The Five Precepts (adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s version) are:
1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.
2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating compassion and loving kindness towards myself and all others and learning ways to work for wellbeing of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.
3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual respect. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating deep listening and loving speech in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.
5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.
The first thing to note is that the Precepts, as presented by Thich Nhat Hanh, begin with a statement of awareness. We are not told to follow these moral guidelines because they are a commandment; rather, we are asked to be aware of the suffering of others, and out of that awareness act so as to help end or at least lessen such suffering.
It would be rather easy to blithely recite the precepts. They make one feel good about how one is approaching life. I did that for the first few years of my Buddhist practice. But if one “takes” the precepts, one is committing oneself to following the guidance of the precepts. And that, as the following will show, is not a simple matter.
1. The first precept goes beyond the Biblical “thou shall not kill” as it refers to the destruction of life of all elements of our environment. The area where this precept has the most difficult application for most of us is in the question whether or not to eat meat and fish, whether to support the killing of animals for the benefit of man’s appetite. Most of us grew up as meat-eaters. That is the prevailing culture … our parents, our friends, virtually everyone around us were meat-eaters. The taste of a good steak or roast or stew, the juiciness of a good hamburger, and for me, all the wonderful German cold-cuts … the idea of doing without these was one of the hardest things to accept when I thought about living life as a Buddhist.
Both the temples I attended … a Korean Zen and a Vietnamese Zen were strictly vegetarian. So I thought that being a Buddhist meant being vegetarian … until I had my first meal with some Tibetan monks and saw them eat meat!
This is truly the “to be or not to be” question in Buddhism. And there is no clear answer, as the various branches of Buddhism … Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana … have different teachings on the subject. The subject is so esoteric and confused that I will not even attempt to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints.
Since the teachings of the Buddha on this subject are in dispute, with one school saying that the eating of meat is not consistent with the practice, at least certainly for monks, while another says that it is, at least for lay people and under many conditions even for monks, I would say that one has choices here.
If your practice follows a particular lineage that has a definite teaching on this subject, then it would seem that it would be best to follow those teachings. However, if you, like me, do not follow any particular lineage, then I suggest that making a decision is a question of ethics.
Killing an animal or any sentient being is in most circumstances the polar opposite of protecting life, of acting with loving kindness towards a person or being. Clearly one cannot say as a reason, “But I really enjoy eating meat and fish.” Ones pleasure does not support taking the life of another sentient being. That is not a mitigating context.
A critical question for me was, is eating meat and fish necessary or helpful to maintaining health? As a person living with a compromised immune system, this question was very important to me. The unequivocal answer after reviewing various sources is, no. Eating a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy products not only provides all the nutrients needed for good health (with perhaps an occasional fish dish thrown in) but studies uniformly show that vegetarians are more healthy and live longer than non-vegetarians. There is no health-related reason to eat meat and fish. Indeed, quite the opposite is true.
However, if weight-training is a part of one’s life, then eating meat protein is important in that it helps build muscle in a way that other sources of protein don’t. Since weight-training is an important part of my life and is documented as being important as one ages, I have gone back to eating meat. However, I do try at least to only eat meat that has been humanely raised, i,e, free range chickens, grass fed beef.
The other area in which the first Precept has very practical consequences is our action in time of war. The simplest form of the first Precept is, “do not kill,” and indeed Thich Nhat Hanh’s version continues with a vow not just not to kill but to not in any way support killing by others. I did not include this language in my version above because that sounds like pacifism, and while the Buddha taught non-violence, it was not absolute and he did not teach pacifism.
I once asked a monk if one could kill a mosquito and not break the first Precept. His response was that the Precepts are not mindless of context. If one is acting in self-defense … such as killing a mosquito … then one hasn’t broken the first Precept. The same concept would apply in war, if your country is attacked; if the war is undertaken to protect lives rather than out of hatred for others, then war and participating in war is not inconsistent with being a lay Buddhist.
2. The second Precept’s commitment to compassion and loving kindness is a challenge for us, both regarding towards ourselves and others. I have spoken about this in other posts.
But generosity sounds like a pretty straightforward matter. I mean, we all know what it means, right? And we all practice it, at least to some extent. But do we really understand what generosity means in the Buddhist context and do we practice it?
There are two aspects of generosity in Buddhism that are equally important … the one is the act and the other is the origination of the act. It is important that an act of generosity originates from a state of equanimity and a spirit of unconditional loving kindness and compassion for all.
It’s probably safe to say that most of the generosity that is practiced in this world originates from a different place, one driven by ego or pity. The most common acts of generosity are the giving of money, whether to charity or directly to someone in need, and the giving of time by volunteering with an organization that helps people in need.
But the giving of money and the giving of time are the easiest forms of generosity because they require the least of us spiritually. This is not to downplay their value … you can definitely change peoples lives for the better through both these acts of generosity … but these acts can be practiced without them originating in loving kindness and compassion for all people. Indeed, many such acts of generosity arise from a desire to feel good about oneself or to impress others with one’s goodness. This is pure ego.
