Try our new website New materials, revised articles, guided meditations, new design

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Overcoming the Compulsiveness of Karma with Ethical Self-Discipline

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, September 2012

Session Two: The Other Two Levels of Ethical Self-Discipline

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:33 hours)

Working to Overcome Worse Rebirths (Review)

We saw that on the first level, the initial scope of our spiritual development here, we are exercising the ethical self-discipline to refrain from destructive behavior. Right? Here we’re working on the behavior. We’re not yet working on the emotions or attitudes. That comes next. So we are aiming for better rebirths, which is our ordinary happiness if we look only within the sphere of karma, and we are moved to that aim because we really dread horribly having more and more suffering and unhappiness. And we understand that there is a way to avoid more unhappiness and suffering, which is basically to exercise self-control and not act in a destructive manner when we feel like it; you don’t act out the impulse. As I said, we are not yet focusing on the emotion. That comes next. Just when you feel like acting and you start to notice that impulse, that compulsiveness there, don’t do it. That’s something that’s not so difficult to recognize. I mean, you have to slow down a little bit, but it’s not that difficult to recognize.

Think of when you are sitting and trying to do work, and you are bored or feeling itchy and so on, and all of a sudden the impulse comes up to go to the refrigerator or to call somebody or to switch to Facebook or something like that on the computer. So you notice when that feeling comes up, that impulse to do it, and then, “Oh, no. This is just going to make me more unhappy. I’m not going to get my work done,” etc., and you don’t do it. We’re talking about this level of discipline. I’m not going to get my work done, so that’s a suffering; that’s a problem. So I will not check, for the tenth time in the last hour, my Facebook account.

Working to Overcome Rebirth Altogether

So now the next level is the level of working to overcome rebirth altogether, uncontrollably recurring rebirth – remember that’s the meaning of samsara – uncontrollably recurring over and over and over again, and you can’t stop it. And here what we’re looking at are the second and third aspects of true suffering, or true problems, that Buddha pointed out. These are referred to as, first of all, the suffering of change and then all-pervasive suffering.

The suffering of change. This is referring to our ordinary happiness. The technical term is tainted happiness. It’s tainted with, stained with, or mixed with confusion. It’s mixed with confusion in terms of how it arose and when we experience it as well. So this is our ordinary happiness, which has a lot of problems associated with it. The problems are that it doesn’t last and it never satisfies – we always want more – and if we have too much of it for too long, we get bored or it turns into suffering.

Like for instance being out in the sun. It feels very nice for a while, but you wouldn’t want to stay in the hot sun forever. So after a while it’s too much, and you have to get out of the sun. Or a loved one is fondling your hand, stroking it like this. Well, if they were to do that for three hours, your hand would get very, very sore. So, like that, this type of ordinary happiness has some problems with it.

This type of ordinary happiness is the result of acting in constructive and positive ways but still mixed with confusion, as in the example of being a neurotic perfectionist. That’s a very good example. You know, somebody who is a perfectionist with a clean house. They’re happy for a little while that it’s clean, but then, well, they’re not satisfied and, “Blech. I’m going to have to clean it again.” So that happiness doesn’t last, does it? You always want more. It has to be even better, more clean.

Then the third type of suffering or problem is called the all-pervasive problem, and this is the fact that we – it’s referring to rebirth, basically – that we have this type of body and this type of mind which automatically is going to produce problems and difficulties.

Just think about it. With this type of body, there is no way that you could walk without stepping on something and killing it. There’s no way that you could eat anything without some insect or something having been killed in the production of it, even if you’re a vegetarian. And we have the type of body that gets sick. We have the type of body and mind that gets tired. You have to rest. You have to always eat. You have to make a living. Not easy, is it? You’re reborn, and then you’re a baby. How horrible. You can’t express yourself. You can’t do anything for yourself. You have to learn everything all over again. That’s really boring, isn’t it? And you have to do that over and over again countless times. Go to school again. Do you want to go to school again another million times?

So this is the all-pervasive problem that we have just with having this type of rebirth over and over again, even if you’re reborn in a much better state, let’s say with a precious human rebirth. As they say, if you didn’t have a head you wouldn’t get a headache. That’s a little bit silly. But in any case, what we want to attain is liberation from this.

So we want to attain the type of happiness that is not mixed with confusion, the type of happiness which will last, that we’re not going to feel, “Oh, I want more” and so on. And it’s a different type of happiness. It’s a happiness that you experience from being free of something. A very small, tiny example that’s a little bit like it but not quite the same thing: You’re wearing really tight shoes all day long, and at the end of the day you take your shoes off, and there’s this feeling of relief. “Ah, I’m free of this restriction and pain in my feet.” So that’s a different type of happiness, isn’t it? We’re talking about almost a sense of relief of being free of neurotic thoughts, free of worry, all these sort of things. You never worry again. Or insecurity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? “What a relief. I no longer feel insecure.”

