Demon: “So why do you consider my presence a pollution, a disease? Is it because there is that within you which is like unto myself? …If so, I mock you in your weakness, Binder.”
Sam: “It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus.”
—Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Since April 8th¹ is the Buddha’s Birthday in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, I felt like talking about a topic that’s kind of neglected sometimes, and well, kind of dry: Buddhist conduct or Śīla.
Every once in a while, I will see a comment online why one should not bother with the Buddhist precepts. Either because people are devoted to their Buddhist deity (or sutra) of choice and rely on faith alone,² or rely on some unconventional notion of wisdom, mindfulness and “self”. To be honest, I’ve just never really bought into either argument. It feels like mental gymnastics to me.
The traditional “tripod” of Buddhism has always been:
The basic idea is that if one upholds all three, then one progresses well on the path. Overtime, this has been interpreted in various ways and various cultures, but it has basically remained unchanged overall.
But conduct, in the form of the five precepts, are probably the most neglected of the three. Wisdom is central to Buddhism of course because it counteracts the fundamental ignorance that drives our lives (and all the hassles we incur on ourselves). Practice and cultivation have clear practical aspects toward wisdom too. But where does conduct come in?
Something I see in Buddhist literature both past and present is the idea that the precepts are a Buddhist practice like meditation, chanting, etc. This isn’t technically wrong, but I think it leads to a self-centered approach, which is often incompatible with the original intent.
The precepts do have personal benefits in the form of self-respect and healing of the mind, but they’re also intended as a benefit to those around you. The precepts are there to keep you in line, avoid harming others, and generate peaceful interactions with those around you. They keep your worst behaviors in check. For example, the precept against harming life isn’t just about avoiding bad karma for yourself and cultivating good merit, but also because other living things genuinely fear death:
129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
The precept against sexual misconduct is for the benefit of others because it avoids physical harm and psychological damage to them. The same logic applies to the other precepts as well.
Also, for me personally, I see the precepts as a kind of “gold standard”. A lot of lay people take the five precepts, especially in traditional Buddhist cultures, but may not always follow them faithfully. But this doesn’t mean they fail either. Every time a person abstains from harming life or chooses to tell the truth, it has immediate benefits for those around them, but if they fail to uphold the precepts that doesn’t mean they should quit and close up shop. Ajahn Brahm, a Theravadin Buddhist monk, taught the simple principle of AFL: acknowledge, forgive yourself and learn. It’s better to try, fail and try again than to not try at all.
When my daughter was just 3 months old, I remember holding her in my arms one night while she was sleeping, and thinking “I am her father, and I have to set a good example.” I was pretty new to Buddhism back then and only vaguely understood the precepts. But, from that night on, I took it more seriously. I made mistakes daily, but I would try again the next day, and the next and so on. That’s been one of my personal motivations.
Nine years later, the precepts have slowly begun to sink in, and I make fewer mistakes than I did in the past. I still don’t follow the precepts perfectly, but I can see fruit of the effort in my own life, so I know they work.
The reason why I put the quote from Lord of Light above (besides being a big Roger Zelazny fan), is that it matches my sentiment: no matter how imperfect I am, now matter how many times I let the precepts lapse, I still aspire to do better and go beyond self-indulgent life even if only occasionally.
So, if we want to honor the life of Shakyamuni Buddha the founder, consider upholding the five precepts, even if only for a day. Actions speak louder than words anyway.
P.S. More on precepts and practice in the context of Japanese Buddhism (i.e. “shugyō”).
¹ According to the solar calendar. Many cultures and traditions still observe the lunar calendar, which simply has the Buddha’s birthday on the “8th day of the 4th month”.
You should not follow the urges of passions, break the precepts, or fall behind others in the practice of the Way. If you have doubts and are not clear about my teaching, ask me, the Buddha, about anything and I shall explain it to you.”