One part of that discipline, and an essential part of starting to free ourselves from our ego-mind and its cravings, is to start to live our life according to the Five Precepts and the Six Paramitas. These teachings provide a direction for our lives. But they are not commandments in the sense that if you do something not in accord with the teaching, you have not “failed” or done something “bad.”
Since most of us are not enlightened, we cannot and should not expect perfection in these matters. Often when we do something which we intend to be consistent with these teachings ... for example, volunteering to provide help to people who are in need ... our ego will arise and turn that skillful act into an unskillful one by having it feed the ego by either making us feel better about ourselves or trying to create an image of ourselves as “good.” This does not diminish the quality of the assistance you provide, but by altering the self-less nature of the act it is no longer in conformity with the Five Precepts. But that’s just the way it goes. As you walk the path you will be increasingly able to observe your ego when it arises, tell it “no,” and watch it subside.
Here is a brief listing of the Five Precepts and the Six Paramitas. For a full discussion of them, see Chapter 5 of my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of our Suffering.
The Five Precepts (adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh):
1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating compassion and loving kindness towards myself and all others and learning ways to work for wellbeing of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.
3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual respect. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating deep listening and loving speech in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.
5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.
The Six Paramitas:
1) generosity, 2) virtuous/ethical conduct (the Five Precepts), 3) understanding - the capacity to practice compassion even towards someone or a group of people who is acting wrongfully towards you, 4) enthusiastic effort and diligence in following the Buddha dharma, 5) meditation/concentration, and 6) wisdom - wisdom here does not mean learned knowledge. It means the intuitive awareness that all your thoughts and feelings are empty of intrinsic existence, and thus being able to experience things without the intervention of thought. It is to be at one with all things. In this state you are free of all fear and obstructions, free of confused illusions, free of ego.
To practice these teachings, often referred to as the Six Perfections is to water the seeds of our true Buddha nature, which has been obscured by our ego and learned experience. That is why although these qualities are inherent parts of all of us, we need to cultivate them and bring them to the surface of our consciousness. As we develop these qualities … and in that sense “perfect” them … we decrease our suffering and increase our awareness, freedom from our ego, and happiness.