Week 4

IMB Course Week 4 – The Precepts

Recap 3mins


Last week we jointly invented an ethical system, which expresses our joint intuitions, and which I think is universal. This corresponded very well with the fundamental Buddhist principles of kindness, generosity, non-craving, authenticity, and awareness. This week we’re going to explore this a bit further, and put some flesh on the bones of what Buddhism has to say about this.

So to put it another way, we are going to be talking about Buddhist ethics, the principles of how we should behave in a way that will have positive results for us and others.

We saw last week that Buddhist ethics are not about doing what we are told, they are about deciding who we want to be. They are not about giving up any real freedom, they are about freeing ourselves from slavery to our conditioning, habits, and old patterns.

Skilful and unskilful, not right and wrong. 7mins

Because Buddhism is not based on belief in a judging god, its ethics are not about pleasing some cosmic authority figure. So we don’t tend to talk about right and wrong, we talk about skilful and unskilful. When someone behaves unethically they are behaving in an unwise way, because they are behaving in ways that will harm themselves and others. They are being rather stupid, not evil.

Buddhist ethics are not about giving ourselves a hard time to please a ‘god’, they are about making ourselves more truly happy, by becoming more like the higher being that we could be.

Quote from the historical Buddha

I say, abandon what is unskilful! If abandoning what is unskilful was going to make you unhappy, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as abandoning what is unskilful brings wellbeing and happiness, for this reason I say, abandon what is unskilful!

I say, cultivate the good! If cultivating the good was going to make you unhappy, I would not ask you to cultivate it. But as cultivating the good brings wellbeing and happiness, therefore I say, cultivate the good!

So Buddhist ideas about wise ways of acting are about doing what is best for ourselves, what will make us truly happy, but based on quite a different idea of what makes for happiness from that held by society at large. These include the idea that what makes for true happiness comes from internal positive mental states rather than externals, and that we are interconnected with other beings and the world around us, so that narrow selfishness is self-defeating.

When we act skilfully:

  • We make ourselves happier by acting in ways that develop positive mental states through the law of karma, which tells us that how we act now creates the person we will be in the future
  • We act for the benefit of others, because the ways of acting that nourish positive tendencies in ourselves include kindness and generosity to others.

These two interact and reinforce each other. If we are in a good state we make others happier by our presence and influence. (Its not much fun to be around someone in a bad state.) Also, if we act for the benefit of others, they tend to reciprocate, we receive more kindness and generosity ourselves, and we experience deeper, warmer, and more satisfactory friendships and relationships, so we become happier ourselves.

Together these two improve the whole world: If we have a positive effect on others, this has a positive effect on the people THEY come into contact with. Every act of kindness and generosity sends out ripples that go on widening for ever. This is also true of every act of meanness or cruelty. Every one of us is a powerful agent in creating the world we all live in.

The Five Precepts 2mins

Buddhist ideas about skilful action can be summed up in five great principles, that we have already touched on: kindness, generosity, non-craving, authenticity, and awareness. These principles are fleshed out in what are called the Five Precepts, five ethical guidelines that we can use to bring our actions into line with what will benefit ourselves and others.

Each of these ethical guidelines has a positive and a negative aspect: what we should do, and what we should avoid. For example the first precept tells us that we should try to act out of kindness, on the positive side, and that we should avoid acts that harm others, on the negative side.

The Great Debate 5 mins per precept=33mins

To give you a better idea of these precepts we’re going to have a debate! We’re going to hear 5(?) people talk for 5 mins each about their favourite precept, and each is going to tell us why they think this is the most important one of the lot. Then we’re going to ask you to vote on which is in fact the most important.

[People need to talk about these in their own words. They need to both argue why their precept is the most important, and more importantly they need to cover the basics of what the positive and negative aspects imply. Introducing Buddhism might be helpful in knowing what needs to be covered, and we also have some ‘short talkettes on the precepts on the computer. Below I’ve tried to list the main points that need to be covered. This needs to be given to the people giving talks.]

Kindness, not cruelty

Positive: deeds of loving kindness

  • Expresses interconnectedness
  • Need to act, not just feel good to others
  • Starts with those closest, moves out from there

Negative: I undertake the training principle of not harming living beings.

  • As far as possible not killing or causing suffering, physical or mental.
  • Usually taken to rule out certain professions for Buddhists – fighting in armed forces, trading in arms, trading in meat products
  • Also professions which cause more subtle harm, advertising, promotes unnecessary craving, and causes suffering
  • Animals as well as humans.
  • Vegetarianism

Generosity, not grabbiness

Positive: with open-handed generosity

  • “The characteristic Buddhist virtue”
  • Can start with very small gifts – a lot of this in the Sangha
  • Includes giving time and energy
  • At its highest an expression of an overall approach to life – to see what is important in life as being how we can make a contribution, rather than what we can grab for ourselves.

Negative: I undertake the training principle of not taking the not-given

  • Includes stealing but goes beyond it
  • Includes any way we get from others what they don’t freely want to give
  • Could include using cunning, emotional manipulation, outwitting others, driving a hard bargain, exploiting others’ weakness
  • Might rule out many business practices that are accepted as quite normal!
  • Ultimately means avoiding a grasbbing mentality, always being about what we can get for ourselves.

Contentment, not craving.


Positive: with stillness, simplicity, and contentment