Precepts in Real Life

There’s something very humble and straightforward about taking the precepts. It’s a major step in one’s commitment to peace, and one of the first really active steps. Before this step people tend to be quite critical of precepts and the idea of giving something up – even frightfully destructive things like killing, stealing, and lying. They challenge those who take precepts and try to prove the effort is vain and pointless. Others, long after becoming seasoned meditators and card-carrying Buddhists, can sometimes relate to the precepts like a meaningless piece of ceremony. “Come on,” they say. “It doesn’t take any effort. There’s nothing to do. Just don’t kill anyone.”

But right there at the point where we finally acknowledge the suffering caused by our choices, and feel the pain acutely enough to resolve on change – that is a beautiful moment. It is the admission that we are tempted, but that we suspect we may have the strength to face those temptations. The reality of the situation is that Sila, Morality, is at the heart of all spiritual growth, and every stage of the path is accompanied by important moral decisions and lessons. If we were in control of our lives, we could simply decide how we wanted to be in the world. But we are reminded again and again it’s not up to us. Every day is a unique challenge. The precepts are not divine mandates or rules written in stone. They are physical examples and guidelines meant to teach us about subtle mental and emotional processes. Following them leads us onward to the true roots of our suffering.

The Five Precepts, the first and most basic moral standards in Buddhism, are pretty simple. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, or get drunk. The world, however, is far from simple. It continues to hand us situations not covered in the instructions, and the way forward is not always clear. One person is trying to figure out how to navigate complicated social situations without lying; another struggles working at a company that is cutting corners and seemingly cares nothing for its employees. A Burmese friend wants to support loved ones back home but suspects donations might be spent on weapons. And even long-time meditators find themselves in the occasional rut – what to do when everyone around you is using one substance or another? How to resist the temptation? How to recover if you give in?

The precepts are not just rules. They point the way on a journey of self-discovery. We ourselves get to explore these situations, and try to figure out the right path forward. We get to try making new choices. We get to experience new ways of being alive. That’s why the precepts are called ‘sikkhāpadā’, or ‘trainings’. They are what we use to develop our sense of ethics. We see where we fall short, we try to change, we experience success, and in the end we develop confidence in ourselves and our conduct. This confidence is the one thing that can never be taken from us.

Applying precepts in real life has been the theme of the week. In this, I am as much student as teacher. Life will never stop creating new situations with which to test us and our Sila. But that’s okay. It’s not just rules we are cultivating, but the very Wisdom that allows us to discern the true nature of things. It’s takes energy to apply ourselves, but growth in Wisdom will affect every aspect of our lives.

Don’t Be Selfish

You don’t have to be a college graduate to know that being selfish and self-centered causes stress in your own life and makes you a pain to be around. This is a common teaching and understanding in the world. Finding a way out of our ego and self-centered ways of thinking is one of the major journeys of growing up and developing as a human being.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this concept also shows up in Buddhism. It just goes by different names and has different features. After all, we can be selfish through greed and trying to get things for ourselves; we can be selfish through aversion and trying to push others out of our lives; and we can be selfish through conceit and delusion – failing to see the people around us and the way the world truly works.

The varieties of selfish thought are too many to name, but the way out of selfish thinking is always the same. We get out of the trap by letting go out of greed, aversion, and delusion, and by letting go of the sense of self that prop these states of mind up.

Many people believe that the Buddha taught you have to give up the things you like to be enlightened. After all, it’s about renunciation, right? To them we can show a simple experiment. Hold out your hand with the palm facing up. Now, put a small object in it like a ball or a pen or a set of keys. Try holding onto that object as tightly as you can, desperately trying to keep it. Now hold onto it loosely by just letting it sit on top of the hand. Which state is more pleasant? Which is more painful?

The thing the Buddha suggests we let go of is not the thing we enjoy. He suggests we let go of the clinging and craving and grasping. The key to overcoming selfish thought is seeing that this way of thinking is as painful as it is unnecessary. We don’t need a rigid sense of self to operate in the world. If we look closely, we’ll see that it is actually the very source of our suffering.

