All the different varieties of Buddhism share the same philosophical foundation: the four truths, the eight-fold path, and the principle of co-dependent arising of all phenomena. Where they differ is in the methods and practices used to realize the goal of liberation from suffering. The Theravada path is the oldest and most unadorned, and the initial and ongoing practices we emphasize are based on ethical behavior rather than surrender to a guru or other forms.
Within the Theravada scriptures there are many lists of wholesome and unwholesome qualities, but the most basic unit of instruction for laypeople is the group of the “five precepts”. These principles are undertaken as a lifetime practice in refining our words and actions, and they lead inexorably in the direction of freedom from suffering.
Here, a noble disciple, having abandoned the destruction of life, abstains from the destruction of life. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to an an immeasurable number of beings freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. He himself in turn enjoys immeasurable freedom from fear, enmity, and affliction. This is the first gift, a great gift, primal, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, which is not being adulterated and will not be adulterated, not repudiated by wise ascetics and brahmins. (from AN 8:39, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
It’s often true that the first item on a list carries the most weight. The category of “abstaining from the destruction of life” is the first precept and covers a wide scope of activities. Most obviously it means don’t kill people or other beings. The more deeply we investigate, the more we discern that the wish to kill or crush others is the root of the problem, and it comes up in our minds more often than we might like. When we learn to abandon the intention to harm any living thing, as it arises, we are liberating ourselves from a powerful negative force. Every time a thought of harming is interrupted before it can become action, we win a victory. As the Dhammapada says (Dhp 103, translated by Gil Fronsdal):
Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers herself.
The gift of safety that we have the power to give to other beings returns to us as a gift of purity, a moment of non-clinging. When we protect others from harm, we protect ourselves. The precept states that we should refrain from harmful activity, including things that might harm us. Having done that, we can move in a positive direction by finding ways to nurture life. It’s like walking in one direction, stopping, and turning to go in another direction.
We all have different triggers for thoughts of harming. We can get results if we start noticing them as they come up, and framing them as welcome challenges, as invitations to convert thoughts of harming to thoughts of preserving or nurturing life.