Four Immeasurables: Compassion – The Buddha Dharma Series

Compassion is the third of the four immeasurables and it is an understanding that the world is full of suffering, and a heartfelt wish that this suffering will come to an end or at least lessen—for ourselves and others.

Some people are so wrapped up in their own world of suffering that they forget to have compassion for other people’s suffering. It can seem at times that we live in a selfish world in which people close their eyes and ears to the constant stream of tears. Some people are even able to watch the news or read the newspaper in a dispassionate way. Of course, we all have our own problems to deal with, but simply focusing on our own troubles is not a kind or helpful way of thinking. This is not the type of world we should wish to live in or leave for our children. If we do not have compassion for others, why should they have compassion for us?

Through focusing on compassion, the fact that everyone is suffering remains vivid in our minds. Sometimes we may feel that we are not suffering, even though on some level we are. This should not stop us from having compassion for those who are suffering. Compassion should be ever present—not just for family and friends, but for everyone, even people who are acting in an unhelpful way. Once we start to discriminate who should have our compassion and who doesn’t deserve it, true compassion is lost. Everyone is suffering, so everyone deserves it. Keep in mind that compassion is for the person and not their behaviour. If we think like this, we will be able to cultivate compassion for all human beings.

I believe it is beneficial to see compassion as a verb; something we have to put into practice. Having said that, we do have to be intelligent with our compassion. It is of no benefit to give money to drunken homeless people. They are just going to spend it on more drink, compounding their problems. It is far better to give them food, or to give your money to a homeless shelter that helps these people.

Compassion isn’t just about giving; it’s about giving sensibly, and that could include money, clothing, food, your time and so on. In a nutshell, compassion is the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something to alleviate it.

The best way to ensure that compassion arises in you is to do a meditation such as this one:

Fostering a Compassionate Mind

Sit comfortably on the floor or on an unarmed chair with your back straight but not too rigid. Gently close your eyes and do the follow breathing exercise.
I want you to breathe in deeply, hold and then breathe all the air out.
Let’s begin:

Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…

Now breath normally. Making sure your breath is slow and natural.
This exercise brings you comfortably into the present moment, the here and now…. rest there while I briefly explain about compassion.

Compassion is the wish that others do not suffer, as well as having the aspiration to help end the suffering of others. Compassion is a mind free from hatred and discrimination. Cultivating compassion is a wonderful source of peace and harmony in your mind.

Keep yourself in your relaxed state and start to picture someone who is close to you, someone you care about and are very fond of. Notice how this fondness feels in your heart… (Pauses between each question) Notice the sensations around your heart… Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth, openness, or tenderness…

Focus on these feelings as you visualize the person you care about standing in front of you. As you breathe out, imagine that you are sending light rays out from your heart and these light rays hold your warm feelings of compassion. Imagine the light reaches out to the person you care about, bringing happiness and relief from suffering. At the same time, silently recite these phrases three times. “May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering.”

Now sit for a moment with these feelings of compassion in your heart.

Now visualise someone you neither like nor dislike, but someone you may see in your everyday life, such as someone from work you are not familiar with, a shopkeeper or a stranger you pass on the street. Although you are not familiar with this person, think of how this person may suffer in his or her own life. This person also may have conflicts with loved ones or struggled with an addiction or may have suffered an illness. Imagine a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person standing in front of you and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to them, and that the light is easing his or her suffering. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they experience happiness.

Silently recite three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart

Now visualize someone you have difficulty with or dislike. This may be a parent, ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a roommate, or a co-worker.

Although you may have negative feelings towards this person, think of how this person has suffered in his or her own life. This person has also had conflicts with loved ones or has dealt with failures or may have suffered illness. Think of a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to him or her, and that the light is easing his or her suffering and bringing them happiness. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they have happiness in their lives.

Silently recite this three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

If you have difficulty in wishing for this person’s suffering to be relieved, you may think of a positive interaction you have had with this person in the past that can help you in wishing them joy and happiness. Perhaps there were times when you got along, laughed together. It is important to remember that they are just the same as you – they want happiness and do not want to suffer.

