Precepts

by Ajahn Sumedho | 1988 | 2,409 words

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source: amaravati.org

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Tonight is the new moon*, and so today we reaffirmed our commitment to sila: the Patimokkha for the bhikkhus, the ten precepts for the nuns, the eight precepts for the anagarikas. In this reaffirming of our commitment, we can take these eight precepts to a refined level of interpretation. So with the first precept - panatipata veramani - to refrain from killing other creatures - even though none of us may be prone to murder or physical violence, it is important to make it clear in our mind that our intention in this life is to not intentionally even harm others. Then the second precept - adinnadana veramani - not just to refrain from stealing, but to respect the property of others; not to disturb or misuse that which belongs to others. This is a way of making that very definite in our consciousness.

( *lunar observance day)

Abrahmacariya veramani , the third precept, is the vow of celibacy. This is a time when theres so much concern about AIDS and venereal diseases. A total misuse of sexuality has taken place over the past few decades, whereby people have been totally irresponsible and sought pleasure from sexual activities without regard to the consequences. The result is that now we have moral dilemmas about abortion and the various diseases and problems which arise and how to solve them. What should we do? Try to promote the use of condoms and all kinds of prophylactic measures, so that people can do everything you want without having to restrain themselves? Or promote pills and devices to prevent pregnancy and so that no one will have to choose between having an abortion or having a baby? In all, what is never even mentioned is any kind of moral position. It seems to be something you just dont mention. Celibacy is never even considered as a possible way of life.

But really, when we consider our life as human beings, theres a more skilful way to live. We can take on the responsibility for our existence and refrain from involving others or even exploiting our own bodies for the pursuit of that kind of pleasure. To undertake celibacy is a rather ennobling precept. It lifts us up: to be celibate is a potential, a possibility for developing meditation through the restraint necessary for the realisation of truth. Celibacy is something one has to take on for oneself, its not something which can be forced; that would not be chastity anymore, it would be tyranny. It has to be something we choose, something we rise up to as individual beings, not an imposition on us. We dont want to go back to a puritanical position of "Thou shalt not", and threatening people with 84,000 aeons in fiery hells burning in absolute pain for any kind of sexual enjoyment. We are not trying to bring fear into the mind or to intimidate, but rather to encourage what is noble and beautiful in our humanity.

I assume that you are capable of motivating yourself, and so I present this opportunity for practice. Sometimes people can have very low opinions of themselves which are not really true. Maybe theyve never had an opportunity or never felt that anyone trusted them enough to motivate themselves. We are trying to bring into our monastic life that kind of value, that kind of beauty, so that monasticism is something that is "beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end", and not a kind of imposed tyranny or a forced march.

We need to take on that responsibility for ourselves, rather than turning it over to somebody else, expecting someone else to come along and enlighten us or love us or drive us or scold us. The spiritual potential of each being here is to be recognised. We have that marvellous ability to rise up to things, rather than to sink down.

Rising up isnt a wilful force, its the ability to go beyond the inertia or the habit tendencies of ones life, toward something higher; learning how to just pay attention to the breath, or to be more patient, more forgiving, more kindly - with oneself and others. All of this is the effort of rising up and meeting the occasion. This doesnt mean always having to succeed or prove oneself, it means rising up to meet a situation in a skilful way with mindfulness and wisdom. And this is a possibility for us: we dont have to be caught in the force of habit and lost in the realm of delusion.

With speech, musavada veramani, the precept is to refrain from incorrect speech: How easy it is to get caught in self view if we use the I am, poor me speech habits! Notice the way the Buddha used language: there is suffering, there is anger/ greed/ delusion. This is an example of refraining from wrong speech. If we start reflecting in that way, it affects how we see things. In this community we have a willingness to learn how to communicate and try to have a way of speaking which is clear and honest, but not demanding or deluding in any way. By contrast, in society, one tries to be clever in ones speech, witty, droll - and, with an intelligent mind, ones speech habits can be quite cruel and unskilful. But we give that up and try to use speech as something beautiful, clear and without giving forth wrong views to others.

Musavada veramani is not just refraining from lies, but involves the intention to take on the responsibility for speaking. That whole function of our humanity is quite a miracle when you contemplate it. And yet we just take it for granted. We can use our speech for telling dirty jokes, cursing and swearing, gossiping, insulting and all kinds of mean, horrible and dishonest things. Or we can respect this rather marvellous gift we have and learn how to use it in a way that is beautiful, accurate and kindly.

Then with surameraya majjapamadatthana veramani - refraining from intoxicants: think how fortunate we are that we dont have to drink, take drugs and shoot up heroin. That affects all levels of society. Men, women and children - all races, all classes are being caught in the grip of these addictive drugs. There are also cigarettes and alcohol - all harmful and deluding to the human mind. When we become clouded with drugs and drink, then we cant be responsible for what we say, can we? I remember when I used to drink, it was so that I didnt have to be responsible for what I said! When intoxicated, you lose your sense of timidity and shame with regard to sexual conduct. You have a few drinks and suddenly, a lot of inhibitions just drop away. I wasnt into murdering people, but I certainly had no hesitation about getting rid of annoying insects and other things that I didnt like. One could see, under drugs and drink, how easily ones sense of moral propriety and commitment could disappear. Nowadays you find young people prostituting themselves to get money to buy drink and drugs - even people twelve or thirteen years old, those whom we used to call children!

