Special Topics

Using the Psychology of Habit to Create the Right Conditions for Keeping the Precepts

In recent years, the scientific study of habits has become a prominent study area. After long-term follow-up observations, experts have found that self-disciplined individuals develop good habits by familiarizing themselves with wholesome habits, thereby avoiding having to constantly put their willpower and self-control to the test. In other words, they stay away from situations where temptations are prevalent, which, in a sense, is a form of self-restraint. For Buddhists, following the precepts is precisely meant for building the right lifestyle for self-cultivation. Furthermore, we can use the psychology of habit to create favorable conditions for ourselves to observe the precepts.
To engage in Buddhist practice, we first need to adjust the patterns of our daily lives. The Tiantai master Ven. Zhiyi proposed 25 expedient methods for self-cultivation, including "regulating the five matters," namely, regulating our diet, sleep patterns, body states, breathing, and mind. On the other hand, Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts President Ven. Hui Min advocates the "five precepts for physical and mental health"—maintaining a smiling face, brushing teeth after meals, doing enough exercise, eating properly, and sleeping well—which reflects the same idea.
Take having good sleep for example: everyone knows the importance of sleep. Poor sleep quality will not only affect our health, but also will compromise our concentration level and performance at school or work. For practitioners at a Seven-day Chan Meditation Retreat, lacking sufficient sleep at night will also affect the exertion they make when meditating in a Chan hall. Therefore, we should adopt regular routines in our lives. Following these "five precepts" in a flexible way not only enhances our physical and mental health, but also helps us develop in meditative concentration and wisdom.
The book "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick" proposes a set of scientific methods for forming habits, one of which is creating a favorable environment and eliminating barriers. As noted in the book, "Doing something only once is a decision, but doing it in the same way for several more times will make a difference." Once a habit is formed, whenever the prompt appears in the environment again, the aspiration or desire to act will ensue.

Extended Reading:

Observing the Precepts Allows One to Feel at Ease

To Observe Precepts, One Needs to Have the Right View and Follow the Middle Path

Using the Psychology of Habit to Create the Right Conditions for Keeping the Precepts

Keeping Precepts, a Life Experiment

Q1: I love and enjoy freedom. So what if I lose my freedom after receiving the precepts?

Q2: Why are we afraid of taking the precepts when we clearly know that it is good for us? How do we overcome this uncertainty?

Q3: Is there any room for flexibility in upholding the precepts? If so, how do we maintain this flexibility without losing the spirit of the precepts?

Q4: Is it enough to just do good deeds regularly, or is it necessary to also observe the precepts? How should the precepts be broadly applied in our daily lives?

Q5: How do we encourage our family and friends to observe the precepts? What if they cannot take the whole precepts all at once?

Resource: Humanity Magazine #445 (人生雜誌第445期)
Translated by: Ariel Shen (沈純湘)
Edited by: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠)
Photo: Dong-yang Lee (李東陽)