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


The April-June 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available

The April-June 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

Gil’s New Book: Unhindered

Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances
Gil Fronsdal’s new book is now available through Amazon.  It provides a detailed discussion of each of the five hindrances.  These are the mental states that present the most common obstacles to meditation.  As such, all meditators should become familiar with the hindrances and how to work with them. The book provides instruction on how to turn the light of mindfulness directly on the hindrances so to transform them from obstructions to steps along the path of freedom.  Overcoming the hindrances reveals the beauty of our hearts and the wisdom of a clear mind.

The January-March 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

The January-March 2014 IMC Newsletter is now available.

Mindfulness of the Hindrances

Anyone practicing mindfulness knows there are forces in the mind that can make it difficult to stay attentive to one’s present moment experience. Ranging from weak to very powerful, these forces hamper our ability to remain mindful, develop concentration and have clear insight. They pull our attention away from our efforts to meditate. Even with the best of intentions to stay focused, these forces can propel us into the world of pre-occupation and distracted thought.

Rather than reacting to these difficulties as being “bad,” “distractions,” or personal failings, it is important to be mindful of them. In that they are happening in the present, they can be a basis for cultivating greater awareness and wisdom. They can become part of the path of practice, rather than a detour.

It is important to investigate the forces of distraction and agitation carefully to understand their nature and how they work. It is easier to find freedom from something when we know it thoroughly. Ancient Buddhist stories tell of Mara, the Buddhist personification of temptation and distraction, approaching the Buddha. Each time Mara arrives, the Buddha simply says, “Mara, I see you,” and Mara flees. Recognizing Mara was effective in bringing freedom from Mara.

Of the many forces of distraction, five are traditionally identified as particularly important for people practicing Buddhist mindfulness and meditation. Known as the five hindrances, they are workings of the mind that can hinder our ability to see clearly and our capacity to develop a stable, concentrated mind. The hindrances are sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry and doubt.

As you can see, the list is actually made up of seven factors, but four are always paired. One explanation for the paired items is that they represent closely related physical and mental factors.

The first two hindrances are related by being opposite qualities. Desire and ill will are both forms of wanting, albeit in opposing ways. Desire wants to have something, whereas ill will wants to push something way. The third and fourth hindrances are similarly seen as opposing tendencies. They both involve levels of energy or vitality. Sloth and torpor are low energy states while restlessness and worry are high energy states.

The fifth hindrance, doubt, is not specifically connected with any of the other hindrances or distinguished into physical and mental aspects. This is because doubt is often entwined with any combination of the other hindrances and can cast its influence in many ways on our whole being.

The wisdom needed for working with the hindrances is discovered through mindfulness of them. This wisdom is acquired slowly, requiring much patience. It also requires an interest in studying the hindrances as they appear. Reading about the hindrances cannot substitute for the time and effort needed to understand how the hindrances operate. As each person has his or her own path through the hindrances, you will have to find yours.

It is best to respect the hindrances and their power. This is not to acquiesce to them, but rather it is a way to overcome their sway. Through developing one’s mindfulness, the hindrances begin to lose their power. With the growth of wisdom, equanimity, and concentration it is possible to be free from their influence.

It is also possible to be free of the hindrances themselves; they do not have to be present. One’s mind can be hindrance-free. Without the obscurations of the hindrances, such a mind can become clear, perhaps like a translucent pond in which everything is seen clearly.

Buddhism recognizes a hindrance-free mind as a beautiful mind. In fact, for some people this mind is one of the most beautiful experiences they know. Because all other forms of beauty are perceived through the mind, when the mind is clear and peaceful, what we perceive will be perceived within this clarity and peace. It is like having the light turned on after living in the dark for a long time: the marvel of sight becomes more wonderful than whatever is seen.

On the path to freedom, the primary function of a hindrance-free mind is to teach us about non-clinging. When the hindrances hinder it is because we are clinging to something. When the hindrances are absent we are then free of their accompanying clinging. By seeing the difference between clinging and non-clinging we learn that freedom is found in non-clinging. When this lesson is learned well, we understand that clarity, peace, beauty and other experiences on the path to freedom are not the point of the path; they are stepping-stones to more and more thorough degrees of freedom from attachment.

The milestones along this path are measured by release from attachments. In relationship to the hindrances this may begin with letting go of anger, discouragement, or dismay that they are present. A further step is giving up judging oneself negatively because of the hindrances. Another signpost is letting go of any belief that justifies the importance of the hindrances. The most significant milestones is being released, even temporarily, from the hindrances themselves.

