The Healing Power of the Precepts: Building self-esteem the Buddhist way

Throughout the history of Buddhism, the Buddha has been described as a doctor, treating spiritual ills. The path of practice he taught has likewise served as therapy for suffering hearts and minds. 

This understanding of the Buddha and his teachings dates back to the earliest texts, but its meaning for contemporary practitioners has become more relevant than ever. Buddhist meditation is often touted as a form of healing, and many psychotherapists now recommend that their patients try meditation as part of their treatment. But the Buddha understood-and experience has shown--that meditation on its own can't provide a total therapy. It requires outside support. 

In many ways, modern meditators have been so destabilized by the stimuli of mass civilization that they often lack the resilience, persistence, and self-esteem needed to achieve concentration and cultivate insight. To provide a grounding in these qualities, and to foster a personal environment conducive to meditation, the Buddha prescribed a path made up not only of mindfulness, concentration, and insight practices, but also of virtue. And virtue begins with the Five Precepts, which are: to refrain from intentionally killing any animal, from insects on up the evolutionary ladder;to refrain from stealing;to refrain from illicit sex, that is, sexual intercourse outside of a stable, committed relationship;to refrain from lying;to refrain from intoxicants (such as alcohol, marijuana, and psychotropic drugs).


These precepts constitute the first step on the path. There is a tendency to dismiss them as Sunday-school rules bound to old cultural norms that no longer apply to modern society, but this misses the role that the Buddha intended for them: to be part of a therapy for wounded minds. In particular, they are aimed at curing two ailments that underlie low self-esteem and block progress on the path--regret and denial. When our actions don't measure up to certain standards of behavior, we either regret the actions or engage in one of two kinds of denial--denying that our actions did, in fact, happen, or denying that the standards of measurement are really valid. These responses are like wounds in the mind. Regret is an open wound, tender to the touch, while denial is like hardened scar tissue twisted 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. 

This is where the Five Precepts come in. Healthy self-esteem comes from living up to a set of standards that is practical, clear-cut, humane, and worthy of respect. The precepts provide just such a set of standards. The standards are simple. They may not always be easy or convenient, but they are always possible to live by. Some people translate the precepts into standards that sound more lofty or noble. To some, taking the second precept, for example, means not abusing the planet's resources. But that's an impossibly high standard. 

The Buddha understood that if you give people standards that take a little effort and mindfulness but are still possible to meet, their self-esteem soars dramatically as they find themselves actually meeting those standards. They can then face more demanding tasks with confidence.

The precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they provide very clear guidance. There's no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations. An action either fits in with the precepts or it doesn't. 

Anyone who has raised children has found that while 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--as in the case of mosquitos--that would place your convenience on a higher level than your compassion for life. Convenience would become your unspoken standard--and 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 you are providing unlimited safety for all. In terms of other precepts, you provide safety for their possessions and their sexuality, and truthfulness and mindfulness in your communication with them. 
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 choose in the present moment. 

This means that you are not insignificant. With every choice you make--at home, at work, at play--you are exercising your power in the ongoing shaping 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. 

When you adopt a set of standards, it's 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, in the words of the Buddha, are "standards appealing to the noble ones." From what the texts tell us of the noble ones, they aren't 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 seen for themselves, for example, that all lying is pathological, and that any sex outside a stable, committed relationship is spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically, unsafe.

Other people might 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. You can look at the standards by which you live and breathe comfortably as a full-fledged, responsible human being. For that's what you are.

-By Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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