Discipline is not motivated by fear or self-punishment. Discipline comes from the confidence and dignity of realizing we are not static beings with set characters. Our core is wisdom and compassion, and discipline is the way—through skill and carefulness—that we align our actions with our fundamental dignity. We don’t need to beat ourselves bloody with a stick. We just have to ask ourselves, “Am I being careful?”

But simply knowing how to be disciplined will not save you from the fruit of impulsive action. Discipline means ensuring that our mind does not swing like a monkey from impulse to impulse. If the mind does not involuntarily swing, then the commitments of body and speech are easier to keep. We must do our best to abstain from substances and conditions that cause our mind to be erratic. When the mind is erratic, suffering blooms.

For example, substances such as alcohol are traditionally considered unskillful because they make it easier for the mind to swing. Let me be clear: alcohol in and of itself is not bad, but a swinging mind is harmful. Sometimes alcohol is medicine. The same can be said of other substances. People suffering from multiple sclerosis sometimes take marijuana as medicine, and pain pills are used to ease the intense physical suffering of hospital patients. Extremely advanced Vajrayana practitioners might eat the hallucinogenic seed of a certain flower just once to see how malleable the mind is, to see that everything is like an illusion. 

Substances are just substances, but they produce harm when we ingest them with the intention of wading further into delusion. Discipline means abstaining from the conditions that thrust us deeper into delusion.

We are also taught to guard our body, speech, and mind against the influence of unwholesome companions. We do not judge people who are unruly or negative, but we are advised to protect the mind from swinging, which naturally happens when we continuously associate with such companions. On the flip side, the tradition offers us a beautiful metaphor about associating with virtuous people. It is said that if you place a normal piece of wood in a sandalwood forest, in time that normal piece of wood will begin to take on the sweet smell of sandalwood. In the same way, even if we are a normal person, if we associate with noble companions, we will naturally begin to give rise to the qualities of virtue and wisdom.

Nowadays Buddhist discipline is often misinterpreted. People think Buddhism is against this and that, which is really not how we think about discipline at all. Buddhism advises us to keep the commitments that will contribute to our awakening. The Buddhist teachings say that eating too much food is harmful, but Buddhism never says anything negative about food itself. We acknowledge that a stuffed belly makes the mind dull. This is also the case with sleeping excessively or not resting enough. Discipline is about creating the conditions for a healthy, stable mind. If we are intent on awakening to supreme bliss, we must be aware of and abstain from the conditions and activities that disrupt the mind. It is very logical.

In the beginning, meditation practice is heavily influenced by the people who surround us, the substances we take, even the clothes we wear. If we want to generate genuine samadhi, then we must persevere in intelligently working with these factors. As a rule, remember this: when your mind swings, you are in for more suffering. When your mind does not swing, you automatically know it does not swing. This is stability.

The scriptures that outline the conduct of monks say that monks should not handle gold. But if a monk is completely free from all attachment, and someone hands him a suitcase with a million dollars’ worth of gold inside, he can take it. In the Mahayana, we verify our conduct by the quality of our minds, not by scripture alone. Aversion, attachment, and ignorance must be abandoned. If there is consistent mindfulness, then there is discipline. As we begin to stabilize the commitments of our physical conduct, on a deeper level we also begin to stabilize the mindfulness that recollects the emptiness of the five aggregates, which make up the entirety of our experiences. Stability in this recognition ensures that we do not break our vows. 

Maintaining Discipline: A Few Exercises

  • Be mindful of your actions and careful in all moments of daily life. Evaluate yourself: Am I hurting anyone?
  • In your formal meditation sessions, alternate between generating compassion for all beings and recalling that everything is an illusion.
  • Remember that emptiness is the nature of your body, thoughts, feelings, and everything that appears. This empty nature was never created and will never decline or decrease. It is always pure and free. Recalling this and maintaining this is the beginning of true discipline

From In the Footsteps of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on the Essence of Meditation by Phakchok Rinpoche © 2020 by Phakchok Rinpoche. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

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