Any individual who is working towards a goal, be it academic, athletic, financial or spiritual, is well-advised to follow some basic guidelines in order to reach their goals. If you are a student, plagiarizing or cheating on an assignment can be an academic career-stopper. Athletes in training do all sorts of quite unnatural things to their bodies, including fasting, gorging, purging, shaving all body hair and restraining sexual activity, to even qualify for the chance to compete. To get out of debt, financial advisors readily provide lists of do’s and dont’s, like ‘pay yourself first’, or ‘zero out your credit card balance every month’.
Spiritually, all the world’s religions have certain laws, guidelines, tenets or rules that adherents are to maintain as a code of behavior. These are often stated in the negative: “no this-or-that,” As in the case of the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. the Ten Commandments were literally set in stone by God before Moses’ eyes. The expectation is that the Commandments will be followed closely by believers, and that anyone who breaks any of them is surely committing a “sin”. Yet in Christianity there is the understanding that ALL people are sinners; that no one has been perfect, not even the Saints.
The Buddha provided his disciples four basic training rules. A fifth related rule was added not long after his passing. All of these are based on an even more basic imperative: “Do no harm.” The Buddhist training rules are called “Precepts,” defined by Google as “a general rule intended to regulate behavior or thought.” The basic Five Precepts, which observant Buddhists undertake to keep, are:
1. Not to kill or harm living beings on purpose;
2. Not to take what is not freely given;
3. Not to commit wrong sexual activity;
4. Not to lie, use harsh language, gossip or slander;
5. Not to use recreational alcohol or drugs.
In the context of Buddhism, Precepts are seen as the foundation of “Sila”, translated as “virtue” or “morality”. I personally find that the word “wholesome” is a very useful word for properly regarding Sila. Wholesomeness evokes wholeness, integrity, authenticity; what is real and enduring, not just within the person but also in the family, community, nation or world. Wholesomeness doesn’t contain the dualistic judgments of “good” or “bad”. It is real, true and complete.
As human beings we are naturally resistant to personal restraint or discipline, and it can be argued that such resistance is particularly strong in our western, present-day, ‘freedom rules, anything goes’ ethos. The young American exemplifies this ethos in the uncompromising pursuit of wealth, power, fame, sex appeal and happiness. I happen to have been a young American who went after each of these things at different times, and at times all at once. And even as a not-so-young American, I have always resisted discipline, other people’s rules, morality structures, definitions of “right” or “wrong”, decorum, protocol, habit and even at times, common courtesy.
I have come to this appreciation of Sila very late in the game. So what got me here?
There is a moment in life known as mature adulthood. Mature adults by definition have seen past the mundane gestures and empty transactions of life and press on to the pursuit of Wisdom. One arrives at this moment in life if one is fortunate enough to regenerate from the fire of midlife crisis. I have burned through all four seasons and now I have returned.
Funny thing. Wisdom is generous; it transcends itself. The precepts train us for Wisdom in actions of body, speech and mind. They train us in the way to take only actions that will do no harm to ourselves or others. If you notice, the five precepts focus on our social interactions; how we treat others. Even our refraining from intoxicants affords us the presence and clarity necessary to continue to do no harm, which is not always possible with our intoxicated selves!
In Twelve Step communities, there is a common saying: “It’s practice, not perfection.” This is a healthy approach to the Five Precepts. As a person works with the Five Precepts, one invariably notices one’s weak spots. For very many, including this author, it’s the harsh speech. But being able to see the pattern of harsh speech and over a significant length of time, and continuing to work with this shortcoming, I’ve been able to find other ways to express myself. There is also now a profoundly increased appreciation and more frequent use of silence. But that only happened after enough four-letter words and hateful, snarky comments flew out of my mouth…and my awareness.
The Five Precepts are the Buddhist’s process of basic training. The guidance of the Buddha, the “Anuttaro Purisa Dhammasarathi, Sattha Deva Manussanam” (The Incomparable Leader of Men to be Tamed, The Teacher of Celestial Beings and Men) gives us the skillful tools to place our actions of body, speech and mind at the door of this pursuit of Wisdom.