Importance of Precepts

The five precepts were my first exposure to Buddhist virtue. I was pretty impressed that there were only five: refrain from taking life, from taking what has not been given, from sexual misconduct, from speaking falsely and from consuming intoxicating substances. And to boot, they weren’t hard and fast rules — at the very least, breaking a precept didn’t mean that I’d missed out on my chance for enlightenment. The precepts were simple and clear without being constrictive.

A leader to a Shambhala SunSpace post yesterday caught my eye: “But, says Zachary Bremmer, clinging to the five precepts as law can cause more suffering than it prevents.” He goes on to analogize the five precepts to training wheels.

Situations will come up in which the precepts will not be able to answer the question, “What should I do?”  The prescription that was once as clear as black and white becomes increasingly gray and the precepts fail us.  When failure of this type occurs, it forces us to look deeper into the nature of the system. The problem with using any type of training wheels is that after a certain point, they can no longer help us progress. In order to get any further, we must take them off and learn to balance on our own.  When the precepts fail to provide us with an answer, we need to find a more fundamental discriminating factor for moral action.

He gives no concrete examples, although he further extends the training wheels analogy, “Just imagine the reactions Lance Armstrong would have gotten if he raced the Tour de France with training wheels!” And perhaps this sentence frames just how inappropriate the training wheels analogy is. After all, Lord Buddha himself continually followed the five precepts all the way through to his final passing.

To be clear, the five precepts will not end your suffering. They will not make you enlightened, rich or even kind. Instead, the precepts cast a light on bad habits, they keep you out of trouble, and they engender responsibility. Diligent adherence to the precepts even strengthens meditation. All these benefits stem from the basic purpose of the precepts: they protect you from sewing your own bad karma.

The precepts are more about what not to do than they are about what you should do. The popular verse 183 of the Dhammapada provides a good frame of reference.

Sabbapapassa akaranam,
Kusalassa upasampada,
Sacitta pariyodapanam—
Etam Buddhana sasanam.

The not-doing of any evil,
The performance of what’s skillful,
The cleansing of one’s own mind—
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.

The first three lines correspond to rooting out bad karma, cultivating good karma and developing wisdom. The order is important too, though some Buddhists choose to work this list in reverse. In the verse above, the precepts correspond to the first line. Bremmer rightly points out that the precepts don’t answer all questions, but they only fail because he’s applying them like a screwdriver to a nail. The precepts may not help you progress beyond a certain point, but they still keep a lid on your bad karma. In this way, the precepts are a foundation upon which further practice is built.

Like a tamed garden, you weed the plot, you select and set the right plants, and you carefully prune and nourish these plants. Even when this garden dazzles all your guests and relatives, you still have to spend time continuously weeding. We shouldn’t cling to precepts anymore than we should cling to the notion that weeding alone will bring forth a beautiful garden, but we also shouldn’t consider the precepts as aids for the likes of novices. They are a simple code of morality that even Lord Buddha both taught and lived, although I might appropriate Captain Barbossa‘s quip that “the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

4 Replies to “Importance of Precepts”

  1. I laughed out loud when I got to the end of your post. While reading the quote that started all this I thought, “The precepts are not like the Pirate’s Code, like guidelines.”

    I don’t know what Bremmer was getting at about failure of the precepts. How can they fail? To suggest they do indicates a lack of understanding of what they are for.

    You’re right in saying they keep you out of trouble. What’s more, in keeping the precepts one offers safety to everyone near and far. And that, I think, is where rests their real importance.

  2. I’ve seen this sort of attitude before. I agree that there can be a real problem when we make the leap from “these are not hard and fast rules” to “these are ‘training wheels’ which we will eventually discard.”

  3. Thanks for your comments! With regard to the Barbossa quote, I meant it to be read in the way that Pyotr clarified, but I have to admit that the quote can be easily read to mean that the precepts are to be followed at one’s leisure — this is not my intention. I like this quote a lot, but I’ll have to be more careful how I use it!

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