Successful meditation practice has a required prerequisite practice: ethics, morality, sila. If someone is not leading a morally upright life, it is going to be very difficult to meditate effectively enough to enter the jhanas. The primary ethical practice given by the Buddha is the practice of the precepts the training rules of behavior. For lay people there are five of these precepts. All of these precepts are about not causing harm to yourself or to others. This dedication to harmlessness is the root of the Buddha's ethical teachings.
Each of these precepts really has three levels. There is the basic level of the behavior you really do have to refrain from doing. The next higher level bends your mind towards living a life in harmony with your environment. And the highest level helps you act only in ways that support your spiritual journey.
The first of the precepts is, "I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings." We are vastly interrelated and that interrelatedness needs to be recognized. We share this planet with lots of other creatures. They have as much right to be here as we do. So we want to act towards them in ways that are in harmony with this interrelatedness and not generate the hate that is necessary to kill something. So we undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings, which includes the insects and spiders that might annoy you, as well as your fellow human beings.
A higher level of this precept would be to not harm living beings; to not only not kill them, but to not harm them. If there is a spider in your room, get a cup, get a piece of paper, trap the spider and take it outside. See if you can avoid having creatures encountering harm because of your actions.
And then the highest level of this precept would be to love all living beings. Love is a way of acting in harmony with this interrelatedness. It turns out that if you act in harmony with reality, life just goes so much better than if you are acting at cross purposes with reality.
The second of the precepts is "I undertake the training to refrain from taking what is not given." It means not taking anyone else's possessions, of course. But it also means, for example, if you are on a residential meditation retreat, to not go into the kitchen and rifle through what's in there when no one else is around to find some food unless, of course, you have been given permission to do just that.
At a higher level, this precept means respecting other people's property. If you are at a friend's house, your workplace, a hotel, a retreat center, you want to leave that place in at least as good a shape when you leave as when you arrived; you want to take care of what is there.
The highest form of this precept is to practice generosity, to actually practice letting go. The essence of the Buddha's teachings is the Four Noble Truths. The first one is "dukkha happens." The second is that dukkha arises dependent on craving and the third is that if you don't want to experience dukkha, don't crave. A powerful practice for learning to not crave is the practice of letting go, of generosity.
The third of the precepts is "I undertake the training to refrain from sexual misconduct." Sexual misconduct is defined as any use of your sexual energy that causes harm to someone else, or to yourself. Our sexual energy is quite strong energy and it's easy to misuse it by becoming confused and selfish. If you firmly keep in mind that you don't want to harm anybody then you're much less likely to misuse your sexual energy. Now the not harming yourself or others also includes other interested parties, not just the person you are having sexual relations with. If you're cheating on your spouse, even if your spouse doesn't know it, it's considered breaking the precept because if your spouse found out they would experience dukkha.
A higher level of this precept would be that not only do your sexual relations not cause harm, but that none of your relationships cause harm to you, or to the person with whom you are relating. And the highest form of it would be that your relationships would all be beneficial beneficial to you and beneficial to the people with whom you are relating.
On a meditation retreat this precept changes. It's not just refraining from sexual misconduct; it's refraining from any sexual activity at all. It is necessary on a retreat to build a container where people feel safe. One of the things you want to do on a retreat is take a deep look at what's going on inside you. To effectively look inside, you need to let down your defenses; however, you can't keep your defenses up for the outside world and let down your inner defenses. Our minds just don't work like that. You need to feel you're in a space that's safe enough that you can let down all your defenses. Since our sexual energy is so strong, in order to not disturb the retreat container where people feel safe, you just simply don't involve yourself in any sort of sexual energy. Sexual energy can also be a big distraction. On a retreat, you want to do everything you can to minimize distractions.
The fourth of the precepts is "I undertake the training to refrain from wrong speech." Wrong speech is defined as lying, as harsh or abusive speech, as speech that's divisive, and as gossip or idle chatter. Traveling a spiritual path is about discovering the truth. If you really want to discover the truth, especially the deepest truths there are, you have to be fully committed to the truth and you can't be fully committed if you are telling lies.
In Aoguttara Nikaya 5.198, the Buddha gives five guidelines for "speech well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness." Harsh or abusive speech is obviously not spoken gently nor would it be said with a mind of loving-kindness. And instead of speaking divisively, we want to be peacemakers and bring harmony.
