I had been practicing Buddhist meditation for some years before I learned that the Buddha taught ethical conduct as a foundation, or prerequisite, to meditation practice. When I considered this fact more deeply, I could understand the wisdom inherent in this order of instruction. I could see that my thoughts and actions were often pure and wholesome, bringing some degree of happiness or harmony to myself and others. Sometimes though, my thoughts and actions caused pain or discord for myself or others. When I was able to investigate more closely, I could see that such thoughts and actions generally arose from confusion or fear, and the harm they caused was usually minor and often unintentional. Yet however minor, and whether intentional or unintentional, it became increasingly clear that unethical behavior hindered the ability of my body, mind, and heart to settle into peacefulness during silent meditation. I was experiencing a mild form of the predicament that my teacher Jack Kornfield presents to meditation students when he jokingly asks, “Can you imagine settling down on your cushion for a peaceful meditation session after a full day of killing, stealing, and lying?” Although I’d never dedicated even an hour to killing, stealing, or lying, I felt more acutely as time went on how both the intention and the quality of my thoughts, speech, and actions had a close relationship to the degree of agitation or tranquility that I experienced while meditating. Of course, unethical behavior also interfered with my happiness when I wasn’t meditating.

This observation made me curious about a number of things. What specific actions did the Buddha advise against? What action did he most encourage? How was I to go about changing habitual behavior so that my actions could become increasingly wholesome? How could I decrease my tendency to judge myself harshly for unethical behaviors, considering that criticizing myself exacerbated my suffering? And later, as a parent, how might I share the fruits of my experience with my children?

The Buddha asserted that both meditation practice and the entire spiritual journey rest on the moral commitment of non-harming, and he offered five precepts for laypeople to support this commitment. The Five Precepts are: abstain from killing, stealing, false speech, sexual misconduct, and the use of intoxicants. These precepts are guidelines for living. They invite us to reflect continually upon our thoughts, our speech, and our actions in ways that encourage wisdom and compassion. Each of the Five Precepts is a mindfulness practice, voluntarily undertaken in order to bring our behavior into greater harmony with our understanding of what creates peace and happiness in ourselves and in the world. These precepts have been worded in a variety of ways over time, emphasizing that they are trainings and not commandments, and often including the wholesome or positive behavior that is the opposite of the behavior the precept asks us to avoid. Such wording can help us to comprehend the depth and breath of these guidelines, and their potential for transformation of our lives and our world. The First Precept: I undertake the training precept to refrain fro killing and harming living beings. I vow to cultivate boundless compassion towards all beings. The Second Precept: I undertake the training precept to refrain from stealing and taking that which is not mine. I vow to practice generosity. The Third Precept: I undertake the training precept to refrain from causing harm through sexual misconduct. I vow to cultivate responsibility with regard to my sexuality. The Forth Precept: I undertake the training precept to refrain from false speech, harmful speech, gossip and slander. I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening. And the Fifth Precept: I undertake the training precept to refrain from the misuse of intoxicants or substances such as alcohol or drugs that cause carelessness or loss of awareness. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy.

The Buddha taught that upholding these Five Precepts is a full-time moral obligation for laypeople. We can view them as a strong support, an ever-present companion who gently and kindly keeps reminding us to wake up, remember, and choose wisely. The Buddha referred to the Five Precepts as “pristine, traditional, ancient gifts.” By identifying the precepts as gifts, the Buddha shows us that living in accordance with these guidelines is a practice of dana, or generosity. He explains that each person who voluntarily undertakes these moral trainings will be giving to all beings a gift, and that gift is “freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.’’ Furthermore, according to the law of karma, a person who does this will himself or herself also enjoy “immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.”

Changing habitual behavior and automatic patterns of thought and speech is a challenging, though definitely possible task, and the Buddha offered a vast array of teachings to help us in this endeavor. A few specific reflections and practices have proven very useful to me over time, and these are the ones I share most often with meditation students and with my children at home.

First is the fundamental premise of the Buddha that every human being is born inherently good, that each person is naturally inclined toward pure and wholesome actions. This basic goodness is what many Western Buddhist teachers refer to as “original blessing.” Thus, when people behave unethically it is not because they are bad or evil. Rather, it is because they are ignorant. In this context, ignorant does not refer to a lack of intelligence. Ignorant means unaware of basic truths about our existence, such as what genuine happiness is, how it is achieved, and the law of cause and effect. There are not good people and evil people. There are only human beings, all born inherently and equally good. Due to circumstances, upbringing, and life experiences, we may not always find it possible to know, trust, or access our basic goodness. When this goodness is obscured by ignorance, afflictive emotions such as anger, fear, greed, hatred, and jealousy are likely to arise. These emotions, in turn, promote unskillful or “bad” actions. Unskillful actions are those unethical thoughts, speech, and deeds that create suffering for ourselves and others. The problems and conflicts between individuals, the oppression and wars between peoples and nations, and the degradation of our planet earth, can also be traced directly to these same afflictive emotions giving rise to the many unskillful behaviors of human beings.

