By Upasika Kuo Tsan Epstein

Western philosophies and religions have, in most cases, considered virtue to be inseparable from the commandments and constraining will of a Creator. Man's virtue depended upon abiding by laws and restrictions imposed upon him by a benevolent God whose level of understanding could not be reached by any other creature. In other words, man was forced to depend upon "God" for his sense of morality, because he was incapable of the depth of understanding needed to guide his own life.

In Buddhism each living being innately possesses perfect understanding, though it may be imprisoned by ignorance and delusion. The way of virtue, rather than a path of piety and obedience, is simply the way of ever increasing happiness and contentment. The practice of morality and virtue is not something, which stems from an adherence to the laws and commandments of a Supreme Being, but is a fruit of an understanding that comes from within oneself. Within each living being exists complete understanding and peace, and living virtuously is merely a method of clearing away the ignorance, greed, and hatred which prevent the manifestation of that original nature.

Because morality is also understanding and contentment, one whose life lacks that morality is not considered evil or sinful, but miserable and filled with suffering. The concepts of go(o)d which stem from accord with God, and evil, which are a result of according with his counterpart, the (D)evil, are totally irrelevant. It is rather that in the same way that happiness and virtue are inseparable, suffering and lack of virtue are synonymous. In his desire for understanding and peace, then, a Buddhist cultivates morality and virtue.

Buddhist ethics, which exist to assist living beings in that cultivation, are founded on three Great Principles. The first is the principle of non-violence, or harmony. One always attempts to live in harmony with all other creatures and one's surroundings. Harm of either oneself or another being is the most basic form of violence, which it is necessary to bring to an end.

Compassion is the second Great Principle. While the Principle of non-violence focuses mainly upon preventing harm to oneself or others, compassion involves an active attempt to release others from their suffering. It is, then, basically giving (dana) or being able to consider the welfare and well-being of others to be as important as one's own. On a more subtle level, developing compassion is merely breaking down the false distinction between oneself and others.

The third Great Principle is collectedness or concentration, and without this principle the other two could not exist. Collectedness refers to a clear state of mind; one which is not scattered and clouded over with greed, hatred, and stupidity. It is impossible to live in harmony with one's surroundings when one's mind is filled with hatred and hostility, or to give to others if one still desires what another possesses. In the same way, if one's mind is clouded with stupidity, one is unable to understand the concepts of non-violence and compassion in order even to begin to put them into action.

How, then, does one deal with one's greed, hatred, and stupidity in such a way that these three Great Principles begin to act in one's life? One method is the observation of five basic precepts or prohibitions. These precepts are not ends in themselves, but are methods or guidelines by which a Buddhist attempts to cut off the desire, hatred, and stupidity which cause him so much misery. "There is no fire like passion, no capturer like hatred; there is no net like delusion, no torrent like craving."1 It is important to emphasize that one takes precepts and observes the prohibitions they involve of one's own accord and choice. Precepts are not commandments or a method of limiting one's action, but an expedient means of bringing one's actions and understanding together. It is possible to be a Buddhist and not have received the precepts, because they must be received freely, and, therefore, one must feel a need for their assistance.

Though there are many different kinds of precepts, there are five basic ones, which ultimately embrace all of the others. These precepts attempt to curb what is often referred to as the ten vices. There are three of the body: killing, stealing, and adultery; four of the mouth: slander, verbal abuse, lying, and flattery; and three of the mind: jealousy, hatred, and stupidity. The Five Precepts are expressed as: refraining from destroying life, from taking that which has not been given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from intoxicants.

The effect of having received the precepts can be extremely powerful.  The precepts, in a sense, often seem to be stronger than the person who has received them. They remove a certain amount of the temptation to succumb to one's weaknesses, rather than considering one's own well being. If taken seriously, they may have the powerful effect of removing the tensions and conflicts over what one should and will do. One, then, wastes a great deal less energy on dilemmas in which one is aware of the best manner of action and yet is still influenced by craving, hatred, and delusion. A sense of tranquility results from the removal of those false conflicts and leaves a greater store of energy for those dilemmas which are real, in the sense that one is truly not aware of what is best for One's own well-being. The function of the precepts is just that: to give one the strength to refrain from those actions of the body, mouth, and mind which are harmful to the well-being of oneself and others.

