The Five Precepts
This week, we are going to be discussing Buddhist ethics, the principles that can help us act in a way that leads to better conditions for us and others
19:30 Tune in
19:50 Meditation Practice: The Metta Bhavana 2
20:35 Tea Break
20:45 Ethics in Buddhism and a journey through the five precepts.
21:05 Groups. Each taking one or two of the precepts and exploring them
21:20 Report back and discussion on the 5 precepts
Last week we explored ethics through considering the ethics of those we admire. This week we will explore ethics from the basic principles of kindness, generosity, non-craving, authenticity, and awareness. We’re going put some flesh on the bones of what Buddhism has discovered about this.
We saw that the ethics in Buddhist is not about doing what we are told, its about creating the conditions to become who we want to be based on a vision of an opening of the heart towards caring and clarity. The precepts are designed to help us change our mind towards creating true happiness rather than giving up our habits, and old patterns. Part of the challenge is seeing our current conditioning as limiting what we really want so that we will want to take ethical steps to address it.
—- maybe see —
Meditation The Metta Bhavana
Buddhist Ethics – The Five Precepts
Skillful and Unskillful, rather than Right and Wrong.
Order of events for this evening
Because Buddhism is based on principles for training the mind towards clarity and contentment its ethics does not rely on pleasing an external agent like a judging god, parent, or partner. The accent is on developing Skill, then if needs be, consciously addressing the skillfulness. The concepts of skillful and unskillful are more useful than the concepts right and wrong. The sentiments of this are elucidated in the song ‘Shadows And Light’ by Joni Mitchell.
When someone behaves ethically, they are behaving in a way that gives rise to benefits for themselves and others. Correspondingly when they behave with a limited view and without regard to outcomes, through passion driven ignorance, they will harm themselves and others. Its not a matter of being good.
Buddhist ethics is about creating conditions for ourselves where we are more truly happy, by becoming more like the kind of being that we could wish to be. Giving ourselves a hard time to please a ‘god’, will limit the mind and lead to unhappiness for self and others.
Quote of the historical Buddha from the ‘Kusala Sutta‘
“ I say, abandon what is unskillful! If abandoning what is unskillful was going to make you unhappy, I would not ask you to abandon it. But as abandoning what is unskillful brings well-being and happiness, for this reason I say, abandon what is unskillful!
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 well being and happiness, therefore I say, cultivate the good!
So Buddhist ideas about wise ways of acting are about doing what is best for ourselves and others, what will make us truly happy. 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 minded based selfishness though sometimes difficult to see beyond is self-defeating.
When we act skillfully:
- 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
Buddhist ideas about skillful action can be summed up in five 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 will lead to happiness, and what will lead to unhappiness. 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.
Discussing the Precepts
To give you a better idea of these precepts we’re going split into groups and discuss the efficacy of 1 or maybe 2 of the precepts in our lives. That is if we were to actively apply the precepts what effect to we thing they will have on us, on those around us and on our environment.
We will then come back together and one person from each group can report in on the precepts and the main thoughts that came to the group. It would be good to cover the basics of what the positive and negative aspects imply.
First Precept – 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.
- Certain professions are difficult for Buddhists – trading in arms, working in Gambling, but we all start from somewhere and often need support from friends to change while we support ourselves and our dependents albeit less ethically.
- Other professions can be subtly difficult in cause harm; advertising, addictive computer games
- Also awareness and empathy for the lives and well-being of animals. Growing awareness through ethics and meditation often leads many people towards vegetarianism
Second Precept – Generosity, not grabbiness
Positive: with open-handed generosity I purify my body
- “The characteristic Buddhist virtue”
- Becoming aware of the needs of self and others
- Buddhist practice leads us to give time and energy and material help
- At its highest an expression of our interconnectedness – feeling the needs of ourselves and others at the same level. in contrast to not being so aware of others and motivated more by what we can grab for ourselves.
Negative: I undertake the training principle of not taking the not-given
- Includes stealing but goes beyond it -time, emotional energy
- Includes any thing we get from others what they don’t freely want to give
- Includes using cunning, emotional manipulation, outwitting others, driving a hard bargain, exploiting others’ weakness
- Many business practices that are accepted as normal would be difficult.