So, silently recite this phrase three more times to this person, “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart.

Now, when you are ready, start to slowly open your eyes and gently introduce yourself back into the world.

Off the meditation cushion, you can have a set phrase ready to mentally recite once you feel you are not caring for another person’s suffering, something like, ‘May they be released from their suffering, may all beings be released from suffering and may compassion arise in my heart’. But, as before, it is important that you decide on your own wording, so it resonates with you. This is only a suggestion.

Sometimes when we are being harassed by a homeless person, annoyance arises in us instead of compassion. Next time that happens, mentally recite your set phrase. It doesn’t mean you are going to give that person all your money out of compassion, but it does mean you will feel compassion towards them. You should recite your phrase every time you feel that you are not being compassionate. What these phrases do is connect us to others. We appreciate that they are suffering just like us, and once we have this connection, it is easier to radiate compassion towards other beings.

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Four Immeasurables: Kind-Heartedness – The Buddha Dharma Series

The second of the four immeasurables is kind-heartedness. This is not about how we feel, but about how we relate to these feelings. It invites us to drop our habitual patterns of reactivity and to free ourselves from emotional habits which serve neither ourselves nor anyone else.

Sometimes our goodwill only covers people that are useful, pleasing or amusing to us. This is not how we should divide groups of people; we have to see people through the eyes of kindness. We must open our hearts to everyone, and that includes the people who make us angry, politicians from a party we disagree with, religious leaders that have different beliefs than ours, people who act and dress differently than us, and those who just have the knack of rubbing us up the wrong way. All of these people deserve our kindness, and so we have to train ourselves to think kind, helpful and positive thoughts about them.

If we just watch our thoughts for a few hours, it becomes quite apparent that this isn’t how we usually think. Not every thought radiates kindness to others, so how can we cultivate kind-heartedness? A great place to start is by doing the following meditation on a regular basis.

Kind-heartedness Meditation

I want you to think of a person you care about. Feel gratitude and kindness for this person. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat the following phrases to the person you care about and when you are repeating remember to really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit for a moment with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person

Now think of a neutral person in your life. Someone you neither class as a friend or you dislike. Bring feelings of kindness and warmth into your heart for this person. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat these phrases to the neutral person and really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person

Now think of a person you are having difficulties with at the moment. Try to feel kindness towards this person. Remember, they are just like you – they do not want to suffer, they what to be peaceful and secure. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat these phrases to the person you are having difficulty with and really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person and just put your difficulties to one side for a moment

Now, slowly open your eyes and just sit there a moment experiencing the warmth of kindheartedness.

Here is a practice to use in your day-to-day life. I find the best antidote to judging someone, when we are not on our meditation cushion, is to have a set phrase that resonates with you, something like, ‘May my mind be at ease, may you be happy, may everyone be free from suffering’. This phrase can be used when you feel negative and unhelpful thoughts rising in you.

The next time you start to judge someone, mentally recite your phrase and your judgement will start to dissolve. Remember, we all have to co-exist on this planet and we all want to be happy, so the best way to end our judgemental thoughts is to wish kindness to everyone.

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Eight Worldly Concerns – The Buddha Dharma Series

Nobody’s life is perfect, we all have good and bad days. This is part and parcel of our worldly concerns. Sometimes the world is like a rose, all beautiful and fragrant. Other times, it is like the stem of the rose, all thorny and prickly.

An optimist will see the world as rosy, whereas a pessimist sees it as thorny. But realistically, the world is both rosy and thorny. A person who understands this point will not be seduced by the rose or become averse to the thorns.

Buddha taught that there are eight worldly concerns and if we are a realist we will understand that the pendulum swings both ways, sometimes they will be under the sway of the four concerns we believe to be desirable and sometimes the four concerns we think of as undesirable.

We have to accept that these eight worldly concerns are part of this human life. So, what are the eight worldly concerns? The ones we call desirable are gain, status, praise and pleasure. The four we call undesirables being loss, insignificance, blame and pain. It doesn’t matter if we see them as desirable or undesirable, they are all ultimately causes of our suffering.

