By Peter Carlson

When the future Buddha, Siddhatha Gotama, left his comfortable family life, his intention was not to start a religion.  Setting aside the mythical cultural add-ons of later generations, there is no evidence that he consulted with the relevant religious authorities of the time, the Brahmans, in his quest.  Embedded in the story is his preoccupation with the human problem of suffering.  He, like Jesus of a later era, was considered first and foremost a healer, even to the use of diagnostic terms set out in Buddhist doctrine: what are the symptoms (1st Truth, suffering), what is the cause of the disease (2nd Truth, craving and clinging), what is the cure (3rd Truth, the release of craving and clinging that Nibbana represents), and the applied intervention (4th Truth, the Eightfold Path).  The essential ingredient of the Eightfold Path is the cultivation of Panna, wisdom.

Wisdom combines clear awareness with benevolent intention, dedicated to the benefit of all beings.  Clear awareness of what?  Buddhism describes reality to have three characteristics: anicca, dukkha and anatta; wisdom is clear awareness of these characteristics.

Anicca means impermanent, transitory, unstable, without a stable base.  Everything is in a state of flux, from the micro/atomic level to the macro/cosmic level; it’s just that some things change more rapidly than others.  It’s interesting to note that the most obvious example of the most quickly changing reality characteristic is thought!

Dukkha translates historically as suffering, but more contemporary translations include stressful, dissatisfying, and uncertain.  Dukkha is the inevitable result of misperceiving reality as characterized through impermanence and non-self.  The primary driver is the felt sense of urgency, that is, craving for that which is pleasant to continue and that which is unpleasant to cease.  Closely associated with this is clinging, which is the tendency to misperceive the immediate conditioned self-state as “I, me, or mine”.

Anatta translates as the absence of an enduring, autonomous self.  This is hard to understand and apply for those of us conditioned to believe in a soul or ego.  I find it easier to understand from a psychological and physical perspective.  Psychologically, modern research cannot find a central locus of control for the brain’s functioning, as it’s dispersed throughout the activities of millions of neurons with trillions of connections, firing off rhythmically.  Also, modern attachment theory of personality formation suggests the individual personality emerges from millions of interpersonal interactions, modified throughout the life span.  Quantum mechanics, a field of physics, suggests that ultimate reality is inextricably interdependent, with a phenomenon at point A relying on the presence or absence of a phenomenon at point B for its characteristics; if point B’s characteristics change, the presence of point A is modified.  Where is the individual separable in that matrix?


As the Buddhist community developed during the Buddha’s lifetime, it became useful to create what are called panca silani, usually translated as five precepts, or the five virtues.  These constitute the basic ethical commitments of Buddhist practice, that is, benevolent intention.  As the community developed further, with more complex interpersonal community dynamics, more precepts were created for the monastic practitioners.  The orientation with the larger collections of precepts, over 200 in all, is not just to create an ethical foundation, but also to create a community structure that would focus on cultivating daily routines that were conducive to meditation practice and harmonious interactions between the monks or nuns.  These additional precepts would also support developing clear awareness.

Here are the five traditional precepts:

  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.

It is also customary for lay practitioners to take on another set of precepts during retreats or certain ceremonial occasions, increasing the number to eight, and including focus on eliminating obstacles to effective meditation:

  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
  • I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
  • I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
  • I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.

We live in a much more complex culture now than during the time of the Buddha.  To continue with the theme of what Buddhist practice looks like in the 21st century, I’m suggesting some alternatives.  This is perhaps overreaching my own level of wisdom, and I certainly don’t have the spiritual authority of the Buddhist religion as an institution.  My offering has the intention of bringing the same principles forward for our practice that may be more relevant for our times.  These suggestions are provisional, that is, I suspect that there are more effective ways of expressing them, or perhaps more inclusive in addressing the complexities I mentioned.  My hope is that they will inspire whomever reads them in daily reminding themselves of the focus and purpose of the practices.  I use the notion of commitment rather than precepts, because I believe commitment better expresses the intentionality of the practice.


To Cultivate More Clear Awareness and Benevolent Intention,

I Will Commit Daily To

  • Training the mind with meditation practices
  •  Practicing ways to integrate mindful awareness into my daily routines
  •  Speaking truthfully, sincerely and with kindness
  •  Practicing generosity and supporting the goals and values of the spiritual community
  •  Respecting and supporting the property, rights and wholesome priorities of others
  •  Restraining from sensual indulgence of all kinds, to avoid  distracting or dulling the mind
  •  Respecting the physical intimacy and privacy of others
  •  Promote the health and safety of all sentient beings, beginning with myself
  •  Promoting balance, integration and generosity with the environment, culture and economy
  •  Practicing patience with the shortcomings of others; acknowledging I am witnessing suffering
  •  Practicing humility with my shortcomings, willing to strive diligently to overcome them

May the merits of this practice benefit all beings I encounter