A Talk on Being a Principled Person of Good Conduct

January 06, 2009, By 17th Gyalwang Karmapa - Translated by Ven. Lhundup Damchö and Karma Choephel for Monlam English Translation Network.

The sort of guru-disciple relationship we have seen up to this point today in the biography of the master yogi Jetsun Milarepa—the guru-disciple relationship between Lama Marpa and his disciple Mila—is unlike the guru-disciple relationships found nowadays. Theirs was not the sort of relationship today's lamas have where sometimes they say to their foreign disciples, "You have to do as I say. If you don't, you'll be breaking your samaya and will fall into hell realms." Lama Marpa's way of nurturing his disciple Milarepa was entirely with a sense of being father and son, and not like today's way of caring for disciples for the sake of food, clothing, and a little pleasant chitchat.

If we really think about it, it is not alright for one who is called a lama just to know how to sit on a high throne. A lama must know how to nurture disciples lovingly, and be able to care for them. Those lamas who simply accept many disciples, have no idea where those disciples are going, and are completely in the dark as to what to practice and what to abandon are deserving of our compassion.

In order to be a good lama, one first needs to be a good person and a good parent. For that reason, I have a few words to say today on the subject of being principled and having good conduct.

With good, principled conduct, if it feels as if someone made a law that we must behave well and with principles and then commanded others that they must act a certain way—admonishing them, “Don’t kill, don’t steal”—and only after that do we need to do it, then this is a mistake. Rather, this principled, good conduct is an indispensable condition for us to be able to stay alive and to be happy.

Even right at the time of our birth, it is through our parents' love and affection that we are cared for. The reason parents come together is their affection for each other. Then when the baby is born, they have concern for the child's future and a feeling of affection, don't they? Afterwards, as the child is growing up, in childhood and throughout youth as well, there would be no way to do without the love and affection of others.

For instance, when we are born, later when we start going to school, and from then onwards, without the support of others, we would basically become unruly. Such situations show clearly that we must depend on others. There is no way for us to sustain our lives in isolation from others. It is clear that we live by relying on society and on a community. Therefore, since we have to live our lives in dependence on human society, what if the society or community we depend on is full of people who look down on others, treat them with contempt, abuse them or, on top of that, heedlessly trample on and kill other people or other beings? It is difficult to live our lives in a society or world in which such cruel activities are taking place, isn't it? This becomes extremely painful.

Therefore when you engage in such illicit activities as killing, slandering out of jealousy, or telling lies, you are destroying your own value, and the people around you will shun you as a criminal, and as an unprincipled scoundrel. Basically, it’s as if you were being expelled from human society. Thus for these two reasons, it is very clear that we must lead our lives in dependence on others. If the society or human community on which we depend is completely filled with unprincipled, base behavior, it is difficult for us to live our lives, isn't it? If the people we depend on are contemptuous, abusive or liars, or people who lack even a shred of pity or compassion for the lives of others, forget about leading our lives there, there is a danger we will spend day and night continuously oppressed by the suffering of fear, terror, and panic, isn't there? Therefore unless we make changes to that society on which we depend, starting right now with ourselves, we probably will not come to have happiness. If we just go on in this way, doing all sorts of things or acting haphazardly, without protecting our own value ourselves, people will recognize that they have an unprincipled scoundrel in their ranks, and even if no one expels us from human society, we will naturally be cast out from it.

For this reason, there are the ethics of the ten virtues. For instance, we need to maintain the discipline against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, idle chatter, covetousness, malice, and wrong views—the three non-virtues of body, four of speech, and three of mind. This is extremely important, isn’t it? If a person's ethics are genuine—that is, if they are upstanding—they do not kill or lie. They do not commit adultery or rape, nor do they tell lies, and so forth.

Rules that have been mandated are something one has no choice about. But when it is explained that now you should not kill, and if you do kill, you will have one problem after another, then this is not a situation where you have no choice, is it? Thus in the case of those who ordain, there is no need to feel that someone else mandated a rule and only then did it become something you have to do. Optimally, one would naturally take joy in applying oneself to guarding the ethics of the ten virtues.

So we do need to have good, principled conduct, don't we? If we instead ask whether there is a need for us to engage in unprincipled and base behavior, I don't think we would need to spend much time considering before we settled that question. I doubt we would take a few days to ponder, “Should I be principled and behave ethically or should I be an unprincipled scoundrel?" and only then come to a decision. This is because our way of life and our activities speak for themselves directly. If we are principled and of good conduct, then without needing to announce that we are doing so, our activities naturally speak for themselves. How is that so? All human beings revere those who accomplish vast benefit for others, don’t they? For example, in the case of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he is acting to bring about vast benefit for the common good of the world, because this is indispensable in today's world, he becomes a leader for peace and happiness. When one works to bring about vast benefit for others, the activities speak for themselves, and so there is no need to explain to others that they are indispensable for the world and that they are praiseworthy. The activities will simply speak for themselves.

If on the contrary we think only of our own interests, and go along mistreating other people, lying, stealing, killing, and engaging in all sorts of other unlawful activities, even if no one in our community says anything, in the view of society, we will automatically be recognized as scoundrels and wrong. Many people will not want to be around us or wish to have any connection to us.

For just such reasons, if we do good, we will be at ease in our surroundings. We will have no regrets. Others will come to relate to us with smiles and affection. They will be loyal to us. We will be able to live a life that is happy and pleasant, a life of joy and delight.

As for unprincipled behavior, since most people find it to be a matter of convenience to behave in an unprincipled way, many naturally run off to do unprincipled things. Behaving well is difficult, isn't it? This is because when the greedy, the discontented and those with tremendous avarice engage in unprincipled actions, they do so because their demands or needs get met very quickly, it seems.

