The five lay precepts are more than a set of simple moral edicts: they serve as practical guidelines on the path to buddhahood. In the following section, six teachers discuss the precepts and their application in our daily lives.
The Buddhist Precepts: An Introduction
The Buddhist precepts are essential to the path of liberation; we follow them to develop compassion toward ourselves and others. In Buddhist literature we read that to keep the precepts is like “seeing the light of a fire in a dark place,” “a poor man finding a jewel,” “a prisoner being released,” and “returning home.” The precepts are not regulations that must be adhered to for all time; rather, they are treasured as the foundation of an ethical lifestyle because they encourage us to reflect on our behavior and its impact on others.
The Buddhist precepts are not intended to force us into a particular way of behaving but to encourage us to reflect on our motivations and actions. Since the aim of a Buddhist life is to diminish suffering, Buddhist ethics are rooted in compassion and wisdom. We attend to our own suffering and the suffering of others, and we understand that our intentions and actions have consequences.
The precepts were developed by the Buddha over the course of his lifetime. As the monastic community grew and inevitable ethical dilemmas arose, the Buddha began to establish rules, which evolved into the precepts. After his death, the precepts were compiled, classified according to importance, commented upon, and given the collective name Vinaya (literally, “that which leads away from remorse”), the code of discipline that is included in the Buddhist canon.
Lay practitioners take five precepts, common to all Buddhist traditions: We vow not to kill, steal, have improper sexual relations, lie, or take intoxicants. In the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, lay practitioners may take three additional precepts: not to sit or sleep on a high seat or bed; not to eat after midday; and not to wear perfumes or perform in or attend dance or musical performances. Novice monks and nuns in most Buddhist traditions generally take ten precepts, which include the eight lay precepts mentioned above (though the third precept becomes restraint from sexual behavior altogether). In the Tibetan tradition, novices can take up to thirty-six precepts.
The lay precepts were established as an essential part of Buddhist training as guides to leading a good life. The monastic precepts were laid down to help monks and nuns live together in harmony, to create the optimum conditions to further their practice, and to cultivate a healthy relationship with their lay supporters. There are three fundamental ways of interpreting the precepts in terms of Buddhist ethics. The first is to consider them in terms of restraint, which is most often emphasized in the Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia. In Theravada Buddhism there are codified rules, which monastics follow strictly, avoiding any speech or action that might break them. Restraint facilitates peace and concentration of mind. It can be represented by this verse proclaimed by the Buddha:
Not to commit evil
But to practice all good
And to keep the heart pure:
This is the teaching of the Buddha.
“To keep the heart pure” means to try to keep the mind uncluttered. It does not mean that we are saintly. It means that we are reasonably aware, reasonably caring, open to ourselves and to others, and not influenced by hatred, greed, or delusion.
Mahayana Buddhism holds that each person, act, and object is inherently empty. Therefore, nothing is intrinsically “good” or “bad,” because everything depends on our intention, motivation, and circumstances. Zen master Seng-ts’an said:
Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must be finally abolished at once . . .
A third way of looking at ethics is found in the tantric practices of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tantric Buddhism uses everything that is in life—both positive and negative—as a potential tool for transformation.
These three approaches are complementary: Sometimes it is best to restrain ourselves to prevent doing harm. At other times, it is important to look beyond the moralistic categories of “good” and “bad” in order to do what is skillful to alleviate suffering. And, finally, sometimes we have to sit with the messiness of our minds and actions and try to transform them from within.
Martine Batchelor is a meditation teacher and the author of Meditation for Life and The Path of Compassion, a forthcoming volume of translations of the bodhisattva precepts.
The First Precept: To Kill or Not to Kill
I take up the precept to refrain from taking life.
When asked whether euthanasia was ever appropriate, one Tibetan teacher laughed gently and said, “You aren’t serious, are you? That would be killing.”
Another Tibetan teacher, when asked the same question, replied, “This is very tricky. Suppose you are sitting in your living room and you hear a screech of brakes. You go outside and you see that your dog has been hit by a car. His body is broken and he is obviously in great pain. You go into your house, get a gun, and shoot him. What’s wrong with that? But if you hesitate for a moment and think about how you don’t want to take care of your injured pet, everything changes.”
The first precept in the Buddhist monastic and lay ordinations is not to take life. The commitment is specifically not to kill a human being, but the principle is usually applied to all sentient life. At the same time, the fundamental intention of Buddhism is to end suffering. If two highly regarded teachers can have different views on the question of euthanasia, what are you to do when faced with the decision to kill or not to kill?
A three-step practice from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche provides a guide:
Know what is.
Act without hesitation.
See clearly. Cultivate a gesture with compassion. Because compassion puts you directly in touch with suffering, it penetrates the blinders of accepted values in a culture, a tradition, a nation, or a family. With the eyes of compassion, you cannot ignore the destructive effect suffering has on others.
