June 1, 2017

How Practicing the 5 Buddhist Precepts Changed my Life.


Last year, I took a 10-day Introduction to Buddhism course in Dharamshala, India.

The first thing I glimpsed as I entered the center were the five Buddhist precepts. They read as follows:

1. Refrain from killing.
2. Refrain from stealing.
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Refrain from lying. 
5. Refrain from the use of intoxicants.

I thought it would be easy to practice them. The fact is, we have built up particular mental constructs about terms like killing or stealing. For instance, we associate killing with ending human life and stealing with breaking into a shop.

I was oblivious to the fact that the concepts of “killing” or “stealing” go beyond our traditional expectations. I finally understood this during my first few hours at Tushita Meditation Center when the nun went through every precept in detail. Beautifully enough, she asked us to label the precepts as guidelines rather than rules. She made clear they’re not commandments, but it’s valuable to respect them.

The precepts are the foundation of all Buddhist teaching. Some Buddhists observe more than five precepts, but the majority follow these basic ones, which aim to help with the purity of our minds and bodies.

Practicing the five precepts during the course truly changed my perspective on many things. Here’s how they were of benefit:

1. Refrain from killing.

That is to say: I will not kill or harm any living beings, including plants and insects.

The nun gave us a few instructions on how to save insects instead of killing them. We were told to mind our steps when walking so we wouldn’t crush an insect by mistake. To save a spider, we should cover it with a cup, slide a paper below it, and take the spider at least 200 meters away from where we found it, because if we relocate it within less than 200 meters, the spider finds its way back to its web. Scorpions can be saved with a broom and a dustpan. We were encouraged not to kill mosquitoes. The nun said, “Mosquitoes just want a drop of your blood. Let them have it.”

When the nun finished explaining the first precept, I realized that I had been breaking it my entire life. Practicing it at the beginning was difficult, but now it’s my new favorite hobby. I don’t freak out anymore when I see a spider—I run for a cup and a paper instead. And I mind my steps when walking, so I don’t crush ants or beetles by mistake.

The goal here is to learn to appreciate all living things, even the smallest ones we may see as worthless. Saving a life, instead of taking it, taught me to treat all living things with compassion and equality.

2. Refrain from stealing.

That is to say: I will not take any possession that has not been given to me.

The nun explained that we should ask permission before taking anything from anyone that doesn’t belong to us.

When I came back home, one of my friends laughed at me when I asked her if I could take a bite of her sandwich. She told me that I don’t need to ask. I explained how I embraced this habit during the course and how good it made me feel.

The goal here is to show respect and minimize worry. Also, there’s a degree of humility and goodness that comes with asking before taking hold of something.

3. Refrain from sexual misconduct.

That is to say: I will abstain from rape, adultery, or any sexual activity that is exploitative of or hurts others.

We were asked not to indulge in any sexual activity during the course—males and females sleep in separate dorms. I observed this precept again during my Vipassana course, which I attended after Introduction to Buddhism.

I found celibacy to be wholesome because I wasn’t connected to anyone else. Practicing Buddhist-like celibacy shifted the entire focus on myself. I learned so many things about my mind and body that I didn’t know before. Also, I realized that some sexual activity can lead to suffering, because desire breeds more desire, and we end up hurt if we can’t fulfill it.

Beautifully enough, after living in the woods for a month and studying my mind, I felt a sense of oneness with everyone else. I finally understood how monks and nuns stay celibate for many years. At the end of my retreat, I perceived people as pure energies, rather than males or females—though this made it tough to get back into dating!

4. Refrain from lying.

That is to say: I will abstain from telling lies; I will be honest all the time.

The nun explained to us that a lie always brings about a negative result, despite the nature of our intentions.

This precept was certainly the most difficult to practice since we’re accustomed to tainting the truth at times. The course was held in silence, so my real practice began when I left. To this day, I try my best to tell the truth no matter how much I think it will hurt or mess things up.

Lying is a choice. Before speaking, dealing with a problem, or even giving advice to someone, we have the choice to either speak the truth or hide from it. I’m convinced that when we make the choice to be truthful with others, we’re also being truthful with ourselves—and it feels darn good.

5. Refrain from the use of intoxicants.

That is to say: I will abstain from taking anything that is intoxicating and mind-altering, including alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes.

I’ve never taken mind-altering drugs, and I stopped smoking a few years back. However, I drink occasionally. Abstaining from alcohol for one month was valuable. My body felt cleansed, and my mind felt pure. I also found that I minimized my alcohol intake after the retreat as well.

By focusing on my meditation practice, I realized that our minds can reach powerful states naturally without the use of intoxicants.



Author: Elyane Youssef
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Nicole Cameron

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