The five precepts constitute the basic code of ethics undertaken by upasaka and upasika (lay followers) of Buddhism. The precepts in all the traditions are essentially identical and are commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices.
What do the Five Precepts mean?
The most straightforward and the conventional way to express the Five Precepts would be to say,
I undertake to observe the rule ~
- to abstain from taking life;
- to abstain from taking what is not given;
- to abstain from sensuous misconduct;
- to abstain from false speech;
- to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind;
(Source: E. Conz, Buddhist Scriptures, 1959)
Venerable Piyadassi in his book The Buddha’s Ancient Path expresses them in a slightly different way:
- I undertake the training precept to abstain from killing anything that breathes
- I undertake the training precept to abstain from taking what is not given
- I undertake the training precept to abstain from sexual misconduct
- I undertake the training precept to abstain from speaking falsehood
- I undertake the training precept to abstain from liquor that causes intoxication and heedlessness.
Piyadassi draws our attention to an aspect of the observance of the Five Precepts, which has either been overlooked or generally not given sufficient emphasis. There are no rewards or punishments for deeds done or left undone: no ablution by holy water, neither offering to any deity, nor worship of gods, the sun or fire. He points out that according to Buddhism, wrong done is not regarded as a ‘sin’ for that word is foreign to the teaching of the Buddha. There is no case of breaking Buddha’s laws. He was no law giver or arbitrator who punished the bad and rewarded the good deeds of beings.
Hence there is no repentance, sorrow or regret for ‘sin’.
There are clearly no laws or commandments. One promises (takes upon oneself) to observe the training precepts, with no compulsion or coercion. One is responsible to oneself for one’s actions. If someone violates what he or she has undertaken to keep, what is essential is the correction of that weakness and trying hard not to lapse again.
It is a forward-looking process wherein one is improving oneself. The sole purpose of keeping these precepts, he emphasises, is to train oneself to ‘control one’s impulses, evil inclinations and wrong acts, and thus pave the path for purification and happiness, give security to society and promote cordiality’.
Why are the Five Precepts given in a negative way? Because it is the bare minimum required to plant the seeds: to begin the process of cultivating the mind; to set out on the long path of puri?cation. The weeds in the field have to be removed before planting the seeds we want to grow. That is why the Five Precepts as they are expressed represent just the beginning; the starting point and not the end-point as some would erroneously believe.
Not that the positive aspect of the precepts have been overlooked by the Buddha. The tendency perhaps had developed later for convenience or simplicity. Piyadassi quotes from Buddha’s discourses to illustrate the positives clearly spelled out by the Teacher. Giving up killing, one lives kind and compassionate to all living beings; abstaining from taking what is not given one is purified from thieving tendencies; giving up slander one lives … delighting, and rejoicing in concord, speaking words of reconciliation …
We make a start by giving up undesirable words, deeds and thoughts. We give an undertaking to ourselves to abstain from certain things, because we find it to be helpful for our own upliftment. It is a case of abstinence, or restraint, whatever way one puts it. Some refer to precepts as rules. Piyadassi calls them training precepts. One may call them guiding principles of discipline. The real intent of the Five Precepts have been best expressed by the renowned Vietnamese monk Thic Nhat Hanh. He deals with them in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ and more elaborately in his later work For A Future to Be Possible. He refers to the Five Precepts as the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Not only has he elaborated on the precepts, he has also rephrased them to “address the problems of our time”.
Kulananda, the Western Buddhist teacher in his book Western Buddhism also relates the precepts to the day-to-day life of the present. He emphasises that the precepts are intended as a support to “spiritual training, a way of helping people to transform every dimension of their lives: their body, speech and mind.” To bring this out more clearly, he offers the following positive formulations of the Five Precepts:
With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body;
With open-handed generosity, I purify my body;
With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body;
With truthful communication, I purify my speech;
With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind;
Kindness, generosity, contentment, honesty and clarity are, in his words markers along a path of practice which is constantly oriented towards self-transcendence.
Source: PANSIL, A Layman looks at the Five Precepts, D.B. Kuruppu, Melbourne, 2005. ISBN 955-97570-5-9
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