The Summer-Fall 2015 IRC Newsletter is now available

The Summer-Fall 2015 IRC Newsletter is now available.

The Fifth Precept and The Power of Renunciation

Renunciation is one of the most beneficial, empowering, and freeing practices of Buddhism. As its purpose is to heighten the best qualities of our hearts and minds, renunciation is not meant to diminish our lives but rather to enhance them. Abstaining from intoxicating drinks and drugs—the fifth ethical precept—is an important Buddhist practice that can reveal the power of renunciation.

On the surface, the fifth precept differs from the first four in being more personal than interpersonal. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying all directly involve other people. In contrast, consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs is a personal choice that does not inherently affect others.

The immense personal and interpersonal damage that comes from alcohol and drugs is often invisible in the personal, seemingly innocuous decisions to consume them. This harm can be masked when intoxication, even mild inebriation, temporarily alleviates pain and brings longed-for relief. Its negative effects can also be invisible when intoxication’s temporary pleasure, relaxation, and lack of fear can seem preferable to less pleasant feelings. And yet, we’re all aware of the tremendous personal and social costs of intoxication. Under the influence of these substances—and in their aftermath—people frequently make poor choices, often with long-term consequences. The cost of human lives lost or relationships destroyed due to intoxication are incalculable.

The issue of intoxication is not only a modern one. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said that intoxication can lead to “the loss of wealth, increased quarreling, susceptibility to illness, disrepute, and weakening of wisdom.” What is modern is the incredibly wide range of addicting substances and unwholesome pleasures that are readily available.

With its emphasis on mindfulness and wise intention, Buddhism helps us see how intoxication clouds the mind and diminishes our ability to make wise choices. A traditional Buddhist reason for abstaining from alcohol and drugs is that intoxication increases the chances a person will violate the first four precepts. For example, we are more likely to speak what is not true or to flirt inappropriately, if we are even a little bit intoxicated. And, as wisdom is often lacking when intoxicated, these can easily lead to greater and more damaging problems. Children can grow up in fear when drunk parents are prone to anger, violence, and neglect. Our prisons are filled with people who committed crimes while intoxicated.

The literal English translation of the fifth precept is “I undertake the training precept to abstain from alcohol, liquor, or spirits that are a cause for heedlessness.” The mention of heedlessness points to the way in which intoxication involves a loss in care, caring, and carefulness. While Buddhism links intoxication with heedlessness and lack of mindfulness, modern psychology discusses this in terms of decreased cognitive abilities, increased attention deficits, and poor judgment.

Ideally, abstaining from intoxication is not only about avoiding harm and heedlessness. Abstinence can also be motivated by the personal and interpersonal benefits it brings, which can be deeply nourishing. Any time the desire for intoxicating substances is strong and we refrain from acting on that desire, we strengthen our capacity for renunciation and self-mastery. The stronger the desire, the greater we need to rely on commitment and wisdom to avoid giving in to it. Doing so strengthens us. It also can improve our relationships with family, friends, and others.

By refraining from drinking and drugs we maintain the mental clarity that is essential for mindfulness practice. Furthermore, mindfulness can be increased by staying alert to the ways in which desire for substances can get the upper hand. Restraining these desires strengthens our will power, a faculty that can free us from all kinds of compulsive desires, not just ones for alcohol or drugs.

Abstinence also develops and supports wisdom. Through it we can better understand how the mind works, how it can delude us and how it can heal us. We’re better able to recognize the desire to get intoxicated as an indicator that something in our life is out of balance. Are we using alcohol as a way to deal with stress? Do we drink or take drugs due to social pressure from friends or colleagues who do so?

For those walking the Buddhist path, abstaining from intoxication is a strategy for our long-term happiness. It is a training in personal maturation and growth. Rather than relying on short-term pleasures and highs, the Buddhist path relies on an increasing self-understanding that brings enduring wisdom, on developing compassion that provides ongoing forgiveness, and on cultivating personal strengths that keep us steady in the face of life’s challenges.

