The second paramita is tshul-khrims, “ethics, morality, moral discipline, ethical conduct, rule, order,” Shila in Sanskrit. According to the Bodhisattva Vehicle, there are three categories of ethics (tshul-khrims-gsum):
(1) to refrain from negative actions,
(2) to accumulate what is positive and
(3) to help others.
To refrain from negative actions, nyes-spyod-sdom-pa'i-tshul-khrims, is the first aspect of the three kinds of discipline. It means avoiding misdeeds and wrongdoings, i.e., not doing that which hurts others and that which is selfish. In general, harmful actions are described as the ten non-virtues, which are:
(1) killing, (2) stealing, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) lying, (5) slander, (6) harsh speech, (7) useless speech, (8) covetousness, (9) ill-will, and (10) misguided beliefs.
If one’s motivation is pure, however, then the first seven wrongdoings are permissible. If one’s motivation is impure, then one cannot be a bodhisattva. In order to have pure and skilful conduct, one needs to study and learn what is negative by training under the guidance of someone who really knows and has experienced the significance of virtue and vice.
Having seen which negative habits and actions are strongest and easiest to give up, a practitioner can take vows or commitments never to repeat them again. For example, if one is certain that one can stop killing, then one can take the vow not to kill. If one is certain that one can stop killing and stealing, then one can take both vows. Moral codes, tshul-khrims-srung-ba, and vows are supports that enable practitioners to reduce and eventually eliminate any wrongdoings.
The discipline of training in positive actions and developing virtuous qualities, dge-ba-chos-sdud-kyi-tshul-khrims, is the second aspect of tshul-krhims-gsum, “the three kinds of discipline.” Creating values of worth can be practiced at all times and in relation to everything. There is no situation or thing that cannot be the practice of a bodhisattva. It is said that there are as many practices as there are phenomena and that both positive and negative circumstances and situations present an opportunity for a bodhisattva to benefit living beings. Virtuous qualities are described as the six paramitas, but a person must be ready and willing to engage in these invaluable activities. The intention to do so is already an immense accumulation of virtue.
The Mahayana ways of dealing with mind poisons are very easy skilful methods. If one has desire, for example, then it may be necessary to exert effort in order to stop one’s craving. First it is necessary to understand the source and result of desire and craving and then it is necessary to learn to appreciate what it means to be content. While investigating both aspects, desire automatically decreases and contentment naturally increases. There is no need to sit down and work on decreasing desire and to later sit down and work on increasing contentment, seeing that winning an understanding of both practices simultaneously serves both purposes. In this way, various skilful methods can be developed and put into practice:
generosity as an antidote for being stingy and mean, diligence as an antidote for laziness, meditation as an antidote for mental complexity, wisdom as an antidote for ignorance, and so forth. Mahayana Buddhism offers so many practices, and one starts by engaging in the easiest ones, until one can practice what needs to be done on a larger scale.
Acting on behalf of sentient beings, sems-can-don-byed, is the third aspect of tshul-krhims-gsum. One does need to have achieved a certain level of realization that is based upon a pure mind of loving kindness and selfless compassion in order to be able to really benefit others effectively and reliably. However, it is possible to benefit others before one has fully realized perfection if one has the pure motivation.
There are four basic guidelines to act upon for the benefit of sentient beings if one has a pure motivation:
(1) To give sentient beings whatever they need to fulfil their wishes and needs, provided one’s help does not harm anyone. (2) To say what others like to hear, provided what one says causes no harm. This means to speak nicely. Nevertheless, should it be necessary to use harsh words for someone’s sake and one is certain it will move them to stop harming themselves or others, then one just has to use harsh words. (3) If in any way it is possible to offer others even a slightest glimpse of the truth, then one is obliged to do so. (4) Regardless of one’s own spiritual level of advancement, regardless of whether it is a law or not, one should behave in accordance with accepted customs and norms.
Ultimately, one’s ability to help others is limited. It is limited as long as one has not developed sufficient confidence in wisdom-awareness, the sixth paramita, or realized it fully. It is also limited as long as one does not really understand circumstances and situations and is not totally sure that the help one gives others will not be impaired by disappointment or obscured by pride. And yet, one starts where one is, at one’s personal level of understanding, and acts for the welfare of others in whatever way possible and according to one’s understanding and capabilities.