The Healing Power of the Precepts

Thanissaro Bhikkhu


The Buddha was like a doctor, treating the spiritual ills of the
human race. The path of practice he taught was like a course of
therapy for suffering hearts and minds. This way of understanding
the Buddha and his teachings dates back to the earliest texts, and
yet is also very current. Buddhist meditation practice is often
advertised as a form of healing, and quite a few psychotherapists
now recommend that their patients try meditation as part of their

After several years of teaching and practicing meditation as
therapy, however, many of us have found that meditation on its own
is not enough. In my own experience, I have found that Western
meditators tend to be afflicted more with a certain grimness and
lack of self-esteem than any Asians I have ever taught. Their
psyches are so wounded by modern civilization that they lack the
resilience and persistence needed before concentration and insight
practices can be genuinely therapeutic. Other teachers have noted
this problem as well and, as a result, many of them have decided
that the Buddhist path is insufficient for our particular needs.
To make up for this insufficiency they have experimented with ways
of supplementing meditation practice, combining it with such
things as myth, poetry, psychotherapy, social activism, sweat
lodges, mourning rituals, and even drumming. The problem, though,
may not be that there is anything lacking in the Buddhist path,
but that we simply haven't been following the Buddha's full course
of therapy.

The Buddha's path consisted not only of mindfulness,
concentration, and insight practices, but also of virtue,
beginning with the five precepts. In fact, the precepts constitute
the first step in the path. There is a tendency in the West to
dismiss the five precepts as Sunday-school rules bound to old
cultural norms that no longer apply to our modern society, but
this misses the role that the Buddha intended for them: They are
part of a course of therapy for wounded minds. In particular, they
are aimed at curing two ailments that underlie low self-esteem:
regret and denial.

When our actions don't measure up to certain standards of
behavior, we either (1) regret the actions or (2) engage in one of
two kinds of denial, either (a) denying that our actions did in
fact happen or (b) denying that the standards of measurement are
really valid. These reactions are like wounds in the mind. Regret
is an open wound, tender to the touch, while denial is like
hardened, twisted scar tissue 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. Even when it's forced to stay in the present,
it's there only in a tensed, contorted and partial way, and so the
insights it gains tend to be contorted and partial as well. Only
if the mind is free of wounds and scars can it be expected to
settle down comfortably and freely in the present, and to give
rise to undistorted discernment.

This is where the five precepts come in: They are designed to heal
these wounds and scars. Healthy self-esteem comes from living up
to a set of standards that are practical, clear-cut, humane, and
worthy of respect; the five precepts are formulated in such a way
that they provide just such a set of standards.

Practical: The standards set by the precepts are simple -- no
intentional killing, stealing, having illicit sex, lying, or
taking intoxicants. It's entirely possible to live in line with
these standards. Not always easy or convenient, but always
possible. I have seen efforts to translate the precepts into
standards that sound more lofty or noble -- taking the second
precept, for example, to mean no abuse of the planet's resources
-- but even the people who reformulate the precepts in this way
admit that it is impossible to live up to them. Anyone who has
dealt with psychologically damaged people knows that very often
the damage comes from having been presented with impossible
standards to live by. If you can give people standards that take a
little effort and mindfulness, but are possible to meet, their
self-esteem soars dramatically as they discover that they are
actually capable of meeting those standards. They can then face
more demanding tasks with confidence.

Clear-cut: The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts.
This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for
waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations. An action either
fits in with the precepts or it doesn't. Again, standards of this
sort are very healthy to live by. Anyone who has raised children
has found that, although 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,
that would place your convenience on a higher level than your
compassion for life. Convenience would become your unspoken
standard -- and as we all know, 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 as the
Buddha says, you are providing unlimited safety for the lives of
all. There are no conditions under which you would take the lives
of any living beings, no matter how inconvenient they might be. In
terms of the other precepts, you are providing unlimited safety
for their possessions and sexuality, and unlimited truthfulness
and mindfulness in your communication with them. When you find
that you can trust yourself in matters like these, you gain an
undeniably healthy sense of self-respect.

Humane: 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 chose in the present moment. This means that you are not
insignificant. Every time you take a choice -- at home, at work,
at play -- you are exercising your power in the on-going
fashioning 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. If you are living with people who observe the
precepts, you find that your dealings with them are not a cause
for mistrust or fear. They regard your desire for happiness as
akin to theirs. Their worth as individuals does not depend on
situations in which there have to be winners and losers. When they
talk about developing lovingkindness and mindfulness in their
meditation, you see it reflected in their actions. In this way the
precepts foster not only healthy individuals, but also a healthy
society -- a society in which the self-respect and mutual respect
are not at odds.

Worthy of respect: When you adopt a set of standards, it is
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 are
called "standards appealing to the noble ones." From what the
texts tell us of the noble ones, they are not 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 have
seen for themselves, for example, that all lying is pathological,
and that any sex outside of a stable, committed relationship is
unsafe at any speed. Other people may 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.

Now, many people find it cold comfort to join such an abstract
group, especially when they have not yet met any noble ones in
person. It's hard to be good-hearted and generous when the society
immediately around you openly laughs at those qualities and values
such things as sexual prowess or predatory business skills
instead. This is where Buddhist communities can come in. It would
be very useful if Buddhist groups would openly part ways with the
prevailing amoral tenor of our culture and let it be known in a
kindly way that they value goodheartedness and restraint among
their members. In doing so, they would provide a healthy
environment for the full-scale adoption of the Buddha's course of
therapy: the practice of concentration and discernment in a life
of virtuous action. Where we have such environments, we find that
meditation needs no myth or make-believe to support it, because it
is based on the reality of a well-lived life. You can look at the
standards by which you live, and then breathe in and out
comfortably -- not as a flower or a mountain, but as a
full-fledged, responsible human being. For that's what you are.

 For free distribution only, as a gift of Dhamma by Access to Insight
 Revised: Sat 20 December 1997 by Access to Insight