Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 5 Precepts

Along with the Three Refuges (see 3 Refuges), most lay Buddhists commit themselves to maintaining the five precepts (panca sila). The Five Precepts are the basic moral standards for Buddhist lay people, and consist of the following:
  1. To refrain from killing
  2. To refrain from stealing
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying
  5. To refrain from drugs and alcohol
The Buddha describes the five precepts as five great gifts that are long-standing, traditional and ancient, which promotes them as being time-honored practices well-established in society. He also states that they are unadulterated, not open to suspicion, and are not faulted by wise contemplatives & brahmans. This clearly puts the five precepts up on a moral pedestal, suggesting that whoever keeps them is a paragon of virtue. The advantages of these precepts are not purely beneficial socially; in the same text that the above descriptions are taken, the Buddha taught that they benefitted those that keep them as well:

“In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression.”
(Anuttara Nikaya 8.39, Tipitaka.) 

So, to make a commitment to the five precepts is actually a positive move not only to improve the lives of those around one, avoiding doing them harm, but to benefit ourselves by allowing us the peace of mind to allow a detached understanding of the body and mind to grow. What follows is a brief explanation of the precepts to help illustrate their importance to the Buddhist life.

The first precept to refrain from killing establishes a peaceful state of mind, a mind that not only avoids killing other human beings or animals, but even insects. (And not killing mosquitoes takes some will power and concentration, believe me!) This is a way to live harmlessly, to be a person that is a protector of life, not a destroyer. The peace that arises from being harmless is a very pleasing one, knowing that one cannot be considered a killer.

The second precept is to refrain from stealing, which has obvious benefits for others, but also has positive results for those that do not steal. When reflecting on this precept, the causes of stealing can be seen and then let go of, creating a more steady and guiltless mind. Such a mind can then release the agitating desires that give rise to wanting those things that we cannot rightfully gain.

The third precept to refrain from sexual misconduct not only covers adultery, but also promiscuity, rape, and the sexual exploitation of those too young or innocent to give consent. Rather than giving in to the impulse to have sex with whoever we choose, but to commit to one person, or be celibate, can give opportunities to observe sexual desire, without constantly indulging in it. When looked into, the sexual drive is seen to be both powerful and ego-driven: sex is often a device to gratify oneself, rather than one’s sexual partner, and a cause of much guilt, often subconscious in nature.

To refrain from lying is the fourth Buddhist precept and involves becoming harmless in our speech patterns. Denying the truth is another cause of deep guilt in human beings, and lying is such a widespread phenomenon in society: lying to save face, to avoid difficult situations, to impress others, to gain an advantage, to achieve so much in life that we fear might be unachievable without ‘coloring’ the truth. But what is the psychological impact of all this falsification? Yet more guilt is born and more covering over of the way things actually are.

The fifth precept is to refrain from taking drugs and alcohol that distort consciousness. Buddhism is a way of life built on being alert to reality, but being under the influence of alcohol and drugs that impair our ability to see the truth of our bodies and minds obscures our vision of the true nature of existence. So, refraining from such substances facilitates a more accurate perception and understanding of life, as well avoiding those occasions when a drunken or drugged mind might be tempted to break any of the other four precepts. 

A mind that’s steady, sober, and unobstructed by feelings of guilt is one well equipped for a consistent and deep meditation practice that will bear the fruit of insight into the way of things. Seeing thus, one will naturally move beyond those mind states that would give rise to the transgression of the five precepts anymore, resulting in a confidence that can only assist the further growth of wisdom.

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