By observing precepts, not only do you cultivate your moral strength, but you also perform the highest service to your fellow beings.
Every country or society has its code of what are considered to be moral actions within its social context. These codes are often linked to the society's interest and its code of law. An action is considered right so long as it does not break the law and transgress public or individual sensitivities. These man-made codes are flexible and amended from time to time to suit changing circumstances. Important as they are to society, these man-made standards cannot serve as a reliable guide to some principles of morality which can be applied universally.
By contrast, Buddhist morality is not the invention of human minds. Neither is it based on tribal ethics which are gradually being replaced by humanistic codes. It is based on the universal law of cause and effect (kamma), and considers a 'good' or 'bad' action in terms of the manner it affects oneself and others. An action, even if it brings benefit to oneself, cannot be considered a good action if it causes physical and mental pain to another being.
Buddhist morality addresses a very common, yet crucial question: How can we judge if an action is good or bad? The answer, according to Buddhism, is a simple one. The quality of an action hinges on the intention or motivation (cetana)from which it originates. If a person performs an action out of greed, hatred, and delusion, his action is considered to be unwholesome. On the other hand, if he performs and action out of love, charity, and wisdom, his action is a wholesome one. Greed, Hatred and Delusion are known as the 'Three Evil Root', while love, charity and wisdom as the 'Three Good Roots'. The word 'root' refers to the intention from which that action originates. Therefore, no matter how a person tries to disguise the nature of his action, the truth can be found by examining his thoughts which gave rise to that action. And the mind is the source of all our speech and action.
In Buddhism, a person's first duty is to cleanse himself of the mental defilements of greed, hatred and ignorance. The reason for doing this is not because of fear or desire to please some divine beings. If this is so, a person is still lacking in wisdom. He is only acting out of fear like the little child who is afraid of being punished for being naughty. A Buddhist should act out of understanding and wisdom. He performs wholesome deeds because he realizes that by so doing he develops his moral strength which provides the foundation for spiritual growth, leading to Liberation. In addition, he realizes that his happiness and suffering are self-created through the operation of the Law of Kamma. To minimize the occurrence of troubles and problems in his life, he makes the effort to refrain from doing evil. He performs good actions because he know that these will bring him peace and happiness. Since everyone seeks happiness in life, and since it is possible for him to provide the condition for happiness, then there is every reason for him to do good and avoid evil. Furthermore, the uprooting of these mental defilements, the source of all anti-social acts, will bring great benefits to others in society.
Lay Buddhist morality is embodies in the Five Precepts, which may be considered at two levels. First, it enables men to live together in civilized communities with mutual trust and respect. Second, it is the starting point for the spiritual journey towards Liberation. Unlike commandments, which are supposedly divine commands imposed on men, precepts are accepted voluntarily by the person himself, especially when he realizes the usefulness of adopting some training rules for disciplining his body, speech and mind. Understanding, rather than fear of punishment, is the reason for following the precepts. A good Buddhist should remind himself to follow the Five Precepts daily. They are as follows:
- killing living creatures
- taking what is not given
- sexual misconduct
- false speech
- taking intoxicating drugs and liquor,
Besides understanding the Five Precepts merely as a set of rules of abstention, a Buddhist should remind himself that through the precepts he practices the Five Ennoblers as well. While the Five Precepts tells him what not to do, the Five Ennoblers tells him which qualities to cultivate, namely, loving kindness, renunciation, contentment, truthfulness, and mindfulness. When a person observes the First precept of not killing, he controls his hatred and cultivates loving kindness. In the Second Precept, he controls his greed and cultivates his renunciation or non-attachment. He controls sensual lust and cultivates his contentment in the Third Precept. In the Fourth Precept, he abstains from false speech and cultivates truthfulness, while he abstains from unwholesome mental excitement and develop mindfulness through the Fifth Precept. Therefore, when a person understands the ennoblers, he will realize that the observance of the Five Precepts does not cause him to be withdrawn, self-critical and negative, but to be a positive personality filled with love and care as well as other qualities accruing to one who leads a moral life.
The precepts are the basic practice in Buddhism. The purpose is to eliminate crude passions that are expressed through thought, word and deed. The precepts are also an indispensable basis for people who wish to cultivate their minds. Without some basic moral code, the power of meditation can often be applied for some wrong and selfish motive.
In many Buddhist countries, it is customary among the devotees to observe the Eight Precepts on certain days of the month, such as the full moon and new moon days. These devotees will come to the temple early in the morning and spend twenty-four hours in the temple, observing the precepts. By observing the Eight Precepts, they cut themselves off from their daily life which is bombarded with material and sensual demands. The purpose of observing the Eight Precepts is to develop relaxation and tranquillity, to train the mind, and to develop oneself spiritually.
During this period of observing the precepts, they spend their time reading religious books, listening to the Teachings of the Buddha, meditating, and also helping with the religious activities of the temple. The following morning, they change from Eight Precepts to the Five Precepts intended for daily observance, and return home to resume their normal life.
The Eight Precepts are to abstain from:
- Sexual acts;
- Taking food after the sun had crossed the zenith.
- Dancing, singing, music, unseemly shows, the use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and things that tend to beautify and adorn the person, and
- Using high and luxurious seats.
Some people find it hard to understand the significance of a few of these precepts. They think that Buddhists are against dancing, singing, music, the cinema, perfume, ornaments and luxurious things. There is no rule in Buddhism that states that every lay Buddhist must abstain from these things. The people who choose to abstain from these entertainments are devout Buddhists who observe these precepts only for a short period as a way of self discipline. The reason for keeping away from these entertainments and ornamentations is to calm down the senses even for a few hours and to train the mind so as not to be enslaved to sensual pleasures. These entertainments increase the passions of the mind and arouse emotions which hinder a person's spiritual development. By occasionally restraining himself from these entertainments, a person will make progress towards overcoming his weaknesses and exercise greater control over himself. However, Buddhists do not condemn these entertainments.
Observance of precepts (both the Five and Eight precepts) when performed with an earnest mind is certainly a meritorious act. It brings great benefits to this life and the lives hereafter. Therefore, a person should try his best to observe the precepts with understanding and as often as he can.
BY Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda