What’s a Precept???

What’s a Precept???

“Abstain from all unwholesome deeds,

perform wholesome ones,

purify your mind”

This is the teaching of enlightened persons.

The Buddha

Everyone is familiar with the 1956 Charlton Heston movie the Ten Commandments.  Moses, played by Heston, is given the 10 commandments written by God in the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai.  In Buddhism the Buddha gave his disciples something called the precepts.  So what exactly is the difference between a precept and a commandment?  The first difference is that the word commandment obviously is made up of the root word “command”.  So you are being told or commanded what you “have” to do if you are a follower of that particular religion.  The second difference is that the command comes from a God who is omnipotent and all powerful.  The third is that in the end if you do not follow the commands you in the end will be punished by having to go to a bad place after death (unless some type of forgiveness is given).   If you remember the scene in the movie with the golden calf (no idols before me) bad things started to happen.  Lastly the things that you are commanded not to do are considered evil.

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni is not a God but was a mortal man.  He taught us the precepts as one of the many methods of “practice” in Buddhism.  You see, you can, and probably will, have faith in Buddhism but Buddhism is not really a faith based religion.  Buddhism is a practice full stop.  I will say that again “Buddhism is a practice”. You gain faith in the Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) because you can see and prove to yourself (by practicing) that the teachings are true.  So the faith in Buddhist practice comes after and not before as in many other religions.   In Zen Buddhism it is thought that you must have “The great doubt” before you can start on the Zen path.  There is no God in Buddhism in the sense common to most of the other world religions.  That does not mean at all that there isn’t a spiritual aspect or the idea of spiritual beings.  To think that would be totally incorrect.  Buddhism also has a morality at its core which is one of the things that many of your “Hollywood celebrity” Buddhist just do not seem to understand. Buddhism is not an “anything goes” religion. But I believe that this morality has a different function in Buddhism than it does in other faiths.  Buddhism is often classified as a philosophy due to this lack of a central God figure.  In fact if you are having problems finding books on Buddhism in your local library of book store, look in the Philosophy section they will often be there.

So the precepts were laid out by the Buddha as part of the path or training to Enlightenment.  They are one of many teachings that are sort of the “best practices” of Buddhist practice.  Since they are not a command the first thing to note is that they are totally voluntary. You are choosing of your own free will to follow in the Buddhas footsteps.  The Buddha knew the way to the Enlightenment he experienced so he shared the best way for us all to obtain the same thing.  He already understood what all the obstacles are and what the best state of mind is for the “Buddha mind” to flower. The precepts are something you follow because it sets up an environment for your Buddhist practice to flourish.  So in theory you can choose not to follow the precepts and still be a Buddhist!  But you have to understand that if you do not follow the precepts your Buddhist development will be greatly hindered because they are there for a purpose.

There are actually 10 precepts for the monks to follow and the lay practitioners follow 5.  The first 5 that the monks follow are the same 5 for the lay practitioners. The first precept is:


You should abstain from killing any living thing. 


Have you ever heard that in order to be a Buddhist you have to be a vegetarian?  Well just so you know this is totally false.  Hopefully you have not refrained from becoming a Buddhist due to this false notion.  Did you know that the Buddha died from food poisoning from a dish called “pork delight”?  Well how can it be that he died from eating pork if you have to be a vegetarian to be a Buddhist?  Well some people have tried to explain it away by claiming that the pork delight that he ate was really a type of mushroom but I do not believe this.  But as in all things Buddhist you need to consider the Buddhist teachings and original practices when questions like this come up.   The Buddha and his followers were “mendicant” (They had no money, did not own anything, thy begged for food).  The monastic system was set up in such a way so that the monks who were practicing could focus solely on their spiritual development.  This is a very important point.  As I mentioned before the Buddha had reached Enlightenment on his own.  When he decided to teach others he knew the best way and the pitfalls to avoid.  All the Buddhist teachings that deal with the “practice” of Buddhism have to be seen in this light.  The Buddha set up the most efficient way for his followers to reach Nirvana.  Monks were mendicant because if they had to worry about the process of making money, taking care of things they owned, or having a family to support it would distract them from their main purpose which was to practice.  So the Buddha set up a brilliant system.  They monks would not have money nor own anything or take care of a family.  Then you may ask how would they survive and get food, clothing, and shelter?  The Sanga (community of lay followers) would supply these things to the monks.  Then in return the monks would teach the lay followers the Dharma. The original Buddhist monks could only eat one meal a day before 12 noon.  So they would go out early in the morning usually before the sun has risen very far due to the heat.  They walk barefoot from house to house and stand silently outside.  If the lay member can, they will come out and put some food into their bowl and may also offer them some clothing (a robe) or other necessities (medicine, toiletries…etc).  In return the monk will give the lay member some teaching in the Dharma.  The monk will then return to his monastery and eat the food he was given.  The important point here is that they eat whatever was given to them.  If it has meat in it, it is consumed just as they would a vegetarian meal.