For more reflections on this topic, check out the recording of the Sunday Morning Vipada Session at The Resident of Dhamma YouTube channel:



My grandfather passed away when I was nine years old, and I remember attending the funeral service and hearing my father get up in front of a large group of friends and family and give a moving eulogy. It really struck me at the time because he was such a good speaker, so confident and skillful in his delivery; meanwhile, I was absolutely terrified of public speaking. I would go stiff and silent, and much of my school years were spent avoiding presentations in front of groups. I went so far as to fail a class to not have to give a prepared speech at the end.

I couldn’t imagine at nine years old ever being able to speak in front of a group without fear. Fast forward to last Saturday, when my cousin, the eldest son of my late uncle, got up in front a gathering and also gave a clear and moving eulogy in memory of his father. So many years later, I know now that his ability to speak in front of the group is not merely a product of skill and experience in public speaking. It’s also a matter of circumstance. He is the eldest son, and like my father almost thirty years ago, it is his task. Prepared or not, scared or not, he got up and spoke when it was time to do so. And if the situation was scary for him it didn’t show — if anything, it made the moment more rich.

As a child, I thought of public speaking as a circumstance to avoid. It was the discipline of those who inclined towards it, like my father. But circumstance after circumstance forced me to face my fear – first, in high school, then in the military being put in positions of leadership, and now in monastic life. When I first sat on the dhamma seat to give a simple ten minute talk, it was almost an entire minute before I could get a single word out of my mouth. The next time it was only half a minute. Through continually facing my fear, I’ve found the ability to just let the words flow.

This is the situation many of us face. We don’t have the luxury of just sticking to the things we are comfortable with and the situations that don’t produce fear. If we did have that power there would be no need to face fears or put up with that discomfort. But because circumstances are out of our control, sooner or later we must find something within ourselves: Courage.

We have a word in Pāli for being Fearless: Abhaya. This is a wonderful state. But Courage is something that only comes forth when we are actually afraid. It is the domain of us normal human beings who still have work to do on the path of spiritual development. To grow we will have to face those situations that frighten us — not because courage in and of itself is a necessary trait, but because fear stands in the way of the greatest freedoms we can achieve.

We all Fear different things. Some fear public speaking, while others fear flying in planes, or spiders, or being alone. Our fears cut down to our core, and if we look closely at them they will reveal what we most want to hold on to. While learning to not grasp those things so tightly will definitely bring us peace, often it’s the fear itself that is the greatest burden. Courage helps us bear that burden and learn to understand our fears. Through understanding, we can push past them, and when we no longer fear the loss of the things we cling to, letting go of them will take no effort at all.

We need Courage to practice the five precepts, and give up the violent solutions to our problems that sometimes seem the safest route. We need courage to let go of our views and consider the perspective of another. And we need courage to not rush to the next sensual pleasure or comfort and wait for contentment to arise. It takes real guts to practice the dhamma not knowing for sure if we will ever get anything out of it.

Last Saturday, on the New Moon, a few resolute friends gathered for the biweekly Uposatha Observance. Sadhu! The theme of the talk by Tahn Pamutto was a continuation of the exploration the weekend before on the subject of Fear and how we work with it in practice. You can find a recording of that talk here:


Living with a Speech Impediment

Over the last few weeks, there has been a strange bug with my laptop’s keyboard. It was very subtle at first. Every now and then the ‘o’ key would stop registering. I was puzzled by it for a little while but eventually found that I could get out an ‘o’ by rapidly hitting a nearby key like ‘p’ or ‘i’. I searched online for a solution but it’s a known driver conflict with this type of computer and …. terminal. No one has found a permanent solution.

I made do, but recently it started getting worse. And worse. Some days I would sit down to make a vinaya presentation or post about a recent talk and would get up ten minutes later in frustration. Nothing would make an ‘o’ come out. Then the number ‘1’ joined. Recently, the F6 key went too, which wouldn’t matter except this laptop uses it for a vital CPU throttle function.

It was getting to the point where I was just avoiding the computer. Avoiding emails, and essays, and blog posts. Trying to say as little as possible online. We’d still have the meditations, but because I couldn’t post about them beforehand it was just, “Let’s see who comes?”. My own meditation practice certainly benefited, but everything else fell by the wayside.

