The Five Precepts

In Buddhism, there are five precepts that people are supposed to observe. There are a lot more for monks and serious practitioners. But in general, these five precepts could be the basis. There are various ways of sayings from the ancient Pali canons to Sanskrit versions to Chinese ones, and more. In English, we could say as follows:

  1. Abstention from killing living beings
  2. Abstention from theft
  3. Abstention from sexual misconduct
  4. Abstention from falsehood
  5. Abstention from intoxication

These five precepts represent the essential ethical virtues, which can directly and intuitively touch our conscience. We can easily recognize these are the most common practices we must observe. If so, why do they still exist as the precepts?

One reason is that despite such fundamental nature, we still see the reality that people don’t observe them. Reflecting on them, perhaps we can quickly realize the truth that various pains and sufferings of human life are from our failure to follow them.

Another reason is that these five are not only precepts but also the key themes for our meditation. Reflecting on each of them mindfully, we can gain access to our insight, which is the basis for the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. The cause of suffering is the self, which is the cause of desires, cravings, and attachments
  3. The cessation of the self is possible
  4. The cessation of self is possible by the Middle Way in the Noble Eightfold Path

And if we carefully focus on the second truth, that is the self causing desires, cravings, and attachments; then we can recognize the basis of these five precepts.

Let us see each precept one by one.

Abstention from killing living beings. It sounds so fundamental. Nobody doubts about this truth. We should not kill any creatures. Nobody disagrees with this virtue.

Reflecting on this statement, however, it could quickly lead us to this question. Can we observe this precept entirely? We can’t.

On the one hand, we know everything and everyone are interrelated; nothing and nobody can live alone without any supports. The universe is a meshwork of all animate and inanimate beings. Killing is a critical challenge against this entire universe. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “Interbeing.”

On the other hand, however, in reality, we are killing one another at every moment of our lives. For our survival, we have to eat other living beings from vegetables to meats. Even for our metabolism and immune system, various cells are killing one another. It is indeed impossible for us to refrain from killing living beings.

Not only that, in the destructive side, we can easily recall the bloody history of human beings from murders to wars to even brutal genocides. All of these things show as if we love killing one another. Of course, we don’t. These are all from the destructive consequence of our egos, desires, cravings, and attachments.

The first precept is not merely the rule for our lives but moreover the area for our meditation to realize who we are in the Four Noble Truths.

In the same way, we can see the second precept. Saying “Don’t steal anything” is supposed to focus on the area of meditation beyond its literal meaning.

From slavery to colonialism to exploitation to even some aspects of globalization, we are indeed all thieves. In this perspective, we can’t live our lives without stealing anything from others. Perhaps a simple act of picking fruits from a tree could be such stealing from the tree and its environment. We have been receiving abundant gifts from our mother nature for free. Is this stealing? At least, the second precept gives us such a moment of reflection.

The third one sounds more moralistic. We have to be mindful on our sexual behavior. On the other hand, it is one of the critical aspects of our human reproduction and family living. Once, however, we misuse and abuse it, various sufferings would take place.

It did indeed throughout human history. From prehistoric communities to our consumeristic societies, it’s been even one of the thriving professions and industries. We have been their consumers, which often violates our human rights. Still, we need to save a lot of victims from their sufferings.

The fourth one is about our tongues. Language is one of the most critical components of our lives. It’s made humans Homo Sapiens. Because of this, we were able to have our cultures and civilizations. Its powers and benefits are tremendous, even gigantic. Because of this, however, once misused and abused, the effect could be so destructive and brutal.

What people say could make others so mad and angry to the extent that they kill each other, and one another. People love and hate too much destructively, mainly because of their tongues.

Even in Christianity, the Bible says as follows:

Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things. It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.

James 3:5-8

In the age of social media, we can easily say anything and spread it at once everywhere without enough deliberation. It is like a wildfire burning everything. We need our wisdom and mindfulness in this area.

Lastly, the fifth precept reminds us of the importance of our mind.

Throughout human history, various types of drugs made us intoxicated from alcohol to even some illegal substance. Why do we need such mental drugs? Because our mind is one of the best friends and the worst enemies. It controls us in many ways. One time, our mind encourages us to live our lives. Other times, it disappoints us, even tells us to kill ourselves. It controls and dictates us all the way. How can we escape from such tyranny of our mind? We rely on drugs.

Perhaps if we can use them wisely, our lives could be more productive, happy, and successful? Maybe we could. But again, as we can quickly notice, we are not wise enough to make use of them.

Furthermore, in the first place, seeking our productivity, happiness, and success is the very evidence that our ego dictates us. It’s the real evidence that we are still in the prison of our illusory false self.

These five precepts are not just the rules for our everyday lives but more importantly, the perspectives for our reflection, meditation, and contemplation to realize the truth: Believing we’re free, we are indeed unfree as a prisoner of our ego. We could be truly free as a “prisoner” of the Truth.

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