Category Archives: Precepts

Our relationships

Following along in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, we move our focus now from intentional communities to “natural” communities. These start with family and extend outward to all the other relationships in our lives.

The Sigalovada Sutta (quoted below) is the most detailed outline in the Pali canon for how we can interact with everyone in a beneficial way, from our nearest and dearest to the random encounter. On my home page, the tab labeled “Relationships” provides a longer analysis of the main points of the sutta. A full translation can be found here:

And how, young man, does the noble disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as the six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers, and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and brahmins.

There are five ways in which a son should minister to his mother and father as the eastern direction. [He should think:] ‘Having been supported by them, I will support them. I will perform their duties for them. I will keep up the family tradition. I will be worthy of my heritage. After my parents’ deaths I will distribute gifts on their behalf.’ And there are five ways in which the parents, so ministered to by their son as the eastern direction, will reciprocate: they will restrain him from evil, support him in doing good, teach him some skill, find him a suitable wife, and, in due time, hand over his inheritance to him. In this way the eastern direction is covered, making it secure and free from peril. (from DN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The eastern direction is where the sun rises, everywhere on earth, so by analogy, all of our lives begin from and with our parents. They are our first relationships, for better or worse. We can’t be sure, but it is likely that in the Buddha’s time and place, extended families generally stayed geographically and emotionally closer than many families do today. This may complicate the instructions, but doesn’t invalidate them.

Also please note that in ancient India, when women married they joined their husbands’ families, leaving their own behind. In most modern cultures, this is not the case, so we have to adjust our understanding of the sutta to make it useful to ourselves.

We have responsibilities to our parents and they have responsibilities to us. It is easy to visualize ideal parents and children and also dysfunctional ones. We each only have to deal with the parents we’ve got. If it happens that the parental figures in our lives are not our biological parents, the same responsibilities apply. Generally, we look after each other as appropriate at different times. Safety, security, and nourishment are sought on childrens’ behalf by parents in the early years. Often as parents age, responsibilities are shared, and then (at least partly) assumed by the children if the parents live into old age.

Respect, kindness, and compassion are what children owe parents, and parents owe children. We try to live in a way that is both truthful and harmonious, seeking growth and comfort for ourselves and each other.

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Filed under Compassion, Friendships, General, Precepts, Relationships

Value judgments

“How do I know my practice is working?”
“Your life is improving.”

Variants of this conversation have happened countless times. Students of the ethical and meditative teachings of the Buddha (and others) will sometimes get frustrated and think, “Why am I doing this?” Where is the evidence of my progress?

It is often difficult to assess our own growth and only slightly less challenging to perceive growth in others. In SN 3:24 the Buddha poses a question to King Pasenadi about whether he would evaluate  potential soldiers based on their castes or clans, or instead, based on their skill levels. Sensibly, King Pasenadi says that the skill of the candidate is the most important factor.

The Buddha then draws an analogy with the training of monastics who come to his order from widely varying backgrounds. He says emphatically that those who have abandoned the five hindrances – sensual desire, ill-will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and remorse, and doubt – and cultivated virtue, concentration, wisdom, liberation, and knowledge are the more worthy recipients of support from the faithful.

As a king intent on waging war
Would employ a youth skilled with the bow,
One endowed with strength and vigor,
But not the coward on account of his birth –
So even though he be of low birth,
One should honor the person of noble conduct,
The sagely man in whom are established
The virtues of patience and gentleness.
(from SN 3:24, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

What does this mean for us? It can be a guide for evaluating our own progress, our own behavior.  If our behavior is better, our life becomes easier. It’s interesting that the Buddha summarizes the absence of the hindrances and the presence of virtue, wisdom, etc. with the words “patience and gentleness”. These could be our measure of how we’re doing, day by day. We could also look for these qualities in others, especially in people we consider unlike ourseves – in dress or ethnicity or body shape or education or age. Sometimes people may have poor grooming or table manners, a grating accent or other unattractive feature, and we might be blinded to their patience and kindness. Many an annoying person actually has a heart of gold, but we have to look for it.

