The Five Precepts, along with the Three Refuges, are the first step in the practice of Buddhadharma for both laymen and the Sangha. The Five Precepts are the fundamental discipline in Buddhist training and the necessary moral practice for humankind. Therefore, The Bodhisattva Garland of Precious Gems Sutra states that all sentient beings’ ability to enter the ocean of the Triple Jewel is dependent on faith and discipline. Our physical, verbal and mental activity are the basis of our production of wholesome and unwholesome karma. According to the Buddhadharma, the Five Precepts are of singular importance to enable us to destroy our evil tendencies, to increase the strength of our good tendencies and to purify our minds. They are considered to be the moral standard for human beings; and, indeed, if they are not practiced and maintained, then this human form of life will have its demise.
The first precept is to refrain from killing living beings and, instead, to extend loving-kindness to them. The second precept is to refrain from stealing and, instead, to practice generosity. The third precept is to refrain from adultery and, instead, to practice wholesome family life. The fourth precept is to refrain from lying and, instead, to practice truthfulness in all one’s dealings. The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants–both drugs and liquor–and, instead, to live in good health and practice clarity of mind.
The Buddha explained his ethical principles as follows: The first four precepts are considered to be natural moral principles, whereas the fifth precept is considered to be a conventional moral principle. Natural morality means those ethical principles that all human society should maintain regardless of what religious denomination or philosophy is adhered to. whether one practices Buddhadharma or not, one should refrain from killing, stealing, adultery and lying. Conventional morality means to behave in such a way that unwholesome actions cannot have the opportunity to arise. Even though the consumption of intoxicants need not necessarily involve others, the resulting state can lead to transgression of the first four precepts. Furthermore, if one is given to the habitual consumption of liquor or drugs, the obvious result is the steady deterioration of one’s physical and mental health.
Whether one practices Buddhadharma or not, if one cultivates these Five Precepts as the standard for one’s behavior, one can then become a person of unwavering morality, worthy of the respect of others. Besides the voluntary agreement to refrain from some negative or destructive activity, these precepts all contain a positive attitude or practice to be cultivated as their counterpart. The Five Precepts in Buddhadharma and the Five Constant Virtues in Confucianism are the same.
The practice of non-killing means extending kindness to all living beings. To kill people is a serious matter in the eyes of the world, but to kill smaller living things is not conventionally considered quite so serious. In the Buddha’s teaching, however, the taking of life of any kind whatsoever is a grave matter. People and societies that value peace and unity must practice non-killing and its positive counterpart-loving-kindness.
Practicing non-stealing means the adoption of right livelihood by human beings. Clothing, food, housing and transportation are essential requirements of human society and are produced by people’s labor. As such, they are to be gotten in such a way that is justifiable and legitimate. If people resort to cheating and stealing or acquiring their property and wealth without the necessary expenditure of labor, then peaceful co-existence is an impossibility. Therefore, the Buddha stated that even a needle or a weed cannot be taken from another without permission.
The practice of refraining from adultery will strengthen moral ties between human beings. The right path to be taken between men and women is wholesome married life with proper responsibility taken for their relationship and whatever children may come as a result of their union. Therefore, the Buddhist tradition allows lay disciples to marry and considers it correct, justifiable and a legitimate source of happiness in the world. To enjoy sexual activity without taking responsibility for one’s actions only leads to a degenerate social situation and such unfortunate extremes as incest, venereal disease, etc. Moreover, this is an evasion of one’s true responsibility to raise and educate children and to inculcate in them proper moral and social values. Children are not equipped emotionally or intellectually to educate themselves and need the guidance and good example of their parents and teachers to lead and point them toward wholesome behavior and healthy physical and mental development.
The practice of non-lying, or truthfulness, means conforming our actions to our words and maintaining the spirit of honesty in all our dealings. Where there is dishonesty, even as small a social unit as that of husband-and-wife cannot live together in love and righteousness,. On an international scale, global unity will remain an impossibility because of the propensity to selfishness, dishonesty and betrayal on the part of nations and societies. The Buddha praised the virtue of words conforming with actions and observed that honesty and sincerity are characteristic of the sage. The commentary to The Prajnaparamita Sutra states that one who habitually lies possesses an ill fame that spreads far and wide, and such a one, at the end of his life, succumbs to rebirth in a hellish realm.