So this is just a little hint of what we’re talking about when we talk about liberation – liberation from all types of suffering, all these true sufferings. And to do this we have to overcome all karma, both negative and positive. So we have to overcome the compulsion to act even in positive ways. There’s nothing wrong with being clean and trying to do things well. What’s the problem is when it is a compulsive, neurotic thing. That you have to get rid of.

Okay. So when we act in positive ways here, there are positive emotions that go with that:

  • Detachment. Detachment is that we’re not clinging to anything and so on. If you have it, very nice. If you don’t have it, well, it’s okay. Right? So it’s the opposite of attachment.

  • And then another one could be not wanting to cause harm.

  • Or being sensitive to the effect of our behavior on ourselves and others.

These are positive emotions. And then we have other mental factors that accompany positive or constructive behavior:

  • Respect for good qualities and those who possess them.

  • Self-control to restrain ourselves from acting negatively.

  • A sense of moral self-dignity. So we have respect for ourselves and how we feel, respect for our feelings.

  • Caring about how our actions reflect on others.

So none of these are the troublemakers. These are good. These accompany our positive, constructive behavior. We don’t want to get rid of these. But the troublemaker here is a disturbing attitude. And to put it in simple language, maybe not so simple, this is grasping for a solid “me.” For example, there’s a solid “me” that has to be good, that has to be perfect. “I have to be good. I have to be helpful. I have to be useful.”

You know the example, an easy example, of parents who have grown-up children and they still want to be needed, they want to be useful, so they offer their advice and help even when their children don’t want it. It’s compulsive because they have this sense of a solid “me” and “I only am worthwhile, I only exist, if my children still need me.” So the emotion there is positive. They are offering their advice and help and so on because they love their children. They want to be kind. They want to be helpful. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the troublemaker is this attitude about themselves, about that “me”: “I’m only a worthwhile person and so on if my children still need me.”

So this is what will cause the neurotic aspect, the compulsive aspect, of offering to help even when totally unnecessary and inappropriate. And you can sense if you are experiencing this because again disturbing emotion and disturbing attitude is the same word, and the definition is the same. So the attitude and the emotion, they’re disturbing; they cause us to lose peace of mind and lose self-control, both. So when you’re the parent and you’re feeling this, what is the aspect that you can sense of not having peace of mind? “I only have a worth, I only have a value as a person, if I can do something for my children.” A feeling of insecurity. You’re insecure. Isn’t that it? They’re insecure, and so they always have to push themselves into their children’s affairs, how they raise their children. So no peace of mind, and obviously they don’t have self-control, despite the positive emotions there of love and caring and so on. So this is what we need the self-discipline to work on.

Here on this second level, we’re thinking primarily in terms of working for our own benefit. Right? Because what I’m experiencing is that although I might be happy when I do something nice for my children and they appreciate it, that changes and then I have to do it again. More and more problems come up because I’m being so pushy, so that happiness doesn’t last. And then the children yell at me: “Oh, leave us alone. Don’t tell me what to do,” this type of thing. So the happiness that we initially felt by helping them very quickly changes into unhappiness. They weren’t really pleased with what we did. And a simpler version of all-pervasive suffering is that the whole thing continues and repeats over and over and over again, and you have no control over it. Right? The parent can’t stop themselves from interfering with a good motivation, love, but they’re insecure.

So here we are exercising self-discipline basically for our own benefit so that we won’t be unhappy with all of this, that we won’t have this ordinary happiness and this recurringness. And here on this level, what we’re applying our self-discipline to is these disturbing emotions, these disturbing attitudes, this grasping for a solid “me.” So it’s not that we want to stop helping, it’s not that we want to stop loving our children, but what we want to stop is this neurotic insecurity, this grasping for a solid “me” and so on which is behind it.

So we have the initial level, where we’re working on disciplining simply our actions, self-control on that level. And here we’re working on a deeper level or more subtle level in terms of self-control of not acting out these disturbing emotions and attitudes. Because remember we have two basic true causes of our problems. It’s the karma and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, so the compulsiveness and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and they go together. Disturbing emotions. Some are destructive, and some, even though they are positive, could be mixed with confusion so that it still causes problems.

A good example is love. Love. The Buddhist definition for love is “the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness regardless of what they do.” But it could be mixed with confusion. So it could be mixed with attachment – “Don’t ever leave me,” “Why didn’t you call me?” “You don’t love me anymore?” – and insecurity and stuff like that, can’t it? “I need you” – me, me, me – we’re just thinking here in terms of what I get from you because “I need you.” I might still want the other person to be happy – but be happy and don’t ever leave me, and call me every day. So love is not the problem. The problem is the attachment and the big “me” behind all of it that could be mixed with it.