The other type of generosity involves literally giving of oneself, and that is not possible without it originating in a skillful way … well perhaps it is, but it is less likely. This type of giving stems from your very presence. When you give someone understanding, a sense of peace, a feeling of stability, or the freedom from fear through your actions and words, by listening deeply and speaking with loving kindness, or bring joy into their lives, then you have truly given of yourself. And while the practice of giving money or time is by necessity limited in scope for most of us, giving of ourselves can be done numerous times on a daily basis towards family, friends, and strangers.
Now as I intimated, it is certainly possible for the ego to co-opt even these types of actions. Even if they originated in a self-less, loving way, the ego can transform the motivation into one more to its benefit and cause attachment to arise. So be aware.
Think about the acts of generosity that you have performed in the recent past. Meditate on what the origination of those acts were. If they stemmed from something other than unconditional loving kindness and compassion, it they did not stem from a state of equanimity, then at least that awareness will be helpful to you as you move forward on the path. Self-knowledge leads to growth; self-deception results in stagnation.
3. The third Precept, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s version, states, “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment.” In today’s culture, this Precept is for most people probably the most challenging of all because it is without question contrary to our culture’s current norms.
Obviously, “friends with benefits,” casual sex, even sex in a short-term dating context is considered sexual misconduct under this standard. I should note that other interpretations of the third Precept are less restrictive than Thich Nhat Hanh’s. I asked a Theravadan monk what constitutes sexual misconduct and he said that as long as it was between consenting adults, sex was ok and there was no misconduct.
In thinking about this Precept, it is most important to remember that the primary Buddhist principles are to treat others with respect and loving kindness and to do others no harm, psychologically or physically. If you keep that in mind, you will see that the Theravadan monk’s answer was not really apposite … one can have two consenting adults and still have a total lack of respect and loving kindness, and the likelihood of psychological harm from casual sex is not to be minimized. Indeed, even in a marriage, it is quite possible for the foundations of “skillful” (and I obviously don’t mean technique here) sex to be missing and that therefore even in that setting sex could be misconduct using the standard I have noted.
Thus my version of this precept says, “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual respect.”
4. The fourth Precept. While this precept seems rather innocuous and people rarely react to it quizzically, as they do with the third Precept, it is a very difficult precept for most of us to practice.
First, let’s look at deep listening. What does “deep listening” mean? It means to really hear what the other person is saying. For one to practice deep listening, one must therefore listen free of ones own ego. Otherwise you are hearing what is said through the filter of your own perception and biases and thus not really hearing what the other person is saying, where that person is coming from. Thus when someone says, “I hear you,” they rarely do.
So if you are not yet free of your ego, how then do you practice this Precept, how do you listen deeply? It’s almost impossible. The best you can do is be aware how your ego is filtering and reacting to what is being said and try to put that aside.
From personal experience I can say that it is possible to catch that you are reacting to something through your ego and to very consciously put that to one side and reabsorb what is being said. For example, often when someone is voicing their feelings about something, especially something personal, all they want is to be listened to; they are not looking to get into a discussion. Yet our ego wants to have a chance to comment, to have input, to feel good about helping the person … but that is not helping the person. At some point, and this was not at all easy, I learned to sit quietly and just listen.
What does it mean to “speak with loving kindness.” It means more than just being kind to the other person. It means speaking out of unconditional love and compassion for the person and to speak selflessly. As with listening deeply, this requires one to be free of ego, and if not, to catch yourself as your ego starts to form thoughts and words in your mind. And it requires your heart to be open to the person regardless of what they have done or what they may do, including whether they listen to what you have to say and act as you suggest. Indeed, speaking with loving kindness may mean not speaking at all.
5. The fifth Precept is again one that is very challenging because our culture promotes unmindful consumption and our economy is premised on it. You may think that you are consuming mindfully … whether it’s things you purchase, or what you read, or what you watch on television or in the movies … but consuming mindfully means more than making a conscious decision. It means being sufficiently aware so that you are mindful of why you are thinking about consuming something and you are aware of the impact of such consuming on you and thus have the ability to decide not to consume the thing in those instances where you understand that consuming it will not “preserve peace, wellbeing, and joy.”
This precept, although Thich Nhat Hanh frames it with reference to the broader community, is the precept that most concerns refraining from doing harm to oneself, of not doing things that add to or feed our samsara. And again, since this is not “harm” as our culture defines the word, but spiritual “harm,” practicing this precept requires not just discipline, but a 24/7 practice of mindfulness.
By purposefully practicing the Five Precepts, your mindfulness will increase, which is essential if you are eventually to surrender your ego to your true Buddha nature. If you are serious about following the Buddhist path but have not yet formally “taken” the Precepts, I would encourage you to do so if you attend a temple or there is one in reasonable proximity to where you live. It is a step on the path, a commitment of oneself, which is essential to gaining greater understanding.