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Ask A Buddhist: Rules To Follow

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By Ven. Thubten Semkye

Are there any rules I MUST follow to say I’m in the Buddhist religion?

Thanks for your question. There are no fast and hard rules or a catechism of views that one must hold in order to be a Buddhist. The Buddha was more interested in having us understand our suffering and its causes, and abandoning those causes. Although he prescribed ethical guidelines for us to follow, it is our choice whether to do so or not. When we do follow these guidelines, the beneficial results become apparent in our lives.

If one wishes to adhere to the Buddha’s ethical guidelines, they can be subsumed in two ethical practices: to do no harm to any living being with our body speech and mind, and to be of benefit to all living beings with our body, speech and mind. These two motivations are the guiding principles of the Buddha’s teachings.

To support this motivation, many Buddhists commit to keeping some or all of the five lay precepts or ethical restraints taught by the Buddha that support our practice of non-harm. They include refraining from taking life (human or non-human), taking what is not freely given, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, misrepresenting the truth with lies, and taking intoxicants.

These five ethical restraints can do wonders in helping us to be kinder and more trustworthy people that others will feel safe around. They also affect our own peace and well-being—our health and sleep naturally improve as we begin to reduce and eliminate harmful thoughts and behaviors. And our relationships with others become more harmonious, as well.

Not harming others with our thoughts or actions requires a keen awareness of our motivations and states of mind. When setting our motivation, it is most important to watch our own attitudes and behavior—far more important than watching others’ attitudes and behavior.

The second ethical guideline of benefiting others includes cultivating a kind and compassionate heart that sees the good in oneself and others, and wishes to be of help in whatever way we can. We have many opportunities throughout the day for this powerful motivation to keep our actions on a positive note. There is nothing profound or difficult about being warm hearted and helpful. Small kindnesses go a long way toward bringing a sense of joy and connectedness in the lives of ourselves and others. We know this from our own experience —when even a stranger extends a kind word or a helping hand, we feel cared for and acknowledged as one human being to another.

As a result of following and integrating these two important practices of non-harm and benefiting others, our positive qualities such as kindness, fortitude, compassion and ethical conduct will grow and our suffering will diminish. Our behavior will reflect those changes and we will become a trusted friend and a kind stranger.  

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