Mar 4, 2021
Martin Goodson

The Six Paramitas: 2. Discipline

Exercises in Mindfulness

We examine what's really meant by discipline in Zen practice.

A wise old man: "Philosopher in Meditation" by Rembrandt


<a href=""> Rembrandt </a>, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After ‘giving’ we have ‘discipline’, the second of the Six Paramitas.

In Sanskrit the word for discipline is sila and can also be translated as moral behaviour or good conduct.  How do these things go together?

Six states of being are pictured on the Wheel of Life, but only one is called the human state. In the East human consciousness is considered to be a great attainment. Our traditional Western view is that to be human is to be inherently flawed, but in the East to be human is to achieve the ideal of humanity. If we act through greed, anger or pride or let ourselves fall into despair it is thought that heart and mind have been taken over by such things as ‘hungry ghosts’ or ‘fighting demons’.  These non-human states of being are illustrated in the other five pictures on the Wheel of LIfe.

The Buddha declared that liberation is only possible from the human state.  What matters is not just having a human body. We must also be human in heart and mind, in our thoughts and responses to circumstance.

Broadly speaking we all know how we should behave. We can agree that there are proper ways of conducting ourselves. Most of us would like to be good, tolerant and kind. The question is “Why can’t we be?”

If we have been practicing Buddhism in our daily lives we will have some idea of the problem.

There, leaping immediately onto the stage, is our old acquaintance: The Three Fires. The Zen tradition also personifies these fires by picturing an ox or a bull. The ten bull herding pictures feature this magnificent creature together with the little herdsman who represents the aspiration to walk the Buddha’s Way.

After careful consideration we decide to change our behaviour only to discover immediate resistance. How many times do we forget or feel lethargic or think “not right now”?  What has happened to the smooth transition from thought to action that we expected?  Our emotional household has its own ideas regardless of what we might believe is for the best.

Discipline is the practice of cultivating an outer form of behaviour.  It involves behaving in a certain way despite how I might be feeling or thinking at any given moment. You can be forgiven for believing that this might be hypocritical, but you must remember that we have carefully considered a change of behaviour and reflected on the long-term benefits of what we’re trying to do.

There is the Jewish tale of an old man with a terrible temper.  Every so often he would blast-off at someone because of some minor infraction that he felt was intolerable. After he cooled down he would realise that his temper had blown the matter out of proportion. He would apologize and be full of remorse.  Nevertheless it wouldn’t be long before he was blasting off at someone else. The whole matter came to a head one day when he struck his son-in-law for borrowing his pen without asking. The old man realized that this was totally beyond the pale and begged his son-in-law to forgive him.  He even asked him for help in holding his temper in check. The younger man suggested that they consult a famous rabbi who lived in a nearby city.

The son-in-law waited outside while the old man consulted the rabbi. After fifteen minutes the old man stormed out fuming. When the son-in-law asked what the rabbi had advised, the old man replied bitterly, “I was told to always speak gently. Who does he think I am: a hypocrite?” But after a few more angry incidents the old man realised that he had run out options and might as well try the rabbi’s suggestion.

It wasn’t easy for the old man to speak gently, especially at the moment when he least felt like it.  He certainly wasn’t perfect at first, but gradually he began to get the hang of it.  Other people noticed and were impressed. In a situation where the old man would normally explode he would manage to respond calmly even if it was through gritted teeth. The people in his village wondered where this new strength had come from and began to consult him when they had problems of their own.

The story concludes on a winter’s day.  There is snow piled high outside and a postman comes into the old man’s kitchen. As he walks over the newly cleaned kitchen floor snow falls from his boots leaving muddy tracks on the floor. The old man looks down at the mess and then up at the postman and says: “It must be very cold out today.”

 We can see all the elements of the cultivation of discipline in this story. There is the realisation that the fires are causing havoc and a change of heart is needed. There is the fact then when no other option exists we suddenly find the strength to apply ourselves.  As the new form of behaviour is practiced, the energy that was once diverted into the fire now flows into the new form, bringing to life the humanity that is the natural potential of every human heart.

As an exercise find a small discipline and cultivate it. Be like the novice monk at the great monastery who was advised to always walk noiselessly. It may seem like a minor injunction but to always walk this way no matter how ‘I’ may feel -  whether in a hurry or upset, whether feeling greedy or excited or anxious – isn’t easy.  The awareness that isn’t carried away by all the ‘non-human’ states is one that is liberated from the impulse in the moment. Isn’t this what the Buddha was pointing to?

For this exercise use your own ingenuity. Find a small discipline that can be applied in daily life and practiced under all circumstances. It may be through speech or through action. This is a Buddhist practice so it should conform to some wholesome conduct and encourage a good relationship with the things around you but the actual practice is entirely up to you.

Good practice!

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