Ethical Discipline: Using Positive Intention to Reduce Guilt

Kwan yin statueTo continue with the theme of the paramitas from last month, wherein we began with generosity, we will look at the practice of ethics or morality (Shila in Pali language), sometimes referred to as discipline.

Many of us have a negative response to the words morality and discipline (and possibly ethics), which can sound like something imposed, a should we never live up to. Some of us lose hope around these words, or like bad people, or self-righteous. In truth, discipline and morality are inner qualities that, when cultivated within a clear framework, bring a sense of peace and well being, from knowing we live a life of integrity and no-harm.

Cultivating Ethical Discipline offers the following benefits (and beyond):

  • Relaxes us—we are at peace, knowing we have nothing for which to atone, knowing we’ve done nothing against our own beliefs and have harmed no one.
  • Relieves that pervasive feeling of being a bad person and puts us in touch with our Buddha nature or basic goodness.
  • Gives us a way to measure whether or not we are living as we wish to live

In the Buddhist path of the paramitas, Shila has a specific structure. In most traditions, when a person becomes a Buddhist, they take five precepts as their vow of conduct. When we choose to practice the paramita of ethics/discipline, we use the precepts as the basis of our practice for developing these inner qualities.

We make an agreement with ourselves to do no harm to other beings, including refraining from killing insects. We agree not to steal, or take what isn’t freely given, including borrowing without asking. We agree not to lie, gossip, misinform, or otherwise harm with our speech. We agree to not harm through our sexual energy, including breaking our commitments or interfering with the commitments of others, participating in exploitation or fantasies that could harm others, and so forth. We agree not to drink to excess or take drugs, to keep from clouding our minds and obstructing clear-seeing.

These are ideals we strive for, not goals we punish ourselves for not attaining. As in training a puppy, beating ourselves into submission will not bring the desired results. Repeatedly offering ourselves clear, firm, and loving guidelines, until the new behavior becomes established, works much better. There are gradations in every field of human endeavor. I have managed to never murder a human I was angry with, but I still lose control when streams of ants flow through my kitchen, and I have resorted to ant-murder more than once. (My preferred approach now is to repel them with eucalyptus leaves scattered outside the house, but every so often they come in anyway and I break my vow again.)

I think most of us hold the intention, whether vaguely or explicitly, to live a good life, to refrain from harm, and behave well. The precepts give us a clear path for doing so, and a landmark we can refer to when we lose our way (which we all do, repeatedly, so be kind to yourself about it).

To integrate the precepts into our daily life, we can read the following aloud to ourselves each morning and see what arises throughout the day. People often think they know which precepts might trip them up, only to be surprised in practice. Keep an open, curious mind and see what arises.

Today I intend to:

  • Do no harm to anyone
  • Take nothing that is not freely given
  • Speak truthfully and helpfully (kindly)
  • Use my sexual energy wisely
  • Keep my mind clear (refrain from intoxicants)

There may be different precepts you would set for yourself, and maybe you will experiment with them. I encourage you to try these first, because they have worked for 2,600 years, and because most everything is covered: vowing to eat healthier food, have better relationships, do your practices regularly. It’s all here.

We may not know how to deal with a broken vow. Our parents may not have been consistent or clear in their rules and consequences for misbehavior, so we may only know how to beat ourselves up or feel guilty or bad if we do something that is out of integrity with who we want to be. There is a structure in Buddhism for working with moments or events when we fall short of our ideals. We all mess up from time to time, and we have to forgive ourselves and work through, or we will accumulate a burden of pain and guilt and shame that clouds our interactions and our experience of the world.

Making Amends
When, for example, we hurt someone with our speech or actions, we begin by allowing ourselves to fully feel the pain of causing pain. So often we turn away from this, or take refuge in guilt, rather than looking directly at what we have done, and why. If we can bear to see clearly the roots of our behaviors, and feel the results, it becomes easier to bring ourselves in line with what we generally intend, which is to do no harm?

Next, we do our best to mend the tear in our integrity, both with ourselves and with anyone we hurt. Our apologies need to be sincere and without expectation. If we require forgiveness or even acceptance of our apology, then the apology is attached to something other than our sincere regret. We can apologize from our hearts, freely, and allow the other person to do what they wish with that. It is not up to them to free us or grant us pardon. We are responsible for our own experience. This is our own work. Only we can complete it.

If there are other reparations to be made, we make them, without resentment or hesitation. If we break a window, we replace the glass. No story is needed about how bad we are for breaking it, or how mean they are for making us replace it. We trust our inherent morality to know what is right and we act accordingly.

We then vow to not behave in such a way again, and do our best to follow that pledge. We will, most likely, slip up anyway. So we return to the beginning of the process of amends and unravel it all over again. This is a lifelong process. Have patience.

© Copyright 2011 by Ker Cleary, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Carol

    March 4th, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    I guess we could all use a little bit of this

  • Martha

    March 4th, 2011 at 5:58 AM

    It is easy to say we have vowed something and will follow that. But the true test is in practice and if we can pull it off then we have climbed to having followed up that vow and having followed self discipline. And believe me folks when this happens, the feeling that follows is just unmatched,unparalleled by anything else. Ts just wonderful to realize you have stuck with your stance of doing good.

  • rosa

    March 4th, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    you are your own judge when it comes to following ethical responsibilities…this is because what is required of ethically may not be required in general…and if in such a scenario you go the distance and keep up your ethical responsibilities then it sure is a good job done… :)

  • Grace

    March 5th, 2011 at 9:29 PM

    I find it odd that Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on peacefulness and peace of mind, yet only about 5% of all people in the world follow it. I think the world would be much better if more took the Buddha’s teachings to heart at least a little.

  • hannah

    March 6th, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    I find the difference between the Precepts and something like The Ten Commandments is that the precepts say “I won’t do this”, while the commandments say “You won’t do this”. I believe there is an enormous difference between “You won’t do that” and “I won’t do that”, because not one person alive can honestly say they have obeyed every command they have ever been given in their life.

  • Amy

    March 7th, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    I am going to make those precepts a part of my daily life, or strive to, even though I am not Buddhist. To me those are not about being a good Buddhist but about being a good person. And what a perfect season for me to discover those. Thanks so much.

  • Ker

    March 14th, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Carol, that’s what I figured, hence the post! :-)

    Martha, I agree, integrity with one’s word and intention is a very uplifting feeling.

    Rosa, I think that is true. I find it interesting that in trying to follow these precepts, they show up as appropriate in situations I wouldn’t have considered without this particular framework, and I learn a lot.

    Grace, I have contemplated this as well. As far as I can tell, most religions had the emphasis on peace of mind to begin with, but Buddhism seems to be the only one that has had or at least maintained actual instructions and practices for how to accomplish this. As HH the Dalai Lama has stated on many occasions, every human wants the same thing – to be happy and free from suffering. We just go about it in more or less skillful ways…

    Hannah, good point. I definitely do better with things I vow of my own accord and less well with things other people tell me to do, but maybe that’s just my issues with outside authority! :-)

    Amy, I’m glad you’ve found something useful here. I became a Buddhist for pretty much that reason, it’s a very practical path to happiness, and I am all about practical. You’re welcome!

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