The Precepts

Our natural state is empty, open, aware, vast, cognizant luminosity, spontaneous freedom, stable calm, active compassion and contended joy.
As we unfold this natural state in our lives we need to guard ourselves from our unskillful habits, patterns and tendencies. The most fundamentally basic way to do that is to be aware of and keep a watchful eye on our thoughts, words and deeds knowing well how we are still bound by karma.
The great Tibetan Guru Padmasambhava said,

“Though the view should be as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.”

And Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche commenting on the above saying,

“When training in the view you can be as unbiased, as impartial, as vast, immense and unlimited as the sky. Your behaviour on the other hand, should be as careful as possible in discriminating what is beneficial or harmful. One can combine the view and conduct, but don’t mix them or lose one in the other.”

And Zen Master Thich Thien-An said,

“Even Enlightened Ones do not act contrary to the laws which they have transcended; how much more do these laws apply to the unenlightened.”

How can we expect to achieve awakening if we are living unethical and unskillful lives? If the great masters of the past kept a watchful eye on their own behaviour and they were enlightened what makes us think that we shouldn’t do the same?
Sila (ethics) can be seen as paying attention to our life in such a way that we are living it wisely so that we may be free from remorse and blame. And how we do that is by being mindful of our behaviour. We let go of unwholesome behaviour and cultivate wholesome behaviour.
The Essence of the Buddha’s Teaching

“Commit not a single unwholesome act.
Develop a wealth of virtue.
Tame, transform, and conquer this mind of ours.
This is the essence of the teachings of the Buddhas.
Peace. Compassion. Wisdom.”

Our Inherent Power – We Are What We Think
The Buddha reminded us that there is an inherent power within us. A power to help or to harm. He said,

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.” (
From the Dhammapada translated by Thomas Byrom)

We all can see that when our thoughts, words and deeds are loving and kind our lives take on a special kind of glow. We can also see when our thoughts, words and deeds are harsh and unkind our lives become dark and grey.
Hellish Habit Energy
Our daily habits build deep grooves for our energy to flow through. Most of us have dug deep grooves of unskillful and selfish habit energy. This habit energy is inherited from our families, our countries, our societies, our communities, our culture, from the media, from our friends and from our tendencies to believe that we’re separated from all of life so we need to fight for and cling to what we believe to ours.
These energies push us to perpetuate a pattern of pain. A pattern that most of us never really see but which rules our thoughts, words, and actions.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh shared a story about habit energy involving one of the Buddha’s previous lives,

The Buddha, in one of his former lives, was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha he had suffered a lot in many lives. He made a lot of mistakes, like all of us. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes, and that is why in one of his previous lives he was in Hell.

The Buddha was in Hell because he had done something wrong, extremely wrong, that caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. That is why he found himself in Hell. In that life of his, he hit the bottom of suffering, because that Hell was the worst of all Hells.  It was dark, it was cold, and at the same time it was very hot.

With him there was another man, and together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a soldier who was in charge of Hell.

The guard did not seem to have a heart. It did not seem that he knew anything about suffering. He did not know anything about the feelings of other people, so he just beat up the two men in Hell. He was in charge of the two men, and his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think that guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being, because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to people’s suffering and pain. That is why he was beating the two men in Hell, and making them suffer a lot. And the Buddha was one of these two men in one of his previous lives.

The guard had an instrument with three iron points, and every time he wanted the two men to go ahead, he used this to push them on the back, and of course blood came out of their backs.

He did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing and pushing and pushing. He himself also looked like he was being pushed by something behind him.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing behind your back?

Even if there was no one behind you, you have felt that you were being pushed and pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say the things you don’t like to say, and in doing that you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you.

Maybe there is something behind us that is pushing and pushing.

Sometimes we say horrible things, and do horrible things, that we did not want to say or do, yet we were pushed by something from behind. So we said it, and we did it, even if we didn’t want to do it.

That was what happened to the guard in Hell: he tried to push, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. The two men were very cold, very hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them and causing them a lot of problems.

To help us along the path we need some guiding principles to help us break free of the mental, emotional and physical patterns that lead to us thinking, speaking and acting in unskillful ways. We need help navigating the troublesome spots of life so that we can live it nobly – like an awakened daughter or son of the Buddha. We need help to break free of the hellish habit energies that push us to cause suffering to others and ourselves.
The Five Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings help us to do that.
The Theravadin teacher Ajahn Amaro said that,

“What you find in the Buddha’s approach towards sila, or virtue, is that it is not an imposition upon life – as if he were thinking, “All religions are about telling people that they can’t have fun, so I suppose mine will have to be that way too.” His approach was neither an effort to put the dampers on everything people find enjoyable, nor was it a gratuitous imposition of rules upon people.

But my experience of it (and what initially attracted me to the Teaching) was that it was a simple effort to pinpoint the areas of life where we get ourselves into trouble most easily, where life is most karmically loaded; so it’s more like pointing out the danger spots and encouraging us to be careful.

The Buddha wasn’t saying that something is inherently bad or wrong, but that if we don’t develop some kind of sensitivity to these difficult areas of our lives, if we don’t look out for trouble spots and problems, it’s like driving with your eyes closed, or like driving without brakes.”

Many people who are committed to the way of awakening take on the precepts as a way to help guide them as they set out on their journey to having a more wholesome and beneficial life.
The precepts are simple. If you want to live an awakened life:

Please, please don’t kill
Please, please don’t steal
Please, please don’t abuse sex
Please, please don’t lie
Please, please don’t take anything that will dull or fog up your mind

The precepts are not rules or commandments but can be seen as principles of training.
The Thai Monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu had this to say about Sila (ethical training),

“When our actions don’t measure up to certain standards of behaviour, we either
(1) regret the actions or (2) engage in one of two kinds of denial, either (a) denying that our actions did in fact happen or (b) denying that the standards of measurement are really valid.

