All schools of Buddhism recognize what Shingon’s founder, Kobo Daishi Kukai referred to as the “Three Items of Mastery” (Hakeda 1972, p. 172). These are sila, samadhi and prajna. Sila is generally rendered as discipline, samadhi as meditation and prajna alternatively as knowledge, insight and/or wisdom. Of these three it is easy to understand the purpose and experience the benefits of meditation practice. Similarly we can readily appreciate the deep knowledge, penetrating insight and practical wisdom of an articulate and experienced Dharma teacher. But discipline is a little different. Initially at least it might not be so easy to appreciate.
Discipline can be a challenge. Discipline sets limits, discipline draws clear lines. Without regret or hesitation, discipline defines what we should not do and compels the pursuit of what we should do. The Dhammapada’s chapter entitled, “The Bhikku” is a vivid example. It begins:
It is good to restrain the eye.
It is good to restrain the ear.
It is good to restrain the nose.
It is good to restrain the tongue.
It is good to restrain the body.
It is good to restrain the mind.
It is good to restrain thought.
Restraint in all things is good.
The bhikku with restraint in all things
Will be free from suffering.
(Maitreya 1995, p. 97)
This is a very interesting and challenging teaching. Perhaps even more surprising, the Dhammapada further states:
Neither learning nor embracing solemn vows,
Nor achieving a great state of concentration,
Nor living alone will assure nirvana.
Nirvana is only achieved by right action.
(Maitreya 1995, p. 73)
As modern practitioners this type of teaching might be something very different from our current ideas and interests in spirituality. Many of us have grown up in a world were individual choice and personal freedom have created many widely recognized advances both socially and individually. In addition, we are not constrained by many of the beliefs and cultural norms common in more traditional societies. So, for us, discipline might be quite foreign. Discipline might seem as if it is a limitation, a hinderance. Discipline might bring to mind an arbitrary, external constraint on our personal freedom, creativity and expression. As a modern practitioner of an ancient path, we might need to take some time and put some effort into properly understanding what discipline really is. We might have to put some work into discovering how to incorporate discipline into our personal practice to ensure it is done in a balanced manner.
That being said, all schools of Buddhism call for discipline. From its very founding Buddhism employed systems of conduct, prohibitions and specific activities to be cultivated as an essential element within its training. The Buddha developed the vinaya, the monastic code of conduct for his ordained monks and nuns. The vinaya is a complex system of prohibitions and practices that cover hundreds of individual restrictions. Regarding this discipline he taught and required of his students, in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha gives the following, most interesting comment:
“And what is beauty for a monk? Here, a monk practices right conduct, is restrained according to the discipline, is perfect in behavior and habits, sees danger in the slightest fault, and trains in the rules of training he has undertaken. That is beauty for a monk.”
(Walshe 1987, p. 405)
The Buddha also taught a simple five-fold discipline for lay people which includes;
No killing or harming
No imbibing in intoxicants
Dr. Walpola Rahula echos the discipline described above in his description of sila found in his seminal work, “What the Buddha Taught”. Dr. Rahula indicates that discipline is composed of the third, fourth and fifth aspects of the Eightfold Path - specifically Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Further Dr. Rahula describes the purpose of discipline is “promoting a happy and harmonious life both for the individual and society.“ Most importantly Dr. Rahula credits discipline as being “the indispensable foundation for all higher spiritual attainments” (Rahula 1959, p. 47).
Mahayana Buddhism also recognizes discipline as a critical component of spiritual training by its inclusion, along with generosity, patience, energy, meditation and prajna within the Six Paramitas. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, longtime Abbot of the Karma Kagyu Monastery in Woodstock, New York defines the paramita of discipline simply and succinctly as follows:
“Discipline has three aspects. The first is not harming others or ourselves, the second is doing what is wholesome and virtuous for ourselves, and the third is helping others.”
(Karthar 1992, p. 150)
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a more radical representative of Tibetan Mahayana lectured and taught extensively on the Bodhisattva path. In his early work, “The Myth of Freedom” he made the following characterization of the bodhisattva’s discipline:
“The purity of the bodhisattva referred to by the shila paramita is based upon making friends with oneself, loving oneself. You are not a nuisance to yourself anymore; you are good company, an inspiration to yourself. You do not have to control yourself so as to avoid temptations or follow rules or laws. You find temptations less relevant and guidelines less necessary, because you naturally follow appropriate patterns... Unskillful action becomes irrelevant.”
(Trungpa 1976, p.111)
In our basic Shingon recitation practices we encounter the "Juzenkai" or ten precepts. They are:
From this day forward to the end of the future,
I will not kill
I will not steal
I will not commit adultery
I will not lie
I will not exaggerate
I will not slander
I will not turn one person against another by equivocation
I will not be greedy
I will not be hateful
I will not persist in wrong views
Note that the first three are related to body, the middle four are related to speech and the final three are related to mind. This marks the Juzenkai as classically esoteric in nature and design as its disciplines include the whole range of the practitioner’s activities of body, speech and mind. It also harkens back to the historical Buddha’s disciplines in style while excluding some specific items and broadening the overall scope of commitment by adding others.
In addition to Shingon’s basic form of discipline, the Mahavairocana Sutra describes the "shiju kinkai", or fourfold prohibitions which describes a very different dimension, and perhaps deeper level of Buddhist discipline. In his work ”Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism” Professor Yamasaki renders the shiju kinkai as follows:
Never abandon the Dharma
Never give up the aspiration to enlightenment
Never be stingy with the teachings
Never engage in any action that does not benefit sentient beings
These are also referred to as the samaya precepts, or samaya-kai. Professor Yamasaki defines “samaya” as “equality, vow, removal of obstructions, awakening” (Yamasaki 1988, p. 57).
Finally, Kobo Daishi makes the following, enigmatic comment on discipline in a poem sent to a nobleman in Kyoto about his desire to remain at his mountain retreat, Koya-san:
“Discipline in the woods alone lets us soon enter the eternal Realm.”
(Hakeda 1972, p. 52)
As modern practitioners, undoubtedly we need to take a good look at traditional disciplines. We would do well to develop a unbiased understanding and appreciation of the role these disciplines have played in the traditions we study. Further we need to embrace how they might play a role in our own personal practice and path. Without suppressing or straying into any extreme, we need to carefully consider embracing the simple idea of avoiding actions or dwelling in mental states that cause negative results. Carefully making our own choices we should explore how discipline can be a tangible support for our life of meditation. The example of our own teacher, Ajari Tanaka shows that discipline, consistently practiced in a thoughtful, balanced manner can create real simplicity in our lives. And that simplicity can be liberating.
Yoshito S. Hakeda, Kukai: Major Works, copyright 1972, Columbia Press
Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, The Dhammapada The Path of Truth, copyright 1995, Paralax Press
Maurice Walshe, Thus Have I Heard The Long Discourses of the Buddha, copyright 1987, Wisdom Publications
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, copyright 1959, Grove Press
Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Dharma Paths, copyright 1992, Snow Lion Publications
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom, copyright 1976, Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Taiko Yamasaki, Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, copyright 1988, Shambhala Publications, Inc.