227 – Skillful Self-Discipline Part 1: Balancing Discipline and Gentleness
230 – The Importance of Bodhi-Mind, or Way-Seeking Mind

If we live without self-discipline – without clarifying aspirations, forming intentions, or training ourselves – our lives are unlikely to go in the direction we would like them to. Unfortunately, self-discipline is notoriously difficult! In the last episode I discussed the importance of self-discipline and some of the mistakes we make when applying it. In this episode I talk about what skillful self-discipline looks like.

Read/listen to Part 1 first.



Quicklinks to Content:
Discipline That is Skillfully Balanced with Gentleness
Clarity of Purpose with Respect to Goals and Aspirations
Patient Determination with Respect to Fulfilling Vows and Intentions
The Profound Side of Self-Discipline and Vow


As I discussed in the last episode, discipline is training imposed on a living thing so it will develop desirable or beneficial behavior or form. Discipline is essential to Buddhist practice, but it can be tricky.

When we’re working with living things, including ourselves, to be effective discipline needs to be balanced with gentleness – having a kind manner, being moderate in force or degree so that the effects are not severe; not rough or violent. If we err on the side of gentleness and neglect self-discipline, we’re unlikely to grow, learn, or develop the way we hope to. If we err on the side of self-discipline and neglect gentleness, we may end up doing harm instead of good, or we may find ourselves resisting, rebelling, or giving our efforts at self-discipline in frustration.

Many of us oscillate between slacking off on self-discipline and applying it without gentleness. Neither are effective, so we may find ourselves feeling like significant positive change is impossible, or like it’s challenging even to maintain a basic level of health and order in our lives.

Discipline That is Skillfully Balanced with Gentleness

What does skillful – that is, compassionate and effective – discipline look like?

First, let’s explore what is entailed in discipline:

  • Wisdom – Clear perception and understanding of the one being disciplined, including their limitations, needs, and character, and being able to discern when they are thriving.
  • Determination – Sticking to the intention despite setbacks.
  • Clarity – Not falling for bullshit excuses, keeping the original intention and motivation in mind.
  • Boundaries – Drawing the line somewhere, challenging the one being disciplined to change, to draw on their own resources, and to endure some discomfort for a good purpose.

Gentleness entails:

  • Kindness – A sincere desire not to harm, but to do good for the being (benevolence).
  • Wisdom – Clear perception and understanding of the one being disciplined, including their limitations, needs, and character, d being able to discern when they are thriving.
  • Acceptance – Of the limitations of the being and their character.
  • Hope – Faith that the being can move toward positive change.
  • Patience – Understanding and accepting that change can only happen so fast – and maybe not in this lifetime, setting reasonable expectations.

We need to skillfully balance discipline and gentleness throughout the whole process, including:

1) When we pick the goal. In the last episode I used a parable about creating a bonsai tree from a young tree seedling within the course of a couple years. Gentleness in picking the goal in this case would be realistically envisioning what shape our little seedling could possibly take in such a short time frame – or ever. The idea would be to bring out the best in this particular little tree, not kill it by trying to make it something it is not. When we pick goals for self-discipline, are we employing gentleness? What biases or blind spots do we have as we consider the possibilities? Watch out for those scenarios we consider to be simply not acceptable.

2) When we monitor the progress. The steps will almost always be MUCH smaller than we would like. It takes practice to learn how to hold true to our intention or aspiration, but still be flexible and open when it comes to results and time frames. Almost any goal worth achieving in a short amount of time is still worth achieving in a longer amount of time!

3) When we interact with the subject of discipline. Ideally, we will always communicate our kindness and good will and general benevolence. Why are we imposing discipline? For the good of the one being disciplined, in a very real sense. At times we may offer praise to someone, or take a moment to appreciate our own progress. We may offer small rewards for continued effort. When corrections need to be made, we do it with clarity and honesty – remembering that the motivation is to benefit this being, leaving no room for anger or judgmentalism.