We are all subject to gain and loss, not only of material things, such as our possessions, but also of our friends and family. We may go out a buy a new phone and it makes us very happy, until one day it is stolen, we then become sad – gain and loss. You may have, in the past, met a wonderful person who you get on really well with, but recently they died – gain and loss. If you are a businessman, you suffer from gain and loss on a regular basis. These are some examples of what we are subject to in our lives. I am sure you could think of hundreds more.

Reflection

Before you move on, do this reflection practice.

It is easy to see the suffering in loss but not so easy in gain. Reflect on a time you gained something you wanted, but now you no longer have it. Think of how you felt when you gained it, and then think of how you felt when you lost it.

Status and insignificance are another two worldly concerns that confront us in the course of our daily lives. Status comes in various forms, such as celebrities and politicians, or you may be highly regarded within your profession, or even a well-respected Buddhist teacher. Whatever the status, you can become attach to your public image and the prestige that goes with it. Even if we do not want to be famous, we still like to be looked upon in the best possible light. I am sure, if we are honest, we all like a bit of status, because who wants to feel unimportant or overlooked?

I expect we have all dreamt of our fifteen minutes of fame and we only need to look at reality TV to see that is true. Some people are world superstars and others are just well known in their own backyards, but whatever your status, it is important to see it as a fleeting thing. Very few people stay famous all of their lives, for most it is only a few years. So, to hold on to fame as though it is something tangible is going to bring you suffering.

Remember, status is just someone’s perspective. You may feel a person is very highly regarded, but for me, I have never even heard of them. So, to cling onto the notion of being famous is a fool’s game. Once we have reached the top, there is only one way to go.

Reflection

Reflect on your status, is it just a projection or is it something solid and permanent. I am sure you will see that it is a projection and nothing tangible, so by holding onto it you are cause yourself emotional and psychological suffering.

The next two pairs of worldly concerns are praise and blame. We all like to be told, ‘Well done!’ when we do something right. It makes us feel happy and gives us a sense of pride. Praise is like some sort of a drug we quiet happily get addicted to. Whereas, no one enjoys being blamed, even if they have done something wrong.

If we are able to face blame in an impassive way and remain calm even though people are saying some hurtful things about us, then we are dealing with this worldly condition in a constructive way. If we give very little regard to whether we are held in high esteem or thought of as a person of no influence, then we can be said to be rising above worldly attachments.

If we are able to keep our composure when we lose out, or are glorified as being a very special, talented person, this will help reduce any pride, jealousy or emotional hurt, even though it is not always that easy.

It is human nature to soak up praise and push away blame. We are all desperately searching for happiness and running away from suffering. I know when someone says something nice about me, I feel happy and proud, but if I am blamed, I can become all defensive and hurt.

Reflection

Reflect on these two states of mind and try to understand them as one of the same: impermanent and fleeting. This will help you stop getting attached to praise and running away from blame.

The final pair are pleasure and pain. This is where we are the same as animals; we chase after pleasure and run away from pain. I personally do not know anyone who prefers sorrow to laughter, or harm to happiness. This is just the way we are. It is like a bond that ties us all together.

Watching pleasure and pain arising in the mind and remaining open to them, without attaching to or rejecting them, enables us to let the concerns be, even in the most emotionally charged circumstances.

It is clear pleasure is what we aim for in life and not pain. But they are both things that come into being for a short time and then disappear. So, in that respect they are no different. Buddha’s advice is to not welcome them or rebel against them, just let them come and go. Allow the pleasure to arise and enjoy it while it is there but know it won’t last. The same for pain, you may be hurting now but it won’t last, so don’t get all emotionally tangled up in it.

Reflection

Think about how you chase after pleasure and turn away from pain. See that one can quite easily turn into the other. One minute we are happy the next we are sad, and vice versa. This will help you see the transient nature of them both and allow you to let then simply rise and fall away.

When we start seeing the eight worldly concerns for what they are, impermanent and fleeting, and watching the mind’s reaction to them, we will be able to prevent them from causing us to suffer. This is not just a meditation practice; we have to take it into our day-to-day lives. We need to understand that life is full of gain, loss, status, obscurity, blame, praise, pleasure and pain.