With a strong enough experience of non-clinging we come to a fork in our path. One direction leads to more clinging, the other to freedom. As practice becomes deeper the path of freedom becomes more obvious. At some point it becomes clearly the easier path. When we are new to practice it is clinging that may be easiest, one day it becomes non-clinging. Freedom supports further freedom. It empties the mind of obstructions and agitation until, in the beauty of the mind’s clarity, we are free of ourselves.

This article is an excerpt from Gil’s new book, Unhindered: A Mindful Path Through the Five Hindrances, which can be purchased on Amazon.com. Click through the Recommended Books page on our website when making a purchase on Amazon, and help support IMC.


The Spring 2014 Insight Retreat Center newsletter is now available

The Spring 2014 IRC Newsletter is now available.

The Fall 2013 Insight Retreat Center newsletter is now available

The Fall 2013 IRC Newsletter is now available.

The October-December 2013 IMC Newsletter is now available

The October-December 2013 IMC Newsletter is now available.

Caring for the Earth as Buddhist Practice

Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.

After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.

Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.

There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.

Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.

These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.

If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.

Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.

Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.

Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.

In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.

Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.

So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.

There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.

—Gil Fronsdal

Solar Water Heater Fundraising Drive

As part of IMC efforts to lower our environmental impact we are currently fundraising with a goal of $15,000 to install a solar water heater at our retreat center, the Insight Retreat Center.  This is currently one of the most significant steps we can take to lower our propane usage (and our ongoing expenses). Helping us install a solar water heater is a way to support IRC well into the future.

If you are interested in supporting our drive, either send a check payable to “Insight Retreat Center” and mail to Insight Retreat Center, 108 Birch St., Redwood City, CA 94062, or make an online donation at

IMC Celebrates Earth-Care Week: October 1–7

During the first week of October, Insight Meditation teachers and centers around the globe will be celebrating Earth-Care Week. This is a newly minted event arising out of the International Vipassana Teachers’ meeting at Spirit Rock in June. It was one response from the teachers to a letter signed by over 2,000 people requesting that teachers provide “guidance and leadership in addressing the issue of climate change.”
With seeds planted this year we hope EarthCare Week will become a significant annual event among the worldwide communities of Insight Meditation practitioners.

IMC will be observing Earth-Care Week in the following way:

1. Gil will focus his talks on the connection between
Buddhist practice and caring for our natural world.

2. To reduce IRC’s carbon footprint we will have a drive to
raise money for a solar water heater at IRC.

3. We will encourage calculating one’s carbon footprint as a
mindfulness practice (see, e.g., nature.org/greenliving) .

4. We will encourage reducing gasoline consumption.

5. Our children’s programs in October will focus on caring
for the environment.

6. On Sunday October 13th, 11am to noon, everyone is invited to participate in small and large group discussion where we can learn and inspire each other in practical ways we can care for our planet and all life it houses.

Information about the wider Insight communities’ efforts for Earth-Care Week is found at 1earthsangha.org.

Dharma Mentoring Program: September 2013 to May 2014

For the second year, IMC is offering an eight-month one-to-one mentoring program supporting individuals’ practice with the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path represents the heart of the Buddhist path of practice. Those who sign up for this eight-month program will have the chance to explore, with one of IMC’s seasoned, senior practitioners,  their relationship to the teachings and practices associated with each of the step the Eightfold Path.  Mentoring meetings will be once a month for an hour.  They will consist of a brief period of meditation and discussion structured around the eightfold path factor. Readings, exercises, reflections, and Gil’s recorded talks pertaining to the Eightfold Path will be assigned for each month of the program.  Prerequisite is having completed IMC’s five week introduction to meditation course or the equivalent.

If you are interested please fill out the application found on top of the Special Events and Daylong Retreat page of IMC’s website.

“I felt encouraged, supported, and inspired to develop interest and confidence in the teaching and practice at a level that I had not heretofore known.”

Participant in Eightfold Path Mentoring Program

Developing the Mind Supports Insight

In Buddhist practice, acquiring liberating insight goes hand-in-hand with mental cultivation. We cannot have deep insight without developing the mind, any more than a nearsighted person can see clearly without glasses. And we cannot benefit from insight without inner strength, any more than a hiker can climb a mountain without physical strength.