The practice of non-intoxication, or sobriety, is necessary to increase and maintain purity of heart and wisdom. Intoxication can frequently lead to the loss of both one’s fortune and honor. The Venerable Hsu Yun has so wisely observed: “Drinking wine and eating meat upset the mind-nature: with clear tea and vegetarian food the mind errs not, enjoying Dharma night and day.” When the consumption of alcoholic beverages or drugs is allowed to become habitual, laziness and shamelessness will certainly develop. Therefore, if one aspires to develop a noble personality and practice the Bodhisattva Dharma, one should refrain from the use of such debilitating substances.
The observation of the Five Precepts is also the basis of discipline for those who leave home to practice the Bodhisattva Tao. Their practice is stricter than that of laypeople, because under extreme conditions the lay-disciple is able to transgress these principles. For example, if a lay-Bodhisattva is a member of the military and is called upon to defend the populace, he can justifiably do so for the greater good of the community. However, the sangha members cannot, under any circumstances, be involved in this activity. Another example would be the legitimate enjoyment of sexuality between husband and wife. Sangha members are prohibited completely from engaging in sexuality.
Below is a chart outlining the Five Precepts and how they correspond to the Ten Virtues:
The four virtuous modes of verbal activity are here equated to the precept of refraining from untruth. Improper remarks can even be more false than untrue ones, and honeyed words are dishonest. Obscenity and pornography move people’s hearts in an immoral direction.
Two-faced speech serves only to stir up ill will and instigate trouble on both sides of the fence. It can cause people to separate from their own flesh and blood and cause loved ones to become enemies. On a small scale, it can disrupt a family, and, on a larger one, it can lead to global warfare.
The use of ugly speech means to make insulting remarks continually. One uses abusive and intolerable speech to insult others and does not seem to realize the effect of one’s own abrasive language. This manner of speech is distorted and unprofitable and, thus, is included in the category of lying.
The three virtuous mental actions are the positive counterparts to the fifth precept of refraining from intoxicants. Grasping and clinging mean excessive craving for those things that one should renounce. One craves continually for more and more, never being satisfied with what one has. Being full of anger means the absence of compassion for sentient beings and their situation. Ignorant and enlightened states of mind and action refer to the ignorance of clinging to heterodox views and the lack of that wisdom which would let one follow the correct path. These ignorant and unwise states also refer to that condition where one is full of uncontrollable desire and is foolishly drowning in the sea of false views about the nature of reality.
Therefore, one who aspires to tread the Bodhisattva Path must develop right thought and shed all heterodox views. Craving, aversion and delusion are everybody’s problem and are referred to in the Buddhadharma as the three poisons or the three roots of unskillfulness. A person who has extinguished these three poisons in himself is called holy.One who aims to practice Bodhisattva Dharma should practice generosity, compassion and wisdom, which are the antidotes for these three roots of unskillfulness. It is said that if the protecting embankment of the precepts is broken, the evil waves of the three poisons will overflow, flooding and destroying the personality.
The observing or the Five Precepts will insure that the relationships and moral practice of human society are perfect. To practice the Bodhisattva Dharma, it is essential that the aspirant have a moderately balanced and wholesome temperament. If the stability of personality and behavior is insufficient, where can the Bodhisattva Dharma make its appearance? The observing of the precepts will lend the necessary stability, balance and wholesomeness to one’s personality.
The cultivation of the Ten Virtues alone will insure one an unobstructed entrance into the realm of the devas. Because craving, aversion and delusion are kept in check, the mind will be calm and full of peace and quite suitable for contemplative practice. If rebirth in heaven-states occurs, the time will not be spent in idle enjoyment of celestial bliss but rather in further practice of the Bodhisattva Tao. Whether in the human or the deva world, the Bodhisattva Path consists in continually practicing virtuous action and developing wisdom. The Bodhisattva extends loving-kindness and compassion to all sentient beings and teaches and illustrates, by example, the Bodhisattva Tao in whatever realm of existence he finds himself.
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Source: Young Men’s Buddhist Association of America