And now for something completely different: Sujato does basic Buddhism! Yes, i really just wrote an article on the five precepts. It was a struggle, but i persevered. I really find it hard to teach basic Buddhism, there’s something about saying the same simple things over and over again that I just can’t do. Some teachers are fabulous at it; they make it fresh and alive every time. I just get bogged down in cliche and pomposity. Anyway, here’s a little article I just did for our local paper. I think it’s stiff and uninteresting, but hopefully it might do some good.
All religions offer an ethical code to help guide us through life. At the heart of ethics lie the principles of harmlessness and compassion. If we look beyond the differences between religions, we all share the insight that, as fragile, vulnerable human beings, we must learn to live together in recognition of our common humanity.
Of course, religion is not really necessary for ethics, as non-religious people often live perfectly ethical lives. But still, religious ethical codes offer structure and support, a tried and proven framework to help remind us what really matters.
While Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments that were recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, Buddhists have the Five Precepts. These are not ‘Commandments’ as such, but are called ‘ways of training oneself’. In Buddhism, ethical principles are consciously undertaken in awareness that living an ethical life is essential if we are to find true happiness ourselves, and to keep those around us happy and safe.
Buddhist communities gather on holy days to recite the five precepts together, reaffirming their common dedication to living a good life. When reciting, we say ‘I undertake the way of training…’. This means the precepts are not intended as a rigid or inflexible set of rules, but as something to reflect on and continually practice and improve.
Here’s the five precepts, with a brief explanation of each.
1.To not harm any living being.
According to the Buddha, all living beings feel pain, and so must be treated with kindness and respect. This respect is not just for other humans, but for all animals, right down to the little creatures who we share our environment with. If we pass through life without harming any being, our compassion will grow, and our fear will fade away.
2.To not steal.
Our possessions are an extension of ourselves. If we respect the property of others, we will be trusted and respected in turn. How many careers have been ruined by excessive greed and dishonesty in business? It’s easy to make a quick buck, but at the risk of losing everything. Real financial security comes from an honest living, not from cooking the books.
3.To not harm those we love through sexual infidelity.
When we enter into a sexual relationship, we open ourselves to another. In our intimacy we are vulnerable. Betrayal of that trust is one of the most painful things a human can endure, and forever damages the thing that brings us the greatest happiness, our relationship with the one we love.
4.To not lie.
Human connections are built on trust. We really hate to be lied to, and once we become known as a liar, our friends will never see us the same way again. But if we always speak the truth, especially when it’s a hard truth, we’ll win respect. We’ll be trusted, and our friends will listen carefully to what we have to say.
5.To not take intoxicants.
Perhaps not the most popular precept, but important still. Drink and drugs cause immeasurable harm in society, destroying countless families. Obviously there’s a matter of degree: a glass or two of wine with a meal is not the same as getting smashed at the pub, or addicted to crack. But all intoxicants dull the mind, so if you’re serious about clarity it’s best to avoid or minimize.
So that’s that. The basic Buddhist ethical code. It’s pretty simple, but not all that easy to do well. Buddhists, of course, often fail to live up to principles, just like everyone else does. Falling down and getting up again is another human trait that we all share.