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A Simple Guide to Life

Chapter 6 - Observing The Five Precepts

The minimal code of ethics followed by a lay Buddhist is the Five Precepts of virtue (pancasila). These precepts are moral rules voluntarily undertaken to promote the purity of ones own conduct and to avoid causing harm and suffering to others. Evil conduct is harmful to oneself and others and strengthens the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. To engage in unwholesome activity is not merely a matter of free choice: it is a violation of the cosmic moral law entailing inevitable suffering both in this life and in future existences. The opposite of evil conduct is virtue (sila). Virtue involves the avoidance of immoral deeds by voluntarily accepting ethical principles of restraint. Virtuous action springs from the three wholesome roots of non attachment, goodwill, and wisdom. By undertaking moral precepts one pledges to regulate ones conduct in accordance with these three virtuous qualities.

The Five Precepts are as follows:

  1. To abstain from killing living beings;
  2. To abstain from taking what is not given, i.e. from stealing;
  3. To abstain from sexual misconduct;
  4. To abstain from false speech;
  5. To abstain from intoxicants and harmful drugs.

Following the Five Precepts also implies shunning the five kinds of occupation forbidden to a lay Buddhist: trading in arms, in human beings (i.e. including slavery and prostitution), in flesh (i.e. breeding animals for slaughter), in intoxicants, and in poisons.

Virtue, though formulated negatively in the precepts, is not a mere negative state. To the contrary, it is most decidedly a powerful mental achievement. To observe the precepts conscientiously in ones daily life brings a simultaneous growth in mental purity, skillfulness, and wisdom. Refraining from killing, for example, increases compassion and loving kindness for all living beings, two of the "sublime attitudes" extolled by the Buddha. Honesty gives courage, generosity, and love of justice. Sexual restraint results in physical strength, vitality, and keenness of the senses. Truthfulness makes for uprightness. Avoiding intoxicants and stupefying drugs promotes clarity of mind. Finally, mindfulness is essential to observing all the precepts, and ones constant effort to maintain the precepts in turn issues in an increase in the clarity of mindfulness.

The habitual practice of the Five Precepts leads to increased self control and strength of character. The mind that succeeds in controlling desire, even to a slight degree, gains in power. Desire is a force every bit as real as electricity. When desire is uncontrolled, allowed to run riot, it expends itself in the pursuit of things that are harmful to oneself and others. The Buddhas teaching, far from encouraging the proliferation of desire, counsels us in the methods by which we may harness, divert, and sublimate the powerful force of desire and use it for worthy ends.

Virtue is the first stage in the development of the Noble Eightfold Path; as explained above, it comprises the path factors of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. The energy conserved by virtue is then used for the practice of the second stage, concentration of mind, which in turn is the soil for the growth of wisdom.

The observance of the Five Precepts is a voluntary act, which each individual must take up on his or her own initiative. The Buddha did not formulate the precepts as commandments, nor did he threaten anyone with punishment for violating them. However, this much has to be said: The Buddha perfectly understood the workings of the universe, and he proclaimed the inviolable moral law of cause and effect: good deeds beget pleasant fruits, evil deeds beget painful fruits. The Five Precepts are the guidelines the Buddha has bequeathed us to steer us away from evil conduct and towards the lines of conduct that will prove most beneficial for ourselves and others. When we mould our actions by the Five Precepts, we are acting in accordance with the Dhamma, avoiding future misery and building up protection and happiness for ourselves and others both here and in the hereafter. Thus the closer we live to the Five Precepts, the greater will be the blessing power of our lives.

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