Someone is always going to profit and someone else will lose out; for every famous person, there are hundreds of others who are unknown; if one person is blamed, another will be praised; and what gives one person pleasure, will give another pain. This is the way of the world. It doesn’t matter if you are skilled in Buddha’s teachings or not. You will still be subject to the eight worldly concerns. It is how you deal with these concerns that differentiates you from others.

So, don’t see these worldly concerns as desirable or undesirable, see them as things that come and go, that are part and parcel of life. Don’t get attached to them or push them away, allow then to simple appear and then disappear.

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Staying Focused – The Buddha Dharma Series

The final aspect of the eightfold path is staying focused, which is achieved by effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Effort

Without applying effort, we are not going to reach any of the goals we set ourselves. Here I wish to highlight the effort required to avoid harmful acts and develop helpful ones.

These are split into four parts, namely the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.

This is a list of the harmful acts we need to avoid and overcome.

  • Violence                                           
  • Stealing                                           
  • Sexual misconduct                      
  • Lying                                                
  • Divisive speech                             
  • Harsh words                                  
  • Gossiping                                       
  • Greed                                              
  • Ill-will                                              
  • Inappropriate view                     

We have to put in a great effort in order to avoid these ten harmful actions. This is achieved by setting ourselves boundaries and ensuring we stay within them. In my own case some of them came easy to me and others were fairly difficult, but by putting in the effort and setting myself redlines, I manage to avoid them for the most part. But none of us are perfect, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. 

The next place we apply effortis to overcome the harmful acts that have already arisen. This one is a little trickier, particularly if they have already become a habit. The first thing I suggest you do is to rate the above list of harmful actions from one to ten – one being the act you do the most and ten being the one you do the least. Be honest with yourself, even if it is painful, or there will be no point in doing the exercise. Now, start with number one on your list and each day set an intention to refrain from doing the act. This exercise will help keep it in the forefront of your mind. If you do unwittingly perform a harmful deed, don’t get frustrated, just reaffirm your intention. This is where mindful awareness comes into its own because you are going to have to be vigilant of your actions. Slowly work through the list until you feel confident that you have by and large overcome them.

The set of skilful acts we have to develop and maintain are the opposite of the harmful acts.  

  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Self-restraint
  • Truthfulness
  • Kind speech
  • Pleasant words
  • Helpful words
  • Contentment
  • Goodwill
  • Appropriate view

The third effortis to develop skilful acts that have not yet arisen. The perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful deeds is during your daily meditation or reflection session. If you review each day which actions have been helpful, and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will then be able to see what you need to work on.

During your reflection session, write down the ten helpful acts on a piece of paper. Then grade them from one to ten – ten being the act that comes naturally to you and one being the act that you have to cultivate. Those you grade from one to five are the ones you should work on. At regular intervals, do the grading again. Note your progress every time and recommit to developing the helpful acts you need to work on.

The final effortis to maintain the helpful actions that have already arisen. This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful acts you need to work on. Now focus on the ones that come naturally and need no great work. You should also remain mindful of these helpful deeds, so they can become an even deeper habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at other times; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful acts must become natural and spontaneous. It needs a great amount of effort to keep these going, because if you do not stay watchful, they can easily drift away from you. Perseverance and vigilance are key here.

Mindfulness

Whether we are on the eightfold path or not, we still should try to be mindful, and maintain an awareness of where our actions are taking us. If we don’t, we are not going to find the peace of mind we are searching for. So, let’s look at the different aspects of the path I have laid out in the last three posts and examine how we can approach them mindfully.

We cannot just jump into our practices without first having an appropriate view. Of course, cultivating positive experience is what our practices are all about, but if we have no clear picture of where we are going and why, we can quite easily flounder. We need to know what and why we are doing any practice and see clearly how it will fit into our lives. We need to study and think to gain a clear picture in our mind before we dive into our practice. A firm and stable foundation is required. Mindfully setting our intentions for travelling on this path and implementing a meditation practice is a wonderful way to become motivated. It allows us to stay on track. It is therefore important to have well thought-out intentions and stay mindful of them.