Clarity of Purpose with Respect to Goals and Aspirations

There are two other aspects of skillful self-discipline I want to discuss. The first of these is clarity of purpose or vision. Many times, when our self-discipline “fails” – that is, when we have an intention, aspiration, or vow but fail to get ourselves to live it out – it’s because we didn’t choose the best goal to begin with.

Goals can be unskillful for many reasons. Some are shallow – based in self-centered longings to be beautiful, well-liked, respected, powerful, etc. Self-centered motivations can certainly be strong enough to motivate people to do all kinds of things, of course, some of which take a great deal of self-discipline. However, for many of us, the shallow goals fail to motivate us at the deepest level of our being. They are not our true heart’s desire, they’re just things we hope will make us happy – but some part of us knows that’s not really the case. And thus, our efforts to attain an ideal weight or develop big muscles or have an immaculate house fizzle.

Some goals are too ambitious and unrealistic, as discussed earlier when I talked about balancing discipline and gentleness. The goals may be too grand in terms of how speedily we hope to achieve them, or too grand in terms of the ultimate desired outcome. This situation tends to lead to a love-hate relationships with goals – we set them with high hopes, fail, beat ourselves up, get sick of beating ourselves up, then reject goal setting until dissatisfaction with our life drives us to start the process over again.

Some goals are wrong for us. We end up setting our mind on something, imagining how great it would be to be, say, always cool and calm, outgoing and fun-loving, courageous and extroverted, well organized, or the CEO of the company we work for. We see there are definite advantages to these different things, and judge our relative excitability, introversion, lack of ambition, mild anxiety, or disorganization as inadequate. However, some goals are just contrary to our nature and its extremely unlikely we’ll ever achieve them. Not only that, but we also probably shouldn’t want to. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and chances are that your strengths are intimately tied to your weaknesses, for better or for worse. For example, a tendency toward irritability tends to come along with a strong drive to get things done. A natural ability to remain chill in all circumstances, on the other hand, may come along with a much more lackadaisical approach to productivity. Would you want to change who you are in order to achieve your goal, if that was even possible?

To set a meaningful and realistic goal, we need to develop clarity about ourselves and what we really want. Our practice requires intention and vow – identifying an aspiration toward greater wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness, and then deciding on concrete steps we can take to move in that direction. Without such intention-guided effort, our lives unfold according to chance and are largely shaped by our current habits and views.

If you find yourself drawn to specific goals like exercising more, eating better, or developing a stronger zazen practice, it’s useful to ask yourself about the deeper desire that lies behind that goal. It might be, in these examples, better health or less emotional reactivity. However, the goals that tend to be the longest-lasting and most motivating are those tied to even deeper aspirations than these. Why do you want better health? Probably in order be better able to appreciate your life, or to live longer and see your children and grandchildren thrive. You probably want less emotional reactivity because you want greater intimacy with the people in your life.

It can be hard to clarify what you really want – the beneficial things your heart of hearts longs for, not the things others want, or the things society tells you should want, or the things you think you should want, or the limited number of things you’ve been conditioned to consider. This process of clarification usually involves a fair amount self-study and a process of radical acceptance of who we really are. Keep in mind that your deepest aspirations may end up translating into very different concrete goals than you might have habitually chosen.

Then, as you proceed on a path that requires self-discipline, keep checking back with your deepest aspirations. Keep them as clear and present as possible. When struggling with a choice, recall that you want to make the one that leads to greater wisdom, compassion, skillfulness, health, intimacy… or whatever it is that matters to you. Instead of refraining for indulging anger, for example, because anger is bad, refrain because you sincerely want to maintain loving relationships. Instead of judging yourself for seeking refuge by overindulging in food or drink, refrain because you want to find ways to fill your needs by engaging more intimately with life.

