Keeping the Precepts
Prof. Peter Harvey, University of Sunderland
Moral restraint and self-control are important as these mean that the suffering of others is diminished and one’s own character is purified:
Irrigators lead waters,
Fletchers bend the shafts,
Carpenters bend the wood,
The wise control themselves (Dhp.80).
By abstaining from unwholesome actions, the defilements which lead to them are restrained, and their opposites are strengthened, so that the natural purity in the depths of the mind has more opportunity to manifest itself.
The most usual set of precepts to observe is ‘five precepts’ or ‘the five virtues’: Pañca-silani
1. I undertake the training-precept (sikkha-padam) to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings.
2. I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.
4. I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.
Each precept is a ‘training-precept’, the same term as that for an item of the monastic code. The motivation for breaking a precept is seen to always include delusion, but hatred is a co-motivating factor in the case of breaking the first precept, greed is in the case of the third and fifth, and either greed or hatred in the case of the second and fourth.
Acting in accord with precepts is said to lead to confidence and a lack of fear (A.III.203), and a person who does so is said to become wealthy through his or her industriousness, to gain a good reputation, to be confident whoever he is with, to die without anxiety, and to be reborn in a heaven (D.II.86). Breaking a precept has an opposite kind of effect.
An important way is which the karmic result of a bad action can be lessened is by one regretting it as soon as one can, thinking ‘that evil deed cannot be undone by me’ and resolving not to do it again (S.IV.320). This can be seen to lessen the psychological impact of the act, so as to reduce its karmic fruit. The importance of regretting a bad action is seen in the refrain, ‘It is a mark of progress in the discipline of the Noble Ones, if anyone recognises the nature of his transgression and makes amends as is right, restraining himself for the future’. Regret has an impact on karmic results even in the case of good actions. Thus it is said that a man who, in a past life, had given alms to an enlightened ascetic, but then regretted doing so, was born as a rich man- due to his giving-, but as a miser unable to enjoy his wealth, due to his regret (S.I.91-2). Likewise, the karmic fruitfulness of actions also dwindles if one brags about the relevant good act.
However much Buddhism may value genuine remorse, it does not encourage feelings of guilt; for such a heavy feeling, with its attendant anguish and self-dislike, is not seen as a good state of mind to develop, being unconducive to calm and clarity of mind. Indeed, it can be seen as an aspect of the fourth hindrance, of agitated ‘restlessness and worry.’ Such a feeling might arise as part of the natural karmic result of an action, but is not to be actively indulged in. Buddhism emphasises a future-directed morality in which one always seeks to be better, taking the precepts as ideals that one is seeking to live up to in an increasingly complete way, If a precept has been broken, this should be consciously acknowledged, and then it should be re-taken.
While each precept is expressed in negative wording, as an abstention, one who keeps these ‘rules of training’ increasingly comes to express positive virtues as the roots of unwholesome action are weakened. Each precept thus has a positive counterpart. The counterpart of the first is kindness and compassion for others, so as to be ‘trembling for the welfare of others’ (D.I.4). That of the second is generosity and renunciation: in Buddhist cultures, greed is strongly disapproved of, and generosity much praised. The counterpart of the third is ‘joyous satisfaction with one’s own wife’, contentment and fewness-of-wishes, with contentment being seen as the ‘greatest of wealths’ (Dhp.204). The counterpart of the fourth precept is, being honest, trustworthy and dependable, a ‘bondsman to truth’ (A. IV. 249; M.I. 345) and developing a love of truth: searching it out, recognizing falsity, and attaining precision of thought. The counterpart of the fifth precept is the development of mindfulness and awareness.
It is usual, when taking the precepts, to do so after taking the three refuges. When the implications of the precepts are spelled out, they become high ideals that are difficult to keep fully, and chanting them after the refuges strengthens one’s resolve, setting up a wholesome impulse in the mind. Each precept is in the form of a personal undertaking, a promise or vow to oneself, though when they are ‘taken’ by chanting them after a monk, the resolve to keep them takes on an added psychological impact. Thus in Theravada lands, the precepts may be taken at the start of each of a number of ceremonies at festival times as a kind of ritual cleansing or purification.
Given the importance of living by the five precepts, Buddhists have been concerned about various issues relating to their breaking. One concern has been: if one of the five precepts is broken, is the undertaking to observe all five broken? The commentator Buddhaghosa held that a layperson can take a set of precepts, such as the five, either as a group or individually. If taken individually, a breach of one precept does not breach the set, and the whole set becomes effective again as soon as the broken one is re-taken. In Thailand, laypeople usually ask for the five precepts from a monk using a Pali formula that says that they will be observed ‘one by one, separately’ (visum visum), so that if one is broken, the rest are not. Only on particularly solemn occasions do they ask for the five precepts in a way which means that a breach of one breaches the entire set.
A related concern of Buddhists is whether it is worse to do a bad action covered by a precept if one has formally taken the relevant a precept against, or if one has not so committed oneself. This leads on to the question of whether it is acceptable to take only those of the five precepts that one feels able to keep. Taking only some of the five precepts is not a current practice in Theravada Buddhism, but is found among some Chinese Buddhists, who see the precepts as weight vows which are powerfully beneficial if kept but lead to very harmful effects if broken.
A set of eight precepts may be taken by laypeople as an extension of the usual five. These go beyond purely moral concerns to forms of self-discipline that reduce stimulating sense-inputs that disturb calm and concentration, and develop non-attachment. The difference between the eight and five precepts is firstly that the third precept is replaced by an undertaking to avoid abrahma-cariya: ‘unchaste conduct’ or ‘conduct not of the holy life’ that is, sexual activity of any kind. Three more precepts are then undertaken after the usual fifth one:
6. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from eating at an unseasonable time.
7. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from seeing dancing, music vocal and instrumental, and shows; from wearing garlands, perfumes and unguents, from finery and adornment.
8. I undertake the rule of training to abstain from high or large beds (or seats).
In the Theravada tradition, the eight precepts are generally only taken by more pious people over forty: a few do so permanently, but more do so temporarily on some of the four observance-days (uposathas) per lunar month, while staying at a monastery for a day and a night, especially at a period of monastic retreat.
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