We generally fall into one of two extremes when it comes to our practice of moral discipline – either we become neurotic expecting ourselves to already be perfect or we become defeatest saying since I can’t do moral discipline perfectly I won’t really try do any at all. Both extremes come from the same mistake – expecting an imperfect being, ourselves, to somehow be able to already be perfect. Letting go of this mistake, namely accepting that we cannot (yet) be perfect with our moral discipline enables us to find the middle way and actually maximize the level of our moral discipline.
First, the extreme of being neurotic about our moral discipline. There are many practitioners who understand clearly the dangers of negative actions, they have studied all of their vows and commitments and they sincerely want to be a moral being. They then take every vow under the sun (and there are many!) and through brute force try impose such perfect behavior upon themselves. But the problem is this: we are not yet perfect nor even remotely capable of being so. When we try impose this upon ourselves, all we wind up doing is repressing a whole host of delusions. These delusions get pushed deeper into our mind where they fester and grow like a cancer until eventually they build up to uncontrollable levels and the blow in some dramatic way. While we are repressing in this way, we use guilt to motivate ourselves to “be moral”, beating ourselves up over our slighest transgressions thinking if only we beat ourselves up enough and inflict enough self-punishment we will beat ourselves into line. But this approach never works. Effort, according to the Dharma, is taking delight in virtue – basically, it means we enjoy becoming a better person. Guilt and beating ourselves up robs us of all joy, and so therefore actually robs us of all effort. Without true effort, even if we are “trying really hard” we are not really practicing and therefore not really advancing along the path. Even if in the short-run it seems like we are making rapid transformations of ourselves, in reality we are just sacrificing our future on the path on the short-term altar of living up to our own unrealistic expectations of our current practice. Many, many practitioners fall into this extreme and they often wind up abandoning the path altogether.
The other extreme is a defeatism which says, “I know I am not perfect, far from it, and I couldn’t be if I even tried, so I won’t even bother trying at all.” We hear Venerable Geshe-la’s advcie to work gradually with our vows, and we take that as permission to do nothing with our vows. We take vows many many times, but we never actually take the practice of them seriously. We may even teach about karma and moral discipline many many times, but we never really start the hard work of identifying our faults and applying joyful effort to overcome them. We can start to conceive of vows and commitments as impossible hurdles far beyond our capacity, like trying to get to the second floor without any stairs, and we wind up contenting ourselves with our current level of goodness. When we fall into this extreme, our forward progress on the path stagnates. Eventually, seeing so little progress, we lose interest in the path, gradually start moving on to something else and then we enter into a subtle, but nonetheless vicious cycle, where the less we put into our path the less we get out of it and on that basis we put even less into the path. This gradual death of our spiritual life can occur quickly and suddenly or very slowly over many years, but either way it kills our spiritual life until we have nothing.
Of course the goal is to be 100% perfect 100% of the time. Paradoxically, the way we get there is by accepting (meaning being at peace with) the fact that it is impossible for us to be perfect right now so we shouldn’t even try. We might be able to be 100% perfect with just a couple of vows, but the time and effort that would take would mean we do nothing with all the others. I used to tutor math, and I think it provides a good example. When we are in first grade, learning how to add, it is very hard and we are lucky to get say 80% on our tests. But by the time we reached sixth grade, we would have no difficulty getting 100% on first grade math tests 100% of the time. But once again, we find it very hard to get say 80% on our sixth grade math tests. By the time we reach high school graduation, we can easily get 100% on sixth grade math tests 100% of the time, but find our current grade level once again hard. This is totally normal and is exactly how we should approach our vows and general practice of moral discipline.
We should understand what grade we are at with our practice, be at peace with being 80% good enough at our current grade, but never be content with remaining on the same grade forever. By letting go of the unrealistic expectation of being already perfect we can leave the neurosis and defeatism behind.
Practically speaking, how can we do this? We should take the time to make a list of those things we do which we know are not moral – starting with the gross levels of transgression and gradually working to the more subtle levels. It might be a long list, but that is OK. We can then rank order them from easiest to hardest to overcome. We know our grade level by diving our list into what is comfortable/easy to overcome, possible with effort and really hard. We then set the minimum standard of avoiding 80% of the possible with efforts 80% of the time. This gives us some wiggle room to sometimes sneak a chocolate or accidentally tell a few minor white lies (or maybe even some small gray ones), but our overall moral ledger remains a good B- (80% on the American school scale). There might be some times where we have an A when it comes to one area of our moral discipline, but a C- on other areas, and then the next week it might shift the otherway around, but as long as our overall Grade Point Average is a at least 80% we should be happy. By training in this way, we will get better and better at the easy stuff until eventually we can do it 100% of the time without any effort at all, and the moderate to harder stuff we will do less and less. We start to graduate to higher grades. Then we periodically make our list, reassess our current grade level and once again set our minimum standard of 80% at our new level.
In sum, paradoxically by accepting that we are not yet perfect and giving ourselves a little wiggle room to only have to be 80% good we actually wind up practicing moral discipline far more than if we expect ourselves to be 100% good (which either leads to neurosis or defeatism).