Sunday, February 7, 2010

Buddhism's Five Precepts

High Five for Buddha!

From the earliest known texts on the matter, Buddhism has considered morality an important part of the practice, presented in the simplest form for lay Buddhists as the Five Precepts. In some of these texts, the Buddha is often seen advising against the breaking of the Five Precepts at the risk of future woes, not only in this life, but in lives to come. Indeed, willful acts that do not conform to these precepts are often said by the Buddha to lead to the hell realms. So, if we want to avoid being reborn into disadvantageous circumstances, as an animal, or in the torments of Yama's underworld, we'd better make clear what these precepts actually are:

  1. To avoid killing sentient beings
  2. To avoid stealing
  3. To avoid sexual misconduct
  4. To avoid lying
  5. To avoid taking intoxicants

 Now, looking at each of the five precepts in turn will help us to determine why we should adhere to it, and what this entails. Starting with Precept #1, we need to establish what is meant by 'sentient beings,' thereby knowing what it is we shouldn't kill. Any creature that has a mind is considered a sentient being in Buddhism, and in the physical world this corresponds to any creature with a brain, no matter how small that being (or its brain) might be. So, unlike the Judeo-Christian commandment not to kill, the First Precept of Buddhism discourages us from willfully taking the life of any living creature, including all types of animals, birds, fish, insects, etc. Precept #2 encourages us to avoid stealing, that is taking anything that we haven't bought or been given, if we believe it to belong to somebody else. Taking wild fruit to eat would be fine, as long as we know it isn't on private property. So, obviously theft, mugging, and burglary are out of the question for a well-practicing Buddhist. But, what about finding money in the street and then keeping it, does that count as breaking the Second Precept? If we know the money doesn't belong to us, then it is against Precept #2, as is pilfering from the workplace as a 'perk of the job.'

The Third Buddhist Precept discourages 'sexual misconduct', a phrase that has been variously interpreted, depending on the culture and morality of the individual doing the interpreting. Does it only mean not committing adultery or raping someone? Some Buddhists think so, whilst at the other end of the moral spectrum there are traditionalists that consider any sex out of marriage to be breaking this precept. Somewhere between the two would seem more in line with the general 'thrust' of Buddhist morality, however. Loving sex between people committed to each other that has at least a modicum of wisdom and compassion thrown in somewhere would appear to be in line with Precept #3. For, whilst on the one hand a ceremony and a bit of paper do not necessarily indicate either wisdom or compassion, promiscuous sex would appear to have none of either.

Precept #4 guides us against lying, that is deliberately telling untruths. Again, as with Precept #1, the Fourth Precept is broader in scope than we might think at first, for this doesn't just include blatant lying such as perjury, slander, or inaccurate boasting. It also includes so-called 'white lies', as they are still denying the truth of the way things are, and therefore contradicting the Dharma. Telling an uncomfortable truth, keeping quiet, or changing the subject are always preferable if we take this precept seriously.
As to the Fifth Precept, to avoid taking intoxicants, this doesn't just mean not drinking alcohol. It includes not talking recreational drugs, eating magic mushrooms, or sniffing toxic glue. Precept #5 exists to help us avoid twisting perception so that we misunderstand the Dharma (the-way-things-are), and so that we don't break any other of the Five Precepts whilst 'under the influence.'

That's all well and good on the level of theory, you might well think, but what about the practical application of the Five Precepts: is it possible to live in the modern world whilst adhering to these five guidelines, and if it is, is anyone doing so? Taking a look around Thailand, the country often touted as the most Buddhist country on Earth, it would seem that the Five Precepts aren't widely followed. Animals are routinely slaughtered for food, and insects, particularly mosquitoes, are swatted by just about everyone, it seems. Stealing is a problem in the Land of Smiles, too, and sexuality has often been indulged in in Thai society - it's a sobering thought that despite the thousands of 'sex tourists' that come their exotic holidays every year, more than ninety per cent of prostitution in the Kingdom involves Thais only. Lying to 'save face' is an integral part of Thai culture, too - very few people speak the truth about themselves or others (or their country) when an untruth will make everyone feel better about themselves. And, as for not taking intoxicants, Thailand is one of the drug centers of the world, where narcotics are not only smuggled in and out of the Kingdom, but many locals are addicted, also. And, on any weekend take a stroll around the bars and nightclubs of any Thai town or city, and the drunkards are out in force!

And yet, there are lay Buddhists in this land, who like the best of the monks, keep the Precepts, and lead virtuous and harmless lives. Hard to identify, they are occasionally met whilst traveling, or visiting a forest temple, where many of the more dedicated lay Buddhists go to beef up their practice from time to time. In this world of multitudinous temptations, it would be somewhat naive to expect the majority of people to be keeping the Five Precepts, but it is encouraging nevertheless when such people are encountered, showing that virtue is not dead, and that the wholesome foundations that maintaining the Precepts gives us for the further cultivation of meditation and wisdom is achievable.

So, here in Thailand, there are Buddhists that benefit from their adherence to the Five Precepts, but then what of Westerners who have not grown up in a predominately Buddhist culture - can they too sustain such a practice? From my personal experience as a Western Buddhist, he simple answer is' "Yes!" The slightly more complicated response is that whilst it is possible for those of us born outside of Buddhist families to keep the Precepts, it isn't plain sailing. (And, neither is it so for many devout Thai Buddhists, either, for that matter.) Despite living in Thailand for the past few years, previously my wife (who is also Buddhist) and I lived in England, and we managed to cultivate the Precepts there too, despite the very different cultural backdrop. And, this shouldn't be too surprising when we remember that most Thais don't practice the Precepts, creating a society that looks at those of us that do live by them as oddities. Ultimately, it's up to each of us to make the commitment to keep the Buddhist Precepts or not, and whilst it's nice to have others around us doing the same, if we really, really care about it, we'll do it.

