The three higher trainings — triśikṣa in Sanskrit — are arguably the most important teachings to a Buddhist. Sometimes the three trainings are described as “ethics, concentration and wisdom” and other times as “discipline, meditation, and wisdom” — but, either way, the words don’t capture the essence of these higher trainings, which after all, ultimately are the path to full liberation.
Even though they sound straight-forward — there’s nothing complicated about the notions of ethics, concentration and wisdom — they are considered higher trainings, and by definition, are sophisticated and nuanced teachings. They apply to all Buddhists, regardless of path: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana.
How nuanced? Discipline, meditation and wisdom are translations of Sanskrit — and not the best equivalents. Discipline or ethics, for example, are poor replacements for the original Sanskrit and Tibetan: Skt. adhiśīlaśikṣa; Tib. ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་ཀྱི་བསླབ་པ་, tsultrim kyi labpa; Wyl. tshul khrims kyi bslab pa. A better translation, albeit in two words, would be “acting appropriately” — but even that is a poor substitute.
Even though the Three Higher Trainings are a lifetime’s work, where do we start? Venerable Robina Courtin, who will be in Toronto teaching on this topic, said: “Happiness is the mind that is free from junk: clear, blissful, happy and stable.”
Simplest terms: stepping stones to realizations
In simplest terms, you could think of the three higher trainings as dependent, consecutive and progressive (although, in reality, they are not consecutive, it just seems that way):
- Adhiśīlaśikṣa: “Ethics” or “Discipline” or “Acting Appropriately” prepares the mind — creating conditions (or removing negative conditioning) to prepare the way for meditation. The goal is a positive, clear mind, free of the burden of negative conditioning and karma. (Tibetan: ཚུལ་ཁྲིམས་ཀྱི་བསླབ་པ་, tsultrim kyi labpa; Wyl. tshul khrims kyi bslab pa)
- Samādhiśikṣa: “Meditation” or “Concentration” is that actual working method of transforming mind. We go to our teachers for teachings and guidance, and the sutras for Buddha’s insight, but ultimately, it’s all up to us.
We have to do the hard work of meditating. We might spend a lifetime meditating in various ways — various types of mindfulness, deity practices including generation and completion, Mahamudra or Dzogchen — but all with goal of bringing enough clarity to develop realizations, or “wisdom.” (Tibetan: ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་གྱི་བསླབ་པ་, ting ngé dzin gyi labpa; Wyl. ting nge ‘dzin gyi bslab pa)
- Prajñāśikṣa: “Wisdom” discerning the true nature of reality, blissful understanding of Emptiness, and other realizations can only develop in the clarified and blissful mind — which is the job of meditation. One of the early realizations will be a clearer understanding of the four noble truths and the eightfold path. (Tibetan: ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་བསླབ་པ་, sherab kyi labpa; Wyl. shes rab kyi bslab pa)
Why is it not really consecutive? Simply because we use the clear mind generated by ethics to meditate in peace; but we use meditation on compassion and metta to keep us on the ethical path. We use our various glimpses of wisdom, shunyata and realizations to improve our meditation, which in turn keeps us on the ethical path. Certainly not linear and progressive, as in 1,2,3.
But, it’s not simple
The simple view — what someone without a teacher might discern — is that the three higher trainings are nothing more than this: ethics, like we learned from our parents or in Sunday School (simple!); meditation, such as mindfulness (easy-peasy: just watch the breath!), and wisdom (oh, I’ll just read some more books.)
Yet, ethics in Buddhism isn’t simple. It isn’t the ten commandments, thou shalt not. It’s far more layered than as set of simple rules to be followed. Buddha initially taught us the ten nonvirtues: doing harm, stealing, unwise sex (not what you think, it’s about respect), being honest, creating harmony instead of being a jerk, avoiding harsh words and gossip, avoiding malice and hate, and wrong views.
What is the simple formula? Compassion and kindness. A compassionate mind wouldn’t think of stealing, lying, using harsh words, gossiping or being hateful. But — real life throws us a lot of curve balls, and before you know it, our anger rises, pushing aside compassion and… well, you know the rest. Life gets in the way, right?
Venerable Robina Courtin is famous for her unique, direct, insightful teaching methods. Here, Venerable Courtin teaches meditation:
Even mindfulness and meditation are not simple
As easy as articles in Time Magazine make it sound, mindfulness is far from easy. Meditation is work. Yes, it relaxes the mind. But, Buddhist mindfulness goes far deeper. Just following the old recipe of “watch our breath” isn’t close to the level of concentration and meditative accomplishment we will need to develop realizations.
“Mindfulness in Buddhism has an element of wisdom,” explained Venerable Thubten Chodron in a teaching.  “We have four mindfulness practices—being mindful of our body, of our feelings (happy, unhappy, neutral feelings), mindfulness of our mind, and then mindfulness of phenomena. These are very wonderful practices that you do that help develop not only concentration, but also wisdom.”
Special Events: Venerable Robina Courtin
Lama Yeshe Ling is hosting guest teacher Venerable Robina Courtin for some very special events in Ontario, Canada. Thousands of people globally have been inspired by Ven. Robina’s unique and dynamic teaching approach.
Ordained since the late 1970s, Robina Courtin has worked full time since then for Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s FPMT. Over the years she has served as editorial director of Wisdom Publications, editor of Mandala magazine, executive director of Liberation Prison Project, and as a touring teacher of Buddhism. Her life and work with prisoners have been featured in the documentary films Chasing Buddha and Key to Freedom.
Video interview on BBC with Venerable Courtin:
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.