One of the biggest supports for abstaining from intoxication is the faith that it’s worthwhile to do so, and confidence that we can do it. Such faith and confidence grow best in community with people who inspire it in us. To be around others who restrain themselves from drinking or taking drugs can inspire us to do the same. To be accompanied in our efforts by friends and other practitioners means we don’t have to rely solely on our own efforts. If we are less likely to consume alcohol or drugs when we have the support of others, making sure we have this support may help us to relax effort that may be too forceful, and thus counterproductive. To have the loving acceptance of community can help us to be more self-compassionate and less moralistically harsh toward ourselves. All too often the regular use of alcohol and drugs ruptures relationships, and with them our own self-worth; practicing the precepts in a community of other practitioners can be a way to heal this wounded part of ourselves.

Practicing with the fifth precept has a lot to do with being truthful with ourselves, which is a very significant form of mindfulness. One way we can know we’re being truthful is by having a friend or a community with whom we can tell the truth. If you are using alcohol and drugs and aren’t willing to tell this to your friend or community, you’re probably not being truthful even to yourself. Done wisely with people who support you, truthfulness is one of the most powerful supports for the fifth precept.

While some people live by the fifth precept as a way to avoid the dangers that come with intoxication, it’s also helpful to be motivated by the benefits it can bring.   Having increased clarity, wisdom, personal freedom and improved social relations can provide motivation to use every act of renunciation as an opportunity for much more than abstention. Renunciation has the power to bring out the best in us. It is an opportunity for making the world a better place for ourselves and others.

—Gil Fronsdal

The July-September 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available

The July-September 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available.

The April-June 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available

The April-June 2015 IMC Newsletter is now available.

The Winter-Spring 2015 IRC Newsletter is Now Available

The Winter-Spring 2015 IRC Newsletter is now available.

Memorial Day Weekend Family Retreat information

Memorial Day Weekend Family Retreat: K- 8th Graders and Parents

Saturday May 23- Monday May 25.

Jikoji Retreat Center, Los Gatos.

Practice together as a family during a relaxed weekend that will offer structured retreat practice and small group sharing with other parents, teens, and children, along with hiking and appreciation of the forest, grasslands, and views from the top of the Santa Cruz mountains.  The site features camping and a limited number of shared dorm rooms. .  Registration by lottery will open on the IMC website at the beginning of February.


Note: Applications with a $200 deposit received by 3/15/15 will be entered into a lottery. Retreatants will be notified in late March if they have been admitted or are on the Waiting list. Subsequent applications will be added to the Waiting list.

Registrar: Questions? Email Liz Powell at eapowell@aol.com

Teachers: Richard Shankman, Liz Powell, and others

Protecting the Peace through the Fourth Precept

Fundamentally, Buddhist practice is a training in peace—and Buddhist ethics serve as a protection of this peace. As our sense of ease, harmony, and calm deepen with our practice, we begin to understand how our ethical choices impact our experience of peace, and we see that the five Buddhist precepts safeguard our well-being.

Because we so frequently talk and communicate with others, the fourth precept—avoiding false speech—is particularly relevant in our daily lives. Living by this precept protects us, and those we interact with, from the hurt, betrayal, and conflict that come from lying. Avoiding false speech promotes social concord and the interpersonal trust that social harmony depends on. It also supports the foundation of Buddhist practice, which bases our lives on what is true. For those who are motivated to walk a path of peace and freedom, lying is counterproductive because it moves us in the opposite direction.

Honesty is key to mindfulness practice. There can be no mindfulness practice without honestly acknowledging what we are experiencing. Telling lies interferes with the purpose and power of mindfulness. On the other hand, speaking truthfully—i.e., “mindfulness out loud”—keeps us in the flow of mindfulness, and our communications have the chance to be in harmony with the goodness that arises through careful attention.

States of calm, relaxation, and peace provide us with important reference points for living by the fourth precept. In the same way that a clean cloth will better reveal a new stain than a cloth that’s already saturated with dirt, a calm mind will better highlight mental agitation than a mind that is unsettled. Because lying agitates the person who lies, a peaceful mind can reveal the way dishonesty disturbs the quality of our inner life.

Lying involves a tension, tightness, and narrowing of the mind, and it often produces a fear of being caught. It can also lead to a stressful preoccupation with keeping the lie going. When we lie we create distance from others because dishonesty blocks our ability to build relationships based on genuine rapport and mutual understanding. Furthermore, lying leaves a legacy of shame and guilt to be experienced sooner or later.

