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:
- To avoid killing sentient beings
- To avoid stealing
- To avoid sexual misconduct
- To avoid lying
- 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.