The three core insights of mindfulness practice are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Because of their importance, these “three characteristics” are often taught enthusiastically without reference to the mental development necessary to support them. Sometimes this leads to an excessively intellectual understanding where the “insights” become merely learned concepts rather than something directly understood or seen.

Overemphasizing the three characteristics can make Buddhist practice dreary, even discouraging. For someone whose life is falling apart because of radical social or personal change, being told that everything is impermanent can be disheartening or worse. For someone whose life is filled with unrelenting suffering, learning that all is unsatisfactory takes away all hope. And for someone whose confidence and self-identity has been stripped away or was never developed, the not-self teaching can put salt in a deep wound.

The insights are best supported by a variety of inner strengths. If we don’t already have these, it is useful to cultivate them. Paradoxically, the three strengths most needed are opposite in character from the three insights. The power of mental stability enables greater insight into impermanence; the potency of well-being provides the healthy context for insight into unsatisfactoriness; and the strength of confidence keeps us balanced when we are faced with the insight into not-self.

Stability, well-being, and confidence are cultivated through Buddhist practice. For example, meditation practice stabilizes the mind; practices such as generosity, ethics, and concentration are ways of cultivating well-being; and walking the path of practice is a way to develop confidence in our personal abilities.

Mental stability is related to calm, constancy, continuity, and commitment in practice. Deep, direct insight into impermanence cannot arise in an agitated, restless mind where a preoccupation with ideas, imaginings, or memories interferes with seeing clearly. In order to perceive change it helps for the mind to be still; inner stability allows peace in the midst of change. It keeps us from being easily buffeted in times of great social and personal instability.

The term “well-being” encompasses a host of positive emotions cultivated along the Buddhist path. They include the delight, contentment, joy, happiness, and rapture that arise as we practice the path. Many practices cultivate well-being. It can arise from practicing ethical integrity and by delighting in our own goodness and good actions. Even if we have acted unethically in the past, if we learn from this and resolve to do better, our resolve can be a reason to feel good about our self. Moreover, when we know we have nothing to hide, we experience what the Buddha calls the “bliss of blamelessness,” which allows for a deep relaxation.

Acting wisely on our generous impulses also promotes our own happiness. Giving to others weakens selfishness while helping develop a positive self-regard.

One of the important functions of meditation practice is to develop joy. While it certainly should not be expected all the time, sooner or later meditation should include joy. If it doesn’t, then this can be useful to discuss with a meditation teacher.

With well-being as a support, insight into the pervasive suffering and unsatisfactoriness of much of human life doesn’t have to be depressing or frightening. Rather, it can help us direct our attention and efforts to what is truly satisfying: spiritual freedom and compassion.

Not-self can be the most difficult insight because it can be destabilizing, even frightening. However, it can be a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. At first, one may be afraid and unsteady trying to keep one’s balance. Once one has become a strong, confident rider, the fear and uncertainty disappear.

Likewise, without confidence and personal strength, the insight into not-self can be quite disorienting and uncomfortable. When we feel confident and strong, we can experience this insight with equanimity.

Sometimes the teachings on not-self are interpreted to mean one should become self-effacing and humble. While it is certainly useful to overcome conceit, Buddhist practice also involves cultivating courageous strength. The personal strengths one cultivates on the Buddhist path include integrity, honesty, patience, kindness, resolve, wisdom, and confidence. With these as a foundation, the insight into not-self has the support needed to become a catalyst for releasing all self-attachments. The obvious benefits of such letting go of self-clinging can be seen most clearly when the mind is most still and happy. Letting go of clinging to self is then seen as a step further into peace and well-being rather than anything to be feared.

The path of insight and liberation does not leave us with nothing; it leaves us with the well-developed inner treasures of a steady, happy, and confident mind. When we see that this mind is, like everything else, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self, it only adds to our peace and happiness.

—Gil Fronsdal

The July-September 2013 IMC Newsletter now available

The July-September 2013 IMC Newsletter is now available.

Volunteering at our Retreat Center

Many volunteers have come to our new Insight Retreat Center (IRC) in Santa Cruz to help with gardening, maintenance, cleaning, cooking, office work and other tasks. They have provided not only the indispensable contributions that our all-volunteer center is built on, but have also become part of the growing community associated with it. We are very grateful for the continuing support of our volunteers. If you are interested in becoming part of the volunteer community at IRC, please click here: Volunteer at IRC