And so the precepts are, in a very real sense, the basis of our concentration. When our life is chaotic and in turmoil, when we’re engaging in what causes such agitation, the consequence of that life is a turbulent mind. When we don’t engage in those things but live in harmony with self and other, then the mind settles and becomes much more quiet and still, more peaceful and naturally open. Because there is little obstruction, this clears the way for insight. There is not much dust in the eye, as the Buddha might say. So the world within us and the world in front of us can be seen much more clearly, as it really is.
At the same time, the clearer the mind is of distractions, the easier it is to recognize and work with impulses that arise. And the deeper our wisdom, the easier it is to work with those impulses. So it’s not just a linear path moving in one direction; all of these aspects of practice are deeply interdependent, mutually arising, and mutually influencing. It’s a perfect system. It’s you, it’s me, it’s human nature, it’s the universe itself. This is why these are the basic trainings that all Buddhist practice both arises from and is based upon.
The precepts are clearly essential for beginning students because primarily it’s our karma that brings us into practice: our experience of our life, our past actions, what we’ve encountered, the pain of that, and the questions about life that our experience brings up in us. We come in with a lot of turbulence. The mind is restless and our impulses and desires are very strong and demanding; they seem very true. So to begin to understand causation and to take real responsibility for our actions, we have to face ourselves. We need to begin in earnest to let go of those things that are binding, and to transform the way we’re thinking, speaking and acting. These things are essential in the beginning of practice, and by beginning, I mean for many years.