CHAPTER 5: Guarding Alertness
The emphasis in this chapter is on moral discipline. Through introducing and following new codes of conduct, new disciplines, we will naturally change. If in dependence upon our intention we adopt skillful behavior, and we try to think, speak, and act as a Bodhisattva, we will quickly become an actual Bodhisattva.
The very heart of moral discipline is mindfulness, which is why before describing the different types of moral discipline, Shantideva describes mindfulness and alertness. The Chapter itself is called “Guarding Alertness”. Our ability to maintain mindfulness depends upon alertness. Without alertness we quickly forget. Since there’s always a danger of losing our mindfulness, we must remain alert to that danger. Therefore we must guard alertness, hold to it, guard it. We need both mindfulness and alertness to practice conscientiousness. By practicing all three, we will naturally develop pure moral discipline. We should contemplate deeply the relationship between conscientiousness, mindfulness, alertness, and moral discipline.
(5.1) Those who wish to make progress in the trainings
Should be very attentive in guarding their minds,
For, if they do not practise guarding the mind,
They will not be able to complete the trainings.
Shantideva begins this chapter by explaining who he is talking to: those who wish to make progress in the trainings. We should ask ourselves, “is that me?” If we were just told we had a terminal cancer, we would be very motivated to listen to the doctor when she describes the cure. Do we feel an insatiable desire to learn more and make progress on the path, or do we view our Dharma life as a chore and a bore we continue to do simply because of inertia in our life. When we first came into the Dharma, we eagerly went to teachings and were willing to do whatever it takes to make it to our first highest yoga Tantra empowerment. Are we the same now? How many of us go to the center just because we have always done so? We go to the festivals because that is just what we do? How many of us grow bored when we hear the same explanations again and again and can’t wait until the teaching is over? Do we really see our delusions as the cause of all our problems?
We will never make progress along the path if we do not guard our mind. Armies protect countries, police protect communities, guards protect buildings, cameras and safes protect precious possessions, but what guards and protects our mind? When we are in an airport or crowded place, we take special care to watch our bag, especially if it has our iPad in it. We know all it takes is a few seconds for somebody to run off with it and we will lose it forever. Do we feel the same way about the priceless jewels of our virtues within our mind? The thieves of our delusions stand ready to steal away our virtues as soon as we look the other way. The enemies of our delusions are constantly posing as our friends trying to trick us into following their mistaken advice. They never stop, they never rest. If we are alone at night in a dangerous place, we naturally feel great fear and our alertness is sharp looking out for danger, but when we are safe at home we think nothing of allowing our delusions free rein.
Our mind needs as much protection as possible, considering its state. Shantideva said earlier that our virtues are mostly weak, our non-virtues are strong and fearsome. If we don’t make a point of guarding our mind from delusion, then virtue itself will never grow in our mind. Then our virtues themselves will never become as strong as our delusions are, and we will be powerless to make progress on and complete the trainings of a Buddha.
Geshe-la explains in How to Understand the Mind that alertness is the mental factor that has the ability to distinguish faults from non-faults. Quite simply it is the wisdom that knows what is good for us and what is not, and is aware of this distinction as things arise within our mind. If we do not recognize something as a fault, there is no chance we will be able to avoid it. This is why delusions are so harmful. They convince us they are our friend. If we cannot distinguish what is faulty and what is not within our own mind, there is no way we can make progress on, much less complete the trainings.
I think our fundamental problem is we do not realize the stakes at play. We think it really doesn’t make much difference whether we are alert within our mind or not. The wise enemy will wait until we drop our guard and strike when we least expect it. If an army grows complacent while the enemy still has not been vanquished, it will just be a question of time before they are overrun and caught unaware. Delusions will bide their time, laying low, luring us into a false sense of security and then they strike, sometimes a quick decisive mortal blow as we throw it all away in some sexual scandal, or slowly and serendipitously like being slowly poisoned every day when we take our morning tea. If it was just this life at stake, it really makes no difference. One life’s happiness is of no cosmic importance. But even a small amount of importance multiplied by infinite lives is an issue of infinite importance. Christians, in some ways, have it easier when they say what we do in this life determines our eternal fate. They don’t then take false refuge in the belief that it does not matter if they practice in this life, thinking they can always do so in a future life. If it was just our eternity at stake, then that too really wouldn’t be that important (to anybody but ourselves, at least). But the welfare of countless living beings depends upon what we do. Are we so cruel that we will allow them to remain trapped in samsara forever when we have been given the opportunity to set them free?