The common motivations for lying—greed, hostility, and fear—bring their own unease to our minds and hearts. Sometimes these are called “afflictive emotions” because of the pain they cause. Lying doesn’t free us from these afflictive states; if anything, it strengthens them.

While avoiding these negative consequences can be reason enough for avoiding false speech, a commitment to the fourth precept can also be supportive in maintaining states of peace and ease that may exist within us. Experiences of settledness and peace can be deeply satisfying and nourishing. When we are experiencing such states, it’s good to take care not to lose them too easily, especially by doing or saying things we might later regret. When we know for ourselves that telling a lie disturbs our peace we have greater motivation to avoid lying. In this way, the fourth precept is more than preventive medicine for avoiding affliction; it is a tonic that supports our well-being.

Avoiding false speech does not mean we have to say something just because it is true. The truth can be hurtful, and it is important to take into account the impact our words have on others. Buddhist teachings emphasize that the truth should only be told if it’s timely, useful, and delivered with goodwill. This means that truthful speech should work together with wisdom— with our ability to discern the context, purpose, and the likely consequences of what we say.

Wisdom is nurtured by states of peace. When we are agitated, in a hurry, or impulsive, it’s hard to be wise. We don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to take into account the range of information that wisdom needs to function. We’re less likely to recognize when speaking is useful or not, and less likely to know what is or isn’t true.

The fact that wisdom operates better when we’re peaceful is certainly a good reason to protect our peace. And while various factors contribute to remaining peaceful, the commitment to the fourth precept can be particularly useful when it comes to our social life. The care and ongoing attention needed to “avoid false speech” develops our ability to be mindful, discerning, and free of compulsive speech. It entails pausing just long enough—perhaps imperceptibly to others—to recognize what we are about to say before we say it. It allows us to investigate the reasons we want to say something.

Buddhist precepts are not obligatory moral rules. They are, however, required if we want to safeguard both our personal and interpersonal peace. The greater our peace, calm, contentment, and clarity, the more we have something that is worth protecting from the agitation that results from lying. Similarly, the greater our interpersonal harmony, friendships, and trust, the more these are worth safeguarding from the disruptive consequences of deceiving others.

This is one reason why people who engage in contemplative practices, such as meditation, tend to value ethical behavior. Knowing all too well what is lost through unethical behavior, they understand they are better off being ethical. When it comes to speech, they know they are better off not deceiving anyone, including themselves.

—Gil Fronsdal

The October-December 2014 Newsletter is now available

The October-December 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

Freedom Through the Third Precept

The avoidance of sexual misconduct is the third of the five cardinal Buddhist ethical practices. Sexual feelings and behavior are deeply rooted in our biology, psychology, and social life. After puberty, many people spend significant amounts of time thinking about and involved with their sexuality. Even celibate monastics can devote much energy addressing their sexual feelings.

As an ethical precept, the avoidance of sexual misconduct means striving to refrain from causing harm through our sexuality, even unintentionally. Rather than defining sexual misconduct in terms of any specific sexual behavior, the emphasis is on considering the impact the behavior can have on others and oneself. It means taking into account much more than the particular sexual activity one may be involved in.

Practicing with the third precept requires bringing mindfulness to some of the most intimate and personal areas of our lives. As such, great care and respect is warranted as we bring greater attention to our sexuality. In terms of sexual relationships, mindfulness includes considering the intentions, expectations, and commitments of everyone involved. Without clarity about these it is easy for people to feel disappointed, hurt, or betrayed. Mindfulness in sexual relationships also includes awareness and acknowledgment of any emotional vulnerabilities our partner may have. Past hurts may be re-triggered from what may, on first impressions, appear to be appropriate sexual relations. Mindfulness can also be extended to awareness of the wider social contexts for our behavior. Are commitments being broken with our sexual activity? Are there others—partners or relatives—who would be hurt?

Because the sexual drive can be strong enough to override a person’s wisdom, compassion, and common sense, help is sometimes needed to avoid engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior. The commitment to the third precept can provide this help. It is a safeguard from unexamined, impulsive sexual behavior. It is also a protection from later regrets or worse.

