Sila. Five Moral Precepts. The Vows of Harmlessness

Sometimes when I read the titles to these posts, I feel a bit overwhelmed and even hopeless. 

Moral? What comes to mind is a smirking Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. He used the concept of morals to divide all beings into right and wrong camps. I still sense echoes of fear, frustration, and loss when I reflect on how many folks turned away from each other because of this divisive approach to morals. 

Precept? I confuse it with percept.

Vow? Ouch! My thought: An eternal knot that, if undone, will cause great suffering. There were times in this life when I thought of “lie” and “vow” as synonyms. Or to take a vow would inevitably lead to breaking it which would cause suffering for all involved.

Harmlessness. Is this even possible? As Norm Fischer shared in a response to a question in his talk about sila1, we harm beings just by walking on the grass, not to mention the harm that is caused as a result of what we consume and what we do to stay alive.

So when these experiences of constriction start to seep in, and I have awareness of them, I take some time to breathe, see what is happening in the body and then remember that this is a practice. The thoughts about these concepts, and reactions that I have to them, are the effects of conscious and unconscious imprints that were probably passed down for generations in a response to fear of loss of life, position, resources or power. These constrictions are not me. These thoughts and feelings are not me. The practice is helping me see that and then, in the clarity of that understanding, I can look at these words and concepts with a fresh, open, and flexible mind. Then ask a simple question. In this time, in this life and in this moment, what would it mean to take a vow of harmlessness? And then see. Poco a poco.

My understanding of the practice of harmlessness and the commitment to this practice, is that harmlessness is the heart of buddhist teachings and most spiritual teachings. All the vows in buddhism are founded in the four noble truths and the understanding that the suffering of greed, aggression and delusion, is the cause of all suffering. The vow practice is dedicating this life and all lives to bringing about  the end to that suffering. These vows are not ways to get something or somewhere. They are not badges of honor or accomplishment. When taking a vow, there is not a knotting to a specific rigid practice. These vows are generative and responsive. They are touchstones, guidelines, prods and reminders, that are resonant in the present moment. The more that they become a part of our everyday lives, the deeper our understanding of suffering and what brings about an end to suffering. Of great importance is to remember that the vow of harmlessness is a practice. We will drop the ball, miss a cue, forget, even reject. There is no punishment or reward for failing or perfection. That would cause harm.

The Vows of Harmlessness:

  • I vow to cherish life, not to kill
  • I vow to accept gifts, not to steal.
  • I vow to respect others, not to misuse sexuality.
  • I vow to practice truthfulness, not to lie.
  • I vow to practice clarity, not to intoxicate the mind or body, of self or others.

So the invitation this week is to take a look at your experience as you read the words and concepts in the post title and especially at The Vows of Harmlessness. See what is already present in your life practices. See if there is resistance or constriction in the body, heart or mind. Where is there spaciousness or openness? What would it be like to commit to a life of harmlessness and if this is already your life practice, how is it working on you and your environment? Celebrate when and where it is effective at bringing an end to suffering and when it seems to cause constriction, inquire into the intent beneath the vow. Overall be gentle and curious. And see. 


With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all being




Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome. 

We practice on ZOOM:

Notice weekday morning sit time is changed to 6:30 instead of 6.

  • Mondays – Calm abiding and insight meditation. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Thursdays – Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Sundays – Brahmavihara. 7 AM Pacific Time 
  • Mondays – Calm abiding and insight meditation. 6 AM Pacific Time
  • Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6 AM Pacific Time Thursdays – Tonglen, 6 AM Pacific Time Sundays – Brahmavihara. 7 AM Pacific Time 

ZOOM Link: Please Note. We will be putting the afternoon practices on hold for a bit. We look forward to seeing you in the morning sessions! 

Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to

1 Norm Fischer Roshi “Sila Paramita”. Being a Good Non-Person. (The Six Perfections Part 5)” Upaya Zen Center. Copyright October 2023 URL.