Oct 28, 2021
Martin Goodson

Are Precepts Needed for a Mindfulness Practice

Exercise in MIndfulness

Has secular mindfulness missed a key ingredient by excluding ethics from its curriculum?

The Sleeping Child in the Care of a Brave Dog, by Jeanne-Elisabeth Chaudet


Attributed to Jeanne-Elisabeth Chaudet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Do we need to be practicing good conduct in order to develop a meditation practice? Looking at the literature from the burgeoning mindfulness genre; it is barely mentioned. One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this is ‘excess baggage’ not needed in our ‘anything goes’ times.

For those who come to mindfulness and meditation via contact with Buddhism; this comes as a surprise. The Buddha formulated ethical practice and wisdom as the two supports for any meditation practice. Indeed, this is postulated in The Noble Eightfold Path. This naturally leads us to ask the question why he did that?

A popular view has been that religion was developed as a method of social control only, which would seem to negate the necessity for contemporary practitioners to bother about rules of conduct when embarking upon a meditation practice. And yet, Buddhist centres, temples and books by practitioners, still emphasise the need for good conduct as a foundation to any mindfulness or meditation practice.

Before we try to answer this question it might be worth considering why it is that human beings might need precepts, rules of law or ethics when it seems no other species on this planet seems to have them?

 One important feature of Zen training is an appreciation of the natural world. These days it is easy for us to get access to this world with the plethora of natural history programmes available. It is interesting too that this popularity has increased in modern times as we have become more urbanised.

 The natural world lives an instinctual life.

 Far from being a problem, impulses in animals are a system for survival that provides these beings with all they need to live their lives.

 Consider two male lions squaring up to fight. There is a choreography at play in the confrontation.

 They try to stare each other down, they growl and bare their teeth at each other, occasionally they make contact and fight. But physical aggression is brief, and needs to be so. Being armed with teeth and claws any willful and unbridled use of them would quickly wipe out the species. Yet this does not happen, once the fight is over the aggression stops. There are exceptions to this rule, animals under stress do show neurotic behaviour, like humans. But generally this is not the case.

 It seems, that for humans our emotional life is problematical. We feel anxious about what we have and what we do not have but would like. Our greed can wander into excessiveness and become unbridled. We are prone to extremes of high and low, we become fired up with ideas and opinions that become something to be maintained at all costs. Why is it that we have forgotten the dance of life and instead run hither and thither bashing into each other as we run about blindly?

 In the Maha-Parinirvana Sutra the Buddha declared upon his awakening: “How wonderful, how miraculous, all beings, but all beings are fully and completely endowed with the Wisdom and Power of the Tathagata. Yet sadly, because of their sticky attachments human beings are not aware of it."

 So it would seem to be, according to the Buddha, our sticky attachments that cut us off from the informing information of our inherent human nature. This brings us to the subject of The Three Fires, the collective term for our emotional household. The sticky attachments, in particular the attachment to myself, is maintained through these fires and especially through delusion. It is the fires which are the delusive ingredient that afflicts consciousness, that hijacks our reason and our thinking to their own ends. That end is the maintenance of the delusion of a separate self. This is the teaching of the Buddha.

 As we can be blind to the inner guiding forces, when the passions flare-up, we have created a compensation for their absence. That compensation are the rules for good conduct, our precepts.

 When we look at these precepts we can see there is nothing uniquely Buddhist about them. They are the rules of common human decency.

 It is interesting to note that the Chinese referred to the precepts as ‘the protections’. This is because they are seen as protecting us and those around us from the worst excesses of our passions and opinions. They replace the function of our inner guides until such time as the delusion has been eradicated.

 This means that the precepts in Buddhism, are not seen as absolute but as approximations of ‘the truth’ of any situation. They are our guides but we must still look closely at the situation to see how they should be applied and when.

 Hence, the precepts and morality, good and bad, right and wrong are purely human affairs they do not exist "out there". The neutrality of the universe is maintained in Buddhism.

So why are they necessary as a basis for a meditation and mindfulness practice?

 The Buddha declared that only from the human realm is liberation from suffering possible. In Buddhism, all practices: Wisdom, Good conduct, Meditation and Mindfulness are all for the sole purpose of releasing us from suffering and the causes of suffering. If the precepts are replacing the function of our inherent humanity then it is because their function is to help humanise us.

 As one old Zen master said: “A dog will be dog under all circumstances good, bad and indifferent. The same is true for a cat and for the oak tree at the bottom of the garden. But human beings are only sometimes human. At other times we can be hungry ghosts or fighting demons or one of the other non-human realms on The Wheel of Life.”

 The five precepts and the common courtesies, the good manners and the cultivation of our good conscience have a humanising effect. Meditation and mindfulness provide us with an insight into our behaviour so we can differentiate between human states and non-human states. Our practice is to cultivate the former and let-go the latter. It is this humanised consciousness that sees clearly and can attain to the Wisdom of all the Buddhas. It is the same humanised consciousness that also feels the warmth of humanity; a warmth which flows out from the heart touching those around it.

 Copyright to The Zen Gateway


Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more