Our sexuality can be a part of the Buddhist path to liberation. Rather than something that is outside the purview of Buddhist practice, sexuality can be a rich arena for practice when we bring mindfulness and investigation to it. One way to do this is to consider our sexuality through the perspective of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s most common description of the path to liberation. These eight practices are comprehensive enough to address the complexity of our sexual lives. Together they contribute to “Right Sexuality”.

Right View, the first practice of the Eightfold Path, is applying the perspective of the Four Noble Truths to our sexual intentions and behavior. The first Noble Truth asks each of us to consider whether there is any actual or potential suffering—to ourself or to others—connected to our sexual behavior. The second Noble Truth asks us to notice any craving or compulsion that may be part of sexual desire. The third Noble Truth is learning to recognize—even if just as a potential—the possibility of the cessation of any and all suffering connected with our sexual desires. It means to realize a peace and deep abiding sense of fulfillment that dissolves sexual compulsion. The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path; it is a set of practices that can bring this fulfillment.

Through practicing Right View we use our awareness of suffering to help us become free of suffering. When suffering and craving are not recognized, suffering can remain the backdrop for ones’ life. Recognized, we can begin to dissolve the backdrop.

The second practice of the Eightfold Path is Right Intention. Discovering the deeper and often subconscious motivations that drive sexual behavior and feelings is one of the very important ways to have Buddhist practice become thoroughly integrated into one’s life.

Right Intention means to avoid three forms of wrong motivations. These are intentions motivated by cruelty, ill will, and lust. Rape, coerced sex, and sexual aggression are examples of extreme sexual behavior that can be motivated by cruelty. Asserting oneself on one’s partner or ignoring his or her well-being can be driven by anger or hostility. Objectifying and disrespecting one’s partner can be a consequence of dominating lust.

Applying Right Intention in our sexual lives involves having our sexual behavior motivated by compassion, loving-kindness, and renunciation. Sexual behavior can be a valuable way of expressing appreciation, love, care, and respect for others. Having these as part of our sexual behavior ensures that sexual relationships are more than skin-deep affairs. They can be nourishing and nurturing of some of the best qualities of our hearts.

Renunciation is an important part of healthy sexuality. Renunciation is the capacity to let go of any desire which might cause suffering and hurt. Without being able to let go of sexual desire, there is no freedom. Spiritual freedom is not to be free to act on our desires; it is being free to choose wisely which desires to act on. It is to be free of compulsive desires.

The third step of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. For our sexual lives to be an integral part of the Buddhist path it is crucial that we tell the truth. Sexual misconduct often involves deceit and secrecy, activities which undermine efforts to be mindful and transparent. To practice Right Speech in relationship to our sexuality means to be honest. Sexual relationships between people in committed relationships may not appear to have sexual misconduct, but, if there is no honesty, it cannot serve as part of the path of practice.

Next is Right Action. This is usually explained by the first three precepts, not to kill, not to take what is not given, and not to engage in sexual misconduct. To not take what is not given is very important in sexual relationships. It means not expecting or requiring one’s partner to agree to one’s sexual advances. It means avoiding any assertiveness in which one forces oneself on an unwilling partner.

Right Action is followed by the practice of Right Livelihood. This means we participate in the economic life of our society in ways that avoid causing harm. When Right Livelihood is applied to our sexual behavior it includes not paying for sex or pornography. It also means not participating in a line of work that perpetuates harmful sexual behavior and attitudes. For example, someone pursuing a path of liberation would not create sexualized advertisements. Also, they would not facilitate the sexual exploitation and dehumanization of others.

The next step in the Eightfold Path is Right Effort. One way of practicing this is to make an effort at cultivating skillful, positive states of mind such as happiness, contentment, calmness, compassion, and equanimity. These and other positive states are the primary source for having an abiding sense of inner fulfillment and well-being. In terms of our sexuality, developing these positive states of mind is an antidote to using sex to fill an inner void, anxiety, or depression. When we have the pleasure of positive mind states, the physical pleasure of sex may be less alluring or even necessary. Instead of a pursuit of pleasure, sexual activity can then be an expression of love and appreciation.