But, there's a question that arises here that needs to be addressed: why bother to maintain the Five Precepts at all? If it's not about fitting in with the morality of one's community, then we should look into the reasons for taking up the Precepts, albeit briefly. Well, returning to my own experience in these matters, there have been tangible results from keeping the Five Precepts which include a clearer conscience, confidence, and an increased measure of happiness or contentedness. Having a clear conscience that one is not behaving in the selfish and unwise ways that the Precepts discourage, means that less guilt is likely to arise in the mind, certainly regarding the most serious misdemeanors that humans can get up to. Cultivating the Five Precepts also leads to a confidence born from the fact that the (often negative) desires that arise in the mind do not have to be acted out, and that awakening to the way things are and responding appropriately is possible. The feeling of contentedness that comes out of a predominately guiltless and confident mind is a wonderful gift to possess that can not only be experienced by the bearer, but also shared with all sentient beings. This, coupled with the fact that by keeping the Precepts in the first place we are doing considerably less harm to others, makes us a positive not negative force in the world.

To sum up, then, the Five Precepts are not always that easy (or fun) to maintain, but when cultivated over some time, they bring real benefits to those of us that keep them, as well as to all other sentient beings. So, over to you dear reader - do you keep the Five Precepts, and if so, what is your experience with them? Please leave a comment on 'Buddha Space' by clicking on the link below. I look forward to your responses.


Jess said...

I have always been very interested in Buddhism, having rejected nearly all religion quite a while ago!
I find that it makes me happier to try and follow some buddhist concepts, and things like the 5 precepts, i think are a perfect place to start for begginers :)
As for me, I think the first three are quite easy. Not lying is sometimes a littler harder, im prone to a little white lie now again, mostly to avoiding hurting peoples feelings! But is this better in the long run? I dont know. And as a 21yr old student, not drinking is extremely difficult given the people and places im always surrounded by! And although I did give up drinking for a couple of years, I do drink occassionally now, I dont think im any worse for it, but in the not-so-distant furture i will undoubtably give it up again as there really is no reason for it other than peer pressure!

G said...

Hello, Jess.

Good to read of our experiences with the Precepts, especially that you find the first three not too difficult to keep. As to the challenge of the Fifth Precept, I too struggled with this for several years, but did eventually give it up, and have never regretted it.

Be well on the Path,

Bananazക said...

Have been keeping the 5 Precepts for more than 2 decades. Can't think of much experiences just more compassionate towards animals. With metta.

G said...

Well, being more compassionate to animals is a worthwhile result of cultivating the Precepts, isn't it, Bananaz? (Surely you're more compassionate to humans, as well, aren't you?)

With goodwill,

Lorem Ipsum said...

I have I hope a pragmatic take on this. I'm not a 'believer' in the hell realms and nor do I subscribe to a dualistic view of good and evil. I have done many bad things in this existence and I have done a few good. I know which makes for a better experience of life.

The Five precepts are useful and pertinent guidelines to conduct and can be impactful reminders of the direction one's mind may be travelling in. However, as the Buddha points out in this and so many other contexts we should not get attached to them per se.

That said, the old saw that virtue is its own reward (happiness) rings true, as you point out so succinctly, G, and as the Buddha explicitly said.


G said...

Yes, it's in the pragmatic aspect of the Five Precepts that their immediate value is realized, both for those that keep them and everyone else. If we see the heavenly and hellish realms as psychological symbols, then maintaining the Precepts results in 'heaven' for all concerned.

In goodwill,

Bananazക said...

Hi G, yeah do have compassion for humans. Perhaps would appreciate your words of wisdom on killing mosquitoes. Once I blew away a mozzie when it landed on my arm and a friend said I might be a 'murderer' just in case this mozzie carries malaria or dengue virus and got transmitted to another person and I'm responsible for causing the spread of the fever. What's your view?
With metta

G said...

Well, you could extend this logic to say that you must kill all birds you encounter in case they have avian flu, and slaughter any cows you see (plus burn their corpses) because they might have mad cow disease. And then there's the dangerous viruses that some humans carry - you must surely kill every person you meet as well! I catch mosquitoes if they infiltrate the house and let them go outside,. (Which is what many forest monks do here in Thailand, by the way.)

You are not responsible for the spread of a disease carried by a mosquito that you declined to kill, Bananaz. You are 'guilty' of showing compassion towards a living creature, and that's a beautiful thing, not a 'murderous' one. The diseases that infected mosquitoes possess are a natural phenomenon and some people will be infected by them (though not necessarily die, of course). It is the ego that cries, " I could have done this," and, "You should have done that." You did what was appropriate in the moment, and your friend expressed an opinion on it, which was equally appropriate. There's nothing more to read into it than this, really, is there? Relax into this present moment and let it go...

Bananazക said...

Hi G
I would do the same too, catch the mozzies and let them fly out of the window and also pick up helpless ants or insects with tissue paper from the toilet bowl. Thanks for the enlightening reply.
With metta.

G said...

May all beings be at ease!

Was Once said...

Maintaining the precepts is a way of setting yourself up for success both emotionally and spiritually. What really is your look cool while meditating? No, it is to let go and live your life with a natural happiness unfettered by substances, lies and deceit.

G said...

Well written, Was Once!