To avoid doing evil, to do what is wholesome, and to purify the mind, this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
The Buddha was quite clear that ethics is a foundation of the path of awakening. Traditionally, Buddhist ethics for lay practitioners is expressed in the form of the ﬁve precepts—no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no use of intoxicants. These precepts have been, I think, curiously understressed by the vipassana community, so I investigated and reﬂected on the role of the precepts in the vipassana world. Surely this community is not indifferent to something so central to practice? I would argue that, as the Western vipassana movement evolves from its early days as primarily an intensive retreat culture to being more integrated in our personal and community lives, the precepts can become increasingly helpful in our spiritual practice.
I wondered whether my perception that the precepts are little discussed in the vipassana community was accurate, so I reviewed back issues of Inquiring Mind. The ﬁrst reference to the precepts was not until the eleventh issue—in an article about Zen practice. Even in the Spring 1993 issue on Buddhist Ethics, the focus was on social engagement, not the challenges of personal ethics, and the featured article was an interview with Robert Aitken, a Zen teacher. Not until Fall 1999 was there an article speciﬁcally on the precepts, but again written in the context of a visit to a Zen practice center.
I wondered what other sources within the American vipassana community might reveal about teachings on the ﬁve precepts. The 1999 catalog of the Dharma Seed Tape Library included more than 300 taped dharma talks; none were described as being about the precepts. I was told that the reason is that the teachers haven’t provided any tapes speciﬁcally on this topic. A review of back issues of both the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society’s newsletters—reﬂecting the interests of their many teachers—turned up even less discussion of the precepts than Inquiring Mind. In fact, a vipassana teacher recently said to me, “I think I represent the sangha as a whole in saying that I take the precepts but don’t really focus on them. Precepts are not a main interest; wisdom and meditation are.”
Why the absence? I can think of several possible reasons. First, eager to make the power of mindfulness and intensive meditation practice available to as many people as possible, early Western teachers de-emphasized many aspects of the Buddhist tradition that might have alienated some of their American audience—including precepts. Many early Western students and teachers belonged to the countercultural movement of the sixties and seventies. They often shared the movement’s rejection of established ethical mores, especially prohibitions concerning sex and drugs. This may have translated into a disinterest in Buddhism’s—or anyone’s—ethical guidelines.
Similarly, our attitude toward Buddhist ethics may be confounded by our attitudes toward Western ethics and commandments. We don’t see the radical diﬀerence between Western ethics, which are often based on commandments and notions of right and wrong, and Buddhist ethics, traditionally based on understanding the consequences of one’s behavior as causing suﬀering or happiness and liberation.
Another reason may be related to the Asian origin of the teachings. Many Asian teachers did not explicitly emphasize the precepts when ﬁrst teaching Westerners, and Western vipassana students don’t come to the practice with the same cultural experience with the precepts as do Asian Buddhists. A Summer 1989 Inquiring Mind article by the Theravada monastics at Amaravati Monastery in England stated:
When Ajahn Chah started teaching Westerners, Thai people often asked why he just taught them meditation without stressing the first two steps [i.e., generosity and virtuous conduct]. He replied that Westerners would in due course find it impossible to make progress without cultivating generosity of heart and a good moral foundation. He was, however, content to let them find this out for themselves.
Yet another reason for the lack of teachings on ethics may be that early Western vipassana teachers were specialists in meditation and retreat practice. (This is also common in Buddhist Asia, where some teachers specialize in meditation while others specialize in diﬀerent aspects of dharma, such as ethics.) Such a focus doesn’t typically include much emphasis on practices for life outside retreat—in interpersonal relationships, livelihood and personal ethics—but on the role of precepts primarily as a code of behavior on retreat. In this way, the teachings on ethics have slipped through the cracks, so to speak.
Perhaps the most important reason for the relative absence of discussion of the precepts in the vipassana community may be that, while the precepts are simple in their formulation, their application to lay life is complex. For example, do we kill the termites eating our houses? Practice vegetarianism? What about euthanasia and abortion? Do we agree with those who would say that not stealing means not buying items whose manufacture exploits workers or the environment? Is it sometimes appropriate to tell an untruth in service of a higher ideal? Does the ﬁfth precept on intoxicants prohibit moderate social drinking? As for sexual misconduct, does any American teacher dare oﬀer any guideline other than avoiding harm?
My impression is that most Western vipassana teachers boil the precepts down to the general principle of not intentionally causing harm and let people decide for themselves. They are strongly disinclined to impose their views on any speciﬁc application of the precepts. They are not simply avoiding the question; they are acting out of a strong faith that the sensitivity and understanding arising from dedicated mindfulness practice will lead to skillful ethical decisions.
So it might seem that the precepts play only a minor role, at best, in the Western vipassana movement. Yet, looking more deeply, it seems to me that this practice community is highly ethically inclined. The vipassana teaching community has certainly not been ethically pure, but ethical problems have so far been infrequent.