The seventh Eightfold Path practice is Mindfulness. Sexual behavior and sexual relationships are among the most complicated, multifaceted aspects of our inner psychological life and outer inter-personal life. Sex and sexuality involves hormones, social conditioning, beliefs, motivations, emotions, and the mysterious activity of “chemistry” between people. Sex is seldom about simple pleasure. To be mindful of our sexuality is to begin to unpack all the complexity it comes with. As the different aspects of this complex stew are seen clearly, we can learn where our freedom is found in relationship to it.

Right Concentration is the eighth and final element of the Eightfold Path. Here concentration is synonymous with a profound sense of calm and well-being. The mind that is settled and concentrated is said to be unified. This means there is a strong sense of integration or wholeness when we are concentrated. These benefits of concentration practice have a direct effect on our sexual lives. On one hand, we are much less likely to have our sexual desires motivated by the desire for recognition, belonging, security, approval, pleasure; or to avoid anxiety or unhappiness. On the other hand, it can support sexual intimacy as a vehicle for deep communication, respect, and love for our partner.

In Buddhism, monastics practice celibacy, a path which can be a meaningful and healthy path to freedom. The task for sexually active lay practitioners is to discover how their sexuality can be a meaningful and healthy part of their path to freedom. One way to do this is to apply the Eightfold Path towards a thorough investigation of our sexual lives.

—Gil Fronsdal

The Summer 2014 Insight Retreat Center newsletter is now available

The Summer 2014 IRC Newsletter is now available.



The Buddha’s most explicit path of practice is the Eightfold Path. This is a set of eight practical approaches to bring Buddhist practice into the width and depth of our lives. The Eightfold Path Program is an introduction to each of the Eightfold factors so participants will discover how to apply each set of practices in ways that are personally meaningful. Pre-requisite: completion of IMC’s Introduction to Meditation course or the equivalent.
The program has the following elements:

1. 2-1/2 hour monthly meetings that include teachings, meditation, and discussions.
2. Readings, reflections and practices for each month.
3. A monthly one-hour personal meeting with an Eightfold Path mentor to discuss one’s practice and reflections on the Eightfold Path factors.
4. Ends with a one-day Eightfold Path retreat at the Insight Retreat Center in Scotts Valley on June 20, 2015.


Introduction to the 9-Month Eightfold Path Program, Sunday, September 14, 1pm to 3pm

Right View — Sunday, October 19, 1:00 to 3:30 pm
Right Intention – Sunday, November 16, 1 to 3:30pm
Right Speech – Sunday, December 7, 1 to 3:30pm
Right Action – Saturday, January 10, 10am to 12:30pm
Right Livelihood – Sunday, February 8, 1 to 3:30pm
Right Effort – Sunday, March 8, 1 to 3:30pm
Right Mindfulness – Sunday, April 5, 1 to 3:30pm
Right Concentration – Sunday, May 10, 1 to 3:30pm
Concluding Daylong Retreat at IRC – June 20 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

The Eightfold Path Program is full. Auditors are welcome to participate at the monthly meetings.

Letter from Gil Fronsdal & Andrea Fella

Dear  Friends,

As we finish our second amazing year of running our retreat center we have a clearer understanding and vision of what will help the center thrive well into the future. Coincidently and surprisingly we have been given the opportunity to accomplish this!

Recently, the property next door went up for sale. It includes one forested acre with a 3-bedroom house. Owning this property will allow us to have more resident volunteers caring for our center and our retreats. This is probably the single most important step in creating a strong foundation for our future.

This new property will provide us the extraordinary opportunity to expand the natural setting for the retreat center. It also preserves the quiet and beauty of our retreat environment – the house is only 50 feet from our meditation hall!

The house makes an ideal residence for our teachers. It will offer them a better space to work, collaborate, and bring their families along as they teach retreats.  It also provides housing for training the next generation of teachers.

The forested surroundings will give us more space for walking meditation and private reflection in nature. We can also use this additional acre to create a community room for study retreats and disciplines such as yoga and qi gong.

Purchasing this property has become a possibility! In July, a generous supporter purchased the house in order to provide us time to raise the money to buy it from him for the $750,000 he paid. Please help ensure that this opportunity doesn’t slip away—the sooner we can buy it the sooner we can use it and benefit from it.