Each precept, though it may at first glance seem simple, involves a great deal of moral strength and understanding. The first precept involves abstaining from any action or thought which lacks awareness of the sanctity of life, or in any way harms oneself or others. It is obvious that this could be interpreted from numerous levels and perspectives and it is important to mention that this is a quality of all five of the precepts. There is no fixed doctrine involved with them and what is breaking or holding a precept is totally dependent upon the situation, the individual, and his level of understanding. To one person, the taking of life may connote killing or murder, while to another it may include even thoughts of a violent nature, like those of anger and hatred. However, one cannot break a precept unless one is aware that one is doing so. In other words, one must only keep the precepts on the level on which one understands them. If one has stilled all of the anger and hatred in one's heart, that is truly holding the precept against destroying life. Most people, however, use the precept as a guideline in working toward that goal. It brings upon one's consciousness a new respect for one's own life and the lives of others. Our lives are so full of needless killing and destruction, and much of it is easily prevented. It merely takes the sensitivity to say, "This fly wishes to live as much as I do and is not doing any harm," or, "I can walk around these flowers rather than through them, for they have a right to stay alive as well as I do." It merely takes the patience to understand that other's faults are no worse than one's own and feel compassion for others, whose plights are all virtually the same as one's own. In other words, holding the precept of refraining from destroying life involves a great deal more than being mindful of one's actions and thoughts. It is the beginning of a process of change within one's heart in which one's awareness and attitude toward life is totally transformed.

The second of the five precepts, not taking what has not been given, just as all of the precepts, involves a complex concept and a great deal more than simply refraining from stealing. It includes having respect for the possessions of others. Careless borrowing of money, fraudulent business dealings, over-charging customers, under-paying employees, and even over-eating are all subtle forms of taking that which one has not been given. Ultimately, if one holds this precept completely, one has rid the mind of the desire to own what one does not own and all thoughts of greed or jealousy.  Though this is a difficult state to achieve, it is not enough simply to hold the precept on one level and not work on the more difficult tasks of ridding the mind of the subtle greed and jealousy that exist there. The precept and the holder are not fixed in any one state of development, but must work and grow together. As the comprehension and understanding of the holder grows, so does the scope of the precept. Understanding what is means not to take what has not been given is particularly important because one cannot sincerely practice giving or compassion without holding this precept. If one still desires what belongs to another, how is it possible for him to purely give? In fact, ultimately, the concepts of giving and taking are inseparable, because it is only the false discrimination within one's mind which perceives a distinction between self and others, and, therefore, giving and taking.  Because of the depth of understanding involved with giving and taking, one can see how helpful this precept can be to an individual in his attempt to calm his heart and brush away those things which cloud over the peace with exists within him.

While the first precept involves a reverence for life, and the second respect for the belongings of others, the third precept entails regard for one's body and its relation to one's own and other's well being. It is referred to as refraining from sexual misconduct or the misuse of the body and bodily sensations. By its nature, this precept, like the others, is dependent upon the context and consciousness of the individuals involved. A monk and a layman can both hold this precept, and yet each has his own interpretation. However, if the precept is held perfectly, the one who holds it has cut off and resolved all sexual desire.

Before one can reach this level of understanding, one must change one’s view of one's body and the way in which one uses one's senses. Sex is not considered good or evil, but one must view sex and the use of one's body carefully. Basically, if one is concerned with one's total well being and peace of mind, it is essential that the body be in harmony with the mind and emotions. Sexual misconduct is misuse of the body in such a way that harmony is disrupted.

If one is a monk, a person who has given up all that is worldly in order to attain enlightenment, refraining from sexual misconduct involves complete celibacy and the cutting off of all desire. This follows logically if one's body is to be in accord with one's mind and way of life.

For one who is not a monk, holding the precept may be entirely different, but the mutual trust and respect of two people for each other is necessary in refraining from misusing the body. The body should not merely be considered a tool for obtaining one's desires and experiencing pleasure, but that which houses the Buddha-nature and enables one to exist in order to cultivate the Way. Refraining from adultery is in accord with this concept.   If adultery is committed, not only the two people themselves, but also their partners in marriage, their children, relatives, and friends are involved. It is not necessarily that adultery is either wrong or right, but that one refrains from it in honestly choosing monogamy as a way of life, wishing to respect that choice, those of others, and maintain harmony with one's lifestyle and consciousness. Essentially, then, in holding this precept one tries never to exchange one's own or other's happiness for indulgence or that which will cause suffering to anyone, and most of all, to ceaselessly hold in mind the importance of the harmony of mind, body, and livelihood.