The main point for principled people of good conduct is genuinely to have an altruistic attitude. The main thing is not to place their own happiness and well-being first and get their own desires fulfilled. Thus people of principled behavior think, “I must be someone who considers the happiness and suffering of others, and thinks of the world.” People of base behavior think only of their own interests. These are the people whose behavior is called base. It is quite clear that what is fundamental for anyone of principled behavior is to first reflect on the interests of many people, the aims of the world, and the aims of society at large, and then act.

All of us here have made aspirations, wishing that all sentient beings gain happiness and well-being, and wishing for peace and happiness. We have come together here with such wholesome motivations. Thus our hopes and aspiration prayers are a sort of way to lift our spirits. If some painful or unfortunate situation should arise, when we say "May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness," this brings comfort, and we feel now we have gained some hope. If we are comforted, this is a good thing, isn't it?

But when we speak of hope and aspiration prayers, it is not that we just think about what we want to happen, and then hope and make prayers for it. If we come to hope and pray solely for consolation, we will just be sitting there praying, “May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.” But if what we are praying for is to actually come about, we cannot just sit there without bringing it about in actuality, can we? If there is something that we need to actually come about, then no matter what, we must bring it about. And this statement, “May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness” is something that can come about. If we wonder how it is that this is to come about, we must each begin with ourselves. We each need to secure our own happiness and causes of happiness.

To secure our own happiness and causes of happiness, we must first act to create wholesome causes of happiness. We must create virtue. We must engage in good conduct. We must generate wholesome attitudes. These are important. If we are able to secure our own happiness and causes of happiness, then through that, in turn, others' happiness and causes of happiness will come about. Beginning from oneself, it is important to engage in good conduct and generate wholesome attitudes.

There are many different types of good, principled conduct described in each individual spiritual path, but what is described as mundane, good, principled conduct is paramount. Various sorts of behavior are described as mundane sorts of good, principled behavior, primarily in accord with the particular time and place. Thus, as is appropriate for the time and place, it is extremely important to be a good, honest person. The reasons are those that I have already explained, so there is no need to repeat it here.

In brief, we need to get along with each other. For example, if you need to prepare some food and do not yourself know how to cook, there is no choice but to pin your hopes on someone else. If that person is ill-tempered and angry, and, in addition to not cooking , fights with you, it really hurts, doesn’t it? It would be difficult to live in a society where everyone always scowls at each other, wouldn’t it?

These days there are many people who take their own lives. Within a society in which people only think about wealth, business, politics, and how to come out on top and defeat others, after awhile, when people stop placing any value on themselves and trample over others as much as they can, one can begin to feel despair, without any confidence and without friends to back one. When you start to feel like this, you think that your life in this world is futile and meaningless. Then one day one will have to kill yourself, won't you?

Nowadays, it's said that in some countries there are books that explain how to commit suicide. If you want to kill yourself, it seems there are manuals showing the various techniques to use. It has come to the point that they need to compose such things. There shouldn’t be any need for a book on how to commit suicide, should there? Our society has come to have many ways for people to commit suicide. Earlier, these would have been rejected. But these days, now that society itself has become bad and misguided, more and more people are committing suicide. As the number of people taking their own life increases, a need has developed for these suicide manuals. And then it seems that if you lack the courage to take your own life, you can call some other people who want to commit suicide, and propose a time and place to meet.

As for the need to be a wholesome, undeceitful person, it is said:

Though the earth be full of the unprincipled, you yourself must be of principled conduct. In that way, by the very nature of things, you yourself will prosper abundantly.

In the same way, even if this planet earth were filled entirely with unprincipled people, one would still need to behave in a principled way oneself. This is what I think.

One should be a good person, and become a leader in society, honest, straightforward, with politics that are not deceitful. In general, yes, politics are politics, but it is not necessary to engage in a ruthless form of politics. This is a sort of hope that I harbor. I have serious hopes for myself, but it is difficult, because the world itself is already filled with deceitful people. So even if you yourself do not think you need to act that way, they draw you into their deceptions, and at times this can become difficult. Nevertheless, I have the thought that if there were no one in the world who was not duplicitous or devious, then the world would be hopeless, pointless and futile. So with this thought, I keep the aspiration that no matter what I encounter, I must be free of duplicity or deceit, and a source of hope within the world.

Thus we need the courage to be a good person, with good, principled conduct, and we need sincere determination. Without courage and sincere determination, just taking it easy, without any problems or any work to do, there is no way to become a good person.

Nowadays in Tibet it often happens that many of the businesspeople who are bad people get lucky, while the sincere and honest businesspeople lose their investments and can’t sell their goods. This sort of thing happens, doesn’t it? In such cases, when unprincipled people's good luck increases, it looks as if they are more successful. However, people of good conduct have to undergo some slight hardship. We have to exert ourselves. There is no way to be a good person without making any efforts, doing nothing. But if we bring to bear the sort of confidence and sincere determination that says, “I don’t care what happens; no matter what, I will be a good person in the world; it is not alright for everyone in the world to be deceitful, with bad intentions and behaving badly, so I myself will be a good person,” in that case, I think at that point we can become good people without difficulty. I think it can basically come about without hardship.

Therefore, coming back to Milarepa's biography, whether one is a monastic or a layperson, it is very important that we have affection for one another and believe in one another’s value. However much fighting there is in the world, however much darkness there is, we must be able to serve as small lamps in that darkness. This is extremely important. If there were only darkness and not even a single lamp, there would be absolutely no way for us to avoid what we need to avoid and take up what we need to take up. Thus I consider it very important that we exert ourselves and shoulder this responsibility.

That is about it on being a good, principled person. This is not only for monastics. Also for laymen and laywomen, it would be excellent if beginning from today you could begin to be principled people of good conduct—good people.