The Buddhist precepts

By Ian Finlay

I think many people in the West are often put off the idea of the precepts because they associate them with the Ten Commandments and a rather unpleasant type of morality, imposing restrictions on us and limiting our freedom. Morality is often an unpopular word as it seems to imply something unnatural, imposed by the church from outside, as it were.

In fact the Buddhist precepts can be seen as the exact opposite of this: they are not commandments imposed on us by an authoritarian and paternalistic God, but pieces of advice designed to bring out our natural goodness so that we may live in tune with our true nature. As such they are the very heart of Buddhist practice and can be seen as promoting the positive values rather than simply the negative, forbidding ones. In this sense they are both restraining and liberating, restraining in the sense that they protect us and prevent us from getting lost in ‘the mire of samsara’, swept away by delusion, and liberating in that they help us to live in accord with the Buddha nature, ‘buddhata’, the reality behind our egoistic selves. They are in fact not only an essential part of Buddhist practice, they also provide a description of the enlightened person.

So what are the precepts?

There are five basic precepts common to all forms of Buddhism, although some schools use eight or even twelve precepts. As I said earlier, they are not commandments, and as we look more deeply at them we realise that keeping them absolutely is probably impossible.

The first one is the ‘Thou shalt not kill’ one of Christianity, which in Buddhism is expressed as avoiding taking the life of all sentient beings. It is really about caring for all beings, and we could add trees, plants and the earth itself to this. We do not wantonly destroy life. There may be times when this is unavoidable. As a gardener I know I cannot grow a lettuce without harming the slugs and greenfly that come to eat it. If my children were attacked by a pack of wild dogs I would kill the dogs to save my children. Nonetheless I have the intention to help all beings, compassion for all. As Zen master Shunryi Suzuki said, ‘Even though it is impossible, we have to do it, we have to get rid of our self-centred ideas. Then our inmost nature is revealed and nirvana is there’.

The second precept is not stealing, not taking that which is not freely given. This is about generosity, eliminating selfishness, realising that we do not really ‘own’ anything.

The third precept is not indulging in sexual misconduct. It is easy to get lost in sexual desire, it is a minefield, and I doubt if there is anyone here, certainly no man, who has not at some time behaved badly, exploited another person. It is difficult not to, especially when we are growing up. But again, the Buddhist view is that we are all interdependent, that we all share the Buddha nature, to harm another is to harm ourselves, to behave selfishly is to reinforce the ego creating more unhappiness and separation. Real love, real caring for each other, is liberation.

The fourth precept is about right speech. Is our speech loving and caring or are we harsh, criticising others? If the latter we will again reinforce our own egos, leading to separation and misery. Do we gossip, talking of others behind their backs? We have to have awareness, look at our motivation, are we simply trying to bolster our own egos?

The fifth precept is not to use drugs which ‘cloud the mind’. This could include our consumption generally, the food we eat, television programmes we watch, pornography etc. Interestingly, The Buddha mentioned alcohol specifically because he felt that alcohol consumption led to loss of mindfulness and the breaking of all the other precepts as well. One only has to look at our local paper to realise the truth of this, that the vast majority of violence and anti social behaviour is committed under the influence of alcohol. Drunken drivers have killed more people than have ever been killed by nuclear weapons. It is true that many people use alcohol responsibly and small amounts may be beneficial, but at the same time we are supporting an industry which kills millions of people each year. We have to look closely at our use of alcohol and other drugs – are they really helping us or are they taking us away from a place of clarity, leading to further confusion? To return to what I originally said about the precepts, is our action, our consumption, ultimately liberating or is it in fact restricting?

Please look carefully at this, and try to be aware and mindful at all times. This seems to be the real message of the precepts.

Ian Finlay

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