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A Different Discipline

This is the profound meaning of discipline: maintaining love, maintaining the hope that every living being will awaken, even in the most difficult or challenging conditions. It's a softening of the heart, a letting go of confusion, of anger, bitterness, and despair.
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As I've written before, aspiration bodhicitta -- the motivation to free all beings from ignorance, pain, and suffering -- is the juice that really transforms our meditation practice from a kind of mental aerobics exercise into the profound experience of the kind that changes not only our own lives but the lives of everyone around us. In order to make that aspiration really live in our experience, we engage in a set of behaviors known as paramitas, which can be understood as positive qualities or characteristics that we strive to perfect in all aspects of our conduct.

We've already covered the first paramita, generosity. The second paramita, known in Sanskrit as sila and in Tibetan as tsultrim, may well be understood as a deeper and more intensely loving expression of generosity. Commonly interpreted as "ethics" or "morality," the second paramita is also translated as "moral discipline" or simply "discipline." Most people, I know, shiver a little when they hear that word -- which usually carries some connotation of harsh training or rigid conduct.

In its most basic sense, however, the discipline described in the Buddhist tradition involves avoiding behaviors that are harmful to others or oneself. Traditionally, such behaviors are divided into three categories: physical actions, such as killing, stealing, and abusive sexual behavior; activities of speech, such as lying, slander, harsh words, and frivolous or what is sometimes called "useless" speech; and mental or emotional tendencies, which include greed and malice.

The harmful mental tendencies also include holding what are often referred to as "wrong views" -- which, in the Buddhist tradition, can encompass a number of interpretations. Most simply, though, "holding wrong views" refers to holding something as true which is not true. If we look back on our lives, we can certainly remember more than a few painful or confusing moments arising from holding certain ideas about ourselves or others. So practicing discipline in the sense of refraining from wrong views involves continually working to find space in our mental and emotional patterns, to find the gaps in the images we hold about ourselves and others, and releasing images that we may hold about a manager, a coworker, a friend, or a partner.

For example, it's easy to judge someone who is often tense or angry and to become defensive around him or her, creating all sorts of stories that we might share with others in the form of gossip. Practicing discipline in this case means stepping back and trying to look with a bit more objectivity at the reasons the person may be angry or tense. Perhaps he or she is constantly being criticized by someone higher up and is afraid of getting fired. Maybe that person is dealing with someone who is seriously ill. Perhaps he or she is caught up in a difficult relationship. So when we think about others, when we evaluate their behavior and respond to it, we strive to see past the immediate to offer them the same space, the same kindness, we're learning to offer ourselves.

Discipline also involves cultivating behaviors and attitudes that are helpful to others and to oneself. Such behaviors and attitudes are typically understood as opposites of the harmful activities described above. So instead of killing, we work to preserve life; rather than steal, we give. We tell the truth. We say kind things about people. We strive to speak gently.

Regardless of our approach -- refraining from harmful activities or pursuing beneficial ones -- the essence of discipline means cultivating a wide heart and a broad understanding that allows us to forgive ourselves and others for the mistakes we've made under the influence of mental and emotional habits that have taken, in most cases, a lifetime to build.

To use an example, several years ago an aged monk traveled from Tibet to India to see a great teacher. While they were talking, the monk mentioned that he'd been imprisoned for a number of years after the Cultural Revolution.

"I was so scared," the old monk said.

"Of dying?" the teacher asked him. "Of being beaten? Tortured?"

The old man shook his head.

"No, no," he whispered.

I was scared of losing love for the men who guarded the prison. They had guns and clubs. They threatened us all the time. But so many of them were just obeying orders. They had wives and children and parents to protect. So they beat us and killed
us to protect their families.

I was scared that I would forget that these men were treating us badly because they wanted to protect their families. They were scared for the people they loved.

And I'm scared because I don't feel much sympathy for them anymore. I feel sometimes that I want to hurt them as much as they hurt me and hurt the people I loved.

His fear, as the teacher pointed out, was the measure of his love. If he'd surrendered to these thoughts and feelings, he might have been trapped in a fear-based or anger-based pattern, seeing himself as a victim and the prison guards as monsters. He could have spent the rest of his life spinning all sorts of negative stories, reinforcing whatever pain he might have experienced and developing a bitter attitude toward life.

So that is the profound meaning of discipline: maintaining love, maintaining the hope that every living being will awaken, even in the most difficult or challenging conditions. It's a softening of the heart, a letting go of confusion, of anger, bitterness, and despair.

So here's the challenge for this week: How kind can we be? How soft? How gentle?

How radically can we redefine discipline?

For more by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, click here.

For more on love, click here.