Mindless speech can often divide people and make them feel disconnected. In contrast mindful speech helps us heal rifts and make better connections with each other. I feel that if we practice mindful listening, which is being totally engaged with the other person and allowing them to finish their sentences, mindful speech arises naturally, and we can enjoy genuine dialogue.

We need to mindfully check in with ourselves during the day to ensure our actions, physically, verbally and mentally, are not harmful to ourselves or others. This strengthens our practice, so we maintain the goal of responsible living.

Usually livelihood equates with survival – earning money so we can live. But when we are being mindful of our work, we can see that it is also about contributing to the common good. It is not just about money; it is also about giving back to society. We have to be mindful of any harm we may be causing ourselves and others.

Of course, we need to put effort into whatever we are doing on the path to ensure success, but there is such a thing as too much effort. We need to be mindful of the amount of effort we are putting in. If the effort is causing tension, it is too much. If the effort is not producing any results, it is not enough. Be mindful of how much effort you are putting into the path and your practices.  

When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of, but not tangled up in, the various aspects of our experience – the emotional, the physical, the spiritual as well as the social. Mindfulness covers our complete engagement with life.

I will talk more about mindfulness in my next post.

Concentration

If we wish for a mind that is at peace we need to learn how to focus single-mindedly on an object of meditation. However, what I want to highlight here is a particular type of one-pointedness. It is a wholesome type of concentration. A killer about to murder his victim, a soldier on the battlefield or a burglar about to break into your home all act with a concentrated mind, but they cannot be classed as a wholesome one-pointedness.

Buddha stated that appropriate concentration is dependent on the development of all the preceding seven steps of the eightfold path:

‘Now what is appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness, is called appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions’.

While concentrating on appropriate view, you have to stay focused on cause and effect. Whatever intentional actions you do—be it with your body, speech or mind—will create a reaction in the future. You have to be naturally aware of this fact whenever you perform any intentional action. You also have to stay focused on the impermanence of everything, or you may find yourself getting attached to things, which in turn will cause you to suffer. We tend to have a fixed and solid sense of self, which is not an accurate view. This again is going to cause us suffering in the long run. I will talk more about these points in future posts.

Next, you should concentrate on appropriate intentions. Our intentions should be to help and not harm ourselves and others. To achieve this, we have to remain centred on what is motivating us. We have to ensure our mind isn’t being driven by any of the three poisons or is clouded by ill will, because if it is, our actions of body and speech will reflect that, and we will end up harming someone. By reflecting on what motivates you, it will ensure you do not intentionally cause harm.

Now we come to concentration of appropriate speech. A lot of the time we open our mouth before engaging the brain, and because we are not focused, what comes out can be harmful, unkind and unhelpful. We lie, use divisive speech, use harsh words and gossip with such ease, it is frightening. It is as if our mouth has a life of its own. To counter this, we have to concentrate on our speech. Lying is never going to help anyone. When we use divisive speech, we are not making friends; we are just causing divisions between people. Using harsh words to someone’s face is going to hurt them, and gossiping is a waste of time. So, we have to have the appropriate level of concentration towards our speech, and then we will learn to talk in a way that is both helpful and kind.

Concentration of appropriate action is where we direct our attention towards the actions of our body. This will ensure we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other harmful actions of the body. Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to reflect on any deeds he is thinking about carrying out in this way: Is the deed going to cause harm to himself or others? If so, do not do it, as it is a bad deed entailing suffering. However, if you reflect on the deed and it is going to be helpful to yourself or others, or at the very least, not harmful, you should do it again and again, as this is a good deed entailing happiness. Thus, we must be sure we are fully in tune with our actions, so that we are aware of when we are helping or harming.

This brings us to concentration of appropriate livelihood. We have to ensure our work does not bring harm to anybody. We may be doing a dangerous job and if we do not concentrate on our actions, we may bring harm to someone.

