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The Importance of Ethical Conduct


Following in the Buddha’s Footsteps

Volume 4 in The Library of Wisdom and Compassion

by The Dalai Lama & Ven. Thubten Chodron

Wisdom Publications

People who are serious about religious practice differ from those who are not. Buddhists accept that human life has a deeper purpose than sensual enjoyments, wealth, power, social status, and praise gained in this life, and that a fortunate rebirth, liberation, and awakening are valuable in the long term.

Since afflictions prevent us from actualizing our spiritual purpose, we want to reduce and eventually eliminate them. The various levels of ethical codes guide us to subdue our physical, verbal, and mental actions. Here “ethical code” refers to a set of precepts taken in the presence of a spiritual mentor, and “precepts” refers to the particular trainings set out in that ethical code.

The meaning of mental advancement is that untamed states of mind decrease and beneficial states increase. For obscurations to be removed from the root by the wisdom realizing emptiness, our mind must first be capable of meditating with single-pointed concentration.

To subdue the subtle internal distractions that interfere with concentration, firm mindfulness and introspective awareness are necessary. To strengthen our mindfulness (smṛti, sati) and introspective awareness (saṃprajanya, sampajañña) and to gain concentration, we must first overcome the grosser external distractions by developing mindfulness and introspective awareness of our physical and verbal actions. This is done through the practice of ethical conduct.

Ethical conduct means to refrain from doing harm. It applies to both monastics and lay followers because all of us need to refrain from harming ourselves and others in order to progress on the path and to create peace in the lives of those around us.

To this effect, the Buddha advised us to abandon the ten destructive paths of action. Taking and keeping the various levels of ethical codes aids us in doing this and points out even subtler nonvirtuous actions to avoid.

Tibetan Buddhism contains three levels of ethical codes: prātimokṣa or individual liberation, bodhisattva, and tantric. The prātimokṣa ethical codes focus on abandoning doing harm through body and speech. The bodhisattva ethical code emphasizes abandoning self-centeredness and regulates our mental activities as well as physical and verbal activities.

The tantric ethical code helps overcome subtle obscurations, another form of harmful mental activity. Because their focus is more and more subtle, the three sets of ethical precepts are taken in that order: first prātimokṣa, then bodhisattva, and finally tantric.