Then there are the renunciant precepts, those which simplify our lives. To refrain from eating after noon and from entertainment and self adornment. For human beings there is a whole realm of fun and entertainment available through eating, dancing, singing, games, movies, TV and shows. Then theres sleep. Theres the temptation to spend a great deal of time seeking comfort and sleep. Now these arent immoral, are they? Im not saying that eating a dinner is an immoral activity - or dancing and singing, come to that - but we are trying to restrain ourselves and refrain from opportunities to distract ourselves through sensory pleasures, so that we can observe and reflect.

These are standards and precepts for reflection, and not rules from God. They are not to be viewed from the Thou shalt not position. Each one of the precepts is a resolution, something we are taking on, and not something God is imposing on us. So you rise up to these precepts and make a resolution, in order to have it in your minds when you are tempted to act on the impulses you might be experiencing. After all, most of us come from backgrounds which were quite indulgent and where we were never really encouraged to restrain ourselves. Sila is an honourable and lovely opportunity we have as human beings. We choose to be moral. Were not being moral because were afraid of being immoral. We choose to do this and rise up to that which is noble, good, kind and generous.

Admittedly, worldly attractions remain strong, and it isnt part of my teaching to condemn them. Im not against the worldly life, nor am I trying to raise monasticism up as something everyone should be doing. One can live a very good, wholesome worldly life too - wholesomeness is not just the prerogative of monks and nuns, is it? Sometimes lay people think Im a monk fanatic because I emphasise the value of this way of living.

But the attitude is one of reflection, rather than having an axe to grind or position to take on anything. We aim to develop that reflective ability of the mind - and the particular conventions we find ourselves in are developed around that. This is what the Buddhas teaching is about. The whole convention of the Vinaya (discipline) and Dhamma teachings is to help in that way. Some people say you can do it as a lay person, and this is not to be denied; but if you cant use the lifestyle which is deliberately established for Dhamma Vinaya, what makes you think youll ever do it in any other form? This is what I want to get you to look at. Look at yourselves as that which wants something you dont have, or wants to get away from what you have. Just watch that in yourself, that restlessness, discontentment and movement of your mind.

Sometimes, of course, one doesnt want to give up yet, one still wants rebirth and happiness and worldly things. Fair enough! But I dont want you to go round lying to yourselves. If you want to have your own way, have rebirths and worldly happiness, then thats your decision - but dont delude yourselves by thinking that you are doing something else. Because, if you really understand the teaching of the Buddha, then theres nowhere to go and nothing to do. This is the way it is. We are living a life that is for that kind of reflection. Then you can observe that desire to be somewhere else as a movement of your mind, to see that and recognise it for what it is. Whether you do that or not is still up to you!

Allow yourself to die to the moment. Investigate and observe how things are. Everything that arises, ceases. In all, everything fits into that pattern, doesnt it? In this way we can reflect on just the day to day mundane ordinariness of our lives. Since we cant dance and sing, go to shows, pubs, football games, restaurants and follow the pleasures and distractions of the world, then the ordinariness of our lives takes on more significance. If youre used to a high level of excitement, ordinary things are just boring and one is always aiming at some new thrill or experience. Monasticism is a boring life style, just a routine. Were not aiming at having exciting things to do, or distractions, because in meditation we are being aware of how things ordinarily are in consciousness. So were no longer trying to find and follow the extraordinary anymore. It is only through calming down and through restraint and not following restlessness and not being caught up in emotions that we have a chance to realise the Unconditioned. Its only when we can let go and calm down and reflect, that there is a realisation of the ending of the conditioned realm - in which everything that arises ceases - and a realisation of Nibbana. There is no way of realising Nibbana by striving and trying to attain and achieve and be caught up in the arising side. You have to let go of that.

The realisation of letting go of what arises in the mind leads to witnessing the cessation of that which has arisen. Then there is the true peace of allowing things be as they are. No longer are we somebody who has to get somewhere, do something, get rid of something or change something. When were caught in distracting ourselves with pleasures, then were somebody, and somebody who has to find happiness or have success or become something. No matter how much excitement and pleasures I might experience, I have to have more than that. We are never content with the excitement and adventures of life. They just cause us to be caught up in that movement of having to have more and more - until you get burnt out. Then you go to the opposite extreme where because you are tired and worn out from all the excitement, and stimulation you just break down, fall asleep, get drugged or drunk. You want to not exist. You can only have so much excitement and then you cant bear it any more.

To be excited continuously is a hell realm isnt it? In my sisters home in California, they have all these television stations and cable relays. You can sit and have seventy or so channels at your disposal all the time. People get into the habit of just switching channels if anything gets the slightest bit boring or slightly uninteresting or unpleasant. They just switch on to the next one - theres always a gun fight or a chorus line to zap you. Its a kind of hell realm - its unpleasant to have a mind that has to be stimulated one moment after another.

So you see the loveliness of a life that is based on composure, moral restraint, nobility, generosity, kindness, and reflection on Dhamma. It is wonderful to be able to have the opportunity, and the encouragement to contemplate your own existence, and train in a way that enables you to respect yourself. You can move toward being a content and joyful being rather than a hungry, obsessed one.

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