It didn’t occur to me today that what I’ve been through is basically the computer equivalent of a progressive speech impediment. Losing sounds, and then only being able to fake them by making similar sounds, and finally not even being able to do even that much. Shutting down for fear of being judged for ‘nt knwing hw t type’. Another monk borrowing the computer even had a phone call with a pharmacist go awry when he couldn’t do a simple google search. He got hung up on.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been in good humor about it. But in my more reflective moments it has been an interesting perspective. Life sometimes gives us these little glimpses into what are in other circumstances major life challenges. If we are mindful, and can step outside the minor inconvenience for a little while, we might see what our future holds for us. Sooner or later, we lose what we have. Our vigor, our faculties, and eventually our life. But, as they say, allowing ourselves to experience ‘dying before we die’, or learning from the loss of a minor thing before the big losses come, let’s us grow as people. We get to develop new ways of seeing the world. When our memory goes, or our elocution, or our ability to walk … it’s all variations on the same theme, and we’re prepared.

If I never got my O’s back, I would have to learn to rely on others. Borrow, and receive help. I couldn’t just hide from the world forever. I’d also get pretty good at copy-pasting. I tell you, the idea of using the voice recognition feature never occurred to me until this happened. Now, even as I get my functionality back, I’ve gained new skills. This is the way for one with dhamma on their side. Nothing is ever an obstacle – just a challenge and an opportunity to grow.

So I’ve grown a little bit, and also gotten a reprieve. By hooking up a wireless keyboard I once again have a full compliment of vowels. And the first word I typed was, “Oooooooohhhhh….”


Upavana Events

Please note, upavana’s Zoom meeting channel will now have the password ‘upavana’. The meeting I.D. number will stay the same.

passcode: upavana

This week’s Zoom offerings:

Wednesday 7-9 PM and Friday 8-9 PM EST.

Saturday Uposatha: Meditation, Precepts, Talk and Meditation starting at 8PM. Talk at 9PM.

Information about Upavana’s ongoing meditations and dhamma talks can be found at:

Ven. Santi arrives at Vipada

With Bhante Jayasāra’s departure on Saturday, there were a few days of quiet at the vihara. Most Americans seem to be operating under the premise that to have things all to themselves is the best situation. I must admit, there was a certain allure to being alone – to be able to move about freely and make noise whenever I wanted. But I’ve talked to a fair number of empty-nesters who found that when they finally had their house to themselves something felt off. Lacking. Freedom and independence is good, but we are also social animals. Our possessions only satisfy us to the degree they provide for our needs. Beyond that, they can only bring happiness when they are shared.

So it’s a joy that a good friend in the dhamma, Ven. Santi, has come to join the Vihara Parivara community and spend time in Queens. He’s full of energy and ideas and looking forward to developing practice and offerings here for Upavana.

In the short term, it’s nice to be gathering for meditation and chanting in the morning, to be in harmony about monastic etiquette, and brainstorming about how to support each other in studying Pāli, monastic vinaya, and dhamma. Even though I must again be conscious of the noise and impact I make moving through the building, the effort is blanketed in metta, which makes it all worthwhile.

Welcome Bhante Santi!

Vipada Sunday Morning Session

This week’s Sunday morning session with the Indonesian Buddhist family will be a talk by Bhante Pamutto, “Fear and Prudence”, about using wisdom to understand risk and find the way forward in a challenging world. Q & A including Tan Santi will follow.

The program will be 9:45-11 AM EST broadcast on Zoom and on the Resident of Dhamma YouTube channel:

Vipada Sunday Service

This week’s Sunday Service at Vihara Parivada Dhamma Acala: a talk by Bhante Pamutto entitled ‘The Lay Vinaya’, with precepts before and Q & A after. The talk reviews the themes in DN 31 – The Advice to Sigālaka, where the Buddha gives very practical advice to a young man on how to find his way in the world skillfully.

The program for Indonesians and westerners alike runs every Sunday from 9:45 am EST until 11 am. It can be accessed at this link:

Magha Puja – The Arahants Balance

On the Uposatha Full Moon night of Magha Puja, Tahn Pamutto gives a dhamma reflection encouraging keeping of the uposatha precepts and practicing ‘As the Enlightened Beings Live Their Lives’.


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