Following The Precepts

by Rev. Sarika Dharma

After taking refuge, many Buddhists find it helpful to repeat the five precepts in order to keep them in mind during their day's activities. "I vow not to take life. I vow not to take what is not given to me. I vow not to indulge in improper sexual acts. I vow not to speak that which is harmful. I vow not to become intoxicated."

Various traditions use different words. I like the Theravadan version that goes "for the purposes of training, I vow not to ..." That sort of goes with the raft story where the Buddha asked if you cross the river on a raft, what do you do with the raft once you're on the other side? Do you carry it on your head as you travel into the jungle. Do you hide it under the leaves so you can find it on your way back? Or do you just leave it out there for whoever else might need it? Not that we ever stop practicing the precepts. Just that at some point we become the essence and don't need to be ruled by rules.

When my teacher ordained laypeople, he always said that 100% was the best way to keep the precepts, but that we can't always do that. So 90% is also good, and 80% and 70%, and he'd go on down to 10% and that was also good. We start where we are and do the best we can.

When we talk about not taking life, we are referring to all sentient beings, not only humans. Once we realize that we are not separate from each other, not separate from anything in the world, we know that to take the life of any being is taking away part of our own lives. Sometimes, we cannot help stepping on a bug, but it is our intention that matters the most. When I first began my practice, I was arranging flowers on the altar, and I saw a spider there. I was ready to squish it, as I always had, when my master stopped me. He told me to take the spider outside where it could continue its life. That brought me a whole new awareness.

When we remain conscious of our connection to other human beings, we not only don't take life, we don't even consider harming another person. We respect all life, knowing that others have the same nature we find in ourselves, Buddha nature, and that everyone is doing the best they can in their lives.

Not taking that which is not given to us means even more than not stealing. We also need not to covet what others have nor to help ourselves to anything that is not offered to us. This includes friendship, attention and especially sexual favors which goes along with the third precept.

Not to engage in improper sexual acts, such as adultery or rape, is vital. Even manipulation or attempts to convince someone who is not willing are improper. Sex is an expression of love and is best shared with someone whom we care about and to whom we have a commitment.

Not to say that which is harmful is extremely difficult. Sometimes we are not even aware of what is going to hurt another person. It is best to say less and to not say whatever comes into our minds. The other side of this precept is that we need to use speech that is helpful, to encourage people, to bring positive energy into interrelationships.

Not to become intoxicated has a very simple purpose. When we become intoxicated, we have no control over our behavior and end up breaking our other precepts. Our objective in our practice is to become more and more conscious. Becoming intoxicated leads us to less awareness and defeats our purpose.