BUDDHISM > five precepts

Most people want to live a safe, healthy, and happy life. How do we proceed toward this ideal? The Buddha provided us with five precepts to guide us on our way to individual liberation. We are to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Not just for Buddhists, these precepts are basic to the major spiritual traditions and ethical teachings in our world today.

Precepts are not to be adhered to merely on a literal basis. We need to understand their logic to better judge how to wisely follow them. If we know the intention behind a precept, we will be better able to adhere to its inherent meaning when encountering new or stressful situations.

The first precept is to refrain from killing. In Buddhism, not killing is the reverence for all life and is founded on compassion. All animals fear death and experience pain when hurt. Understanding this, we can try to be mindful of everything that we are doing. We do not want to inadvertently kill or hurt another living being.

We will find this easier to do if we understand that we are not superior to animals. Within every being is a true nature identical to that of all Buddhas. They, like us, have the ability to awaken one day and uncover their true nature.

The objective, as we progress in our practice of compassion and no killing, is to not even give rise to a single thought of irritation, much less to anger. Compassion must be experienced and felt, not just understood on an intellectual level. Only when compassion and gentleness are an active part of our being will we stop reacting out of anger and hatred. Left unchecked, anger and hatred will eventually result in killing. Only when loving-kindness is a functioning part of us will we end the wars within and between each of us, and attain peace for all.

The second precept is to refrain from taking what is not given. By not taking anything without permission, we will be free of nagging thoughts of having done something wrong. Even if an object appears not to belong to anyone, taking it will break this precept. Just as the deeper meaning of abstaining from killing is compassion, the deeper meaning of not stealing is giving.

The third precept, usually interpreted as refraining from sexual misconduct, is actually addressing any sensual indulgence—craving for food, sensations, and much more—not just sexual misconduct. Sensual indulgence distracts us from our inward search to find lasting happiness and freedom. It wastes our energy and leaves us with escalating wishes. It is detrimental to be controlled by our senses; instead, we need to refrain from indulging our senses. This will help us to feel more in control of our lives, to be more self-confident.

The fourth precept is to refrain from telling lies. We are to do nothing to deceive others for our benefit or for that of those close to us. Instead of separating people with careless speech, we can use speech to bring others together, creating understanding and harmony.

Not lying also means that we speak at the right time and in accordance with the facts. We are logical and say what is useful. We do not gossip or boast. This will stop us from creating unfavorable consequences for ourselves. Because we are honest and thoughtful, we will have the trust and respect of others. And by not offending others or causing discord, we will get along well with people.

While the first four precepts are widely held, the fifth precept of refraining from taking intoxicants is not universal. Understanding the underlying meaning behind a precept will help us to follow it better. For example, this precept is telling us not to take anything that would impair our judgment or that might harm others or ourselves. By refraining from consuming intoxicants, we will stay healthier as well as not have to regret any harm our actions might cause.

We also need to be wary of the consumption of toxins in what we see and hear. The poisons of violence, hatred, and fear on television and the Internet, and in movies and books are just as influential and damaging. We do not need to go to extremes on this. We just need to be careful in what we consume through each of our senses, and to make wise choices in what we read and view.

Bottom line, precepts are not designed to prevent us from appreciating our good conditions. They help us to find and develop the inner strength to think and conduct ourselves correctly. Actually, by knowing how to be more mindful in our thoughts, speech, and conduct, we will feel freer and less worried about behaving improperly or inadvertently hurting others.

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