The five precepts are the most basic Buddhist practice and yet working with them can be anything but simple. These five directions – to not kill, not steal, not have inappropriate sexual relationships, not lie, and not drink or take drugs that cause carelessness – are the foundation of a Buddhist practice. When the Buddha gave his teachings he always talked about it being a graduated path, and the first step of the path was always to practice the five precepts. But in the West we often come to Buddhist practice through meditation, a training that is actually much later in the graduated path, and we can easily overlook the importance of the precepts. It really isn’t hard to find practicing Buddhists in the West who still drink alcohol, and whether that is a bad thing or not to me really depends on what the ultimate aim of your practice is. But seeing the precepts as a set of rules to stick to unwaveringly can be just as much of a hindrance to developing the qualities that they lead to as not taking them seriously at all. How does the aim of your practice change your approach to the precepts and how does blind adherence to them undermine the training that they are supposed to give? Let’s find out.
But let’s start with a little background information, what are precepts anyway? Precepts are not rules exactly, not like the ten commandments – thou shalt nots – they are training rules. When you take a precept what you are saying isn’t ‘I promise I won’t lie and I’ll feel very bad if I do’; what you are saying is ‘I will train myself to get to the point where I no longer lie’. This means that you can, and likely will, break the precepts but rather than having ‘committed a sin’ all you have done is not achieve your aim to not do that thing anymore. So you dust yourself off, look at where you went wrong and try to apply what you have learnt from your mistake to do a bit better next time.
The practice of the five precepts is the training lay people undertake to develop the first pillar of practice which is Sila, often translated as virtue or morality. Sila is the foundation on which the other two pillars – wisdom and concentration – will be built on. Why Sila though you might ask, what is so important about being good? Well as it happens the purpose of practicing Sila isn’t so much to be nice to everyone else but is in fact to be nice to yourself, to make your own life easier. What the five precepts allow us to do is to live our life in a way that won’t create regrets, things that we wish we hadn’t done or said, if we live carefully and don’t do things that will ultimately come back to haunt us then our minds are clear. When you have a clear conscience then it is easy to meditate, and so by refining our physical behaviour – the five precepts are about restraining our actions – we give the mind the conditions to achieve peace more easily. This peaceful mind will allow our insight, mindfulness, and concentration to develop and our practice will deepen.
Sounds like good stuff, and if it is the foundation of practice then we should throw ourselves into it, shouldn’t we? And if we aren’t following the precepts then we are doing something wrong? This is where it is useful to consider what the ultimate aim of your practice is, where do you want it to take you? Are you trying for Nibbana (enlightenment) or are you happy to get some peaceful moments now and again? Are you not sure where you are going but are happy to just see where it goes? These questions are really important for us to understand our own motivation and to understand if we are going about using the precepts in the right way.
On the retreat I was on recently taught by Ajahn Kalyano he talked about practicing Sila for Nibbana, as a way of reminding ourselves of what the purpose of the precepts is and how to tell if we are looking at them in the right way. Our minds can get very caught up on rules and regulations, sometimes to the point that we forget why we are doing them in the first place and get overly focussed on whether they are being followed or not. He said that if you are practicing the precepts for Nibbana then this acts as a way to guide us as to whether we are looking at them in the right way. If your aim is Nibbana then getting upset and angry over rules not being followed then clearly you are not applying these teachings correctly, nothing that will help you to achieve Nibbana will make you upset or angry.
He gave an example of a group of monks in Thailand had to go on a journey by car, and that when the car was loaded up the only place left that they could put their bowls was on the roof rack. Now as part of their training monks are told to treat their bowls like the skull of the Buddha, to encourage them to handle them with absolute mindfulness. In fact new monks are given a clay bowl to make them even more careful, if they drop it then it will smash; it is only after they have proven they can be trusted with the clay bowl that they are eventually given a metal one. The Thai monks put their bowls on the roof rack but one Western monk was upset, saying that they can’t put their bowls on the roof rack because they are like the skull of the Buddha. The Ajahn said that the Thai monks were laughing at this because they understood that thinking about the bowls as the skull of the Buddha was a training rule, not an absolute rule. The purpose of the training rule wasn’t to get upset about it if it wasn’t followed, the purpose of the rule was for developing mindfulness. The same applies to the precepts, their purpose is to allow us to develop the skills we need to follow the path, their purpose is not just to be adhered to.
I also heard another useful perspective on the precepts from an Australian monk who was visiting Amaravati. He said that we can make our aim to train Sila to the point where we can watch our breath. This angle goes back to the fundamental purpose of the training, which is to stop us from doing things that we will regret and so create a calm and peaceful mind. This perspective is a useful one because it gives us a way to monitor how well our Sila is developing by seeing how easily we can watch the breath when we settle into meditation. Keeping this in mind can also make it very easy to see if we are applying the right attitude to the precepts. Like the monk who got wound up about putting his bowl on the roof rack if we are clinging too tightly to the precepts as the only way to be right then the calm of our mind will be disturbed and we will find it difficult to settle the mind onto the breath.
But as I mentioned the five precepts are the most basic starting point for practice and yet many people who practice Buddhism still drink, so are they doing the wrong thing? Really it depends on what they want to get out of their practice. If you want to achieve Nibbana then yes drinking alcohol is the wrong thing to do, but only because it does not help you to achieve your aim. The reason we train ourselves to not drink alcohol or take drugs is because when you do you lose your mindfulness and inhibitions, and when that happens it’s really hard to not end up doing something you will regret. Right and wrong in Buddhist practice are all about where you want to end up, if you want to have a peaceful mind but you do things that make the mind unsettled then you are doing the wrong thing. There is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, it is only a problem if you have your intention set on something that drinking alcohol will get in the way of.
It is very easy to get wrapped up in virtue and see yourself as doing something wrong when you can’t uphold a precept, but remember again to reflect on your aim. If you are trying to achieve Nibbana, or trying to watch the breath, then you know that beating yourself up when you do something wrong won’t help you to reach your goal. That is harsh and will unsettle the mind, what you need to do is to see what it was that you didn’t do so well, look for the reasons that caused it, and understand how you can stop it from happening again. No hard treatment, just insight into what happened and renewed effort to not do it again.
It is also very easy for the mind to get wrapped up in virtue and see other people who aren’t following the precepts as doing something wrong, but really they aren’t doing anything wrong if that is not their practice. These rules only apply to those who have an aim of following this path, everyone else can do whatever fits with the direction they are going in. Your practice belongs to you, and what you choose to do within that practice and how strictly you follow it is up to you. If no one else is trying to get to the same place as you then don’t be surprised that they aren’t doing things the way you do, and you don’t need to see them as being wrong for doing that either. They are going where they are going, you are going where you are going, there is nothing to get upset about. Do you get angry at people who caught a different bus to you? Of course not, you know they want to go somewhere else, likewise with the precepts.
The secret of the precepts then is getting it just right, like the strings of the lute neither too tight nor too loose, but additionally recognising where you want the precepts to take you and if the way you are applying them will get you there. The aim of practice is peace so if your practice isn’t creating peace then take some time to stop and see what is getting in the way.