37 practices: verse 26

26. To guard ethical conduct

If, through a lack of ethical conduct, / I can’t accomplish my own benefit,

Then any aspiration to achieve / the benefit of others is a joke.

To keep and guard my ethical conduct / completely free from worldly in-flu-ence:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 26 audio above.

The paramita or transcending action of ethical conduct is variously referred to as discipline, morality, or ethics, or any combination of these terms. The widely respected translator Lotsawa Tony Duff, in his fabulous online Tibetan-English dictionary The Illuminator, provides a very helpful explanation of what the Tibetan word tsul.trim really means and why “unfortunately, there is no single word that captures this particular flavor in English.” He feels “discipline” is the most accurate option, though still imperfect. I first used “moral discipline” because that’s what Ken Holmes calls it in his translation of Ornament of Precious Liberation, and because it was easy to fit into the verse meter. I later updated it to “ethical conduct” because it’s the term used in Mingyur Rinpoche’s online course on the six paramitas, and I felt it was a bit clearer in meaning. It fits the explanation of this paramita well, and it still fits the meter, though the stresses are a tad less perfect.

So … now that we’ve decided what to call it, at least in this class, what exactly do we mean by ethical conduct, moral discipline, or just discipline?

According to Tony Duff, the Tibetan word tsul.trim is a translation of the Sanskrit word shila, which literally means coolness — a lack of emotional reactivity that comes from following a code of conduct that corresponds to the reality of the way things actually are (the way things are is explained in the paramita of transcending wisdom, which we will get to soon; it is the opposite of the confused, emotionally reactive way of seeing things that leads to all the sufferings of samsara). The Tibetan term literally means a code of conduct (trim) that is in line with how things really are (tsul).

Tony goes on to explain what ethical conduct or discipline means in each of the three vehicles, or basic paths, of Buddhism. According to Tony, discipline in the path of individual liberation (aka, Hinayana, Theravada, or Shravakayana) means to avoid harming oneself (digging oneself further into samsaric suffering) by following the rules and vows of individual liberation. Discipline in the path of universal liberation (Mahayana) means avoiding harm to others. In the indestructible path or path of methods (Vajrayana), discipline means always remaining in accord with reality, the way things really exist, through the practice of keeping samaya commitments.

The paramita of ethical conduct is summarized in three points that encompass all three paths (click on the links for further explanations):

  • to refrain from harm to oneself and others, primarily through avoiding the 10 negative or unwholesome actions
  • to cultivate awakening by engaging as much as possible in dharmic activities and the 10 positive actions (the opposite of the 10 negative actions)
  • to actively help other beings as much as possible in whatever ways they need (note that this description of “engaged Buddhism” dates from Lord Gampopa in the twelfth century, and in Ornament of Precious Liberation he lists 11 specific ways ethical conduct requires us to provide hands-on help to other beings–in short, “engaged Buddhism” is not a new idea!)

From the commentaries: For the paramita of ethical conduct, we relied mainly on Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Ornament of Precious Liberation (see resource page). Dilgo Khyentse points out that ethical conduct (discipline, morality) is the foundation of all dharma practice. “In the same way that all the oceans or mountains are supported by the underlying mass of the earth, all the practices of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana are supported by the backbone of discipline.”

Terminology digression (feel free to skip): This led to a question about the term Hinayana, which is now widely considered derogatory, but was in current use when Dilgo Khyentse gave these teachings in 1984. After class, Patrick looked up the definition of Hinayana, and found it defined as “a pejorative name given by the followers of Mahayana Buddhism to the more conservative schools of early Buddhism.” There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what term to apply to these early schools, but I’ve most often seen them called Theravada or Shravakayana, neither of which is exact.

My own personal feeling is that Hinayana isn’t necessarily a pejorative term, but I mostly avoid it since it is often taken as such. It translates as “smaller vehicle” as opposed to the “greater” or “universal” vehicle of the Mahayana. The Mahayana includes the Hinayana teachings and practices, and in fact another term sometimes used for it is “foundational vehicle,” since it is the foundation of all forms of Buddhism. I’m now experimenting with just using English to identify the vehicles: the path of individual liberation, the path of universal liberation, and — what to call the Vajrayana in English? A literal translation would be the indestructible path or the diamond path. We could call it the path of methods to be more descriptive. Or maybe the path of already there, since the view of the Vajrayana is sacred outlook. Suggestions welcome!

Back to the commentaries: Dilgo Khyentse also observes, “Without discipline, you will never even be able to accomplish any of your personal aims, let alone be able to help others,” bringing us back to Togme Zangpo’s verse. Contemplation: if we call it ethical conduct, does this still ring true?

Ornament of Precious Liberation offers more details about each of the three aspects of ethical conduct listed above. For now, I’ll just share the list of ways we are obliged as aspiring bodhisattvas to actively help other sentient beings (engaged Buddhism!), from the third aspect of ethical conduct. Of the 11 ways listed, the first 7 apply to all of us on the path: “1) to support those doing worthwhile activities, 2) to remove the suffering of beings in torment, 3) to teach those without skill how to deal with things intelligently, 4) to recognize others’ kindness and to render benefit in return, 5) to protect beings from dangers, 6) to alleviate the distress of those who are suffering, 7) to provide those deprived of resources with provisions.” Ways 8-11 are specifically for dharma teachers, so I’ll leave you to look those up if you’re interested.

This chapter of Ornament of Precious Liberation also has some practical advice about how to comport oneself as a dharma practitioner, including “Do not be noisy and hasty when, for example, getting up from a seat, and do not slam doors. Take pleasure in being unobtrusive,” and “Even if you see another’s error, do not broadcast it.”

I encourage everyone to read this chapter, and eventually the whole book (or Ringu Tulku’s contemporary commentary, Path to Buddhahood), for a fuller understanding of ethical discipline and the entire path to awakening.

Meanwhile, let’s roll up our sleeves and practice all three types of ethical conduct, since, as Gampopa tells us in each chapter of the six paramitas, we need to perfect each one in order to attain buddhahood!

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 27: to cultivate patience

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)

Complete list of verses to date: “37 practices translation” at top of screen, or click on link