Probably the most commonly broken precept is the gossip/idle chatter part of this fourth precept. In a number of suttas, the Buddha gives a list of what he considers unedifying conversation: "about kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars, food, drink, clothes, beds, garlands, perfumes, relatives, carriages, villages, towns, cities, countries, women, heroes, street- and well-gossip, talk of the departed, trivialities, speculations about land and sea, talk about being and non-being."1
"kings, robbers, ministers, armies, dangers, wars" the 6 o'clock dukkha report on TV
"food, drink, clothes, beds, garlands, perfumes" how many magazines about these are sold each month?
"relatives" always an interesting topic
"carriages" cars, planes, trains, ships, etc.
"villages, towns, cities, countries" where will your next vacation be?
"women" or men
"heroes" pop stars, sports heroes, celebrity gossip anyone?
"street- and well-gossip" water cooler gossip
"talk of the departed" and the good ol' days
"trivialities" you have a limited amount of time before you die, do you really want to waste time talking about trivialities?
"speculations about land and sea, talk about being and non-being" the Buddha felt metaphysical speculations were a waste of time.
Now admittedly the Buddha gave this list to his monastics. As lay people it is important we know what is happening in the world, but we don't need to wallow in that misery. And often there are people we encounter in our work-a-day lives where realistically the only way to easily relate to them is talk about one of these topics. But if you are doing so, just be sure you know that's what you are doing and if you see an opening to take the conversation to a higher level, by all means do so.
A higher form of this precept would be that when you speak to someone be sure what you have to say is actually beneficial. It should be beneficial for you to express it and beneficial for them to hear it. And the highest form of this precept would be to speak about the Dhamma. The Buddha said to the monks and nuns that the Dhamma is an appropriate topic to talk about; everything else is considered unedifying. It's considered the best topic for lay people as well.
At the time of the Buddha speech was about the only way to communicate. There was no writing. There were no books. There were no cell phones, there was no internet, and there was no email. Given all the ways we have to communicate today, perhaps this precept should be updated to be "I undertake the training to refrain from unwholesome communication." Is that novel you are reading a triviality? Have you carefully reread that email to make sure it is true, timely, beneficial, expressed gently and was composed with a mind of loving-kindness? Humans are social creatures. It works best if we are wise in the ways we socialize.
Again this precept changes on a retreat to noble silence. Noble silence is not the same as dead silence. If you're learning to do your yogi job and you need to ask a question, it's perfectly okay to ask the question. You don't need to pantomime "where's the broom?" But once you've learned your yogi job, you are probably not going to have much reason to talk at all, except during questions and answers or in an interview. These are the appropriate times. Noble silence is only speaking when it's absolutely necessary. It makes it very easy to avoid wrong speech when you are on retreat; you're mostly not saying anything at all.
Of course on a retreat, Noble Silence really needs to be updated to Noble Noncommunication. With all of today's methods of communicating, there are many temptations to interact that don't involve talking. You will certainly get more out of a retreat when you refrain from phone calls, e-mail, text messages, news/sports updates, etc. And by all means, please don't write notes to your fellow retreatants! If you need to communicate with another student, please do so via a teacher or the staff.
The fifth of the precepts is "I undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants." The precept literally says to refrain from alcoholic beverages, but like the increase in the number of ways to communicate, we have come up with other ways of being intoxicated besides alcohol. So this precept means avoiding recreational drugs and alcohol it does not mean avoiding medicinal drugs. If you want to see what's going on at the deepest level, it's essential that you have a clear mind. We don't need to ingest anything that makes us even more confused than we are already. Furthermore, if you are intoxicated you are far more likely to break one or another of the other four precepts. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with alcohol other than the fact that it tends to make you less aware of how you behave in general and makes your mind more deluded when we are trying to remove delusion.
A higher level of this would be to refrain from anything that you are using as an escape. If they have a twelve step program for it, then there are people who are misusing whatever it is and using it as an escape. There are lots of things with which we can do that: trashy novels, unedifying movies or TV, surfing the internet. The list is probably endless. Pay attention to what you're doing. Sometimes maybe you come home from work and you really need to do something somewhat mindless just be aware that's what you're doing. And be aware of how much time you're spending doing those sorts of things, and be very aware if you are running away from something. Running away would not be in harmony with the deeper level of this precept.
And then at the deepest level this would be to ingest only things that are beneficial. This would include food, books, movies, TV, conversations, most everything. This would be part of guarding the senses as is taught in the Gradual Training see the chapter in Right Concentration on The Preliminaries.
These are the five precepts; the basic rules of behavior for life in the world as a spiritual seeker. They are essential practices both for learning the jhanas and for gaining insight into the nature of reality. There is no real freedom without a basis of ethical behavior.
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