The healing power of the precepts

Building self-esteem the Buddhist way

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  • Throughout the history of Buddhism, the Buddha has been described as a doctor, treating spiritual ills. The path of practice he taught has likewise served as therapy for suffering hearts and minds. This understanding of the Buddha and his teachings dates back to the earliest texts, but its meaning for contemporary practitioners has become more relevant than ever.

    Head of a statue of the Buddha.

    The Buddha prescribed a path made up not only of mindfulness, concentration, and insight practices, but also of virtue. (Photo by Traci Thrasher)

    Buddhist meditation is often touted as a form of healing, and many psychotherapists now recommend that their patients try meditation as part of their treatment. But the Buddha understood—and experience has shown—that meditation on its own can’t provide a total therapy. It requires outside support. In many ways, modern meditators have been so destabilized by the stimuli of mass civilization that they often lack the resilience, persistence, and self-esteem needed to achieve concentration and cultivate insight. To provide a grounding in these qualities, and to foster a personal environment conducive to meditation, the Buddha prescribed a path made up not only of mindfulness, concentration, and insight practices, but also of virtue. And virtue begins with the Five Precepts, which are:

    1. to refrain from intentionally killing any animal, from insects on up the evolutionary ladder;
    2. to refrain from stealing;
    3. to refrain from illicit sex, that is, sexual intercourse outside of a stable, committed relationship; (this is his definition; various teachers define it in different ways)
    4. to refrain from lying;
    5. to refrain from intoxicants (such as alcohol, marijuana, and psychotropic drugs).

    These precepts constitute the first step on the path. There is a tendency to dismiss them as Sunday-school rules bound to old cultural norms that no longer apply to modern society, but this misses the role that the Buddha intended for them: to be part of a therapy for wounded minds. In particular, they are aimed at curing two ailments that underlie low self-esteem and block progress on the path—regret and denial.

    When our actions don’t measure up to certain standards of behavior, we either regret the actions or engage in one of two kinds of denial—denying that our actions did, in fact, happen, or denying that the standards of measurement are really valid. These responses are like wounds in the mind. Regret is an open wound, tender to the touch, while denial is like hardened scar tissue twisted around a tender spot. When the mind is wounded in these ways, it can’t settle down comfortably in the present, for it finds itself resting on raw, exposed flesh or calcified knots.

    This is where the Five Precepts come in. Healthy self-esteem comes from living up to a set of standards that is practical, clear-cut, humane, and worthy of respect. The precepts provide just such a set of standards.

    The standards are simple. They may not always be easy or convenient, but they are always possible to live by. Some people translate the precepts into standards that sound more lofty or noble. To some, taking the second precept, for example, means not abusing the planet’s resources. But that’s an impossibly high standard. The Buddha understood that if you give people standards that take a little effort and mindfulness but are still possible to meet, their self-esteem soars dramatically as they find themselves actually meeting those standards. They can then face more demanding tasks with confidence.

    The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they provide very clear guidance. There’s no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations. An action either fits in with the precepts or it doesn’t. Anyone who has raised children has found that while they may complain about hard and fast rules, they actually feel more secure with them than with rules that are vague and always open to negotiation. Clear-cut rules don’t allow for unspoken agendas to come sneaking in the back door of the mind. If, for example, the precept against killing allowed you to kill living beings when their presence is inconvenient—as in the case of mosquitos—that would place your convenience on a higher level than your compassion for life. Convenience would become your unspoken standard—and unspoken standards provide huge tracts of fertile ground for hypocrisy and denial to grow. If, however, you stick by the standards of the precepts, then you are providing unlimited safety for all. In terms of other precepts, you provide safety for their possessions and their sexuality, and truthfulness and mindfulness in your communication with them.

    The precepts are humane both to the person who observes them and to the people affected by his or her actions. If you observe them, you are aligning yourself with the doctrine of karma, which teaches that the most important powers shaping your experience of the world are the intentional thoughts, words, and deeds you choose in the present moment. This means that you are not insignificant. With every choice you make—at home, at work, at play—you are exercising your power in the ongoing shaping of the world. At the same time, this principle allows you to measure yourself in terms that are entirely under your control: your intentional actions in the present moment. In other words, they don’t force you to measure yourself in terms of your looks, strength, brains, financial prowess, or any other criteria that depend less on your present karma than they do on karma from the past. Also, they don’t play on feelings of guilt or force you to bemoan your past lapses. Instead, they focus your attention on the ever-present possibility of living up to your standards in the here and now.

    When you adopt a set of standards, it’s important to know whose standards they are and to see where those standards come from, for in effect you are joining their group, looking for their approval, and accepting their criteria for right and wrong. In this case, you couldn’t ask for a better group to join: the Buddha and his noble disciples. The Five Precepts, in the words of the Buddha, are “standards appealing to the noble ones.” From what the texts tell us of the noble ones, they aren’t people who accept standards simply on the basis of popularity. They have put their lives on the line to see what leads to true happiness and seen for themselves, for example, that all lying is pathological, and that any sex outside a stable, committed relationship is spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically, unsafe. Other people might not respect you for living by the Five Precepts, but noble ones do, and their respect is worth more than that of anyone else in the world. You can look at the standards by which you live and breathe comfortably as a full-fledged, responsible human being. For that’s what you are.

    The rewards of virtue

    Ananda (the Buddha’s attendant and disciple): ‘What, O Venerable One, is the reward and blessing of wholesome morality?’
    The Buddha: ‘Freedom from remorse, Ananda.’
    ‘And of freedom from remorse?’
    Joy, Ananda’
    ‘And of joy?’
    ‘Rapture, Ananda’
    ‘And of rapture?’
    Tranquility, Ananda.’
    ‘And of tranquility?’
    ‘Happiness, Ananda.’
    ‘And of happiness?’
    ‘Concentration, Ananda.’
    ‘And of concentration?’
    ‘Vision and knowledge according to reality.’
    ‘And of the vision and knowledge according to reality?’
    ‘Turning away and detachment, Ananda.’
    ‘And of turning away and detachment?’
    ‘The vision and knowledge with regard to Deliverance, Ananda.’

    —Anguttara Nikaya (The Further-Factored Discourses) X.1, Nyanatiloka, translator

    Five faultless gifts

    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 & priests. Which five?

    There is the case where a noble disciple, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from taking life. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the first gift, the first great gift—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & priests…

    Furthermore, abandoning taking what is not given (stealing), the noble disciple abstains from taking what is not given. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the second gift…

    Furthermore, abandoning illicit sex, the noble disciple abstains from illicit sex. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the third gift…

    Furthermore, abandoning lying, the noble disciple abstains from lying. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fourth gift…

    Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the noble disciple abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fifth gift, the fifth great gift—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & priests. And this is the eighth reward of merit, reward of skillfulness, nourishment of happiness, celestial, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven, leading to what is desirable, pleasurable, & appealing; to welfare & to happiness.

    —Anguttara Nikaya (The Further-Factored Discourses) VIII.39, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, translator

    Five blessings

    Five blessings, householders, accrue to the righteous person through his practice of virtue: great increase of wealth through his diligence; a favorable reputation; a confident deportment, without timidity, in every society, be it that of nobles, brahmins, householders, or ascetics; a serene death; and, at the breaking up of the body after death, rebirth in a happy state, in a heavenly world.

    —Dikkha Nikaya (The Long Discourses) 16, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, translator

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