The Precepts

Access to insight outlines below the various precepts that a Buddhist could undertake, depending on their life situation:

  • Lay men and women observe the Five Precepts (pañca-sila)
  • Lay men and women doing intensive meditation practice (as on Uposatha days) observe the Eight Precepts (attha-sila)
  • Novice monks (samanera) and nuns (samaneri) observe the Ten Precepts (dasa-sila)
  • A fully-ordained monk (bhikkhu) follows the 227 rules of the Bhikkhu Patimokkha; a nun (bhikkhuni) would follow the 311 rules of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha.

As a side note, it is also worth noting the differences between the Buddhist schools of Mahayana-Vajrayana and Therevadin when it comes to the precepts. Because of Vajrayana Buddhism’s view that anything goes if it can be used as a tool for awakening, they tend to be more playful with the precepts. Therevadin’s typically are more literal. On this website the Vajrayana style is predominant. We will also be looking at the 5 precepts for Lay People. In this article we will look at:

  1. I endeavour to train myself to refrain from killing or harming

2. I endeavor to train myself to refrain from sexual misconduct

3. I endeavor to train myself to take only that which is freely given

4. I endeavor to train myself not to abuse intoxicants

5. See the Whole Speech article for more information on this precept

 

downloadPractice 1: I endeavor to train myself to refrain from killing or harming

An expansion of this would be: Do not kill beings who can suffer (sentient/ conscious beings) or, as Cecile Kewait said, don’t kill beings who breathe. The precept of killing and harming others deals with hate.

What reflections can you do with this precept?

  • Who suffers, or what qualifies as a conscious being?
  • What does it mean to suffer?
  • How does it affect me to be aware of others’ suffering, and then to avoid being a cause of it?
  • In what ways am I already killing others? Am I involved in the indirect killing of others? Consider, for example, the practices that you support with your dollar. Sometimes forests are cut down using unsustainable practices in order to build the object your’re buying. Or the practices involved polluting ecosystems which led to the death of wildlife in that area.  Who would be affected, or what would be the karma, if I killed various sentient beings (for example, a human, a herd of wild deer, pollen-producing flowers?

In Buddhism some common strategies to fulfill this precept have been to eat a vegan diet, not to kill bugs by stepping on them or smacking them, and to not participate in war-promoting activities. As mentioned in the ‘about the 8 Fold Path‘ page, the path is really like training wheels that you require less and less as you become competent at driving on your own. It does not mean that some day you will kill another person, but to attempt to practice the aspects of the path and the precepts very consciously at first is advantageous to getting full benefits.

Try to not kill for a day. Is it possible?

(Spoiler alert!) You will in fact find that it is impossible to exist without killing or harming others. Simply by breathing you are killing micro-organisms in the air. When you take medicines you kill beings in your body. Cecile Kewait teaches that this precept, as with the other precepts, are not about the actions so much as the motive/ intention.

 

downloadPractice 2: I endeavor to train myself to refrain from sexual misconduct

Does this mean sex in and of itself is bad? Hell no! However, sexual energy can be used in harmful ways such as in having sex with people who are unable to give consent, with people already in committed relationships, or by manipulation or force.

Less extreme, if you are very sexually active it wouldn’t be a bad idea to explore celibacy. Why? Find out for yourself! It is an opportunity to be a sexual being without needing to act out on sexual urges. What comes up when you turn down opportunities for sex? What happens to your sexual energy when you have not masturbated for a week, or for a full month cycle? The precept of sexual misconduct explores the subject of self-grasping, according to Cecile Kewait.

In the popular S.N.Goenka 10-day silent meditation retreats, men and women are segregated. The reasons for this are explained in the nightly discourses during the retreat, and basically it is for the purpose of Sila. It is not that sexuality is bad, however sexual lust can be a powerful distraction to meditative work, especially to beginners, and it is easy for your mind to run away with lust, when the whole point is for you to learn to harness your mind. It makes meditation easier, but trying celibacy is also an opportunity to become the driver of your own chariot. You are more able to filter your responses to lust, and make choices that will not disturb Sila, plus ultimately benefit everyone the most.

The Access to Insight website gives additional reflections on what it means to be sexually “moral” in this day and age. It raises questions such as unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, homophobic behaviour, procreating unwanted or unsupportable children, abortion, and more. What is your perspective on these topics, and where is your influence coming from?

 

downloadPractice 3: I endeavor to train myself to take only that which is freely given

This implies to only take that which was specifically and willingly given to you. An example of this is how the Buddha himself ate only when food was given to him out of charity. Cecile says that this precept deals with greed.

Cecile also points out that you can usually sense when someone is giving you something but they don’t really want to. In some cases it might be wise to refuse the offering or to return it. If something is given freely to you, that means that there is no obligation attached to it. You have no obligation to accept, and no obligation to give something back in return. Unless, of coarse, you agree to it.

This precept also extends from material objects to non-material things that you can take.

In the Ted Talk “How to speak so that people want to listen” Julian Treasure said:

“Imposing your sound on people around you carelessly and inconsiderately. Not nice.”

For the Not to Steal precept, you can see that maybe even taking up your fair share of air time can be stealing. Or even to speak when it is clear that your listener(s) are not wanting to listen. Sometimes this is called talking “at” someone rather than talking “with” someone. This could be similar to venting at someone, blabbing, or ranting. See Whole Speech for more on this.

Practice like “Fair Trade Certified” are to ensure organizations are not taking advantage of others, or stealing. You could also look at activities that have a negative effect on the environment, on the economy, or on other people’s social or spiritual welfare as stealing. You are depriving others, and stealing a certain standard of living from them. People do this all the time, and often ignorantly because it can be an inconvenient effort to learn about the small ways that our actions are affecting the greater picture, and then to make changes to our lifestyles, often  against the grain of the majority.

However to remain in blissful ignorance and neglecting your portion of responsibility for the world is also depriving yourself of mental calm and developing yourself into a more whole human being.

Notice the exchanges that you make in life:

  • Where do they occur?
  • How do you know that someone has given consent and what are the various ways that people can ask for it?
  • How long does it take you to start to notice that someone does not feel comfortable with an exchange, and what is your typical reaction?

 

downloadPractice 4: I endeavour to train myself not to abuse intoxicants

For many people this could be a worthwhile precept to look at, however in some traditions this is not a precept at all. In general as a precept, the main concern in using intoxicants is that if you lose your ability to judge, you will potentially cause harm to yourself or others.

Consider these questions in reflecting on this precept:

  • What would you consider a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol and is that how you would describe yourself?
  • Do you ever buy the cheapest alcohol just to get drunk, or do you less frequently buy better quality alcohol?
  • Do you know how to appreciate different kinds of wines, what foods they go well with? Have you ever been to a taste-testing event, or visited a winery?
  • When you are drinking alcohol or taking drugs, are you aware of the subtelties of the experience, can you tell what effect they are having on you as the effects happen?
  • Are you able to recognize when you are ready to stop drinking, and can you stop yourself?

These are all ways that a person could use their relationship with alcohol to expand their being rather than numb it.

Click here to read about the 5th precept, Whole Speech

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