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The best ethical conduct

The best ethical conduct

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: The best ethical conduct (download)

We’re on the line in the Kadampa text that “the best ethical conduct is a tranquil mind.” Here it says “morality,” but I think “ethical conduct” is better.

The best ethical conduct is a tranquil mind.

When you think about it, a tranquil mind is the effect of ethical conduct, and also the cause of ethical conduct. The two are kind of cause and effect for each other, because when our mind is tranquil then there aren’t rampant afflictions, so we don’t have the motivation to break our precepts, to create destructive actions, because the mind’s already peaceful, it’s in a good state.

When we keep ethical conduct then the result is also a tranquil mind because we aren’t plagued by regret and remorse, or even going into deluded guilt.

Do you see how that works? How it goes both ways? And I think that’s very important to think of, because sometimes we think “oh a tranquil mind means I’m just kind of spaced out, not thinking about anything,” or who knows what, and “I just had some blissful experience….” Yes, that makes you tranquil, but you know how to have a tranquil mind in our daily lives, ethical conduct is the way to do it.

First of all, if we act ethically then we feel good about ourselves, we aren’t plagued by “I shoulda, coulda, woulda, supposed to, ought to, why did I do this, and I shouldn’t have done that,” and so on and so forth. We feel at peace with ourselves so when we go to bed at night we can sleep, we’re not all tossing and turning and worried.

How some people manage to sleep when their ethical conduct is so rotten, I don’t understand. But anyway, they must manage to somehow.

In any case, we can sleep very peacefully when our ethical conduct is intact because we feel good about ourselves.

Also, then we don’t have to spend as much time doing purification. We still do purification for all of our things in the past, but we aren’t building up on the things that we have to purify because we’re keeping ethical conduct. That also makes our mind peaceful.

Also when we keep ethical conduct–especially when we take precepts–we’re breaking old habits. All of our habits to exaggerate the truth, to take things that haven’t been given to us, all these kinds of old habits, one of the karmic results of doing the opposite is the tendency to do the opposite of those actions, so that purifies the karmic result that’s the tendency to do the rotten action again. So ethical conduct helps us to break all these old habits, which again leads to having a tranquil mind. We aren’t always going, “Oh gee, I did it again, why did I do that….?” because we just kept our precepts well, we stopped doing it. Or even we don’t have precepts about those things, we made a very strong intention in our purification practice not to do those actions again, and so we maintain that strong intention, and then that makes our mind peaceful afterwards.

Then similarly, the more our mind is peaceful, the easier it is to keep good ethical conduct, because what makes our mind engage in unethical conduct? It’s ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, arrogance, lack of personal integrity, lack of consideration for others… And so when those mental factors are manifest our mind is anything but tranquil. It’s completely chaotic inside. And so a chaotic mind doesn’t keep ethical conduct very well. A tranquil mind, where we’ve subdued those afflictions–maybe we haven’t abandoned them completely, but we at least have a handle on them–then that makes the mind stable and tranquil and then we don’t have those motivations that cause us to get involved in unethical behavior which cause us to have more of an untranquil mind.

The difficult thing is where do you start? It’s the chicken and the egg. We’d like to start with the tranquil mind so then we don’t create the unethical actions, but it usually starts with a strong determination to change our behavior, and then as we start changing the behavior then the mental tranquility comes, and then that tranquility makes it easier to continue with our ethical conduct.

That tranquility also makes it easier to generate concentration when we’re meditating, because where our meditation is distracted, again with those rotten kinds of motivations, and also with self-criticism because we’ve acted in ways that we wish we hadn’t, or with a lot of guilt, which is to be abandoned because there’s a difference between regret and guilt. But guilt often disturbs our meditation. As does all sorts of negative self-talk. Whereas when we keep ethical conduct, then a lot of that negative self-talk we can’t do as much because we realize that negative self-talk is not describing the person who we are, when we stop and really ask ourselves if those self-deprecating statements are true we begin to see that they’re not, and so we can stop them, which also creates much more internal well-being.

So, the best ethical conduct is a tranquil mind.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.