CHAPTER 4 – Relying upon Conscientiousness
It’s quite remarkable that we met the Mahayana Dharma, and have found ourselves taking Bodhisattva Vows. Due to quite powerful virtuous karma we created in the past we are now experiencing its effects. What we have to be careful of is not “riding upon our karma,” enjoying what we have created for as long as those imprints continue to ripen, without trying to build on what we have. If we don’t apply effort, creating even greater, more powerful causes day by day, things naturally will degenerate.
We have to remember that tendencies are effects of karma. We can find ourselves now engaging in virtue. Maybe there’s some tendency to engage in virtuous practices, Mahayana practices. But right now our deluded tendencies are stronger than our virtuous tendencies, and our virtuous tendencies eventually will run out if we don’t apply effort, if we don’t build on what we have.
Why is it that we do let things slip? Perhaps because we feel it doesn’t matter so much. Which leads to the question we must ask ourselves, “what does matter in my life and what doesn’t matter?” This is a very important question. Our answer very much depends on what we want from our life, ourself, others. It seems to me conscientiousness is very much related, directly related, to what we believe matters. When we believe something matters, we’re always ready to act if necessary. If we feel something doesn’t matter, then we won’t act.
We can generate and even maintain a strong intention sometimes, for example around the time of Spring and Summer Festivals. But we know those intentions deteriorate after a while. Our virtuous intentions deteriorate and other intentions arise, taking us in a different direction, along familiar paths, samsaric paths, ordinary paths. When this happens, whatever practice remains has little power to bring about any deep changes. How do we stop this from happening to us? In particular how do we prevent our Bodhisattva Vows from degenerating? Shantideva gives us the answer – only by practicing conscientiousness. Without conscientiousness, we will gradually stray from the trainings we have promised to engage in. It is just a question of time.
(4.1) A practitioner who has firmly generated
Aspiring and engaging bodhichitta in this way
Should always apply effort without wavering
So as not to stray from the trainings.
We must “apply effort without wavering so as not to stray.” There is a real danger of us straying. This happens time and time again, we see it all the time. Familiar faces we would rediscover at every festival suddenly disappear, Sangha friends we imagined spending eternity with gradually drifting away. Or perhaps we see it in ourselves. Whereas before, we could think of nothing more important to do than receiving teachings, now we can’t seem to find the time to do so. Even if we feel insulated from this now, we have on our mind the seeds to misunderstand something and then it spirals out of control and we lose everything. All it takes is one doubt, usually about one’s teacher, and we lose everything.
What is conscientiousness? It is a mental factor which in dependence upon effort cherishes what is virtuous and guards the mind from delusion and non-virtue. In the context of Shantideva’s Guide, our conscientiousness will be cherishing the virtue of Bodhichitta, the causes of Bodhichitta, the Bodhisattva Vows, the Six Perfections, and so forth. At the same time it also guarding the mind against anything that will take us in a different direction. Geshe-la says that conscientiousness prevents the mind from being influenced by delusion. Through conscientiousness we can reduce our delusions and it can protect us from incurring downfalls.
It is great to be inspired by Shantideva’s soaring poetry on the benefits of bodhichitta, but such inspiration can wear off and lose its power to move our mind. What we need is not to be inspired, we need to be ready to get to work. It all begins with conscientiousness.