We can stay alert to our own patience and kindness, the quiet virtues. Often we judge ourselves too harshly; it can be easier to notice what we do wrong than what we do that’s right or neutral. If we tune into the wavelength of noticing peoples’ virtues rather than how they are different from us, we may be surprised.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Precepts

Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

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Filed under Mindfulness, Precepts, Speech


Many years ago I had a conversation with a young couple who had just heard an introduction to Buddhist practice by Shinzen Young. Before long, one of them said, “But if we do this practice, it might change how we live!” I had to admit that this was true, and pointed out that it might gradually lead to wiser choices.

Most of us know that we could make improvements to our lifestyle, but we think about it reluctantly. Our idea of who we are is tied up with the most mundane habits, some of long-standing and others quite new. Our food preferences, our choices in entertainment, our relations with family members – these and many other factors add up to “who we are”. For this reason, a challenge to any part of this identification process can feel like an attack. If being knowledgeable about wine and appreciating a nice drop is a regular part of our day, thinking of giving it up can be upsetting.

The training recommended by the Buddha is designed to upset the status quo; it’s not meant to protect our comfort zone. Over time, we change who we spend time with, what activities we participate in, and how we think about our life. What principles are guiding our decision-making?

The fifth precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” Whole sectors of society would see this as an outlandish idea. Intoxication with drink or drugs is considered a reward for working, or a necessary part of relaxation. Many individuals self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs to avoid confronting the underlying causes of their unhappiness. Some people consider getting so high that they black out a standard form of fun. This is all very much a part of our general cultures. The Buddha points out that when we’re intoxicated, we don’t think straight; intoxication leads away from mindfulness and towards mindlessness.

You may say, “Well, I can drink or smoke dope without getting intoxicated”. In a relative sense this is true. One glass of wine may impair our judgment to an imperceptible degree. However, the first drink or toke makes the second and third ones more likely, and in no case does it improve mindfulness.

At a societal level, intoxication is associated with domestic violence, traffic tragedies, even murder. Because the consequences can be so serious, we ought to look carefully at what we are doing with alcohol or drugs. There are social programs that aim to mitigate the damage, but for our own integrity, it must begin with us examining our relationship to intoxicants. If we’re part of a social group that floats along on a sea of drink or drugs, how do we feel about that? Do we have other opportunities for social connection?

For most of us, reflecting on and discussing our drinking/drugging habits is a slow and gradual process. Shutting things down in one go is rarely sustainable. When we decide that we want to choose mindfulness over carelessness at every opportunity, quite a few of our habits may change.


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Filed under General, Intoxicants, Precepts

Less talk

The precepts on upright speech give us a wide range of opportunities to improve how we relate to each other verbally. In a nutshell, the instructions are to guide our speech by truthfulness, harmonious intent, gentleness, and non-blathering. But for me, probably the most important practice regarding speech is…silence.

There have only been a few moments I can point to in my own practice when I could see that something had changed. When I started not-saying what was on my mind, at least not right away, everything shifted.

There are a couple of parts to this. In a conversation with two or more people, sometimes if we wait, whatever we had on our mind is said by someone else. It’s best if people figure things out for themselves instead of being told by someone else, and a lot of us only figure out what we think by listening to ourselves talk. So lesson number one (for me) is WAIT.

This willingness to pause has other benefits. It has been my experience that if I listen with full attention to someone, they listen to themselves better and consequently speak in a more authentic way. Sometimes what we had been planning to say would have interrupted the flow the conversation, possibly pointing it back towards ourselves and our experiences or opinions.

Another good thing that can happen if we practice silence is that we are able to take in more information and form a broader picture of whatever subject is at hand. Many people need pauses built into their thoughtful speech. They deserve that space, and it is kind for us to give it to them. If someone is saying something we disagree with, we can wait until they finish, because they may end up surprising us. We can ask questions rather than arguing. If our goal is to understand rather than persuade, everyone benefits.

And, keeping silence conserves our energy.

Of course, there are people who have difficulty speaking up. They may be keeping too much silence already, especially if they are not-speaking because of fear or a lack of self-confidence. We can notice if this is the case and invite the quiet ones to share their thoughts, then wait for a complete response.

Listening is an important form of giving, and it is a powerful tool for loosening the grip of our self-importance.


