Good behaviour

Aug 23, 2019

When we think about spiritual practice we usually imagine meditation, or prayer, or something mystical and out of the ordinary. When our mother exhorted us to “behave nicely” I’m quite sure we didn’t think she was giving us spiritual advice!

But she was. A genuinely spiritual person would be one who, first and foremost, doesn’t harm others. And what part of us we do we use to harm others? Our body and our speech. In other words, a spiritual person would necessarily have good behaviour. It’s sounds boring, almost disappointing. So let’s unpack it.

My dictionary defines behaviour as “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.” Given that we’re intensely social beings, surely learning how to conduct ourselves in relation to others is the most fundamental education.

But understanding this at a superficial level is not helpful: mostly we’ll try to behave nicely because we’re afraid of what other people think and are desperate for their approval. Then, there’s a big disconnect between what’s going on inside our mind and what happens on the outside. This is not healthy at all.

Understanding this properly can help transform our own selves and our lives. Entry-level Buddhist practice is all about behaviour: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t lie, don’t criticize others behind their backs, etc. Pretty basic stuff.

But we shouldn’t take this advice for granted. We should ask, “Why shouldn’t I harm others?” I asked a Jesuit priest friend of mine what defines a sin, and he said, “It’s doing what God said not to do.” That’s perfect, if you accept a creator.

The Buddhist reason is more fundamental: these actions harm others. But there’s an even more fundamental reason not to use our body and speech to harm others: we harm ourselves.

We can prove this easily! Forget about the impact upon others, or even the longterm results of our actions – the law of karma, for Buddha. Right now, check how we feel when we lie, shout at someone, steal something, criticize others. Awful! Where do these actions emanate from? Our mind, obviously. Our body and speech are merely the servants of our minds, our thoughts, our emotions.

We really begin to practice spiritually when, as Lama Yeshe puts it, we become our own therapists: looking inside in a focused, coherent, disciplined way, becoming deeply familiar with the contents of our mind, unpacking and unravelling our thoughts and feelings and gradually transforming ourselves into the person we want to become.

But this is not possible without first harnessing the energy of our body and speech: our behaviour. We probably don’t kill or steal, or lie much, or use harsh language, but we all love to talk about others behind their backs – and we don’t even consider that it’s harmful, and certainly not to ourselves.

But when we begin to see that all we’re doing is stirring up our own anger, jealousy, resentment, etc. – in other words, harming ourselves – who would want to do this? This has got nothing to do with guilt, or being seen to be a good person. It’s got everything to do with cultivating self-respect, of becoming accountable to ourselves: recognizing that the person we become is the product of our own actions of body, speech and mind.

  • Watch our speech like a hawk every day.
  • Each day, commit to not say one bad word about anyone.
  • Try not to buy into other people’s criticism of other

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