Know what is. Eliminate the distortions caused by projections and conditioning. Open to the pain inherent in the situation whenever the question of killing arises. Open to all the complexities of the situation and know what is.
Act without hesitation. Rely on that knowing and act. Don’t let thinking confuse you. Serve what is true, not what is convenient. Act without hesitation and accept the results of your action.
Killing motivated by self-preservation, by trying to satisfy emotional needs, or by trying to be somebody is immoral. These motivations are based on a sense of being separate from what is. We perceive a threat to a boundary we have established, and the most basic reaction to such a threat is to destroy its source. For example, you kill your injured dog because you feel threatened by the need to care for it.
Given the complexity of life in contemporary society, killing or involvement with killing is unavoidable. Biological, social, or political demands can conflict with the intention not to take life. We eat food and wear clothes produced by processes that involve someone taking the lives of animals. We kill insects and rodents to prevent them from invading our homes or spreading disease.
We kill in subtler ways as well. A harsh word may instantly kill years of trust. A derisive comment may kill inspiration in another person. We may kill a relationship by taking the other person for granted. Again, we do such things because we are reacting to some perceived threat.
Precepts are descriptions of how a person who is awake does behave. They help us to wake up to what is. They are not rigid rules. No rule can cover all possible circumstances.
Deep questions about values and ethics arise around the issues of abortion, life support, and elective suicide for those with debilitating and terminal illnesses. In these and other circumstances, call up compassion so that you see clearly, go empty in all the complexities so you know what is, and in that knowing act without hesitation.
Most people regard freedom as the ability to do whatever they want. In Buddhist practice, however, freedom means freedom from an agitated or clouded mind. As you cultivate this three-step practice, you discover a deeper freedom in your life: Your every action becomes an expression of what you are—the union of compassion and emptiness.
Ken McLeod, a senior student of the late Kalu Rinpoche, teaches at Unfettered Mind, a Buddhist service organization based in Los Angeles. His most recent publication is Wake Up to Your Life.
Related: Pain, Passion, and the Precepts
The Second Precept: Transforming Greed
I take up the precept to refrain from taking what is not given.
Traditionally, the second precept meant that monks and nuns should accept the four requisites (food, clothing, shelter, and medicine) only when they were offered. For lay persons, it meant not to take what belongs to others.
But what does it mean to practice the second precept today? Am I violating the precept when I use work time for surfing the Internet? When I “borrow” a zafu from the meditation center store for six months? When I use my roommate’s shampoo without asking? When I exaggerate in my tax deductions? When I enjoy economic and social privileges through participating in a system in which others have been unfairly exploited? We can consider our practice of the second precept from three perspectives:
Begin by establishing a strong intention to follow the precept—in morning sittings, through reading, or with group support. Everyday activities then become wake-up calls, either when you find yourself violating the precept or when you enter a gray area. Perhaps you’ve taken office supplies home from work, rationalizing that they are perks from your job to compensate for a low salary or extra time worked. Reflect on the incident: What were the root causes, both inner and outer? What was your motivation? Did you cause harm to yourself or others? Look more generally at the balance of giving and taking in your daily interactions. How might you strengthen your generosity?
Monitoring our actions can be a starting point for inner work. This means looking at greed and the ways we grasp—and the things we grasp at—and further developing our generosity, renunciation, moderation, and sense of inner contentment. Greed and grasping are rooted in delusion, the misconception that our well-being depends on acquiring a certain object, experience, or relationship. But we learn through our practice that ultimately our being, our presence, is enough when we see clearly. This doesn’t mean that we don’t desire or want to change things in our lives, but we can learn to ground our actions in equanimity, compassion, and wisdom rather than in greed.
Try being attentive to moments when you desire something strongly, especially in a gray area related to the precept. Greed is typically characterized by self-centeredness, a lack of connection to others, a feeling of being out of balance or out of control, an obliviousness to consequences, and at times an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Reflect on the distinction between legitimate desire and greed.
We can also consider the second precept in ways that suggest not just an individual but also a social ethic. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us not simply to “possess nothing that should belong to others,” but also to “prevent others from enriching themselves from the suffering of other beings.” In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha teaches: “Let one not cause to steal, nor approve of others’ stealing.”
To practice the second precept thus might also mean to live simply and to be as aware as possible of social tendencies toward greed and grasping, how we have internalized them, and how we might decondition ourselves. It might mean to work locally, nationally, or globally to help develop social, political, environmental, and economic systems that are less rooted in greed. Reflect on your everyday choices in areas such as food, investing, and community life, and on your relationship to social privilege.
As we continue to practice the second precept, we feel our intentions clarified and strengthened. We feel safer and more compassionate both to those around us and to ourselves. And we may appreciate the new depths of practice that open up to us.
