Buddhism’s 3 Disciplines of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom

Category: Buddhist Path | Recent Meditation Posts

Swayambhu Stupa in Nepal - Buddhist wisdom

The Three Wisdoms (Three Higher Trainings or Threefold Training)

After his awakening under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha spent nearly 45 years sharing what he had learned with others. Among his teachings, certain themes appear over and over again. Among these is the threefold path of moral conduct, meditation and wisdom. We see reference to this categorization in several sutras and even the noble eightfold path can be broken down into these three. So what makes this triad a core Buddhist value?

Ethics, meditation and wisdom are arranged in a seemingly progressive order, but also, the practice of each supports the others. Sometimes known as the three wisdoms or three higher trainings, they collectively represent the entirety of the path to awakening.

Moral Conduct

Moral conduct, ethics or self-discipline is the first of the three. The practice of being kind is what makes the mind capable of focusing when in meditation. Each and every one of our actions either minimizes or causes greater harm to others. If our behavior causes others harm, we reap the negative repercussions of that, too.

A mind that’s preoccupied with the fear of getting caught or found out, guilt or shame, is a mind that’s incapable of sitting in quietude and uninterested in getting to know itself better. Practicing kindness and strengthening the self-discipline that’s required to avoid harming others lays the foundation for a clear, undisturbed mind. Disciplined moral conduct gives us the courage and confidence we need to turn our attention inward. Buddhist traditions offer taking the five precepts as a way to further commit to ethical discipline.

Because the three disciplines support each other, meditating strengthens our ability to remain mindful of our behavior, while wisdom, the knowledge of cause and effect, motivates us to act kindly.


No longer disturbed by our own wrongdoing, we’re able to sit with greater ease in meditation. Focusing the body and mind in concentration brings us to a state of even greater calm and steadiness. In the spaciousness that becomes available, awareness and insight have room to arise. This is the same awareness that makes us capable of controlling our emotions, outbursts and harmful behavior. Insight is the direct experience of wisdom.

Meditation is necessary because sustaining a state of awakening requires more than an intellectual understanding of Buddhist perspectives. Meditation is what trains us to remember, to become habituated to a new way of being in the world. It’s the Buddhist view that this new way of being, behaving kindly and seeing things as they truly are, that leads us to freedom.

Another way to understand samadhi, the word here that’s used for meditation, is complete integration. With practice, we’re able to fully integrate a meditative state of mind into each and every aspect of our worldly experience.


One could say the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to fully integrate wisdom into every one of our actions. Currently, due to our propensity for distraction, past experiences, and conditioning, we simply don’t see things as they really are. Wisdom is revealed when at last we’re able to drop our attachments, aversion and ignorance and accept reality as it is in this moment.

In Buddhism there are 4 types of wisdom. Rather, there are four things we never forget once we finally become wise.

First, we remember impermanence. All things arise, last for a while, then dissipate. It’s largely our failure to remember this that leads to pain and suffering. Second, we remember the four noble truths and the true cause of dissatisfaction or suffering. Third, we remember the concept of non-self. That is, there is no unchanging, separate ‘self’ that stands on its own, alone and untouched by everything else in existence. Finally, we never forget that it’s only our continued remembrance of these that can fulfill our desire to live in complete peace, our desire for liberation.

A thorough understanding of these three wisdoms is not merely an intellectual exercise, but an intuitive experience that guides how we behave in the world. By accepting the uncertainty of the truth of impermanence we cease clinging to objects, including our mistaken belief in a separate self. As we let go of craving we give up on our attempts to manipulate the world in an effort to achieve happiness. We become kinder, more compassionate, accepting and relaxed. This change in how we act and think is itself the antidote to our pain.

Training in the 3 Disciplines

While the 3 disciplines are laid out separately to assist us with understanding, each is connected to the others. We cannot wait for our moral conduct to become perfect before we begin a meditation practice, nor should we ignore conceptual wisdom teachings in favor of waiting for them to arise as insight in meditation.

By doing the best we can to follow each of the three higher trainings consistently, our own changed behavior will radically transform both us and the world we live in.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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