We begin our retreat by taking the five “precepts,” the principles that lay Buddhists have taken for over twenty-five hundred years to express their commitment to everyday morality. We will make this commitment for the entire twenty-eight-day period. The precepts are simply training tools that help us to stay focused while we cultivate mindfulness. As many people on retreat have realized, the most purifying components of the experience are often the precepts. Our culture rarely provides us with occasion or motivation to relinquish alcohol for a month, and we all struggle with the consequences of the things we say. Taking twenty-eight days to pay special attention to what goes into our bodies and what comes out of our minds is a rare opportunity to live in accordance with our ideals. The five precepts we undertake are expressions of our goodheartedness, our care for ourselves, and our care for others. Consider them skillful means designed as tools for practice, not markers for self-judgment.
The first precept is a commitment to refrain from killing or physical violence. The idea is to use each day, each encounter, as an opportunity to express our reverence for life. This approach counters the tendency to feel separate and apart, objectifying other living beings to such an extent that we’re actually capable of hurting them. The first precept includes all sentient beings—people as well as bugs and animals.
The second precept is a commitment to refrain from stealing—or literally, from the sutras, “to refrain from taking that which is not offered or given.” This means having a sense of contentment; being at peace with what we have; not taking more than we actually need; being grateful for what we have, and so on.
The third precept is refraining from sexual misconduct. This means we resolve not to use our sexual energy in a way that causes harm or suffering to ourselves or others. When we don’t know how to deal with our sexual desire in a skillful way, there are endless possibilities for abuse, exploitation, and obsession. The third precept includes not harming ourselves, in the sense that instead of being driven by our desires, we’re able to make conscious choices.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.