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Ethics: The Quickest Way To Joy [Audio]

The mind cannot be stable without ethics. This is the foundation and it is the end of the path. The stability of mind and inner quiet allows us to act in a way that is beneficial for our long-term happiness. What can we do to get into this spaciousness where long-term happiness arises naturally?



Today’s topic is ethics. I’ve been surrounded by ethics.  I had a Buddhist chaplaincy training on Friday and we had a beautiful retreat yesterday expressing ethics through artwork. At the Tibetan Buddhist Centers, we would never put ethics as a topic of a retreat because no one would show up. The mind cannot be stable, though, without ethics. This is the foundation and it is the end of the path. The stability of mind and inner quiet allows us to act in a way that is beneficial for our long-term happiness. What can we do to get into this spaciousness where long-term happiness arises naturally?

The first piece to explore is what is it? What is ethics? Is it 5 Precepts?  Respect?  Right action?  Generosity?  Doing the right thing?  Moral compass?  Code of conduct?  No harming? What is it within us? We see this happening in our daily lives.  For example, when I turn on the shower sometimes, I’m not aware that there’s a spider and all of a sudden I realize the spider is getting wet. I turn off the water and take the spider outside. Or the other day when I was driving, I saw this elderly person crossing the street and he tripped and fell.  So many people came to serve him. Nobody knew him but everyone came to the rescue. Why do we do that? Because we are compassionate beings. Sometimes we think of ethics as a code of conduct, yet spontaneously it is already within us.

We do this naturally but through more care and mindfulness, we can probably do it even more skillfully.  With more care and mindfulness, we realize that ethics is different in each situation and each space. Take this space–a meditation space.  Even if you’re here for the first time, you get a sense of what the appropriate actions are. There’s a restaurant code of ethics, a hospital code of ethics. Part of it is the mindfulness we bring into each situation and with each individual. If you have dinner at someone’s home, you try to get a feel of their family dynamics. There are ethics that are appropriate for them. And it takes more mindfulness and care to know what is appropriate for each dynamic situation.

What is holding us back from accessing that dynamic compassion and care? It is multifactorial. When that elderly man fell and people rushed to him, there was a sense of interconnectedness. On what level did they connect with him? There’s an understanding that we are all connected; that we’re trying to be happy more and to suffer less. Part of it was that people did not want to see the old man suffer, and it meant something to them.  It was important that he didn’t suffer. As the bodhisattva vow suggests–“may I attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings”–there’s this recognition that I’m not free until everyone is free.  How can I be truly free if others are suffering? There’s no truth in that.  When we lose sight of interconnectedness, we become selfish or self absorbed.  This can take a lot of awareness and practice. We have two types of awareness: the normal relative level awareness is outward, and inner awareness, which we rarely access. This inner awareness is where the interconnectedness lies.

As Urgyen Rinpoche used to say, “The only difference between enlightenment and non-enlightenment is the direction that you’re looking.”  If you’re looking this way you’re in Samsara, if you’re looking the other way, you’re in Nirvana.  It is that simple. An example of outer awareness is listening to a sound in the environment.  Inner awareness is where you are hearing the sound. Inner awareness is knowing that there is a knower and what is known. Usually we are aware of what is known, but very rarely do we spend time with the knower of what is known. This is a very important piece.  We are remembering who and what we are by letting go of what we are not and arriving into what we are. We are not thoughts, beliefs, and body sensations. We are not an unchanging, permanent self. If we are trying to overthink ethics, it’s not going to be very dynamic. It has to be spontaneous and be accessed through inner awareness. They say with emptiness, compassion arises naturally–just as awareness is there waiting. We tend to forget and need to come back. It’s the same with love and compassion, which are spontaneously arising from uncultivated space.

How do we access ethics? On a relative level there is the paradox of cultivating until we realize this is who we are. We practice metta–loving kindness, compassion–until it becomes second nature. How do we access it?  Through awareness.  How do we sustain awareness? Practice! The practice is strengthening our ethics. When we move into our practice, we have all the hindrances that makes things challenging. We’re all lazy. “I’ll practice later”.  When I was living in Santa Cruz, there was this amazing teacher who had just come from Tibet and my friend invited me to see him. I was living at a Buddhist center where I already had access to amazing teachers and this new teacher was an hour and a half drive away from me. So I was very lazy and I didn’t see him until seven years later. It took me that long to meet this great teacher who is now very established. Diligence, patience, and discipline leads to meditative concentration, which leads to wisdom, which leads to insight, which leads to the insight of interdependence, which leads to spontaneous compassion arising.  

It is important we know the whole structure that mindfulness is derived from for it to be sustainable. Mindfulness is not sustainable without the knowledge of ethics. Paying attention is different from mindfulness. A thief pays great attention. However, a thief is not practicing mindfulness.  He’s not practicing non-judgemental compassion with awareness.  All of these things have to mesh together. When we look at our practice, a lot of the time we think, “how is our sitting going?”  It is important to take time–a week, a month, 3 months, a year–and practice a virtue. It is common for longer practitioners to take a year and just practice on right speech, for example.

There’s a story of two monks, one very volatile and the other very mellow. The very volatile monk was trying to instigate the mellow monk.  The volatile monk hit the mellow monk’s head with a stick. The other monk just looked at him and said, “Thank you! I’m practicing patience right now, and you’ve given me the opportunity to practice patience.” The moral of the story is that he was practicing patience.  It was absorbed in his awareness and he was focused on it. With every opportunity that came to him he came back to patience. Stuck in traffic? Patience. Someone’s not so skillful at work? Patience.

When people ask how your practice is going, your sitting can be going well but maybe you’ve been very angry. Maybe you’re not cultivating the other pieces. We have to look at the whole picture and give all the elements their attention.  I always remind myself that the Buddha taught 84,000 teachings.  He only taught one thing, which is non-grasping mind. That’s it. All of the teachings support just one thing: the non-grasping mind. It’s important to note that it took 84,000 teachings to support this one thing.  We need to use our own wisdom to examine. We need to ask what it is that we need to focus on. Maybe I do need to take a week and practice right speech.


Do we know what we live by? What do we come upon in times of stress and challenge and what do we come back to? It’s important to revisit these concepts. Awareness practice might be external or they might be through internal experiences. Always place your true awareness within.

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