Whatever we are doing we have to be sure we put in the appropriate effort and appropriate mindfulness. If we do not concentrate our effort on all of the steps in the eightfold path, we could become lazy or distracted, and this could lead to us harming someone or something. If we do not focus our mind on the present moment, it may lead our thoughts to drift back to the past or jump forward to the future. Neither of these are helpful. By concentrating on the present moment our minds will be calm and our actions kind and helpful.

When our mind is not focused it flaps around like a fish on dry land. It simply cannot stay still and jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, there is absolutely no control. Such a distracted mind is consumed by worries and concerns about what has happened or may happen in the future. It doesn’t see the whole picture and distorts reality.

But a mind that has been trained in concentration can remain focused on its object without any distractions. This allows the mind to become calm, clear and open. This calm, openness can then be taken off the cushion and used in the outside world. This will allow us to stay single-mindedly aware of all stages of this eightfold path.

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Following the eightfold path is not easy because many of the things we have to change or let go of are very dear to us. We are passionate about them and have often invested an awful lot of time cultivating them. Letting these unhelpful things go can disturb us. Therefore, change takes diligence, discipline and mindful awareness. We have to understand each of the eight steps and then implement them. They have to become a part of our lives; only then will our minds be at ease and we will gradually reduce our emotional suffering and start to experience the true peace of mind we have been desperately searching for.

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The Five Precepts – The Buddha Dharma Series

I have been asked on numerous occasions to lay out, in an understandable manner, the teachings of Buddha. So, over the coming months I will articulate the Buddha dharma in an order that I hope you will find both informative and easy to understand and implement. I am going to begin with the five precepts.

Gautama Buddha said:

‘Now, there are these five gifts, five great gifts—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and Brahmans.’

So, what five gifts was he talking about? He was talking about the five precepts.

The precepts are the gateway into Buddha dharma. They are like the training wheels on a kid’s bike. That doesn’t mean they’re elementary and easy to do, because they’re not. They are also not commandments and we are not being told ‘thou shalt not’ do something. They are more like guidelines that will help keep us on the straight and narrow. If we follow these guidelines, we will not bring harm to ourselves and others. These guidelines are undertaken so we can work towards reducing our suffering and the suffering of all beings – this is a theme that runs all the way through the Buddha dharma. If we really want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. These five precepts will help us achieve that goal.

I have told this story before, but I believe it is helpful to mention it again. When I first decided to become a Buddhist monk, I was given these five precepts and told to hold them for six months. After six months I had to return to my teacher and discuss how I got on. Only after that was I allowed to take my full vows. I found them easy to understand, but not so easy to keep on a day to day basis. I would recite them before I got out of bed each morning as a kind of a mental reminder and to set my intention for the day. If I strayed during the day, which I invariably did, I would retake the precepts and strengthen my resolve not to break them again. Having this experience has helped me understand how hugely important these precepts are, and what a great springboard into the Buddha dharma they are.

The precepts are:

  • Refrain from taking life
  • Refrain from false speech
  • Refrain from taking what has not been freely given
  • Refrain from harming others with the sexual act
  • Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The Dhammapada (verses 246–247) explain the precepts in this way:

‘One who destroys life, who speaks untruth, who takes what is not given, who goes to another man’s wife or woman’s husband, who gives himself/herself to drinking intoxicating liquors, he/she, even in this world, digs up his/her own root.’

So, let’s go through each precept individually, but bear in mind these are my interpretations and may differ from a more traditional approach. I have tried to make the precepts relevant to today’s world and I have also added my own personal perspective. As with all Buddha dharma, you will have to decide for yourself what does or doesn’t work for you.

Refrain from taking life

This one seems obvious, but it means more than not killing other humans; it includes all sentient beings. It also covers refraining from getting others to kill on your behalf.

For me this goes much further than just killing. I personally believe it covers not eating meat, mindlessly killing insects, picking flowers and cutting trees. It means being mindful of all of Mother Nature’s inhabitants and their contributions to our ecosystem. I believe we should reflect before we chop down a tree, pick a flower or squash a bug. Remember, all actions have consequences, some may be seen and others unseen, but there will be a consequence somewhere down the line.