Why? I can think of several reasons. The ﬁrst American vipassana teachers appear themselves to be ethically inclined individuals, setting high standards. And because of its close connection with Theravada monasticism, the vipassana community has been informed by the generally high standard of ethical behavior found among monastics.
Most importantly, perhaps, vipassana teachers seem to believe ﬁrmly that virtuous conduct is essential to spiritual well-being. While teachings on the ﬁve precepts as rules of behavior may be overshadowed by a stronger emphasis on the task of transforming and liberating our hearts through contemplative practices, much teaching directly concerns ethics and virtue. The practices of lovingkindness and compassion, for instance, may not stress the ethics of prohibition and restraint, but they encourage ethical, virtuous behavior. The same is true for the teachings on overcoming the Five Hindrances and on cultivating the Eightfold Path, the paramis, or the Seven Factors of Awakening. And, of course, mindfulness practice itself helps us become aware of and freed from the impulses of greed, hate and delusion, thus reducing the motivations for unethical behavior.
Vipassana teachers focus on the development of healthy inner qualities and a virtuous character that supports the liberating work of mindfulness rather than rules of behavior and restraint. The ultimate goal of practice is, after all, not to conform to a moral ideal. It is to create the conditions for freedom from all mental and emotional bondage—including ideals.
Is there, then, a place for a greater emphasis on the ﬁve precepts in the vipassana community? Diﬀerent teachers and practitioners will answer diﬀerently. I ﬁnd it useful, however, to consider some of the uses and beneﬁts of the precepts in our personal and community lives.
Precepts protect us. The strictest and clearest use of the precepts is on retreats and in monasteries, where they help create an environment of safety. Mindfulness develops more easily if we can let down our guard and not be concerned about theft, falsehoods, sexual advances or the temptations of intoxicants. The absence of such safety in many of our lives makes it even more important in a place where we confront the depths of our selves.
The precepts also protect us in our daily lives. When I teach the precepts to children, I call them the ﬁve protections. Avoiding moral judgments, I explain that the precepts oﬀer protection from problems and anxiety. I tell them that I have met adults who wish they had used the precepts as protection from foolish or impulsive behavior. The precepts also protect us in our dealings with one another, ensuring a degree of mutual trust. If we are known as dedicated to the precepts—not so much by our words as by our actions—people will be more inclined to trust us. This is particularly important for teachers. A commitment to the precepts is a commitment for a teacher to be accountable for his or her actions and motivations, which then enables students to trust and learn from him or her.
Precepts not only protect us; they help us to cultivate the qualities needed for practice and for liberation. Living by the precepts can strengthen mindfulness, discernment, resolve, discipline, calm and freedom from inner impulse. It also supports increased mindfulness of actions and intentions. In fact, for some people the most useful and powerful entry into Buddhist practice may not be through meditation but rather the precepts as practical vehicles for developing mindfulness of body, speech and mind.
One way to see the precepts is as expressing the innate compassion and purity of heart in each of us. The precepts are said to describe how a spiritually mature person naturally lives. That is, it would not occur to such a person to do anything that could be seen as violating the precepts. The precepts challenge our unhealthy self-centeredness and help our best intentions come to the fore. They can be warning signs; red ﬂags pointing out when we may be on the verge of harming our personal integrity. When we notice we are about to break a precept, we can ask ourselves whether we have lost touch with our deepest values or sensitivity to life.
How do we go about incorporating the precepts more fully into our practice?
The precepts are powerful tools for reﬂection. Many people ﬁnd the precepts useful as a focus for discussion and practice. We may not ﬁnd uncomplicated or satis- fying solutions to ethical dilemmas, but we may come to better understand the complexity of some situations—or the unnecessary complexities that we sometimes create. Reﬂecting on the precepts may also reveal the basic—often hidden—motivations for our actions. Knowing our intentions can be a key to simplifying ethical decision-making. Finally, reﬂecting on and trying to live by the precepts as we go about our day may help connect our spiritual practice to how we live our daily lives.
The study of the precepts should also highlight their potential pitfalls. The precepts, like other ethical systems, can lead to self-condemnation or self-righteousness if they are misunderstood or treated as a simple set of prohibitions and commandments. If we don’t understand that their purpose is joy, peace, compassion and freedom, then a rigid adherence to the precepts can take the life out of spiritual practice. In Buddhist tradition, personal virtue is understood as a source of joy—the kind of joy that supports meditation practice. Certainly, at times living with the precepts can be a struggle, but as we develop skill in negotiating that struggle, we can feel a healthy sense of conﬁdence in ourselves and in the practice.
One of the greatest challenges for lay practitioners is to continually live our deepest values, priorities and understandings, not just on retreat or at the meditation center but in the complexities of work, family and community. The Buddhist tradition provides a range of practices to create a balanced spiritual life. Central among these are the precepts.