Why should people do good in the world? Why should they show any restraint on the pursuit of their selfish ends in this life? Why would anyone ever do anything for anyone else? Why not remain 100% committed to the ruthless satisfaction of our desires? The answers to these questions and the queries like them lie in the understanding of the importance of moral discipline.
All major religions posit a system of moral discipline. Moral discipline is an exercise in restraint, stopping oneself from committing non-virtuous actions in favor of virtuous ones. Some religious and philosophical systems only concern themselves with the outward behaviors while others like Buddhism and Hinduism focus on both the outward behavior and the inner causes, the delusions in our minds.
The Chinese probably took the system of ethical standards to its pinnacle with the teachings of Confucius. People identify Confucianism as a religion, but it isn’t concerned with God or heaven or hell or reincarnation or many of the other issues often associated with religion. Confucianism is concerned about relationships between people, the power imbalances, and how people should relate to each other. It’s an ethical system of rules that establish proper and improper behavior. It’s what passes for religion in China, particularly after the communists wiped out everything else.
The simplest and one of the oldest systems of encouraging moral disciplines comes from the Jewish Old Testament. God makes rules. If you break the rules, you suffer eternal damnation, and if you follow the rules, you enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven with God. Its simplicity is a virtue as it’s quite easy to understand, but the black-and-white nature of heaven and hell make it somewhat limiting, as we will discuss later.
Christians inherited this baggage from Judaism as did Islam. Each of these religious belief systems suffer from the black-and-white nature of the heaven and hell divide. Life has many shades of gray, and it feels intuitively wrong to believe two people could be very similar but through one tiny difference in belief or action could separate them from eternal damnation and eternal salvation.
This black-or-white problem can be illustrated by a popular video game, Civilization. In Sid Meier’s Civilization, the early versions had an extremely simple all-or-nothing combat system. While the odds of a tribal spearman destroying a modern battleship might have been 10,000:1, if your battleship attack encountered that rare occurrence, your shiny billion-dollar battleship would be destroyed by 20 guys throwing wooden spears with sharp stones attached to them. These kinds of occurrences were so unrealistic and unsettling for players that the programmers had to create the concept of battle damage to provide shades of gray more apparent in daily life.
The lack of shades of gray is a serious problem for modern Christians, Jews, and Moslems because their philosophical world view requires a black-and-white event at death, you either go to heaven or you go to hell, and modern minds find this just as unsettling and as unpopular as the gamers who lost battleships to spearmen.
Most modern Christian Churches dodge this problem by instead focusing on the joy of heaven. The idea of going to hell is simply taken off the table because once someone accepts Christ as their savior, they get a free pass to heaven. The problem with eliminating the reward of heaven and the fear of hell, the Christian Church lost the ability to motivate virtuous behavior.
Paul recognized this problem. He had to answer to critics who pointed out that people actually had the incentive to commit more non-virtuous acts because they would obtain even more Grace. His basic answer was that people should be motivated to follow God’s law out of love for Him because he was willing to sacrifice his only Son to be our Savior. It’s a nice argument for those with faith, but it isn’t very convincing to those who don’t have faith because they don’t believe in God, in God’s Son, or in the need for anyone to die for the forgiveness of anyone else’s sins. In short, Paul’s answer helps the faithful but leaves the rest behind.
Buddhists posit a more nuanced system to encourage proper moral discipline based on Karma. For Buddhists, Karma isn’t something you either have faith in and you get or you don’t have faith in and it doesn’t apply. Karma is something you learn and understand, and when you do, the Truth of Karma shines a bright light on all your foibles and strongly motivates you to eliminate all of it.
Karma has only one black-and-white element, and that is the dividing line that separates virtuous from the non-virtuous. A virtuous thought, feeling, or action is one that calms the mind sews the seeds of future happiness. A non-virtuous thought, feeling, or action is one that disturbs the mind and sews the seeds of future suffering. The wisdom comes from recognizing what behaviors are virtuous and lead to inner peace and what behaviors are non-virtuous and lead to suffering. The practice of moral discipline is to engage in virtuous behaviors while abstaining from non-virtuous behaviors.
One of the big differences between the Buddhist approach and the Christian approach is in the practitioner’s motivation. Christians tend to motivate themselves by suppressing their desires. They try to cram down the feelings that motivate them to perform non-virtuous actions, they mortify the flesh, deny their sexual urges, and attempt to use their willpower to keep themselves in line. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well. Suppressing desires generally fails, so Christians often fall short of their lofty ideals.
Buddhists take a very different approach. Buddhists go after the underlying motivation and through the application of the reasoning of Karma undermine the desire itself. A Buddhist practitioner doesn’t suppress an emotion, they undermine it by applying sound reasoning that generates a counter-weighted emotion that wipes out the non-virtuous desire. In other words, Buddhists purify their minds so that the desire to act in non-virtuous ways simply disappears.
The reasoning goes back to the definition itself. Why would anyone knowingly engage in an action that they knew was going to result in future suffering? If you believe from your own experience that engaging in non-virtuous activities leads to suffering, whenever the thought arises that you might gain pleasure from some action, the strong reminder that it leads to suffering will also arise, and it will cancel out the anticipated pleasure.
A common example of this is whether to enjoy a cocktail at a dinner party or not. If you consume alcohol to excess, you know you are not practicing moral discipline because you also know that the end result will be a painful hangover the next day, not to mention the humiliation of what you probably did while inebriated. If you focus on the hangover and the humiliation — actions certain to follow your non-virtuous behavior — you probably won’t drink to excess (or not at all). While people may not recognize decisions like this are the embodiment of Karma, this is how the idea works.
If you recognize Karma, you can use the idea wisely to seek out and destroy all non-virtuous behavior in your life.