We are confident our collective generosity will nurture our community-run center, bringing more and more benefits to our world.  With your donations and good-wishes you can help IRC thrive as a retreat center and as a model for what is possible.

With much gratitude,

Gil Fronsdal and Andrea Fella

Click to see PHOTOS of the property.

~  Ways to Donate  ~

By Check:  Please write Friends of IRC in the memo and mail to:

Insight Retreat Center, 108 Birch St., Redwood City,  CA  94062

DONATE ONLINE  and choose the Green “Special Donation” section.

Questions or Gifts of Stock: please email friends@insightretreatcenter.org or call  (831) 440-8858

Benefitting from the Second Precept

The second Buddhist ethical precept—to refrain from taking what is not given— can be a source of happiness in a number of ways. For example, knowing we have not hurt others by stealing from them is one small form of the happiness that comes from this precept. Knowing that we’re a person others regard as trustworthy and safe, someone they don’t have to fear will steal from them, is another cause of happiness. And still another form of happiness is the joy of blamelessness and the contentment from having no remorse.

Motivated by a sense of our shared humanity, living by this precept can be seen as a gift. We live in the world with all people as family, and just as we would not steal from our own parents or children, we don’t take anything from others unless it is offered. In doing so we offer them the gift of harmlessness, safety and ease. Not taking what is not given is connected to the freedom of heart Buddhism points to. Our greatest wealth is in our hearts, and being free of the greed and selfishness that motivates most acts of theft is a prerequisite for uncovering that inner wealth. A heart at ease simply won’t steal.

By wording the second precept “not taking what is not given,” the Buddhist tradition presents a higher standard and greater clarity for ethical behavior than simply “not stealing.” From this standpoint, things have to be clearly and freely offered before we take something. This precludes relying on ambiguity, deceit, force, exploitation or intimidation to acquire what belongs to others. No matter how small or how low in monetary value, if it isn’t given, we don’t take it. When practiced thoroughly, this precept extends to not borrowing something without permission.

The second precept can also be applied to how and what we consume by refraining from buying anything that originates from people who haven’t given their labor or resources freely. So, for example, we wouldn’t buy clothes made in sweatshops where people are forced to work involuntarily. We would also avoid using natural resources acquired against the wishes and rights of the local people from where the resources came.

Not taking what is not given can also relate to services others perform for us. In the complexity of our interpersonal relationships, fear can easily motivate people to do things they would prefer not to do. Employees may feel they can’t say no to a boss’s request. Spouses may agree to do things they don’t want to because they fear straining the relationship. Silence should not automatically be taken as consent. Instead, we should ask ourselves if the other person is doing something for us out of a sense of coercion, or of their own free will.

In the Buddhist ritual where people express their intention to live by the second of the ethical precepts they say, “I undertake the training to abstain from taking what is not given.” Calling this a “training” implies one is working toward fully living by this precept. It is not a vow of ethical purity one is obligated to live up to. Rather it is an intention to sincerely train to become a person who lives up to it. When taken on as a training, the second precept can be separated into three kinds of training: in restraint, character, and understanding. These three elements are aspects of the traditional Buddhist trainings of sila, samadhi, and panna (virtue, meditation, and wisdom).

Restraint. Training ourselves to refrain from causing harm is central to Buddhist practice. When we refrain from taking what is not offered, we avoid confusing, harming or upsetting others. We ourselves benefit from having a clear conscience and knowing we haven’t given cause for people to be angry at us. We also have the satisfaction of not giving in to greed.

Training in restraint is a support for practicing mindfulness. When we hold back from the impulse to take, we then have the opportunity to look carefully at the nature of the impulse. What beliefs, emotions, and desires are behind it? What justifications do we use to take things that aren’t offered? Or if they are offered, are we taking for the purpose for which they are given? Perhaps pens or stationery are offered freely at work. However, this doesn’t mean we can take them home to pass out to all our relatives. For the practice of mindfulness, the stricter we are with the second precept the more opportunities we have for probing deeply into what motivates us.

In particular, it is useful to explore the role greed and selfishness play in our impulses to take what hasn’t been given. As the Buddhist path of freedom is a way to end greed and self-preoccupation, living with this precept helps us stay on this path.