The fourth precept, refraining from false speech, is the first step in the transforming of delusion into wisdom. Holding this precept basically involves being truthful with oneself and with others, but also requires a reverence for speech and communication. If one is not deluded oneself, one has no need to delude others, nor to speak in a harmful way about them.

In developing a respect for words, one must constantly be aware of the powerful effects they may have upon oneself and others, and refrain from using them carelessly. Lying, harsh speech, idle chatter, gossip and slander are all extremely dangerous misuses of speech and communication. In lying, one risks deluding both oneself and others, because the more skilled one becomes in lying the easier it becomes to believe that lies, causing the mind to become cluttered and unable to discriminate between what is true and what is not. Whenever speech is misused to express anger and hatred or to harm another as in harsh speech, gossip, or slander, language becomes a method of causing suffering and estrangement rather than a form of communication and understanding. Consequently, at all times, one should avoid using language in any way, which is not reverent of its power both to harm and to assist living beings. Idle chatter can be extremely dangerous in that it fills the minds of those involved with harmful clutter which not only takes the place of wisdom, but also clouds over one's own discrimination between false and true speech.  It is far too often, then, that "harmless" idle talk turns to lying, vicious gossip, and slander.

In holding this precept, one develops a special regard for language and often finds that it is much more helpful to listen than to speak. Not only this, but one begins to value and choose one's words with a great deal more care. Through learning to listen and choose words carefully, one's mind becomes less cluttered and begins to function more efficiently. One gains a better understanding of both oneself and others, and a greater sensitivity to all one sees, hears, and experiences.

The last of the five precepts, refraining from intoxicants, is perhaps the most straightforward of the five, and yet it is in no way less important than the others. There is a Tibetan tale often told to emphasize the importance of this precept:

It appears that a man of that country had aroused the enmity of some demon. This being plagued him and told him that he would only leave him in peace if the man consented to break one of the Five Precepts.

Now that man was a sincere Buddhist layman who had successfully kept his precepts pure. He thought: I cannot break the first, for to kill a being is a most terrible thing. As to the second, I have never stolen anything and it is a great crime. I have always been faithful to my wife and we are happy together. So how can I break the third one? Then the fourth, if I break it, is sure to make someone unhappy and bring myself a bad name. And he decided that one little drop of liquor would not do any harm and at the same time satisfy the devil.

He had never before tasted alcohol and the little drop that he sipped intrigued him by its taste. He thought: 'This tastes good; a little more won't harm me.' And so a little more and more...until he was rolling drunk.

Passing a tinker on his way home, he snatched some trinkets. Reaching his house at last, he found his wife absent and noticed for the first time how pretty his neighbor's wife appeared. Going to her, he gave her the ornaments and they entered her house. After some time, she proposed some food, so he took an ax and hacked off a goat's head. Finally, the tinker came up with officials to accuse him of theft, and he roundly denied it, loudly declaring his innocence and so all the Five Precepts were broken..."2

If one truly wishes to attain contentment and peace, constant vigilance and control of the mind is necessary. Intoxicants, which include all kinds of drugs and tobacco as well as alcohol, are capable of deluding one into seeing that which is false as true, that which is stupidity as wisdom, and that which is suffering as peace. Many, in this way, have mistaken false states for enlightenment, delusion for understanding, and even forsaken an entire life's work for illusory causes. Taking intoxicants, then, leads one on a path in direct opposition to self-realization and Truth.

In conclusion, the Five Precepts are not an end in themselves, but a means to attaining that peace and contentment for which one is searching. They are not something imposed upon oneself from the outside, but that which is embraced from within. Rather than limiting one's actions, the precepts are an expanding and enlightening force in one's life. In holding them, one has received that which one can use to open and expand one's heart and widen one's perspective and understanding those who hold the precepts consider them a privilege rather than an imposition, for, from the", one can develop a reverence for life, the ability to give rather than take, appreciation for the body and its harmony with one's mind and way of life, a greater awareness of the significance of communication, and a clear, uncluttered mind. With these in one's possession, one is finally able to begin transforming one's greed into morality, one's hatred into concentration (samadhi), and one's stupidity into wisdom.

1Chapter XVIII "Impurity" Dhammapada.
Buddhism Explained pp. 91-2
Upasika Kuo Tsan Epstein is a translating member of the Buddhist Text Translation Society.