Everything on our planet has an intention for living, being peaceful, happy and not suffering and their lives are just as crucial as our own when it comes to maintaining our world. 

This precept, for me, means not causing harm to humans, animals, plants and all other living things.  

It is talking about intentional killing and not unintentional killing. It is impossible to go through life without unintentionally killing things. If you go for a pleasant walk across some fields, you will be unintentionally killing small insects. Your intention was to go for a walk, it wasn’t to kill insects, so this precept is not talking about that. Having said that, we must be careful wherever we walk and make sure we don’t mindlessly step on insects.

On a personal note, this precept is talking about not killing or harming things, and so I find it hard to accept the fact that we are breeding animals, keeping them captive and then killing them for food. Eating meat and adhering to this precept are not compatible. I understand this precept is a guideline and not a commandment, but I would ask you to please spare the animal a thought and try to work towards becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

Refrain from false speech

Words hold power and using them carelessly can cause destruction.  Do not say anything until you mentally confirm it to be true, helpful and kind. Don’t gossip, exaggerate or lie. Instead, practice responsible honesty with only good intentions. Dedicate yourself to loyalty and share only useful and credible news and information. 

Once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. Before we know it, we have unwittingly become a liar and that is a label that is difficult to shake off.

I know that people say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but do they consider how that person will feel when they find out they have been lied to? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but it is possible to say it in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. I believe, it is always kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.

On a personal note, I get upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.

Refrain from taking what has not been freely given

Do not take what has not been given to you, whether it’s materialistic, opportunistic or emotional. There are a number of activities that are considered stealing, including participating in underhand deals, fraudulent activities, cheating or committing forgery. Borrowing another person’s belongings without permission is also considered forms of stealing.

If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, a magazine from the doctor’s waiting room or fruit from someone’s orchard. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.

We seem to have accepted certain forms of stealing and do not see it as a problem. I am talking about taking things from our place of work, such as stationery items from an office, bread or milk from a catering establishment and nuts and bolts from a factory. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: these things have not been given to us, and so it is stealing.

Again, on a personal note, I believe taking eggs from chickens and milk from cows constitutes taking what has not been freely given. The animal has had no choice in this process and so I feel it is a form of stealing. As I have said before, these precepts are not hard and fast rules, so you have to see how far you are willing to go to adhere to them. I am just giving my own personal view point here and you are free to take it or leave it..

Refrain from harming others with the sexual act

Generally speaking, this precept refers to committing sexual indiscretions such as adultery, rape, incest and sex with a minor. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.

I personally believe that Gautama Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not break any marriage vow or commitment. It does not have anything to do with sexual orientation. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race or gender, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of his or her control.

I think another aspect of this precept that should be looked at whilst considering sexual misconduct is people trafficking, that is, taking people and forcing them to enter the sex industry. It is estimated that around 1.2 million children are forced into prostitution or pornography, and their average age is between twelve and fourteen years old. The human suffering in the trafficking industry is staggering.

Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The last precept is to avoid abusive use of alcohol and avoid illegal drugs altogether, as well as other substances that impact mindfulness and fuel irresponsibility.

I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ of alcohol because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a pint after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, we lose control of our body, speech and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.

You may be driving home under the influence of drink or illegal drugs and have an accident and kill someone; you may steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because you have no control over your mouth; or have unsafe sex with someone you met in a bar, not even considering that you or they may be married, underage or haven’t consented.

Alcohol and illegal drugs are very additive and can destroy your life and the lives of those around you. So, it is important to ensure we don’t lose control of our thought processes because we are under the influence of drink and drugs. 

These are the guidelines Buddha advised us to follow and I believe they are of great help to us in life and on our path to follow the Buddha dharma. It goes without saying that we will fall short sometimes, but that is all part and parcel of the learning process. If you fall, get up and try again. Don’t give up. The more we try to adhere to these precepts, the more they will become a habit, and those habits will eventually become our behaviour, who we are. We all need boundaries in life, and I think these five are a wonderful starting point.  

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