Character. The second area of training is developing our character or basic disposition. Here the second precept becomes a precept of action by engaging in those mental and physical activities that transform us from the inside out. Living by the second precept is a prompt to practice generosity, goodwill, contentment, and freedom from attachments. As we behave in these ways more and more, we not only act ethically, we become ethical. Being ethical becomes part of our character as we develop greater mindfulness, empathy, happiness, and equanimity. All these combine to promote greater ethical sensitivity and care, and function as antidotes to the power of greed.

Every inclination to take or want something can be an occasion to practice greater mindfulness. For people who don’t actually steal, this can be done by bringing greater attention to subtle forms of taking what is not given, such as dominating a conversation, pushing to the front of a line, or failing to tell the cashier that we’ve been undercharged for a purchase. The precept can function as a “mindfulness cue.” Every time we have a desire to have something that wasn’t given, our commitment to the precept can prompt us to pay more attention to what is happening in our inner life and to recommit to living an ethical life. The second precept also offers the opportunity to train in contentment. We can search for ways to replace greed and desire with a sense of satisfaction with what we already have. We can also practice being content with what is given or offered to us without trying to get something more or something else. Contentment may be one of the most underappreciated supports for training in the path of freedom. It is well worth cultivating.

Because taking what is not given involves our relationships with others, the second precept can also be used as a means to bring greater attention to other people. When we want something belonging to others, we can take the time to allow our empathy to bring us a fuller appreciation of them and their circumstances. Exercising empathy strengthens and increases it.

A training closely associated with the second precept is generosity, or “giving what is not asked for.” Generosity can never be an obligation: giving based on obligation may sometimes be necessary, but it is not generosity. It can be very meaningful to explore ways to be generous. Whenever we are tempted to take what is not given, we can instead consider how to replace the temptation with generosity. Then take the time to feel nourished by this generosity. Our inner character changes for the better when we are so nourished.

Understanding. In addition to training in restraint and character, the third form of training is cultivating understanding. Internally, this means understanding our own motivations, values, and needs. Interpersonally it means understanding the consequences of our actions on others. This includes taking the time to learn about the consequences of our acquisitions and consumption even as they extend beyond what we see. In this wider context how might we be taking what is not given? How careful can we become in not doing so? The fact that sales people happily offer to sell us cell phones and computers does not mean that all the components of these devices come to us from freely offered sources. When children, in slave-like work camps in the Congo, mine the tantalum and tungsten used in our electronics, are our electronic devices really offered freely?

The three areas of ethical training—restraint, character, and understanding – overlap considerably. Developing one often develops the others. Developing all three brings forth the best qualities of the heart, all essential to a life of greater happiness and inner freedom.

—Gil Fronsdal

The July-September 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

The July-September 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

The Heart of Ethics: The First Precept

The intention to not cause harm lies at the heart of Buddhist ethical and spiritual life. The commitment to non-harming leads to a life committed to not killing, which is the first of the five precepts undertaken by Buddhists the world over.

The first precept has implications in many areas of our lives, some personal and others societal. Close to home it may relate to such issues as eating meat, hunting, having firearms, self-defense, and pest-management. Both at personal and societal levels the precept is connected to questions of abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. More widely, the first precept relates to questions about war, military service, capital punishment, the culling of wildlife, and laboratory research with animals.

The first precept is also intimately connected to our inner life as it relates to our motivations, values, emotions, and beliefs. To live by this precept is more than avoiding killing, it touches on our capacity for goodness—sometimes called virtue. Mindfulness, love, compassion, generosity and wisdom are all companions to the first precept. In addition, freeing ourselves from the distortions of selfishness, greed, or aversion creates the conditions for naturally wanting to avoid harming.

As a Buddhist practice, the first precept can be approached though the framework of the three areas of Buddhist training: training in ethics, in meditation and in wisdom. Traditionally called sila, samadhi, and pañña these three trainings concern how we behave, how we are, and how we see. As such, they support us like the legs of a tripod: we need all three to stay upright and balanced in situations that may challenge a commitment to non-harming and the first precept.

Training in sila (ethics) emphasizes the practice of restraint. This training entails restraining from killing, even ants in our homes. Some people include avoiding activities indirectly connected to killing, such as buying produce grown with pesticides. Restraint is useful in cultivating a number of important personal qualities. It develops will power, patience, the capacity to let go, and the safety of blamelessness. Restraint can also foster greater self-understanding; not acting on an urge can help us to see the urge more clearly.

