Upāsaka means male lay follower. A female lay follower is called an Upāsikā. We make the determination to follow the five precepts.
These (in no particular order) are:
- To refrain from false and harmful speech.
- To refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
- To refrain from taking what is not given.
- To refrain from sexual misconduct (misconduct here is defined as infidelity or sexual abuse).
- To refrain from consuming intoxicants that lead to careless behaviour and breaking the other four precepts.
They aren’t vows or commandments. They are training rules and guidelines that one strives to follow to live a moral life and maintain peace of mind.
The precepts are important for two reasons. First, by keeping them, you are no longer causing harm in society. This means you become a person that others can trust. Which is important. We all know stories of spiritual people who tarnish the reputation of spirituality by behaving in immoral ways.
The other reason is for one’s own benefit. By taking the precepts, one is training the mind to abandon unwholesome tendencies that lead to suffering (both for ourselves and others). By not engaging in immoral activities, one does not become stressed by the unwanted repercussions that come back at you (like a boomerang).
The precepts cover roughly a third of the noble eightfold path (right speech, right action, right livelihood).
The five precepts will also reveal the mental dispositions that keep causing us problems in life.
For instance, my biggest problem was with intoxicants. It was a long, hard struggle for me to become free of those. I used to be an addict and have had problems with substance abuse since I was a kid. I won’t go into details here because it will make this article too long. But I may perhaps share more about that in a future article when I am feeling braver.
Without a foundation in morality, one will struggle to make much progress on the spiritual path. Morality is an important component for developing peace of mind.
Without it, one will also struggle to meditate. Regret and remorse will prevent one from entering the deep states of absorption known as samādhi.