Patient Determination with Respect to Fulfilling Vows and Intentions

Once we have identified a direction we want to go and some concrete steps we can take to get there, the next thing we need is patient determination. As I discussed in the last episode, as we apply self-discipline we’re inevitably going to run into resistance. My teacher Kyogen Carlson said, “Every vow and intention creates an equal and opposite resistance. This is Newton’s third law, the one of spiritual action and reaction.”[i] In addition, it may take some time before we have evidence of progress, and we need determination to keep going anyway. All the way along, we have to carefully balance discipline and gentleness.

Ultimately, lasting and patient determination is rooted in faith – faith in the process, and faith in yourself. Sometimes efforts at self-discipline are very frustrating, but according to the law of karma – behavioral cause-and-effect – everything we do has an effect. If a full bucket of water is a metaphor for success, each time we turn ourselves in the direction of our aspiration it is usually just a tiny drop in that bucket. If we sit and contemplate how slow our progress is, or try to estimate how long this process is going to take, we’re likely to give up. But if we keep up our effort anyway, eventually there will be change. It’s inevitable.

Another thing Kyogen said was, “Form a thought, create an impulse; form an impulse, create an action; form an action, create a habit; form a habit, create a destiny.” He claimed to be quoting from another source, but honestly I have never been able to find it. Nonetheless, this is a statement I think we can all recognize as true. At times we may doubt it, but how else would destiny be created?

Most of the time, fulfilling our aspirations through self-discipline is not about contemplating lofty goals but about committing ourselves to the next step on our path. Let me quote Kyogen once again (this is from his book, You Are Still Here):

Try to identify what it is that’s drawing you to do this now. It comes down to something specific: I want to end suffering in my life, I want stability, I want peace of mind. Vow is about specific practices, the day-by-day effort to reach that goal…

Vow is about the steps you’re going to take moment by moment. The [deeper] intention is like the North Star, a kind of fixed point. Once you identify it, it gives you a sense of direction. But it’s unreachable. You cannot reach the North Star. You can only orient yourself to the North Star. When you’re looking up at the North Star, it’s fine. But then you’ve got to look down at your feet and pay attention moment by moment in a way that is in harmony with the goal that you have, the distant view.[ii]

Mahatma Gandhi thought vow was essential. He said, “A life without vows is like a ship without an anchor or like an edifice that is built on sand instead of a solid rock.”[iii] But he also recognized that living with self-discipline could be challenging, saying, “The essence of a vow does not consist in the difficulty of its performance but in the determination behind it unflinchingly to stick to it in the teeth of difficulties.” I recall another statement on vow attributed to Gandhi which I tried to find a source for but have been unable to – I think I read it in an autobiography years ago. It may be incorrectly quoted or attributed, but the essence of it I find very instructive: Once you have a made a vow, stop thinking about it. The biggest part of successfully shaping our life according to our aspirations means putting our “nose to the grindstone” instead of constantly looking around and wondering whether our effort is worth it.

In Episode 124 – The Buddhist Practice of Vow: Giving Shape to Our Lives, I talk about a number of ways we can increase the chances that we will be able to stick with our intentions over time, including availing ourselves of social support and choosing vows that are part of a tradition. In that episode I also discussed how important it is to keep our vows alive even if we fail at keeping them sometimes. This is because the vow reflects something about our deeper aspirations – aspirations which probably have remained, even if our daily behavior has strayed from what we intended.

The Profound Side of Self-Discipline, Vow, and Aspirations

For what it’s worth, that’s what I have to say about skillful self-discipline for now. Perhaps the most important message I hope to convey is that self-discipline is not simply a matter of will. Instead, it requires the development of skillfulness – learning to work compassionately and beneficially with a living being who happens to be us. Skillfulness is something we cultivate over time, so learning to live according to our aspirations is a challenging, lifelong process. If self-discipline were simple and easy – if there was one set of approaches you could apply and successfully shape your life exactly how you’d like it to be – then our world wouldn’t be full of books, programs, and gurus promising effective ways to change.

