An Attitude Toward Precepts

Bhante Sukha Sambodhi

Bhante Sukha Sambodhi of TTVMC in Riverside, CA, found an odd quirk among many of his American born practitioners. He mentioned this to myself and two friends while we were spending a weekend meditating at his meditation center. The quirk was in the ordering of the teachings, which were reversed from the MO of Buddhist practice in his native Burma. Precepts always came first before people committed to sitting. Instead, many of Bhante Sukha’s American students dived right into meditating without a solid teaching and experience with the precepts. This has been variously noted by other meditation teachers as well.

I myself have not formally taken on precepts, my own reasoning being that I may inevitably take life, steal, philander, lie, or use intoxicants and would be unable to hold myself to that standard of conduct. If after finding a community of practitioners close enough to home and heart, I may consider otherwise. They could keep me honest. This attitude however, could be to everybody’s detriment.

A community of Buddhists who hold precepts up high would help its own members hold onto their precepts, perhaps for dear life. The example of shunning has been used in other groups with mixed results. Good results being that more of its members could stand straight in line, and bad being a simple, inflexible and hard-line brutality towards complex actions in life.

My own practice would be put at jeopardy as well. I could be the best sitter in the group, but would do little more than vegetate if I depended entirely on others for my own ethics and well-being. And maybe that is what it comes down to: my own well-being. Rather than being a sole object while meditating, breathing while sitting would provide but one more distraction from dealing with past negative actions and would do little to prevent future transgressions. Maybe some restraints aren’t so bad.

John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and The Sirens 1891

8 Replies to “An Attitude Toward Precepts”

  1. I wonder if some American-born attitudes/confusion/avoidance toward precepts might be because of remnants of ideas in Christian religions related to “sin”. I know for me, raised Catholic, it is hard to think of the precepts without also including a lot of judging of good/bad, right/wrong, sin/virtue and feelings of guilt and unworthiness. Sitting is easier in some ways because it simply asks us to observe neutrally. I feel like this observation could help us to come toward the precepts in a more non-judging way? but that may just be rationalization.

    I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts. thanks for bringing this up.


  2. You bring up a good point. The stage in life when a person encounters Buddhism could set the tone for their practice. Bringing in baggage from the past is inevitable. The one you mention sounds like an easy comparison: Abrahamic commandments and Dharmic precepts. Maybe too easy.

    Though similar at face, I think commandments and precepts stem from different standards of conduct. The Buddha’s standard was seen and tested against the requisites for awakening: in particular having a stable mind. In that light, following precepts seems like a generally good way to stay out of trouble and letting the mind deal with better things. If I were more serious about my practice, this would be a great deal. Alas, Mammon, Mara, and their other buddies are winning…for now.

  3. Hmmm.

    If you were the best sitter in the world, who would be second-best?

    I think you have a mistaken notion of the Precepts here. Maybe if you thought about what the effect of practicing the Precepts would be without worrying about breaking one?

  4. hi all,

    I think the problem, at least for me, is not lack of knowledge or understanding of the precepts and their role. I understand on an intellectual level but this is more like spiritual residue from my Christian upbringing that affects me on an emotional level.

    Coming at the precepts through sitting and observing allows me to be in a neutral “space” where I can see my thoughts and emotions without judgment. This allows me to see where my practice of precepts needs to go.

    If I come at it from the point of view of “these are the precepts I need to practice” I am, rightly or wrongly, in a space of judgment: the process becomes action, analysis, judgement. When I come at the precepts through sitting the process is more thought, feeling, witness, thought, action.

    Don’t know if that clarifies things. I wanted to try and parse it out for anyone who may be having a similar difficulty with precepts in the hope that it may be helpful.

  5. Great post, and I understand Bhante’s interest in the quirk. Until Buddhism came to the West, lay practice did not incorporate much meditation. It’s common for lay people in traditional Buddhist countries to take retreats at temples, take special precepts and meditate, and this is something seen throughout Buddhist cultures, but in the West, it definitely turned on its head as lay people suddenly demanded all the practices of monastic life without actually taking up monastic life.

    This is also seen in early Heian Japan when people of the elite Court would take tonsure, but still own property and still direct political affairs from the temple. People in wealthy positions I guess aren’t always willing to make a sacrifice, and today’s affluent people in the West like to dabble in the benefits of Buddhism, without making the sacrifice.

    I don’t mean to be cynical, but having follow Buddhism now long enough, I realize that monastic practices like meditation really are difficult to keep up when you’re working and supporting family, so it’s something of a luxury if lay people can keep it up (or they just have a lot of self-control which is admirable πŸ™‚ ). I appreciate more and more the traditional “lay practices” normally overlooked by Western converts because it’s something that really is one of the best ways for lay people to keep up Buddhist practice and still maintain responsibilities.

    With that in mind, the precepts while less interesting than meditation are an excellent and very fruitful approach. The idea behind the precepts, and Ven. Yin-Shun teaches, is to keep ourselves from harming others, not so much for personal gain. If you can keep from lying or hurting your spouse, is that not an admirable thing to do? πŸ™‚

    Also, in Mahayana though, taking the precepts and breaking them is still better than not taking them at all, so if you’re concerned about taking the precepts, I’d say do it anyway, and see what effect it has on your life, even if your practice isn’t perfect. I took the Bodhisattva Precepts voluntarily myself (i.e. not officially), and despite repeated failures, I find that it has internalized enough that it has corrected some behavior of mine like back-biting and such.

    So, Bhante’s point is pretty valid: before anything else, try takign the precepts and even if you fail, reflect on it and keep trying. Self-reflection is when Buddhism becomes something very powerful and doesn’t require sitting on a cushion in a fixed posture, I believe. πŸ™‚

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