Donald Rothberg writes about and teaches meditation and socially engaged Buddhism. He directs a two-year interfaith program in “Socially Engaged Spirituality” for Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco.
The Third Precept: Practicing Skillful Sex
Pat Enkyo O’Hara
I take up the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
In Zen circles, when the third precept is brought up, a story is often told about an old woman in China who had supported a hermit for twenty years. She gave him a hut and brought food for him while he meditated. Wondering what progress he was making, she sent a young woman to test him. The young woman called on the monk, threw her arms around him, pressed her body close to his, and said, “What are you feeling right now?” He responded, “I am like a withered tree that grows on a cold rock in winter. Nowhere is there any warmth.” She went back and told the old woman what he had said. The old woman was furious: “To think I took care of that fellow for twenty years! What a waste!” And she kicked the hermit out of the hut, burned the hut down, and sent him away.
Why is this story so popular? Because it reminds us that intrinsically there is nothing wrong with sexuality, but that its functioning, either in restraint or in release, must be in accord with our interconnectedness and compassion rather than some obsolete notion of sanctity. What would have been the compassionate act for the hermit in that moment? To have connected with the woman in front of him? To have laughed? To have brushed her cheek? To have been truly present in that instant? The hermit’s refusal was not pure, not true.
How, then, are we to be true and pure in a sexual world? In the samsara of sex we also find joy, power, tenderness, vulnerability, excitement, the preciousness of an intimate relationship with another, the denseness of intimacy. Nirvana itself can arise out of such connectedness, such awareness of the fluidity between self and other.
What we do with our bodies, and with whom, is not a question of external rules, but one of acting from our intimate connection to another, without harm or disrespect. Seen in this way, there can be no uncertainty about reconciling the third precept with marriage, homosexuality, or nontraditional relationships. What, then, constitutes “sexual misconduct”? It is any act that causes harm. Consider the issue of infidelity—a violation of trust or agreement with an intimate other. Putting aside our conditioned ideas about monogamy and romantic love, reflect on the consequences of infidelity on others. Are we creating harm? By being unfaithful, are we lying to or stealing from someone we care about?
How can a bodhisattva experience sexuality without falling into attachment, delusive passions, and harming actions? Skillful sex is not using another, nor allowing another to use you, in a harmful way. Skillful sex is not about a denial of the senses, but it is about avoiding attachment to the senses, thereby harming ourselves or others.
As humans, we find ourselves in the world of sexual attraction, between men and women, men and men, women and women, the world of touch and smell and vision and taste. In such a sensory world, can we experience this precept at a deeper level, as arising from our own connectedness with all beings? Can we find a quality in our sexual feelings that is not clinging and attachment, but a more profound and joyful, appreciative relatedness? Can we desire others completely without harming ourselves or others?
What about restraint? For those who have longstanding sexual addiction issues, it is not a question of “just saying no,” or abstinence. It is a question of gaining insight into our motives and drives, and feeling a corresponding responsibility for our actions: “Yes, here is my craving, my attachment, my past karma, and at this moment, I resolve not to create more such karma mindlessly. Looking directly at my craving, I see I am not helpless.” Once we have realized our true intentions, we can make mindful choices that enable us to enjoy our sexuality compassionately and mindfully.
No rules can help us when we feel controlled by unconscious forces, and that is where the true spirit of the third precept can help us. The third precept counsels us to maintain awareness, to know ourselves deeply, to be aware of what is arising in the moment, and to extend that awareness to those around us, fully realizing our interconnection. This is awareness, presence, aliveness, clarity, purity.
Pat Enkyo O’Hara is a Soto Zen priest in the White Plum Lineage and head of the Village Zendo in New York City.
Related: The Joy of No Sex
The Fourth Precept: Right Speech
Q&A with Sister True Virtue
I take up the precept to refrain from improper speech.
The fourth precept encourages us to practice loving speech and deep listening. Right speech is one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads us out of suffering. To tell the truth is vital—but it is not enough. We must train ourselves to tell the truth in such a way as to bring love and joy into the world, and not to harm others.
The other side of right speech is deep listening. Without deep listening, loving speech is not possible. We have to listen in order to understand the suffering and aspirations of another person. Once we have understood, we can help them with compassion.
Our training begins with learning first to listen to ourselves until we know our deepest aspirations, shortcomings, sufferings, and joys. Next, we must learn to listen deeply to our partner and family. Right speech prompts us to ask our loved ones: “What could I do to make you happier?” and then to listen to the reply without judging or reacting. Right speech prompts us to say, “Thank you for being here for me. Your presence enriches my life. Please tell me how I can love you better.”
Following are some frequent questions practitioners have about how to practice Right Speech.
Is it okay to tell a white lie?