Understanding this teaching has significant implications for how we view other people and the world, and also has the potential to help us treat ourselves more kindly when we behave in unskillful ways. Although I don’t always find it easy to believe, I have made it a practice to remind myself of these words from Robin Casarjian’s book on Forgiveness: “Believe it or not, you have always done the best you could in any moment in time based on the degree of love or fear you were experiencing.” In her book, Radical Acceptance, Buddhist teacher and clinical psychologist Tara Brach echoes this sentiment. “When we harm ourselves or others, it is not because we are bad but because we are ignorant.”

Another Buddhist teaching that has been a great help to me is the understanding of what guilt is and how it affects us. For as long as I can remember I have known the experience of guilt. Like so many people who have come to my meditation classes over the years, I knew that guilt felt both uncomfortable and familiar, and I rarely questioned the utility of this emotion. I was surprised to discover that in the Buddhist tradition guilt is considered a completely unproductive emotion, with no redeeming value whatsoever. Guilt is a form of hatred towards oneself. In the words of the Buddha, “Hatred can never cease by hatred, but by love alone can hatred cease. This is an eternal law.” And this law equally applies whether the hatred is towards oneself or towards others. The intensity of guilt lacerates. Guilt keeps us stuck in the past. Feeling guilty keeps our focus on ourselves, exaggerating the importance of our own pain. Because of this, guilt is considered a form of conceit. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “When one is motivated by guilt one’s own pain is center stage there is not enough freedom from self-centeredness in our consciousness to see clearly, to be connected fully.” Guilt keeps us feeling alone and isolated, and depletes our energy so that we have little interest or strength for transformation or transcendence, or even for learning. Because it is difficult to learn anything from guilt, it’s likely that if presented with the same or a similar situation in the future we would act the same way again, simply repeating a habitual action and the resulting feelings of guilt.

In Buddhist psychology, the harmful emotion of guilt is contrasted with a healthier response to our unskillful actions. This is the state of remorse. Webster’s Dictionary says that the word remorse comes from the Latin word remorsus, a form of the verb remorder , which literally means “to bite again.” When we feel remorse about our own speech or actions, we are “feeling again” the painful sting of suffering that unwholesome actions cause, but without the elaborated story of the bad self, and without self-hatred or the conceit that comes from obsessing about oneself. Remorse is a state of simple recognition. It provides clarity. It allows us to view the larger situation that includes both ourselves and others. With this clarity and perspective, we are more likely to see the law of cause and effect, to learn from our mistakes, and to move into the future with greater awareness and a healthy resolve not to repeat the same unskillful action.

My understanding of the Five Precepts and my ability to use them as essential guidelines has evolved in a natural way over the years. I am certain that they are not commandments. I know they are not obsolete or irrelevant to the speed and complexities of today’s world. I have grown to view each precept as a wise and loving friend that cannot provide me with ready-made answers but instead calls me to question. The overarching question is “What is a life of non-harming?” This is a big question, somewhat theoretical, that is certainly worth asking, and by asking, we discover that our answer changes over time. But each individual precept poses many other practical questions; questions that are immediately relevant to me in every moment of my life.

Consider the First Precept, “I undertake the training precept to refrain from killing and harming living beings. I vow to cultivate boundless compassion towards all beings.” This precept has raised a multitude of wonderful and often challenging questions for me in many different situations. Will I eat meat or be a vegetarian? Will I pay war taxes? Will I work to eliminate the death penalty and prohibit a military draft? Do I take a stand about the situation in Darfur or at Guantanamo? How do I respond to natural disasters in this country and in distant nations? Will I use fly paper or electric insect zappers in my home or my backyard? What will I do about the carpenter ants that invade the foundation of our porch? How do I respond to the half-dead opossum that I find run over on the road? What do I do about the mice that leave their droppings on my kitchen stove? How do I react to the mosquito that lands on my arm? What do I do with the tick that’s imbedded in my dog’s skin? What action do I take when my daughter is excluded from school because of head lice? What do I do with the occasional wasp or bat that finds its way into our home? How do I dispose of the drowned squirrel that is floating in my children’s backyard wading pool? How do we ensure that another innocent squirrel does not meet the same fate?

