During the 2005 DRBY Spring Conference in San Jose, DRBY members Sarah Babcock and Brant Stokes were panel members in a discussion about Buddhist ethics. Each was asked to share stories of their experiences and struggles with upholding the Five Precepts (no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no false speech, and no taking intoxicants) while living in a modern world. Below are excerpts from that panel discussion.
In the rustic hills of Montana, I lived on a ranch with my mother, my younger brother Henry and my older brother Michael. My first encounter with the precepts, although they weren’t named and weren’t specifically associated with Buddhism at the time, came from my mother, who held the Five Precepts because she was a disciple of the Venerable Master Hua.
When I was about five years old, Henry and I decided we were going to take some gum from the store. You should know that my mother never allowed us to have candy except on Christmas, Easter and Halloween. On those days we got a lot of candy, but the rest of the year we never got to eat candy. On the rare occasions where we would go to the store (the nearest one was about seven miles away from our ranch), we would always look longingly at the candy and gum.
So this one day we took a pack of gum, hid it from my mom, and felt very secretive. When the coast was clear, we ran outside and started chewing away. It wasn’t long before my mom came out and caught us. I was devastated and crying as she asked, “Where did you get this gum?”
“We took it from the store,” I confessed. All she said was, “Do you like it when Henry takes your things?” Even at five years old, I got the point immediately, and I felt very ashamed. She made us take the candy back to the store and apologize. It took me a while to get over the humiliation, and even today I can remember how it felt to admit my crime.
Later, I learned that the Buddha taught five precepts, of which the prohibition of stealing is one. At the time, however, even without knowing about the Buddhist perspective, I still knew stealing was unfair. This implies that some of these basic principles transcend religion—that they’re basic to human life.
When I was eight years old we moved to California, and my brothers and I attended the schools at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB). At seventeen, I decided that I really liked Buddhism and I wanted to deepen my practice, so I officially became a Buddhist by taking refuge. This is done with a formal ceremony where we officially say we are going to practice this path of the Buddha. A lot of people who take refuge take the Five Precepts as well because they go hand in hand with belief in the Buddha, but at the time, I didn’t actually take the Five Precepts formally because I decided I wanted to practice them for two years to see if they were something that I could do for my whole life. I contemplated them during those two years, and at the end I decided that they were something I could uphold, and I really wanted to take them, so I took them when I was nineteen. My life didn’t change dramatically when this happened because I’d already been holding them for quite some time.
However, when I went to UC Berkeley, I encountered many challenges. I lived in the International House, a wonderful dorm that houses students from all over the world. At the dorm, there was a rule in the cafeteria. The rule was that you buy a certain amount of meals, and every time you go in to the cafeteria, you swipe the card, eat your meal and leave. You weren’t allowed to take food out of the cafeteria, but most students sneaked out leftover food like fruit or bread, sometimes intentionally grabbing extra food to take with them. Of course I didn’t intentionally take extra food, but when I couldn’t finish all the food I’d taken, I was faced with a dilemma.
You see, there was an incredible amount of waste that went on in the cafeteria. The kitchen worked hard putting out humongous portions of food. People would try a mouthful, and if they didn’t like it, they would throw the whole thing away. I remember what looked like entire carcasses of animals (meat) being thrown into the garbage. This was very disturbing to me, and I prided myself on not wasting any food. The situation presented me with a dilemma: should I take the orange I can’t finish, even if it is technically stealing, or should I throw it away, thereby wasting food?
At that time, the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery held Thursday night roundtables; we had a precept laboratory where we focused on a new precept every two weeks. Students wouldn’t necessarily hold the precepts, but they contemplated them and observed their actions in light of each precept. When we were on “no stealing,” I observed my feelings more closely and investigated what constituted stealing on the most minute level. I had to investigate the leftover orange dilemma. The stealing precept is defined as “refraining from taking what has not been given.” I didn’t want to throw the orange away, yet I didn’t want to steal it either. The result of the practice of closely contemplating the stealing precept was that I resolved the dilemma simply by becoming more mindful of how much food I took, so I started taking less in the first place. I realized that holding precepts gives me more choices; they allow me to see new options. This was so liberating. If you don’t hold them, the precepts may seem restrictive, but once you start holding them, different struggles come up, but you find creative solutions that you’d never have thought of without the help of the precepts.
I realized that the dilemma I was in was a false dilemma. It wasn’t about whether I should throw the orange away or steal it. It was about being more mindful, being more careful. I realized then that precepts are about being more careful in the first place.