So that’s the intermediate level, the second level. Right? We’re using discipline to try to overcome this more mental, emotional attitude level.

The third level, the advanced level… Well, perhaps before we get to the third level, why don’t we again take a few minutes to digest? Try to discern this in our own lives, which means to see with ourselves. As they say, don’t have the mirror of the Dharma face others and only try to see the problems in others (like our parents), but focus it toward yourself. Try to discern in your own life, in your own experience – even when you’re acting positively – the type of problems that it makes if you are acting in that neurotic way. And try to recognize the big solid “me” behind all of that – “I have to be perfect. I have to be good. I have to be helpful. I have to be needed and useful” – and recognize the problems that that brings.

Remember there is nothing that we have to prove. I don’t have to prove that I’m a good person. I don’t have to prove that I’m a clean person and perfect and so on. There’s nothing that has to be proved. Or is it “I’m clean, therefore I am”? You know, like “I think, therefore I am.” “I’m perfect, therefore I am.” It’s only because we feel insecure about me, me, me, that we feel we have to prove that we are good; we have to prove that we’re worthwhile. You don’t have to prove anything. Think about that. What are we trying to prove by being so perfect, by being so good, by being so clean, by being so productive? That’s the whole secret. There’s nothing to feel insecure about, and there’s nothing that you have to prove. Just do! Be helpful to others and so on. You don’t have to prove anything.

I mean, obviously it’s not so easy just to use ethical self-discipline to say, “Stop feeling insecure. Don’t feel insecure.” Obviously that’s not so easy. It needs understanding that the insecurity is based on confusion and that confusion is not based on anything. We don’t have to prove anything. Obviously just using self-control is not enough. We can’t just say, “Stop feeling insecure” and just using self-control we don’t feel insecure anymore, self-control not to feel insecure. So we need understanding as well.

What is it that we’re insecure about? A myth, a myth that if I am productive and useful and so on, therefore I exist. If I don’t, I stop existing? That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? So what do I have to prove by being a fanatic workaholic? If I want to help others, fine; help others. But don’t be compulsive about it. This is the problem. “If I don’t meet my daily quota, then I feel absolutely miserable. And if the children make noise and make an interference in my work, then I get all freaked out because I’m not productive enough.” This we have to stop.

Okay, that’s the intermediate scope.

Working to Reach a State in Which We Can Help Everybody Become Liberated

The advanced scope is overcoming not knowing the karma of others. We want to help others. And even if we’ve gained liberation – so we are free of karma ourselves (we’re no longer compulsive, we don’t act in a destructive way, and we don’t have this neurotic compulsive drive to act in a constructive way even when it’s inappropriate) – the problem now is that although we have that strong wish to help others, we don’t know what’s the best way. We don’t know all the karmic reasons and background of why everybody is the way that they are now. And we really don’t know what the effect will be of anything that we teach them. And not only will what we teach them have an effect on this person themselves, but this person is going to interact with many others, so whatever changes come about from what I teach this person, that’s going to affect not only that person but everyone else that they interact with. I have no idea of what is going to follow from what I teach. So we’re very limited in how we can help others.

First, we need to work with discipline to not just be apathetic and content with “Wow, now I’m free of suffering. I’m going to sit here and meditate and be blissful and happy all the time.” We need that discipline to work further for others. You get a little bit of a taste of this beforehand when you are very, very successful in meditation: you’re sitting there, your mind is free of wandering and dullness, it’s very blissful (not in a disturbing way, but you really feel good), and you’re very content, and it’s wonderful to just stay there in this state of mind. And if you’re really advanced, you can stay in this state for a really long time. If you’re liberated you can stay like that forever.

So what gets you out of that? I mean, you don’t have this type of body, so it isn’t that you’re hungry or anything like that. But what rouses you are thoughts of others. Right? “How can I just sit here being so blissful and wonderful, and everybody else is miserable?” So we need the discipline and ethics to overcome this concern just for our own welfare, and we need the discipline to think of others and work for others.

Now, it’s very significant that this comes as the step after we have worked for our own benefit. If we think just to help others but we still are miserable and neurotic and so on, it’s going to make problems in helping others. We’re going to get angry with them because they don’t take our advice and they’re not making enough progress. Or we become attached to them, and we get very jealous if they go to another teacher. Or, even stronger, if we get sexually attracted to them it’s going to make a lot of problems in trying to help this person.

So we really need to work on ourselves first. And it’s not that we have to become liberated, completely liberated – that’s going to take a long time – before we actually try to help others, but we don’t neglect working on ourselves in the process of working with others. We’re at least aware of the necessity to overcome our own anger and compulsiveness and so on. We need the discipline to overcome this selfishness, self-centeredness, and we’re going to have to work to overcome the limitations of our mind that prevent us from being omniscient, all-knowing.

