Every religion and spiritual practice has a code of conduct. We have seen how the Yoga Sutra laid down five yamas and five niyamas to govern our inward and outward attitudes. Buddhists follow a similar, but shorter list that we have seen are called the Five Precepts. [1] These suggestions are to:

  1. Refrain from killing
  2. Refrain from stealing
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. Refrain from idle speech, lies and rumors
  5. Refrain from intoxicants

The first four have a direct correlation to the yamas and niyamas of ahimsa, asteya, brahmacharya, and satya. As we noted earlier, these practices are not the Ten Commandments; there is no deal with God that if you follow these rules, your place in heaven is assured. In fact, the Buddha never liked to talk about heaven or life after death. His interest was to end suffering in this life, right now. The five precepts are tools that can help one stay out of trouble, until enlightenment is finally obtained.

While we become more mindful, we will naturally act in accordance with these precepts. Until then, we make the effort to follow these steps, even if it is not in our current nature to do so. Refraining from killing has the benefit of building a sense of identity with others. We are not referring to simply killing other people – any killing or harming creates a sense of separation from others. While we become aware of the interconnection between all beings, and all things, we are less likely to cause harm. So too with stealing, sexual misconduct, or lying; when we know that everything is connected, we have no wish to spread harm or negative energies.

If you decide to follow these precepts, and fail, do not fall into the familiar pit of despair and guilt. Only enlightened beings act with total enlightenment. We just do our best, and when we do come up short, as we will, we resolve to do better next time.

Isn’t this the way we would like to practice our yoga too? We can’t possibly do all the poses. We can’t always be present all the time. Even the most advanced yogis have postures that elude them, or have postures that they can do now, but won’t be able to do in twenty years. We simply work toward whatever goals we set for ourselves, and do our best. If, or rather when, we fail – we don’t beat ourselves up; we don’t allow ourselves to become discouraged. We just move on and try again. After all it is the journey that counts, not the arriving.

The Buddha spent little time philosophizing or developing cosmological models of the universe. His concern was the mind. To be complete we could investigate the Buddhist dissertations on the psychological levels of the mind, the five skandas, [2] or the eighteen factors of cognition. But this would move us away from the most valuable teachings the Buddha left us. [3]

The real jewels of the Buddha’s teachings are the methods for calming and controlling the mind. Remember that the Buddha was a yogic adept; he mastered all the most advanced practices, and found them wanting. His practical advice focused on following the Eightfold Path and meditation. It is through the various forms of Buddhist meditations that our journey becomes shorter.

  1. — Thich Nhat Hanh has updated these precepts for our times and culture. He calls these “the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” Details can be found at his Plum Village Web page, www.plumvillage.org/mindfulness-trainings/3-the-five-mindfulness-trainings.html
  2. — The five aggregates of personality: form, the body of sensations, perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness.
  3. — For an excursion into these psychological features of Buddhism the reader may wish to visit an overview by Dr. C. George Boeree (webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhapers.html) or a detailed dissertation by Silva Padmal (ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ADM/silva.htm).