What is the First Step in Buddhist Practice?

I was asked recently, “How do I develop a Buddhist practice?”

Most Buddhists practitioners are aware of the Noble Eightfold Path (Understanding, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration). Each one of these qualities are not developed in sequence but in tandem with each other. The Noble Eightfold Path develops the three characteristics needed for liberation: Wisdom (panna), Ethics (sila), and a Concentrated Mind (samadhi). But all of that work done at one time can be overwhelming: especially for someone just starting their journey down the Middle Path. In the transformation from a samsaric life of suffering and ignorance to an enlightened being, there should be some help in choosing the first step.

And there is.

The Buddha gave all of his followers the Five Precepts. These are five basic guidelines that set the parameters of how to live life in a more mindful way. Most of these precepts are affirmations for rules that we already embody in our daily living: to refrain from unnecessary harm/killing, refrain from taking what is not given, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from idle/false speech, and taking substances that lead to heedlessness.

Most mature adults would have no problem making a personal commitment to avoid murder, stealing, cheating/rape, lying, and drunkeness. While these precepts can be developed to more nuanced and deeper meanings, the new Buddhist practitioner can use these definitions as a good “first step” on the path. The Buddha even emphasizes the purification of conduct (sila-visuddhi) to be the first step for practitioners.

How we conduct ourselves with others has a significant and sincere effect on how we orient ourselves in the world. Our conduct affects the mind, the mind affects our understanding, our understanding overcomes doubt, our confidence in the dhamma creates wisdom, our wisdom creates deeper practice, our deeper practice reveals the dhamma’s truth.

Meditation is a vitally important part of Buddhist practice, just as exercise is vitally important to our health. I have noticed that most people are not very committed to daily meditation or exercise. The lives of the 21st century are hectic and full. We are so outwardly focused that we prioritize our own spiritual and physical health just below a sit down dinner with the family and the season finally of “Glee.” (If you don’t believe me, then think how often you have opted to watch TV instead of go for a jogging or sit in meditation).

Nevertheless, we can take our conduct with us at all times. We can develop mindfulness through our actions. We can choose to not litter and hold onto a wrapper for a few blocks until we find a garbage bin. We can choose not to brag about a past accomplishment or embroider a fish story to make it more interesting. If we choose not to stop eating meat, we can eat less or at least spend time contemplating and respecting the life that is providing our nourishment. The commitment to ethical conduct is transformative and immediate.

As we develop ourselves through conduct, we transform ourselves ethically. Our moral compass becomes more sensitive. Our mind becomes more contemplatives and mindful as we struggle with what we know is write and what is easy or momentarily pleasurable. We develop and understanding of the nature of craving (tanha) and suffering; as well as the bliss of giving and the liberation of a truthful life.

In many ways, developing a life of conduct can sustain us through most of the work in developing right understanding and intention while we are developing right action, livelihood and speech. It will motivate us to do more, meditate more, and practice more. If you are looking for the first steps to take on the Buddhist path, start with a serious practice of the five precepts first.

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Categories: Dharma, Ethics, Lifestyle, Noble Eightfold Path


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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3 Comments on “What is the First Step in Buddhist Practice?”

  1. oscar j ardiles
    May 27, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    Great post !! I will follow your updates.

  2. June 5, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

    Thanks for the info. Used it for my practice and for describing Buddhism to others.

    michael j
    conshohocken, PA USA

  3. June 7, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    From what I’ve seen in Asian countries where Theravada is practiced, the first step taught to children is generosity (dana). When the monks walk through a neighborhood or village, a family member (generally the mother) comes out with even the youngest child to offer food. If the child can’t walk yet or hand over food him/herself, the parent or grandparent carries the child and helps him/her to make the offering. Thus, from the earliest period of a person’s life–way before meditation is possible–generosity is inculcated as a virtue or perfection (parami) or precept (that is, the corollary of not taking what is not given). Showing kindness to others providing such basic necessities as food begins to incline the mind in a wholesome direction.

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