This would be a good time for me to discuss what goes into Buddhist practice. There are three specific trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom (often called insight). All three are necessary for a balanced practice.
The first, morality (sila), is what keeps a yogi on the straight and narrow. It is encompassed by the eight precepts, which for most householders (anyone who is not a monk or nun) are limited to the first five. They are as follows:
- Non-harming. This one is often interpreted as a prohibition against eating meat, although not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I have noticed, however, that retreat centers all serve vegetarian meals, and many are focusing on vegan food. In general, though, the non-harming precept can be understood as not engaging in violence toward other living things. I have been less likely to kill insects or rodents since becoming a Buddhist, for example, and I am in a Facebook group called People Against the Unnecessary Killing of Reptiles. When my neighbor told me she had beaten a nest of garter snakes to death with a shovel I was horrified. I also believe that limiting or eliminating meat from one’s diet is a good thing to do if at all possible.
- The second precept forbids a yogi to take what is not offered. Roughly, this encompasses stealing, but can also be understood as avoiding such conduct as cheating on income taxes, dating someone in a committed relationship, failing to return something one has borrowed (I’m guilty of that one), or otherwise helping oneself to things that belong either to someone else or to the community. Some of my colleagues would grap handfuls of items from the office’s supply cabinet far beyond what they needed for their work. Other people get greedy around food, especially in an office setting (guilty!).
- The third precept rules against engaging in sexual misconduct. For monks this means celibacy, whereas for householders there are a number of possible interpretations. Traditionally, it has meant avoiding sex outside of marriage. Today, people could regard sexual misconduct as any kind of sex that is nonconsensual, a failure to respect other people’s boundaries, or a lack of honesty in sexual relationships. Taking responsibility for one’s health and safety and that of others is part of this precept as well. Finally, avoiding sexual contact in relationships where there is a power differential is vitally important: mentors, employers, managers, and teachers must not take advantage of their power over others. Unfortunately, many scandals in the Buddhist world have had to do with violating this precept.
- Next is the precept of right speech. First and foremost this precept forbids lying, although I expect that extreme circumstances such as lying to Nazis about hiding Jews would be an exception. However, in ordinary life, lying to take advantage in a situation or even to save oneself embarrassment is forbidden. Even lying to avoid hurting someone (for example, denying one has had an affair) is contrary to right speech, although it is up to individuals to figure out the particulars. What about white lies, such as admiring a friend’s new haircut when you hate it? Probably it’s best to refrain tactfully from being too enthusiastic, although with practice you can figure out how to give warm feedback without lying: “It’s so much fun to try out new things!” This precept also demands we avoid gossip, harsh speech, hurtful speech, or even unnecessary speech. A person could talk a bit about the weather with someone, but it’s best not to waste hours in idle talk.
- The fifth precept admonishes against consuming intoxicating drugs or alcohol that lead to carelessness. Among other things, it’s difficult to practice when one is high or drunk. I have found that even a single glass of wine takes the edge off my ability to focus. Can a good Buddhist have a beer with friends? Traditionally the answer would be no, but many modern Buddhists see no harm in a drink now and then, or the occasional use of marijuana. It all depends on how it affects an individual. Many people arrive in pragmatic dharma circles having had experience with psychedelic substances, and some continue to experiment with them, often in the context of scientific studies. For these individuals, taking such drugs responsibly includes careful attention to context and setting.
- With the sixth precept, we arrive at the group of three that apply especially to people in monastic settings. The sixth involves training oneself to avoid eating after 12:00 noon. Some people on retreat voluntarily undertake this precept, while others can honor it by not eating in between meals and having only a light supper for the evening meal. I have always wondered how anyone could manage to stop eating at noon, but a monk I spoke to about it told me that people get adjusted to it. Occasionally at my local meditation center we will take visiting monks out to lunch after a Sunday dharma talk, and I have noticed them loading up their plates at the buffet several times. I guess that’s how people adjust to it, considering that we all need a certain amount of fuel to get through the day!
- The seventh precept enjoins monks and nuns from dancing, singing, or indulging in entertainment; wearing perfume, jewelry, or cosmetics; or adorning the body with garlands. Lay practitioners might choose to dress modestly and simply, and minimize distractions such as TV shows, movies, novels, parties, and the like. It all sounds extremely dreary, but on the other hand there is something to be said for keeping one’s mind from getting inundated with mental noise day in and day out. I know that fussing about my hair or my wardrobe takes energy and creates agitation. I also know that it is extremely easy to get completely caught up in the lives of imaginary people and the actors who portray them, and that such entertainments can take up significant real estate in my head.
- Finally, the eighth precept forbids lying on luxurious or high sleeping places, or sitting on high or ornate chairs. The Buddha was especially concerned with two things: first, that monks and nuns not place themselves above others in status; and second, that they not indulge in luxury. While this precept applies to people in monastic life, a householder today might think in terms of living simply as a way of minimizing the stress of maintaining many possessions. Similarly, laypeople can find that opting out of the competition for status is a component of a more satisfying life.
So those are the precepts. Morality goes hand-in-hand with the two other trainings, concentration and insight (wisdom), which I’ll write about later.