We’re not omniscient, because we don’t see the full picture; we don’t see how everything is interconnected. Like whatever happens, it happens as a result of a combination of many, many, many, many causes and conditions, and all those causes and conditions have their own causes and conditions for how they happen. And our minds now are limited: we can’t see the whole picture; we don’t see everything that’s involved. And what’s even worse is that we think that only one cause produces an effect, especially when we think of that cause being me. Right? As if when this other person is depressed or so on, it’s my fault; it’s simply because of what I did. This doesn’t correspond to reality. Whatever happens to people, as I said, is a result of many, many causes, not simply what I did. What I did contributed – we’re not denying that – but it’s not that the whole thing was just one cause. Or we’re trying to help somebody, and we say, “Well, the cause of your problem is just because you didn’t get a good education.” You know, when we reduce it to one cause, right? Or “Your problems are all because your parents did this or that when you were a child.” So we don’t see the whole picture. It’s much, much bigger than that.

So we need a much, much greater understanding than we have now. And the problem is that our minds project categories, like boxes, and we compartmentalize everything into these boxes, isolating them from everything else as if they existed independently of everything else, and we believe that this corresponds to reality. So we don’t really see the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything. We put things in a box: “This is the cause. This is bad. This is good.” We put it in boxes. Well, this is not how things exist. Things don’t exist isolated from everything else. So we need the discipline to understand that although it might feel like that, it doesn’t correspond to reality.

A simple example. You’re at home during the day, and your partner comes home, and they don’t speak to you; they just go and lie down. So in our minds we put that into the box of “They don’t love me anymore. They are terrible. They’re not kind,” and so on. Right? Behind that of course is the big “me,” because I want to speak to them – I want, I want, I want – I want something from them. Just because we put them in that box (“Now you’re a terrible partner”), we don’t see the interconnectedness – that they might have had a difficult day at work; this might have happened to them; that might have happened to them, and so on, and so on, and so on.

How often do things appear to us like that? Somebody comes home, and it’s as if they came out of nowhere – that nothing was happening to them before, and now everything starts from the moment they enter the door. Right? And if the person staying at home was taking care of the children – you come home, and how does it appear? That they are just there, fresh, as if nothing happened to them before, during the day. I mean, if we think about it, of course it’s not like that. We’re talking about how your mind makes it appear. It makes it appear as though our interaction starts here, at this moment, and nothing went on before. It’s in a box. So this is what we have to overcome to realize that this doesn’t correspond to reality.

Or we put people in the box of “my partner,” and we don’t consider the fact that they have relationships and friendships with many, many other people besides me. They’re only my partner; they’re in the box of “my partner.” So they should be available for me any time that I want because that’s the only thing that they are. They are my partner. We don’t think in terms of them having obligations with their parents, having other friends, having other activities. No. They’re only in this one box. And the horrible thing is that it feels as though that is reality, and we believe that it corresponds to reality. And obviously on the basis of that, we have attachment and we get angry if they have to go and meet somebody else and so on.

So this is the advanced level of what we need discipline to work on. We need the discipline to realize that the way that my mind makes things appear in boxes doesn’t correspond to reality – this is absurd – and to try to see the larger picture.


So these are the three levels of ethical discipline in connection with karma:

  • The discipline to refrain from destructive behavior which is compulsive.

  • Then the discipline to overcome the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are behind all our compulsive behavior, negative or positive.

  • And then the discipline to try to overcome these limitations of how our mind makes things appear. Right? Discipline to stop thinking in such small ways, putting things in boxes. And the discipline not to be content and apathetic just with our own situation so that we can understand other people’s karma and help them to overcome it.

Let’s take the final couple minutes to just try to recognize (this is this discerning meditation) how we tend to put things in boxes – that our mind makes things appear in boxes, isolated from everything else.

Just the people in this room. You see them. It’s as if they came out of nowhere; they just appeared here, and it doesn’t appear to us that what was going on in their home this morning, whether they have children, was it difficult to get here – none of that appears to us. So because of that, we really don’t know what kind of mood they’re in, and so I don’t know what the effect is going to be of what I tell them. They might be very tired or annoyed or upset from what was going on in the morning, or they didn’t get enough sleep, or… How do I know? It just appears as though they came out of nowhere; they’re sitting here. Right?

So when it appears as though people come out of nowhere from no background, how can you possibly know how to help them best? Somehow we have to not believe in that appearance and eventually get our minds to stop making things appear that way. Then, even at this stage – even if I don’t know what happened to you this morning – at least I appreciate the fact that something happened to you this morning. And if I’m really interested, I’ll ask. And we don’t mean interested like in doing a scientific survey. We’re talking about really caring because – love and compassion – I wish you to be happy and not to be unhappy.

So try to recognize how our minds make these deceptive appearances, and how limiting they are when we believe that they correspond to reality, and how that causes problems.

Okay, thank you.