Our practice is always to tell the truth, but sometimes the truth is too hurtful. So it depends very much on how you tell the truth. However, in Buddhism we never say that certain conduct is “right” or “wrong”; it is not possible to give blueprints for ethical behavior because every situation is different. If you are wondering whether or not you should tell the truth, you should examine your motivation very carefully. Ask others what they think because they may see the situation more clearly than you can.
When and how is it inappropriate to express our anger?
You should not express your anger when you are in the grip of that emotion. When anger is in control of you, your mind is clouded and you will most likely regret whatever you say. Take a few moments to focus on your breath and nothing else—this will clear your mind. When you are calm and in control of your mind, then you can open a dialogue. You should first let the other person know that you were upset. You should not say, “You are a cruel, thoughtless person.” Instead, say, “This morning I was very upset when I heard you say that you had no time to come for a walk with me. I still feel unhappy, but I am doing my best not to be carried away by my feelings. I know that I still have many wrong perceptions, and I need your help in clearing them up. You could also let me know what you are feeling.” If you are angry, ideally you should let the person who has made you angry know within a day or so after the incident. If you are still not calm enough after this time, you might write a note saying that you were upset, that you are trying to be calm, and that you need their help in resolving your feelings.
Is it okay to gossip? If so, when, and to what extent?
If we practice correctly, whatever we say should be the expression of the dharma. Gossiping can waste energy and is of no benefit to anyone. Talking about someone’s negative qualities behind his or her back can be very harmful. So we should always follow the path of mindful speech: not speaking in haste, listening to ourselves as we speak, and asking ourselves the question, “If I say this, will it benefit my friends?” After asking yourself this question, practice mindfully breathing in and out three times. Then, if you still think it would be beneficial, you should say what is on your mind. If you are still unsure, you should not say it.
Most of the time we speak more than is necessary. However, we should remember there are times when we need to speak to put someone at ease. We should also never be too slow to express our appreciation of someone or apologize as soon as we see we have done something unskillful. Good communication requires time and energy. Without peace and harmony in our own relationships, how can we bring peace into the world?
Sister True Virtue is a Buddhist nun ordained in the Order of Interbeing led by Thich Nhat Hanh. She received the title of Dharma Teacher in 1990 at Plum Village, in France, and since then has led many mindfulness retreats in Europe, North America, and Asia.
The Fifth Precept: Everything Is Inviolable
I take up the precept to refrain from intoxicating drink, which leads to heedlessness.
The fifth precept is for all of us who have difficulty remaining upright in the midst of our suffering. It encourages us to trust being upright, instead of using intoxicants, as the best way to deal with our restlessness, anxiety, and pain.
The word intoxicate means “to poison.” In the broadest sense, anything we ingest, inhale, or inject into our system without reverence for all life becomes an intoxicant. Whether we speak of intoxication or substance abuse, the essential issue here is that we are dissatisfied with our current experience. We may dislike or feel bored with our experience and wish to bring something in to change or end it. We may be fairly satisfied with our experience but want to bring something in to modify it a little. Or we may enjoy our experience and wish to bring something in to prolong or intensify it because we anticipate that it will not last.
At the conventional level, the precept of no intoxicants is understood as encouraging us to control our behavior by not using addictive substances to manipulate our state of being. Ironically, using individual effort to try to control our behavior is itself a violation of the ultimate meaning of the precept because it is akin to manipulating our experience.
Admitting an impulse is different from trying to control yourself. By such an admission you acknowledge that it is not by personal effort that you become free of these impulses. In moments of great pain and anxiety, our work is to be present in this pain and anxiety. This is not easy; it is just necessary.
Many things can be used in such a way that they become intoxicants: coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, sex, sleep, power, fame. When we don’t fully experience life as it is manifesting itself at this moment, we become possessed by craving. In a state of craving, we may want to bring something in to tighten us or loosen us, to pep us up or calm us down, to sharpen the mind and body or dull it, or to give us pleasure or take away pain. We do not trust that what we have come to be in the moment is precisely buddha.
In all circumstances, turning away and grasping both miss the point of intimacy. Anything you actively turn away from or ignore comes to exert some influence over you. The more energetic the ignoring, the more power you give to what is ignored. The thing does not actually have this power in itself. Its power depends on your refusal to pay attention to it. Grasping means “to be indulgent or inappropriately involved.” When you meet with an especially precious or dangerous phenomenon, you may find it particularly difficult to achieve intimacy. As the old buddha Tung-shan says, “Turning away and touching are both wrong, because it is like a massive fire.”
The precepts are all one thing: They are Buddha’s mind. They show the ways that we get distracted from Buddha’s mind. Each way of distraction from Buddha’s mind is also a way of reunion with Buddha’s mind. The precepts show how we lean away from our Buddha-nature, and they are the road back.
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