There’s a common conception that Buddhism is a moderate religion. Buddhism avoids extremes, doesn’t it? It’s the spiritual path that takes the “middle way” between self-indulgence and self-deprivation. Buddhism is all about moderation, right?
And then there’s the six times book, which is a pretty intense practice. It can really wear you down, and it’s very extreme. And you should totally do it. Anybody who has taken vows—whether they’re formal Refuge or Bodhisattva vows, or a less formal commitment to the yamas and niyamas outlined in Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras—can benefit from the practice of a Six Times Book. The practice is simple to describe: learn your vows well. And check your morality six times a day. And write it down.
But isn’t six times a day a lot? Yes. Doing anything six times a day is a lot. It’s meant to be a lot. It’s meant to be rigorous, to be tough, to be ruthless on your afflictions. You are currently at the mercy of your karma, your habits. Your afflictions will not fix themselves, and your ignorance will not resolve itself. You can’t—ever—change your karma in the present moment. You can only plant seeds for your future. The practice of the Book is one in which you consistently reorient yourself toward creating virtuous patterns.
The Six Times Book is the practice by which you will methodically whittle away your afflictions by noticing what they make you do, say, and think. The famous Buddhist teacher Je (which means “The Great”) Tsongkapa wrote a summary of the foundational text Lam Rim, in a poem called “The Source of All My Good.” In its fourth verse, he writes:
Grant me then
Ever to be careful,
To stop the slightest
Wrongs of many wrongs we do,
And try to carry out instead
Each and every good
Of the many that we may.
But isn’t six times a day kind of obsessive? Yes. If somebody texted you six times a day, they’re either your stalker or your business partner, or perhaps they’re in love with you. Either way, they’re really, really, really invested in you. The same way you need to be diehard invested in your ethics if you want to make serious spiritual progress.
The key to the Six Times Book is renunciation, which is the most fundamental pre-requisite to starting the Lam Rim, the foundational steps on the path to enlightenment. Renunciation is the attitude that recognizes that if you don’t take control of your ethics, then you’re going to end up as, or likely even more, miserable than you are.
But what does the Six Times Book have to do with concentration? Ethics, concentration, and wisdom form a mutually supportive upward spiral of spiritual progress. A foundation of ethics is necessary for concentration, and concentration is necessary to achieve wisdom. Wisdom will allow you to be more effectively kind, which will allow for better concentration, so that you can achieve more wisdom. Je Tsongkapa wrote in a letter to his student Tsako Drapo (in a work called Epistle on Ethics):
Once you have realized this fact
you must rely on watchfulness
And awareness; constantly checking all three
of the gateways for any wrong deeds,
Depending as well on a sense of care
and propriety to control
With all your strength the wild horse
of the senses, seeking to keep
This steed from taking you to a path
that leads you all astray.
With this state of mind you'll be able to hold
your concentration perfectly
Fixed on any virtuous object
at your heart's content.
Thus is the ethical life commended
for perfect concentration.
Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything.” Any lies you are telling during the day will haunt your concentration. Any wrongs you did to others will haunt you, and will rightly make you feel less safe from harm. Beyond that, part of the reason the cultivation of pure ethics helps development of concentration and wisdom is that performance of virtuous deeds allow us the opportunity to consider our interdependence.
But I understand the vows, like, really well. Do I have to check them six times a day?Understanding your vows is not the same as putting them in action. In Pabongka Rinpoche’s commentary The Key That Unlocks the Door to the Noble Path, about Je Tsongkapa’s The Three Principal Paths, he describes how METHOD (in Tibetan, tap) and WISDOM (in Tibetan, sherab) each have a unique role in the creation of the Buddha body after enlightenment. On the wisdom side, the collection of wisdom is the cause for the Buddha’s wisdom body (in Sanskrit, dharmakaya; in Tibetan, chu-ku). On the method side, the collection of merit through acts of virtue is the cause of the emanation body of a Buddha (in Sanskrit, rupakaya; in Tibetan, suk-ku). For all you Bodhisattvas out there, the emanation body is the means by which any Buddha helps others.
But doesn’t doing something six times a day get really old? Yes. It will be a challenge, and it will take a lot of character to stick to it. When it gets hard, you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing it. When you realize you have forgotten after a few hours, you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing it. The very tedium of this practice will give you a multitude of daily opportunities to remember the reason for your practice, opportunities for dedication of effort to a holy object, opportunities for joyful effort.
But is writing it down six times a day necessary? The writing it down part is mostly to keep you honest with yourself, and to help you notice your patterns. And the frequency is indeed necessary. Can you imagine how many habits of action, of speech, and of thought you have that allow you to unknowingly act without virtue? There is so much in your behavior that you are not yet aware of, and there are so many habits you have in which you unmindfully participate. And that’s merely if you consider it a binary checklist of restraining from bad deeds. Je Tsongkapa recommends in the Lam Rim Chenmo to increase the sophistication of your morality practice, including collecting virtuous deeds and amplifying them with the attitude of a Bodhisattva. At this point six times a day hardly seems enough to infuse enough of your actions, words, and thoughts with virtue and dedication.
But isn’t six times a day really, like, disruptive to my life? Yes, that is The. Point. Unless you’re already a Buddha, (in which case, hello! Thank You so much for reading! Please stay! Please keep teaching!) your life is samsara, the cycle of suffering that comes from wrong worldview. You need to reach enlightenment in order to escape samsara. I’m going to repeat that: you need to reach enlightenment in order to escape samsara. Not this: you need to go to yoga a few times a week, and just have a regular meditation practice, then you won’t suffer. Not this: you just need to meditate pretty regularly and vote for the right candidate, then you’ll escape suffering.
Rather, this: if you want to escape suffering, get extreme; get fanatical about reaching enlightenment. Get fanatical about renunciation, about ruthlessly checking your ethics six times a day, and about developing deep levels of meditative concentration. And then when you get there, for goodness sake, come help us all do it too.