These reactions are like wounds in the mind. Regret is an open wound, tender to the touch, while denial is like hardened, twisted scar tissue around a tender spot.

When the mind is wounded in these ways, it can’t settle down comfortably in the present, for it finds itself resting on raw, exposed flesh or calcified knots. Even when it’s forced to stay in the present, it’s there only in a tensed, contorted and partial way, and so the insights it gains tend to be contorted and partial as well.

Only if the mind is free of wounds and scars can it be expected to settle down comfortably and freely in the present, and to give rise to undistorted discernment.

This is where the five precepts come in: They are designed to heal these wounds and scars.

Healthy self-esteem comes from living up to a set of standards that are practical, clear-cut, humane, and worthy of respect; the five precepts are formulated in such a way that they provide just such a set of standards.”

Ananda the Buddha’s cousin and attendant for his whole life once asked him, “What, O Venerable One, is the reward and blessing of wholesome morality (sila)?
The Buddha replied, “Freedom from remorse, Ananda.
But that wasn’t all, having a solid foundation of Sila in your life would not only make you free from remorse, it would lead to joy, rapture, contentment, true authentic happiness, and then finally Samadhi and Wisdom. We started with Sila and ended up with Samadhi and Wisdom.
Ethics is an Inner Practice
Nick Seaver Co-Founder and Board Member of the Community Mindfulness Project, went through a profound transformation as he and his wife embarked on a journey of awakening that had them both do extended retreats separately for long periods of time.

“Ethics is inner practice, and, magically, this practice acts like a balm. It soothes the mind. You’re still more or less crazy, but it’s a few degrees easier to practice now. In fact, the first of the three steps towards a successful practice – before you even hit the meditation cushion – is sila, ethics. Not ethics because someone said you should. Ethics because living by ethical intention sets the condition that allows the cultivation of an exceptionally stable mind which can then be turned, like an electron microsope, inward.”

The Five Blessings of Those Who Live a Virtuous and Awakened Life
The Buddha said that there are five blessings that build up for lay practitioners who live virtuous and awakened lives,

“Five blessings, householders, accrue to the righteous person through their practice of virtue:

1) great increase of wealth through their diligence
2) a favorable reputation
3) a confident demeanor, without timidity, in every society, be it that of nobles, brahmans, householders, or ascetics
4) a serene death
5) and, at the breaking up of the body after death, rebirth in a happy state, in a heavenly world.”

— DN 16 Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha

We need Sila. We need to come back to living noble, upright, virtuous and awakened lives. The precepts help us along the way toward our goal of full complete awakening for the benefit of all beings. They help us to stop creating suffering in our lives and generating Karma that will hinder us in our progress. They free us from remorse and help us sleep easy at night which then helps our turbulent minds begin to stop raging because we know that we are doing our best to live an awakened life.
The precepts are simple. If you want to live an awakened life:

Please, please don’t kill
Please, please don’t steal
Please, please don’t abuse sex
Please, please don’t lie
Please, please don’t take anything that will dull or fog up your mind

The precepts are not rules or commandments but can be seen as principles of training.

Tradition Version of the Precepts

I vow to abstain from taking life.
I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
I vow to abstain from lying.
I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness.


(To be said and practiced daily)

I undertake the training to abstain from taking life and I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion.
Just for today I will have reverence for life. I will do my best to be mindful of those moments where my mind may be swayed toward violence, dualistic thinking and seeing the world and other people as separate from me. I will cultivate openness, non-attachment and see my interconnectedness to all that is. I will be a healing balm to others, a helpful friend and do my best to abstain from harmful activities especially those that take life.

I undertake the training to abstain from taking things not given and I am committed to practicing generosity in my thoughts, words, and deeds.
Just for today I will be generous, giving and open in all that I do. I will trust that all I need will be given to me. I will remember that true authentic happiness cannot be found external to me. I will be vigilant in my efforts to not be wasteful, to not use resources beyond my needs and to see and know that consumption must be joined with compassionate wisdom. I will be mindful of those moments when I’m overcome with craving and selfishness and do my best to refrain from taking what is not given.

I undertake the training to abstain from unskillful behaviour done in lust and I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society and to do what I can to foster togetherness and meaningful connections.
Just for today I will be still, live simply and find contentment in every moment. I will cherish and build meaningful connections with everyone I meet. I will strive to protect all people and use my energy wisely to help people heal, grow and awaken. I will be mindful of those times when I may be overcome by the energy of lustful desire and neurotic craving which may lead me to harm others and myself and I will avoid following through with any thoughts, words and deeds that may be fueled with that energy. Instead I will use my energy to be a benefit to all beings.

I undertake the training to abstain from lying and I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening toward others and myself.
Just for today I will use words that are truthful, kind, beneficial, endearing and agreeable to others. I will speak words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, and connected with the goal of Dharma and awakening. I will speak words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large, reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united. I will be silent when I need to be. I will be aware of and avoid idle chatter, abusive speech and saying things that are untruthful or that make me appear greater than I am.

I undertake the training to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness and I am committed to cultivating good health, both physically, emotionally and mentally, for myself, my family, and my society.
Just for today I will rest in the radiance of my calm and clear mind. I will awaken from moment to moment. I will be mindful of those things that I read, watch and consume so as to not be swayed into heedless behaviour that may cause harm to myself and others due to being lost in a clouded mind.

By Ian Marshall

Ian Paul Marshall has been initiated by the Dalai Lama, is trained in Zen as transmitted through the teachings of the Venerable Dr. Thich Thien-An and Seung Sahn Dae Jong Sa and is the founder of based out of Toronto, Canada.