You might ask then why if you don’t believe in killing anything would you eat meat.  Many will say that this is some sort of cop out.  But the answer is because you did not kill it.   If you want to know why it is not a cop out you have to look at another of the Buddha’s core teachings, Karma.  I do not want t go into this to deeply here because a discussion of Karma (and my own belief of what Karma really means) would take many blogs.  Put simply the word Karma means action and it specifically refers to “your” action.  The Buddha said;

My actions are my only true belongings,

I can’t escape the consequence of my actions.  My actions are the womb from which I have sprung.  The fruits of all my actions, both wholesome and unwholesome, skillful and un-skillful I will inherit.

(Anguttara Nikaya, Pancaka Nipata Pali)


I have to deviate a bit at this point because what I am about to discuss applies to all the precepts.  Remember the precepts are a key part of the Buddhist practice.  What I am about to say will probably ruffle some feathers but if you take the time to think about it you will see that it makes sense.  First I will list the 5 precepts:


To abstain from Killing

To abstain from lying

To abstain from stealing

To abstain from taking intoxicating substances

To abstain from sexual misconduct


They look very similar to the Ten Commandments don’t they? What do you think is in common with all these actions?  Is there something that benefits from all of these things if you do them? All of these actions reinforce or benifits the idea of the “self”.   Remember in the last blog that Anatta is the Buddha’s teaching on the absence of an abiding or permanent self (not self).  We suffer from the false notion of what the self really is.  Remember what Zen Master Dogen said?


“To study the Buddha way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self

To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.”


If you look at each precept and then think about it you can see that the action you are supposed to avoid, if completed,  benefits or protects the “self”.   Why do people kill?  It is generally to take what the other person has; land, wealth, spouse or power.  Why do people lie?  To protect the self from the consequence of the truth.  Why do they steal?  To gain someone else’s wealth for themselves.  Why does someone take intoxicating substances?  To avoid the self from having to deal with reality and because the self likes pleasure.  Why do they commit sexual misconduct?  Because the self is never satisfied (remember Dukka) it in insatiable.   So you can see this common thread that runs through them all.  The Buddha understood that the notion of the “self” is the hardest egg to crack.  It is one of the most difficult things for someone practicing the Buddhist way to get a grasp on.  So he devised this skillful (Upaya) way for practitioners that emphasizes this difficult teaching.  Read here what some other great teachers had to say about the “self”:

“When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”- Shunryu Suzuki

“Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence and are nothing in themselves”- Nagarjuna

“You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.”- Alan Watts

“The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.”- Koun Yamada

“The self divides into ten billion distinct illuminating spirits. Distinguish these without falling into names and classifications.”– Hongzhi

“Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.”- Seng-chao


The next two are pretty self-explanatory as long as you view them in light of Anatta.


To abstain from lying

To abstain from stealing


The precept against taking intoxicating substances simply has to be understood in light of the Buddhist goal Nirvana.  If we are to see reality as it really is then obviously anything that alters our mind away from reality is a deterrent. All of the Buddhist practices have to do with getting the “mad monkey” as the Zennist call the mind to stop swinging mindlessly from tree to tree.  If you are intoxicated this is just impossible.


The last precept:


To abstain from sexual misconduct


To abstain from sexual misconduct is probably the second most misinterpreted following abstaining from killing.  I have heard many people saying that Buddhism is sexually tolerant and that having a gay monk for example is OK.  This is an extrapolation of a misunderstood idea.  This does not mean that Buddhism is against those who are gay at all or that it is somehow sexually intolerant. So can you have a gay monk?   The point I am trying to make is that a Gay monk is kind of like the old Zen saying “how long are the horns on a rabbit”.  It is a question that really is unanswerable because the question is flawed.  In the vast majority of Buddhist traditions monks are celibate.   If you are celibate can you really be gay? Can you be heterosexual?  Really if you are a monk you committed yourself to be non-sexual.  Monks are celibate for the reason that sexual activity is a distraction from the training, not that it is somehow a immoral behavior.  For lay members Buddhism is sexually tolerant within limitations.  The Buddha defined “unwholesome deeds” as those that harm another. Sexual misconduct is conduct that results in the harm of another person.  So rape or sex with minors is sexual misconduct.  The other type of sexual activity that may fall into this category is infidelity.  This is because when you break a vow or oath to someone you cause harm.  Also in most cases of infidelity there is lying at some point in the relationship which then breaks the precept against lying.  Buddhism does not really see sex in a negative way as in many other religions.  The sexual urge and desire itself are an expression of your life force.  Again it has to be seen in the relationship to Anatta (not-self) and our desire to preserve our idea of ourselves.

So if you view the precepts in the light of Buddhist training they take on a different meaning then if you approach them from the western idea of the Ten Commandments.  You are abstaining from doing these five things not because they are thought to be evil.  You are avoiding these behaviors because they do harm to others and or re-enforce the illusion of our “self”. Buddhist morality is directly related to Buddhist practice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s