Filed under General, Precepts, Speech

Non-harming with sexual energy

Moving along in our investigation of ethical living as a foundation for harmonious communities, the third precept is: I undertake the training rule to refrain from sexual misconduct.

We could argue long and hard about what exactly constitutes sexual misconduct, but the shorthand rule is to refrain from hurting anyone (including ourselves) with our sexual energy and actions. Egregious misconduct includes rape, coercion, and other prosecutable offenses. Less obvious versions include betraying established partners, misleading others, seductions, taking advantage of people who are vulnerable (impaired by intoxicants, or at a disadvantage by virtue of age or inexperience). People with authority over others have a special duty to protect those under their care.

Flirting and teasing form a tricky category because they can so easily tip over into humiliation and emotional cruelty. If we observe closely, we can see that sexual teasing or taunting is a form of bullying.

…what is the scope and purpose of this precept? The word kama means in Pali “sensual desire,” which is not exclusively sexual. It is here used in a plural form which comes close to what is meant by the Biblical expression “the lusts of the flesh.” Greed for food and other sensual pleasure is also included. Most people who are strongly addicted to sexual indulgence are also much drawn to other sense-pleasures. …For those with any grasp at all of Buddhist principles, the basic reason for such an injunction should be immediately obvious. Our dukkha — our feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with life — is rooted in our desires and cravings. The more these can be brought under control, the less dukkha we shall experience. It is as simple as that. But of course, that which is simple is not necessarily easy.

Our feelings of love and sexual desire are often intermingled and can become confused. Love can sometimes be pure and unselfish, but sexual desire is usually about satisfying ourselves, physically and/or emotionally. Lust can provide us with a false feeling of power or of escape from our responsibilities. It takes patience to sort out when our desire to make someone else happy is overtaken by our own perceived needs.

Our sense of self is more closely tied to our bodies than to any mental qualities. Keeping our bodies safe and comfortable consumes a tremendous amount of energy. If we can practice awareness and acceptance of things as they are, just now, the urgency of our passing desires may be tempered.

As a wise friend said, once we refrain from harmful behavior, a whole world of wholesome possibilities opens up. For example, we can physically comfort others when appropriate. We can position our bodies and facial expressions to make others feel welcome, safe, and loved. Kindness is expressed non-verbally more often than not, and that is something we can observe in others and cultivate in ourselves.

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Filed under General, Precepts, Sex

What’s mine? What’s yours?

Further to our reflections on ethical behavior, the second of the five precepts is: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.”

Different ways to transgress the second precept are (1) stealing (secretly taking what is not given), (2) robbery (taking what is not given by force), (3) fraudulence (laying false claims or telling lies in order to gain someone else’s possessions), and (4) deceit (using deceptive means to deprive someone of an article or to gain his money).

(from an essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi –

Most of us wouldn’t admit to doing any of these things, even in subtle ways, but it can still be a useful self-inquiry. Have we ever included misleading information on an application for a loan or a job? Do we help ourselves to whatever is available at work? If transport or other services use the “honor system”, do we abuse that? Are (possibly mild) forms of fraudulence or deceit required by our work?

By becoming conscious of the second precept we invite a specific type of mindfulness, a careful scrutiny of our own intentions and behavior. We can sharpen our perception of what others consider theirs and where the boundaries are. An awareness of our desire to have what others have can be brought into focus, and we might strengthen and refine our honesty. It could also give us confidence in maintaining an upright form of livelihood.

We are beset by desirable images that stimulate our greed. This is not stealing, but it may be the root motivation that could make taking what is not given seem reasonable. Keeping the second precept in mind might help us to check our greed by ringing the alarm when we notice it, allowing us to let the feeling pass without acting on it. Every time we do this, the greedy root is weakened.

All three of the unwholesome roots may be at work motivating a person to break the second precept. Greed or hatred can suffice, but must be accompanied by delusion if we think it’s OK to take what’s not ours.

We can also counter any impulse we might feel in this direction with acts of generosity. When we offer food, material goods, time, or friendship, we are opening our hearts to others; we are giving so others may freely accept our offerings. And generosity often inspires more generosity, in ourselves and others.

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Filed under Causes and results, General, Precepts