Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2965

Self-Discipline: Cornerstone of the Dhamma

By Aggmaha Pandita Ven. Walpola Piyananda Chief Sangha Nayake of America

The Buddha, using himself as the supreme example, based the entirety of his teachings on self-mastery. The Four Noble Truths, specifically the prescription detailed in the Fourth Noble Truth, the Noble Eightfold Path, instructs us to carefully and continually observe the mind, which leads us to disciplining the ego or false sense of self; this in turn enables us to make conscious corrections in one’s external behavior, and in the thinking and feeling that takes place in one’s internal environment; all of which expands one’s Right View, which ultimately leads to enlightenment.

Development of self-discipline and restraint is the basis for cultivating mindfulness, the technique we are taught to employ for the rooting out and elimination of the causes of our suffering or stress, which is our clinging to attachments arising from false identifications. The Buddha taught self-discipline to the Sangha members of his day, and to the countless lay persons he interacted with in his forty-five years of ministry. In essence, the Buddha’s fundamental core message to all of us is to pay attention, and moment-by-moment to discipline ourselves in all aspects of our lives; only this will lead us to the end of samsara.

The Buddha equates self-discipline with restraint, and to the monks in the Dhammapada (Chapter XXV, V. 2) he says:

“Good is restraint in deed; good is restraint in speech; good is restraint in mind; good is restraint in everything. The Bhikkhu,restrained at all points, is freed from sorrow.” The Buddha spoke of deeds, speech, and mind as the “three doors,” and restraining both what comes in and goes out through these doors is the primary focus of the Five Precepts taken by lay persons, Ten Precepts for samaneras, and the 227 Precepts taken by bhikkhus.

The Buddha also said to the monks, “Vinayayo nama sasanassa ayu,” which means “Buddhism exists because of self-discipline.”

Self-discipline and restraint are the tools that all civilized societies use to build productive, peaceful, and successful organizations – and countries as well. Without self-discipline and restraint we live under conditions of anarchy, chaos, and worse – war. In fact, without these two critical elements, there can be no society or civilization at all.

Restraint and self-mastery shapes and nurtures one’s character; it helps it to evolve its way of being in the world and eventually mold its outward expression into a peaceful and serene demeanor. One can easily spot someone who has worked to perfect his or herself by purifying the contents that pass through their three doors. Communication takes place on a number of levels – not just through words. Body language, posture, facial expressions, and tone of voice often speak louder than words. In fact, the majority of all communication is non-verbal.

Take for example the Emperor Ahsoka who surveyed the battlefield after the infamous battle of Kalinga where 100,000 persons were slaughtered. The scene saddened him and made him depressed. He regretted what he had done, and was confused about how to proceed with his life – even though he had succeeded in his goal of defeating the enemy. As he looked about he spotted a small young monk who was walking calmly and serenely through the bodies of the dead soldiers; he exuded an energy of peace, and it stirred the heart of the great king. Emperor Ashoka thought to himself, “This young fellow looks happy,” and he asked that he be brought before him.

The young fellow was Samanera Nigrodha, seven years old. When he came into his presence the Emperor asked him, “Whose dhamma do you follow? Who is your teacher?” The young samanera replied, “I follow the Buddha.” The emperor responded, “What does he teach?” Nigrodha answered, “I am not qualified to teach you much of the Buddha’s dhamma, but what I understand is that it is about not harming yourself or others, and about purifying your mind.” He then quoted a verse from the Dhammapada (Chapter 2; verse 21), “Self-discipline is the path to Nibbana; the lack of self-discipline is death. The ones who have learned how to discipline themselves do not die; those who cannot discipline themselves are like the dead.” Ashoka was so impressed by the young man’s demeanor and energy that he converted to Buddhism and later sent Buddhist missionaries to eighteen other countries – including Sri Lanka. Because of this self-disciplined young samanera, the Buddha’s teachings were spread across Asia.

Monks who lack self-discipline, unfortunately, can create perceptions about Buddhism that are less than favorable. Since perception is everything, one cannot blame the international media for jumping to report negative things about Sangha members, sometimes referring to them in Sri Lanka and Myanmar as “militant Buddhist monks,” which is somewhat of an oxymoron. In these instances the media is not listening to the message, which is usually well-intentioned and may, perhaps, be good; they are looking to the methodology of message delivery, which can often be full of flaws and lead to misperceptions about Buddhism, the Sangha, and one’s own country. During this Vesak season I urge all Sangha members to be aware of how their actions and words might be perceived, and to discipline themselves by delivering their messages appropriately.

There is a Jataka story that comes to mind when talking about this subject. One day the Bodhisattva went to bathe in a lovely, pristine lake. Unbeknownst to him, a deity was always watching him, looking for ways to fault and criticize him. Wading out into the water, the Bodhisattva leaned over and took a lotus blossom in his hand; he smelled the flower and enjoyed its scent. The deity spying on him shouted out, “Bad monk! You have polluted that flower!” The Bodhisattva responded calmly by saying, “I only smelled the flower; those people over there are pulling the lotus plants up by the roots and making the water cloudy. Why are you picking on me?” The deity answered, “You are an ascetic monk; not a lay person. You are a role model for those people, somewhat of a celebrity; you are someone they look up to as an example of how to behave. Common folks are always looking for reasons to criticize you, so you had better be careful about how you are perceived – 24/7.”