In relation to the precepts, training in samadhi (meditation) involves developing the heart and mind so our inner life supports our ethical life. Traditional forms of samadhi training include meditation practices that develop mindfulness, concentration, loving-kindness, or compassion. Greater concentration, with the associated contentment, calmness confidence, and equanimity reduce the selfishness that lies at the root of most unethical behavior. Developing loving-kindness and compassion helps us consider and regard others in caring ways. These all contribute to greater ethical sensitivity and self-awareness. This, in turn, reduces the chances that we will act on the fear or hate which often motivate the impulse to harm.

Training in samadhi ensures that living by the precepts is not simply adhering to particular rules. When our virtues and beneficial inner states are developed, we are naturally motivated to act in ways informed by the precepts. When we are happy, mindful, and compassionate we are not inclined to kill. Rather, we understand that killing any living being diminishes our inner well-being and ease.

Training in pañña (wisdom) is developing our understanding and insight. One way ethical wisdom is cultivated is through investigation. When we are about to act contrary to the precepts we can stop to investigate the situation. In particular it is useful to inquire into three areas of our potential action, their intentions, their consequences, and alternatives to them.

For example, when our actions will directly or indirectly cause the death of a living being, we can investigate the intentions motivating the actions. Do the intentions support a path to awakening? Are we happy and proud to have these intentions? Is what we are intending to do worth the sacrifice of another life? How do we balance competing intentions? We may want to safeguard both the termites eating our house and our house. Are there times when we need to choose between the termites and house? Or, what about a situation where we are being physically attacked? How do we choose between not wanting to cause harm and the desire to protect ourselves?

Because these can be difficult questions to answer, it is important to investigate the consequences of killing. Too often people kill with a short-sightedness that fails to recognize the ripple effect of taking life. Using pesticides may successfully exterminate a pest, but too many times we have discovered later that the pesticide harmed other creatures and humans exposed to the pesticide. Killing an enemy soldier may seem appropriate in times of war but when we consider the ripple effect on the soldier’s children, family, and community, is war the best way to accomplish what needs to be done? By investigating and understanding consequences, the balance between self-care and caring for others may change.

We can also consider the consequences to our inner life if we take the life of another. Meditation practice reveals the toll that killing has on our inner life. When those who have killed other people or animals begin to meditate, it is not uncommon for them to experience difficulty in facing their past actions and working through the pain and regret. Until they meditated, the harmful personal consequences laid buried in their minds.

The third area to investigate when we are motivated to kill is to consider the alternatives. All too often people want a quick solution with clear results. But discovering the alternatives to killing sometimes requires research and creative problem solving. For example, instead of buying a gun to protect ourself, can we take the time to learn self-defense strategies that will keep us safe without needing a firearm? Instead of physician-assisted suicide, can palliative care reduce the pain? Instead of pesticides on our crops, can we choose to grow plants that are not threatened by local pests?

While killing can be done quickly and easily, the unexpected negative consequences can last a long time. Finding alternatives to killing may take much time and effort, but they do not leave the same legacy of suffering. Rather, alternatives to violence leave a legacy of peace and good-will.

The personal maturity that comes from the combined training in sila, samadhi, and pañña gives a person an internal guide for their ethical life. The motivation to live a life of non-harming becomes something we want to do; it becomes something we know enriches our inner life and the lives of those around us. Not only does it diminish the impulses of greed, hate and delusion, it also increases the presence of generosity, love, and wisdom.

In this way, living by the first precept is not only about what we don’t do. It is also about what we do. The Buddha associated the first precept with the practice of generosity in the following teachings:

Abandoning the taking of life, one abstains from taking life. This gives freedom from danger, freedom from hostility, and freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of living beings. In giving freedom from danger, hostility, and oppression to others one gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, hostility, and oppression. This is the first great gift. —AN 8.39

Just as not taking life is the first Buddhist ethical precept, so generosity is the first Buddhist virtue. When they come together, we can have firsthand experience that the first precept is less about following external rules and more about expressing generosity and compassion arising from within.

—Gil Fronsdal