Moral Self-Protection Grounded in Meditation

Once the Buddha told his monks the following story:

There was once a pair of jugglers who performed their acrobatic feats on a bamboo pole. One day the master said to his apprentice:

“Now get on my shoulders and climb up the bamboo pole.” When the apprentice had done so, the master said: “Now protect me well and I shall protect you! By protecting and watching each other in that way, we shall be able to show our skill, make a good profit and safely get down from the bamboo pole.”

But the apprentice said: “Not so, master! You, O master, should protect yourself, and I too shall protect myself. Thus self-protected and self-guarded we shall safely do our feats.”

“This is the right way,” said the Blessed One and spoke further as follows:

“It is just as the apprentice said: ‘I shall protect myself’—in that way the foundations of mindfulness (satipatthana) should be practised. ‘I shall protect others’—in that way the foundations of mindfulness should be practised. Protecting oneself, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.

“And how does one, in protecting oneself, protect others? By the repeated and frequent practice of meditation (asevanaya bhavanaya bahulikammena).

“And how does one, in protecting others, protect oneself? By patience and forbearance, by a non-violent and harmless life, by loving kindness and compassion.”

(Satipatthana Samyutta, No. 19):

Commentary by Nyanaponika Thera from “Protection Through Satipatthana”

Nyanaponika Maha Thera

“Moral self-protection will lack stability as long as it remains a rigid discipline enforced after a struggle of motives and against conflicting habits of thought and behaviour. Passionate desires and egotistic tendencies may grow in intensity if one tries to silence them by sheer force of will. Even if one temporarily succeeds in suppressing passionate or egotistic impulses, the unresolved inner conflict will impede one’s moral and spiritual progress and warp one’s character.

Furthermore, inner disharmony caused by an enforced suppression of impulses will seek an outlet in external behaviour. It may make the individual irritable, resentful, domineering and aggressive towards others. Thus harm may come to oneself as well as to others by a wrong method of self-protection.

Only when moral self-protection has become a spontaneous function, when it comes as naturally as the protective closing of the eyelid against dust–only then will our moral stature provide real protection and safety for ourselves and others. This naturalness of moral conduct does not come to us as a gift from heaven. It has to be acquired by repeated practice and cultivation. Therefore our sutta says that it is by repeated practice that self-protection becomes strong enough to protect others too.

But if that repeated practice of the good takes place only on the practical, emotional and intellectual levels, its roots will not be firm and deep enough. Such repeated practice must also extend to the level of meditative cultivation. By meditation, the practical, emotional and intellectual motives of moral and spiritual self-protection will become our personal property which cannot easily be lost again. Therefore our sutta speaks here of bhavana, the meditative development of the mind in its widest sense. This is the highest form of protection which our world can bestow.

He who has developed his mind by meditation lives in peace with himself and the world. From him no harm or violence will issue. The peace and purity which he radiates will have an inspiring, uplifting power and will be a blessing to the world. He will be a positive factor in society, even if he lives in seclusion and silence. When understanding for, and recognition of, the social value of a meditative life ceases in a nation, it will be one of the first symptoms of spiritual deterioration.”


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

One Response to “Moral Self-Protection Grounded in Meditation”

  1. Protecting others helps protect one self. Oh, if I could make it as common and everyday practice as described here.

    I guess that’s why they call it “practice.” You keep at it, never quite realizing perfection until your awakening day. Thanks, Steve.

    michael j

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