Fortunately, the path of practice isn’t just a long, grueling process of gradually cajoling all the recalcitrant parts of ourselves into becoming a better person. There are profound spiritual implications unveiled through the whole process. Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen master, wrote a fascicle called, “Shoaku Makusa,” or “Not Doing Wrongs.” As usual, he challenges us to expand our limited thinking. He starts out quoting what he says is “the teaching of all the buddhas” (this translation by Nishijima and Cross):

Not to commit wrongs,
To practice the many kinds of right,
Naturally purifies the mind;
This is the teaching of the buddhas.[iv]

Okay, so far so good. But then Dogen seems to point out that “right” and “wrong” do not exist as abstractions against which we can judge our actions. Instead, as Nishijima and Cross say in a footnote, “ [the word] ‘wrongs’ suggest individual instances of wrongdoing as concrete facts, rather than wrong as an abstract problem.” Dogen continues (“bodhi” can be translated as enlightenment):

Remember, [teaching] that sounds like “Do not commit wrongs” is the Buddha’s right Dharma. This [teaching] “Do not commit wrongs” was not intentionally initiated, and then intentionally maintained in its present form, by the common person: when we hear teaching that has [naturally] become the preaching of bodhi, it sounds like this. What sounds like this is speech which is the supreme state of bodhi in words. It is bodhi-speech already, and so it speaks bodhi. When it becomes the preaching of the supreme state of bodhi, and when we are changed by hearing it, we hope “not to commit wrongs,” we continue enacting “not to commit wrongs,” and wrongs go on not being committed; in this situation the power of practice is instantly realized… For people of just this reality, at the moment of just this reality —even if they live at a place and come and go at a place where they could commit wrongs, even if they face circumstances in which they could commit wrongs, and even if they seem to mix with friends who do commit wrongs—wrongs can never be committed at all. The power of not committing is realized, and so wrongs cannot voice themselves as wrongs, and wrongs lack an established set of tools. There is the Buddhist truth of taking up at one moment, and letting go at one moment.[iv]

I won’t try to explicate all of Dogen’s words, here. Mostly it’s useful to just let them wash over you, like poetry, and see what arises or resonates. However, it seems to me that Dogen is pointing us toward that critical space of complete freedom we have in this very moment. That within us which caused us to form an aspiration or commit to vow is the same thing that can tell, in this moment, when we are motivated by greed, anger, or ignorance. That still, small voice within us aspires to “not commit wrongs,” which would mean acting out anyway; if we can tune into that voice, we are listening to our already enlightened nature. Without our participation, “wrongs lack an established set of tools.”

Similarly, there is something profound going on when we choose to do something positive. Dogen says:

“Practice the many kinds of right.” … Even though the many kinds of right are included in “rightness,” there has never been any kind of right that is realized beforehand and that then waits for someone to do it. There is none among the many kinds of right that fails to appear at the very moment of doing right. The myriad kinds of right have no set shape but they converge on the place of doing right faster than iron to a magnet, and with a force stronger than the vairambhaka [legendary, extremely strong] winds. It is utterly impossible for the earth, mountains and rivers, the world, a nation, or even the force of accumulated karma, to hinder [this] coming together of right.[v]

Wow, how wonderful if we were able to tap into this power of doing right! In an everyday, practical sense it is necessary to form some ideas of what is right, healthy, appropriate, or good to do. However, ultimately, as Dogen says, “there has never been any kind of right that is realized beforehand and that then waits for someone to do it.” It’s all about moments of choice, and that which draws us to what it is good is immensely powerful, especially when we allow the myriad kinds of right to have no set shape, but instead show up each moment with willingness to face reality and respond wholeheartedly.


Read/listen to Part 1 first.



[i] Carlson, Kyogen (Sallie Jiko Tisdale, editor). You are Still Here: Zen Teachings of Kyogen Carlson. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2021.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Comprehensive Website by Gandhian Institutions-Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal & Gandhi Research Foundation, https://www.mkgandhi.org/epigrams/v.htm

[iv] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994

[v] Ibid


227 – Skillful Self-Discipline Part 1: Balancing Discipline and Gentleness
230 – The Importance of Bodhi-Mind, or Way-Seeking Mind