(5.11) The killing of fish and other creatures
Has not been eradicated anywhere,
For completing the perfection of moral discipline is said to be
Attaining a mind that has abandoned non-virtue.
I used to work in academia, and as a Professor it is easy to map out ideal solutions to problems and take righteous stands. When I came into government, one of the first things my boss told me was, “all decisions of governance involve trade-offs. All we can do is the least bad thing possible.” For as long as we remain in samsara, we cannot avoid harming others. Our mere existence in this world inflicts untold harm on those around us. For example, walking outside kills insects and scratching our arm kills tiny living beings on our skin. If we check, every single decision we face in samsara is one of not choosing between “good” and “bad” rather our choices are always between “bad” and “even worse.”
We might mistakenly think, “perhaps I should avoid any and all responsibility, because then I won’t have to make such choices.” But if we assume no responsibility we have no means of helping anybody. Not helping those we could otherwise help if we had assumed responsibility is also hurting them. We might then think, “perhaps it is best to die because then we will do no harm.” But when we die we are reborn somewhere else in samsara inflicting different harm. Realizing this, we may become despondent thinking it is impossible for us to practice moral discipline because no matter what we do we will inflict harm on others. Seeing it is impossible to fulfill our moral discipline we then give up trying. But this is completely wrong.
Just as we should not let the fact that we are not able to give everything to everybody diminish in any way our wish to do so, so too we should not let the fact that we are unable to “do no harm” diminish in any way our wish to abandon all non-virtue. Yes, we can’t at present “do no harm,” but we can still wish to do none. This wish will then naturally drive us to find a way to fulfill that wish. The only way is to get out of samsara and become a Buddha.
It is very important if we are to observe moral discipline and experience good results that we train in developing a heartfelt mental intention/desire to abandon all faults. Geshe-la has said that when training in moral discipline our intention must be a sincere intention. We want to abandon our faults, not we want to continue engaging in them, but think we shouldn’t. There is a huge difference between these two. If in our heart we still wish to engage in non-virtue, but stop ourselves because we think we “shouldn’t” then all we will do is repress our non-virtuous desires, where they will grow like a cancer until eventually they overwhelm us. Instead, we need to get to the point where we don’t want to engage in non-virtue because we see doing so only makes things worse.
We must feel it’s harming ourselves to go against our moral discipline. It is like banging our head against the wall and creating the causes for our own suffering. We naturally don’t want to do this, so we naturally want to change our behavior. If we have this kind of wisdom, seeing how our faults harm us, then eventually we will achieve a mind that actually strongly wishes to abandon non-virtue. From this, all of our actions of body, speech, and mind will become pure. Moral discipline is not just looking like we’re behaving ourselves, but we are behaving ourselves. And we are doing so because we want to.
Geshe-la says our vows and commitments are like an inner spiritual guide that always gives us good advice. My parents were divorced and I didn’t see my father much as I was growing up, but his constant lectures and advice sunk in. Even now, when I am confronted with some situation, I find myself internally debating with him about what to do. Sometimes I don’t want to follow his advice, but I still hear him in the back of my mind telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing. And even if I don’t want to admit it at the time, he is usually right. Of course, all of this conversation is just taking place in my own head and he knows nothing about our constant “talks.” In the same way, the Spiritual Guide is like our internal father who explains to us what is to be attained and what is to be abandoned. His advice is born from the wisdom knowing what is best for us, not some external set of rules we must obey for fear of some externally imposed punishment if we do not. While my father of this life may sometimes be wrong, my spiritual father is always right. It is only my ignorant rebellion against his advice that convinces me otherwise. We need to learn to activate his voice within our mind, allow ourselves to hear his advice and take the time to reflect on the reasons why he is right. He will never lead us astray. His wisdom is born from compassion.