The 3 basics of the path: ethics, concentration and wisdom

Buddhists are good at lists. Tibetan Buddhists, the Gelugpa school perhaps especially, have made them into a sort of art form. The Lam Rim is a long list of lists, in fact.

In my daily meditations I’m working with Thubten Chodron’s Guided meditations on the Stages of the Path. She has divided the Lam Rim up into handy daily meditations. This morning I meditated on the three basics on the path – meditation E5 ‘Paths that cease disturbing attitudes’ if you care to look it up.

Anyhow, I thought they might make a good talking point on this blog. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, after all.

In Buddhism ethics always comes first. After all: there is no chance of getting out of the rounds of rebirth if you don’t at least stop harming other beings as much as possible. In Buddhism ethics is a long list of don’ts. What you might call positive ethics comes in as metta or bodhicitta depending on your tradition. Since Buddhism is a contemplative tradition first, loving kindness takes a back seat to making sure you don’t harm others through things like ill will, murder, stealing, slander etc. This makes sense: how can you really help anybody if you’re still hurting people actively? Next comes calming the mind through even more ethical discipline: getting over greed, avoiding gossip and idle talk etc. (*)

Once the grossest forms of these are no longer part of our mindstream, we can go on to trying to train concentration and developing wisdom. Lay people are also encouraged to develop devotion and generosity, but that’s not part of this particular list.

We train concentration by focusing on one particular object, say an image of Jesus or Buddha, visualizing that very clearly and holding it in the mind for as long a time as you can manage. At first that’s usually no longer than a few moments at a time, if you’re able to visualize at all. If you can’t – that’s ok too. One of my lay Buddhist teachers shared that she could not visualize at all. Instead she just recited the description of the practice (whatever it was at that point) in her head. The main criterion of success is feeling the Buddha, or whatever it is you’re visualizing, is really there.

Wisdom is defined a bit more specifically than you’d think if you merely heard the word. In a Mahayana Buddhist context it usually refers to the realization of Emptiness. Again – that doesn’t mean what you may think it does. If you’re ready for some deep philosophical speculation, do check out my section on Buddhist Philosophy and Emptiness on my site.

For now I will summarize emptiness as the realization that your personality is an illusion – that is: it’s not a fixed entity, it changes and it’s the main source of your problems (and mine, obviously). Or again in other words: grasping at the self is the main source of our problems: it magnifies every issue we may be facing in our lives. This can manifest as selfishness, but also as being overbearing. Self-grasping can be in our lives as pride or lack of self confidence and more. Self grasping is at the root of all our problems, according to Buddhism, but the realization that this is so is quite tough. It’s the realization of Emptiness and the ultimate wisdom. Realizing this emptiness (of inherent existence of the personality) is what it means to be an Arhat, or that’s how I understand it right now.

Note that the term ‘realization’ means a PERMANENT realization, not merely having a feel for how the personality fools itself, not merely having an intellectual understanding – that’s a nice start, but an Arhat doesn’t have a grasping self at all anymore. He or she will not get defensive when hurt, won’t get a feel of ‘oh me’ when losing family etc.

As Thubten Chodron teaches it here, wisdom includes another basic Buddhist concept: belief in Karma. In other wisdom teachings I’ve read it is stressed that we should only study emptiness to the point where we can still believe in karma. If our study of Buddhist philosophy makes us doubt karma, we should go back a bit.

So there you have it: the three basic ingredients of the Buddhist path to liberation are ethics, concentration and wisdom. What do you think?

(*) Note that this list is in the Lam Rim as a practice in common with the second level of practitioner. It doesn’t include Bodhicitta because that’s left for the highest scope. In the Middle Scope we DO realize we want out of saṃsāra, out of the rounds of rebirth, but we don’t yet realize we want to take all sentient beings with us.

5 thoughts on “The 3 basics of the path: ethics, concentration and wisdom”

  1. oh, well I think this may be one of my favorite posts from you. A beginner at every level of any traditional spiritual path, I love it when everything is outlined and the main direction is explained.

    “Next comes calming the mind through even more ethical discipline: getting over greed, avoiding gossip and idle talk etc. ”

    I enjoyed having this brought to me. thanks

    1. That’s very possible. The Lam Rim is as I said a list of lists. The first two stages are basically the the main Theravada meditation topics, which obviously include the Noble Eightfold path.

  2. The following statement on Rigpa Wiki seems to define the three basics you are referring to (edited for grammar:) ‘when related to the three trainings, correct view and thinking correspond to the training in wisdom; correct speech, action and livelihood to the training in discipline; and effort, mindfulness and concentration to the training in meditation.’–

  3. “Ethics’ is primarily a fallout, side effect of gradual ‘loss of ignorance’. Though I have not experienced it personally yet, it might be a good idea to think it to be possible that ‘practicing’ ethics may gradually lead to ‘loss of ignorance’ itself. However, it can result in much like the following situation :
    “Rubbing your palms generate heat in them, so heating them might lead to they getting rubbed”.

    About the rest two, later…

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