Hundreds of questions like these have arisen in relation to each of the precepts in so many ordinary family situations. Although there is no set formula to apply in each circumstance, the answers I find to these questions are greatly influenced by viewing each situation through the lens of non-harming. As a parent, I believe it is my responsibility to do much of this questioning aloud with my children. It’s important for them to see that I don’t take my actions lightly. What I do matters. What my children do matters. What we do as a family matters, and what every human being does matters. I want my son and my daughter to understand that we make choices constantly, and we can choose wisely. Mindfulness and compassion truly can replace automatic behaviors and habitual reactions in everyday life.

As my meditation practice and my engagement with the teachings of the Buddha deepen over time, I am often able to see the results of my actions with greater clarity. I have watched the law of karma proven true on endless occasions, as wholesome actions yield happiness and unwholesome actions bring suffering. Quite simply, this increased clarity has come from a heightened awareness of my thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Prior to performing an action, while an action is being carried out, or reflecting in retrospect upon an action, I find it more possible to assess with some tranquility and objectivity, the ethical nature of my actions. I have noticed over time slightly less pride, self-consciousness, self-aggrandizement, self-criticism or guilt involved in this assessment; in fact, on rare occasions I’ve noticed very little self-referencing at all. And of course, there are still times when the old habits appear automatically; largely unconscious reactions to internal or external events.

The Buddha used a poignant metaphor to describe this very process of increasing sensitivity to the subtleties of our life experiences. I was struck by the vividness of this teaching when I first heard it while on retreat at the Forest Refuge a few years ago, and I have continued to reflect on it since.

The Buddha said that when we first embark on spiritual practice, we rarely understand the importance of our own behavior. We don’t realize that even our smallest actions affect us, other people, and the world. We inevitably behave in unskillful ways at times. We might say something that is untrue, or take what is not ours, or treat others unkindly. When we remember these actions we are not terribly bothered by them. We don’t feel the pain that our actions have caused ourselves or others. The Buddha said this is similar to how it feels when an eyelash falls into the palm of our hand. We might not notice that it is there. If we do notice it, it will likely seem small and insignificant, and it certainly doesn’t cause us any pain.

However, as we develop our meditation practice and continue our spiritual journey, we are increasingly more mindful. We begin to pay much closer attention to everything that is going on inside of us and around us. We learn to care more about what we say and do. We notice that every action, no matter how small, has a result. We become aware of the peacefulness and joy that our skillful actions bring to ourselves and others. And we also experience the pain that our unskillful actions cause. The Buddha compared the pain we feel when reflecting upon our unskillful actions to the pain of an eyelash that has fallen into our eye. We feel the eyelash immediately, it is acutely uncomfortable, and we are motivated to remove it from our eye as soon as possible.

When I related this story to my children, we spent some time discussing its meaning. We talked about the emotions and physical sensations that might arise when we think about something we said or did that hurt ourselves or someone else. We considered the pain of regret, as well as the physical discomfort in the pit of the stomach. I shared examples of things I’d done that had caused me to feel this way. We talked about the Buddha’s description of the difference between an eyelash in the palm of our hand and an eyelash in our eye, and why this is such a powerful metaphor for reflecting upon our own unskillful actions.

Some weeks after this conversation my then 12 year-old son Emilio and I had an unpleasant altercation. I had asked him to do something that he didn’t want to do, and his reaction was unusually rude. That evening my children’s grandparents came for dinner. Emilio’s grandmother, in a typical display of grandmotherly concern, took me aside to ask how everything was going, and how the children were behaving lately. I replied that things were generally going well, and then related how rude Emilio had been earlier that day.

After dinner Emilio left with his grandparents for a sleepover at their house, which he frequently does on weekends. The following afternoon I picked him up there. Settled into the front seat of the car on our way home, he interrupted my casual conversation and said, “Oh, yeah, I want to apologize for how rude I was to you yesterday. I’m sorry I acted that way.” A bit surprised, I wondered if his grandmother had talked to him about his rudeness to me, and perhaps even suggested he apologize. But I didn’t want to ask. I simply thanked him for the apology, and stole a quick sideways glance at him. With a sheepish grin on his face he added, “I guess it took about 18 hours for the eyelash to move from my hand into my eye. That was another great story of the Buddha!”