The second of the three factors in the “ethical” or “morality” section of the Eightfold Path is Right Action. For laypeople (that’s us) this refers to the five precepts: “I undertake the training rule to…
- refrain from killing,
- refrain from taking what is not offered,
- refrain from harming others with our sexuality,
- refrain from false speech, and
- refrain from consuming intoxicants that lead to heedlessness.”
In Buddhist countries, and some others, these five precepts form the basic social contract. This is in stark contrast to most English-speaking countries where the dominant ethic tells us to look out for ourselves. At first it may seem an impossible challenge to measure our actions and words by these guidelines rather than a “what’s in it for me?” attitude; it can take some time to notice that these two general perspectives are incompatible with each other. We can’t paste the five precepts onto our worldview, but to whatever degree we can make the switch, benefits will accrue to us and to those around us. Current research in neurobiology links this type of change with re-training the Pre-Frontal Cortex area of our brains. It takes effort but is possible.
In the Pali canon, the Buddha often linked Understanding and Action; he called it Dhamma-Vinaya (the Dhamma and the training rules). As with most teachers in ancient India, the philosophy was rarely uncoupled from the guidelines for action needed to realize the goals. Our beliefs influence our behavior, so it’s important to be clear in our own minds what we believe.
Training in the five precepts begins with knowing what they are and remembering them. Some of us recite the precepts, in English or Pali, every day. In general, we can make an effort to be truthful, to be kind, and to attend to the results of our words and actions — all the time! This could have a side effect of slowing us down so that we notice what our intentions and actions are and how they affect our mind states and other people.
When we’re new to the precepts, we could start by choosing one to explore deeply. If it’s the first precept, we might notice whenever an angry, impulsive mood visits us, for example behind the wheel of a car, or when we are over-tired. What does that feel like? What is the danger to ourselves and others if we act from that space? Are we able to curb our impulses through awareness of them?
Scrupulous truthfulness is another excellent exercise. We can check before we speak whether what we intend to say is true – how do we know? If we’re unsure, is it worth saying anyway? Why? Are we persuading ourselves of something that we’re not sure is true? We make our world out of words; it matters how honest we can be in what we say to others and to ourselves.
As with all of the Buddha’s trainings, it’s largely a matter of challenging our habitual grasping, of examining what we do with an eye to a larger context than we usually consider. We can establish new habits, replacing the detrimental ones, gradually, one at a time, based on our waking experience.