The Issue at Hand


Chapter 10: Virtue: The Five Precepts

As a merchant carrying great wealth
In a small caravan avoids a dangerous road:
As someone who loves life
Avoids poison:
So should you avoid evil deeds. 

– Dhammapada 123


Buddhist spiritual practice falls into three general categories known in Pali as sila, samadhi and pañña, which can be translated into English as virtue, meditation and wisdom, respectively. They function like three legs of a tripod; it is essential to cultivate all three. Wisdom and meditation will not develop without virtue. Developing virtue and understanding to the full depths of its possibility requires wisdom and meditation

No single English word adequately translates sila. Sometimes, in its etymological origins, sila is said to come from the word for “bed”. Certainly we can see it as the bedrock or foundation upon which the rest of our spiritual practice is built. Sooner or later, anyone who begins to develop some sensitivity through mindfulness practice will discover that without the foundation of virtue, the depths of sensitivity are hard to develop.

Sila is usually translated as “virtue” or “ethics,” but we need to be careful not to confuse it with Western ideas of virtue and ethics. A traditional foundation of Western ethics is commandments and values often handed down from a god. These values include ideas about right and wrong, good and evil, and absolute rules that we have to live by. This approach to ethics leads easily to guilt, an emotion that is pervasive in the West, but which is considered unnecessary and counterproductive in Buddhism.

Buddhism understands virtue and ethics pragmatically, based not on ideas of good and bad, but rather on the observation that some actions lead to suffering and some actions lead to happiness and freedom. A Buddhist asks, “Does this action lead to increased suffering or increased happiness, for myself and others?” This pragmatic approach is more conducive to investigation than to guilt.

As guidelines for virtue and ethical behavior, the Buddha formulated precepts for us to follow. For lay people, there are five basic guidelines. These are 1) to abstain from killing, 2) to abstain from stealing, 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct, 4) to abstain from lying, and 5) to abstain from intoxicants such as drugs or alcohol.

The Buddha referred to these five in different ways, giving us different perspectives from which to understand them. Sometimes he called them the “five training rules” (pancasikkha), sometimes “five virtues” (pancasila), and sometimes simply as “the five things” or the “five truths” (pancadhamma). The expression “the five things” might seem odd, but perhaps it helps to free us from fixed ideas about what these “things” are, and how they function.

There are three ways of understanding these “five things.” The first is as rules of behavior. These are not considered commandments; rather the Buddha called them “training rules.” We voluntarily take on the training precepts as a discipline for the support of our spiritual training. Following them promotes the development of meditation, wisdom and compassion.

As training rules, the precepts are understood as rules of restraint. They are phrased as “For the sake of my training, I vow not to kill, not to steal,” and so forth. We agree to hold back on certain impulses. Instead of following our inclination to kill a mosquito or steal pencils from work, we hold back and try to bring mindfulness to the discomfort we are impulsively reacting to. Rather than focusing on whether the actions are bad or immoral, we use these restraints as mirrors to study ourselves, to understand our reactions and motivations, and to reflect on the consequences of our actions.

Following the training rules offers us a powerful form of protection. Primarily, the precepts protect us from ourselves, from the suffering we cause others and ourselves when we act unskillfully.

The second way the Buddha talked about the precepts was as principles of virtue. The fundamental principles that underlie all five precepts are compassion, not causing harm, and generosity. We follow the precepts out of compassion, out of a sense of the suffering of others, and out of the possibility that others can be free of suffering. We also live by the precepts out of compassion for ourselves. We want to be careful about our intentional actions, how we act, how we speak, even the kinds of thoughts we pursue.

So that the precepts do not become a rigid ideal that we live by, we practice them together with the principle of non-harming. We can keep in check any tendency to create harm through narrow minded or callous use of the precepts by asking ourselves, “Is this action causing harm to myself or others?” The understanding of what causes harm brings humanity to the precepts.

Living by the precepts is itself an act of generosity; we give a wonderful gift of protection to ourselves and to others. Indeed, one pragmatic reason to follow the precepts as rules of restraint is to bring joy to our lives. Many people meditate because they feel they are lacking joy and happiness. According to the Buddha, one of the best ways to cultivate and appreciate joy is to live a virtuous life.

The third way the Buddha talked about the precepts was as qualities of a person’s character. The Buddha described someone who was spiritually well developed as endowed with the five virtues. The Buddha said that once you reach a certain level of awakening, it is simply not possible to break the precepts. Following the precepts is a direct by-product of having discovered freedom.

In summary, these five things can be understood as rules of training, as principles to guide our actions, and as a description of how an awakened person acts. The world needs more people with the intention, sensitivity and purity of heart represented by the five precepts.

May the precepts be a source of joy for everyone.


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