Another example of the Buddha’s teaching in regards to message delivery comes from the Brahmanjala Sutta in the Digha Nikaya. In this sutta it is very clear that the Buddha is teaching restraint and self discipline to the monks, and he emphasizes that their very spiritual development depends upon it:

“Monks, if outsiders should speak against me, against my teachings, or against my disciples, you must not be angry or hold that against them. If you were angry with them, how would you know if they were right or wrong? And also, if outsiders should praise me, my teachings, or my disciples, you should not be pleased or proud. If you were pleased or proud, how would you know if they were over-praising us? Therefore, whenever people speak either for or against me, my teachings, or my disciples, be neither proud nor angry. Rather, be impartial, and acknowledge where they are wrong. Furthermore, both anger and pride would be against your own spiritual development.”

The Buddha was very specific in regards to his instructions on speech and the power of the word. In the Anguttara Nikaya he says, “If speech has five marks, O monks, it is well-spoken, not badly spoken; blameless and above reproach by the wise. What are the five marks? It is speech that is timely, true, gentle, purposeful, and spoken with a mind of loving-kindness.” In many suttas the Buddha stressed that for society to work together in harmony, then individuals must communicate correctly, using “pleasant words – to ears and heart – they must be civil at all times.” In order to temper one’s speech according to these instructions of the Buddha, we must be very self-disciplined.

The Buddha said to his monks, “Appasannanan pasadaya pasannanan bhiyobhavaya,” which translates as, “Anyone who isn’t happy with me or with you, then make them happy; if they already like me or like you, then make them like us even more.”

I told a story in Saffron Days in LA that I would like to share; it fits the context of what we are talking about here. In 1976, shortly after I had arrived in America, I was standing at a bus stop at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street; I was on my way to a book store down on Melrose Avenue. A couple of other people were also waiting at the bus stop. A Mercedez-Benz suddenly came to a halt, and the driver jumped out. He walked over to me and spit in my face, shouting, “You do not belong in this country. Go away!” I responded politely, “Thank you so much for your advice.”

The other people standing around me were both sad and angry. One lady reached into her purse and handed me a tissue to wipe off the spittle. She said, “Don’t worry, sir. He must be some kind of crazy fundamentalist. Not all Americans are like that.” Then she proceeded to tell me that I should wear normal western clothes so I would fit in. I responded, “No, I am a Buddhist monk. I choose to wear these robes to teach people about the Buddha.”

When I got on the bus I didn’t realize that a young man was following me. When I got off at Melrose and La Cienega he stepped up to me and started asking me questions about the Buddha and Buddhism. Before too long this young man became a very devoted Buddhist, and I eventually ordained him as a monk. So the moral of this story is, you never know who might be watching your actions, and what opportunity you might miss to share the Dhamma if you don’t demonstrate self-discipline and restraint.

Unfortunately, people without self-discipline will often react to situations without thinking – a simple reflex because they are conditioned or programmed to behave in that way. Lay persons often commit all sorts of offenses, like road rage on the highways; they forget to demonstrate patience, and maintain law and order – just because of some trigger-quick reaction that pushed their anger button. People will even take the law into their own hands because they lack the discipline to rein in their angry minds; then they cry out later, “I couldn’t help it!” and deny their responsibility for controlling their personal actions.

Ananda, the Buddha’s chief disciple, spoke of this type of reaction in a story in the Udana (No. 5.9):

“Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was journeying amongst the people of Kosala together with a large Order of bhikkhus. On that occasion a number of youths were shouting abuse at each other not far from the Lord.

“The Lord saw those youths shouting abuse at each other…then, on realizing its significance, the Lord uttered on that occasion this inspired utterance:

“Wise speech forgotten,
They chant a range of words
At will with mouths agape:
What leads them on they do not know.”

In other words, those youths reacted with abusive speech without even realizing why. People often do this out of carelessness; hopefully monks will seek to control themselves and refrain from speaking words they cannot take back. As the Sabbasava Sutta states so clearly, we must do our best to counteract unwholesome thoughts and impulses by exercising restraint and self control.

Very often, age and lack of maturity play a significant part in the ability or inability to discipline and restrain ones-self. This reminds me of a story about Confucius, the Chinese sage from the 5th century BCE. One sunny, hot day he was walking through a forest with some of his students. At some point they paused and sat down under the shade of a banyan tree. A hunter of birds had the same idea, and also sat down under the tree. Confucius told his students to go over and look at the baskets of birds the hunter had captured. Confucius said, “How many of the birds are old, and how many are young?” The students answered, “80% are young, and only 20% are old.” Confucius smiled, and the students realized that the older the bird, the wiser it became – wise enough not to get caught. As human beings in modern society, both lay persons as well as Sangha members, we also hope to get wiser as we get more mature in years.

\Every morning Buddhist monks chant the Dhassadama Sutta, which says in verses 1 and 3: “I am now living a different life from that of a lay person. I must now behave in a different manner than that of a lay person.” These verses remind us that we monks are, in fact, different from lay persons – primarily because of our commitment to stand apart from the world and serve as guides or beacons of light for others. We wear the “banner of the arahants,” our symbolic robes, and our purpose is to urge others to find their way to higher, purer states of consciousness; we also have to practice with perseverance so we can transcend our own egos. If we are to realize this purpose, we first have to find the necessary self-discipline and learn to exercise restraint in our thoughts, words, speech, and deeds. If we don’t, then we have failed in our mission, and have wasted our time. As the Buddha said when he returned for the first time to Kapilavatthu after his enlightenment, and saw his elder kinsmen standing in the back while putting the young ones forward, “My haughty Sakkyan relatives; they got old for nothing.”

- Asian Tribune -

Self-Discipline:  Cornerstone of the Dhamma
diconary view
Share this