It doesn’t matter if you have taken refuge in the Buddha, meditate regularly, have a spiritual guide or do some elaborate ritual practice, if you do not follow the five precepts you cannot, in all honesty, call yourself a Buddhist. I understand this statement will ruffle some feathers, but I strongly believe it to be so.

Buddhism is an inward journey and the start of the journey is trying to follow the precepts. The precepts are as follows:

  • Refrain from killing or causing others to kill.
  • Refrain from wrong speech, such as lying, speaking harsh words and gossiping.
  • Refrain from stealing.
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct. This means that you should not harm anyone with the sexual act.
  • Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs, as these cloud your judgement and may cause you to indulge in the previous four precepts

These precepts are not commandments, but a set of principles we should do our best to follow. When we follow them our minds become clear, still and calm, so we are able to sit in meditation with a peaceful mind. It is extremely difficult to sit meditating when are minds are riddled with guilt or disturbed by some unwholesome act we have committed.

Another thing the precepts do is to stop us from harming another being with our actions. If we refrain from lying, gossiping and using harsh words, we will not harm anyone with our speech. If we refrain from stealing, sexual misconduct and killing, we will not be harming anyone with our bodies, and if we refrain from taking mind-altering substances, our minds will be clear, and we will not do things to harm others. So, by following these precepts we are helping ourselves and others – a win-win situation.

It seems to me that the precepts are being overlooked or just seen as too basic to bother with. I am not just talking about practitioners here but also teachers. Many Rinpoches and spiritual teachers struggle to follow these precepts, even though they teach them. If the teacher can’t follow his own words, what chance has the practitioner got.

I understand that the precepts are not very sexy and many people prefer to do some medieval tantric practice, but you will never gain an end to your suffering if you kill, steal, lie and so on. So, the precepts are not basic, they are essential.

I would advise you to check your teachers very carefully. If they are not following the precepts I suggest you drop them like a hot potato, because you will never learn anything from them, and in fact, they will probably end up holding you back.

I would further suggest you recite the precepts in the morning before you get out of bed. It only takes 15 seconds to recite them and it will ensure you start the day in a positive way. During the day you can do a quick review session and see how you have done. If you have strayed away from a precept, note it and resolve not to do it again. Please do not beat yourself up if you have strayed a bit. Guilt is not a useful emotion. None of us are perfect and we all stray from the path from time to time. The more we keep the precepts in mind, the more they will become a habit.

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