiritual practice, returning kindnesses, protecting others from danger and fear, consoling those stricken with grief, giving material assistance to the poor, helping others overcome problems they have because of their delusions of anger and grasping attachment, tactful assistance to others by showing sensitivity to their customs and beliefs, supporting those walking correct spiritual paths, tactfully helping others to abandon incorrect spiritual paths and using any extraordinary abilities you have in ways that benefit others.

The ultimate purpose of moral discipline is not to avoid vicious actions and their negative consequences but to help us to eliminate the anger, grasping attachment and ignorance that prevent us from becoming Buddhas. To the extent that moral discipline helps you overcome your negative patterns of acting and thinking, troubling and agitating thoughts will disappear and no longer disturb you in either your daily life or while meditating. When you are always able to block acting on non-virtuous desires, effectively gather virtuous dharmas and extensively benefit others, you will have mastered the perfection of moral discipline and made significant progress on the path to Buddhahood.

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