- Ultimately means avoiding a grabbing mentality, always being about what we can get for ourselves.
Third Precept : Contentment, not craving.
Positive: with stillness, simplicity, and contentment
● About freeing ourselves from craving often neurotic or for avoidance.
● Neurotic craving vs healthy desire: craving for things that cannot satisfy the need we are experiencing, vs healthy desire for things that are real needs, like water, enough food, friendship, meaning in life.
● E.g. comfort eating because you don’t feel good about yourself – doesn’t satisfy the need, makes things worse
● Treadmill analogy – the carrot can’t be caught, because happiness comes from inside
● Buddhism tells us to step off the treadmill: cultivate contentment, value a simpler life
● Often an attempt to fill an inner sense of emptiness, we experience unless our life is meaningful, and we are expressing our spiritual potential
● Craving fuels the consumer society.
Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from sexual misconduct.
● Sex is singled out because it is the strongest craving in the human condition and therefore really needs to be reflected upon. We can ask ourselves how does sexual craving affect our habits and future?
● Buddhism is not judgemental about sexual activity, except insofar as it harms us or others
● Does not say sex is ‘bad’, or make judgements about masturbation, sex ‘out of wedlock’ or homosexuality
● Stoking up our sexual craving will limit our awareness and prevent us experiencing peace of mind;
● For this reason , traditionally stilling the mind by abstaining from sex is seen as a useful practices. Works for shorter periods on retreat for ‘lay’ Buddhists, over the longer term in monastics in may suit some.
● Harming others by our sexual activity will lead to suffering – for example by having sex with a member of a settled couple, or by entering into relationships where there are very unequal expectations (e.g. where you want casual sex and the other wants a life partner, or vice versa)
The precept is especially relevant to relating to others, but it can be applied to craving more generally.
● The precept includes all forms of craving, not just sex; indulging neurotic craving for food, drink, drugs, tobacco, fashionable clothes, gadgets, consumer goodies, bigger houses or more glamorous cars.
● It would be lovely to free ourselves from a lifestyle of craving, of looking for satisfaction where it cannot be found, in external things; and it would be lovely to see the beauty and value of a simple life.
Forth Precept: Honesty, authenticity and straightforwardness, not concealment
Positive: Truthful communication
● If we watch our speech, we see that we often carry on a public relations campaign for ourselves; we are our own pr agent, spinning the facts to make us look good, or victimised or interesting, or right; and to avoid blame, or ever being in the wrong
● This forces us to wear a mask, which is stressful, and cuts us off from others; a lot of our unhappiness comes from the fact that we are not being authentically genuine
● Dropping the mask is a great relief, and makes for deeper relationships – nobody can be friends with a mask, no matter how perfect!
Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from false speech
● Not just about telling lies
● Includes all the exaggeration, distortion and spin we use as our own PR agent
● Main point not about ‘white lies’ – most of our distortion is just about our own ego
● This precept is close to the GAP. The time between our mind and our voice is often faster than thought. The challenge is to develop the the required moment-to moment awareness – often our snap response is to avoid blame etc – so good starting point for 5th precept
● Sounds risky, but people respect and trust those who admit faults, have integrity, and can be trusted
● Integrity and truth become gut responses to.
Fifth Precept Awareness, not escapism
Positive: With mindfulness clear and radiant
● Mindfulness a Buddhist term for being present in our experience, present to the world with a sense of purpose, knowing the meaning og how and where you are and as it arises , whats next.
● Buddhism is about increasing awareness; without awareness we cannot be in the gap, we are on automatic pilot, not in charge of our own life
● We need awareness to practice any of the other precepts
● We cultivate awareness by meditation, by paying attention to our bodies, our minds, other people, and the world around us
Negative: I undertake the training principle of abstaining from becoming intoxicated by drink and drugs that cloud the mind
● If we want to cultivate awareness, we will want to avoid the things that destroy awareness
● In the Buddha’s time the main ways of destroying awareness were drink and drugs – now we have invented many more!. So drink and drugs are singled out, but they are just part of it. Buddhism does not necessitate abstinence , although many people tend in that direction or near to that endpoint.
● Habitual use of drink or drugs will dull our awareness, and thereby limit our progress
● Social drinking is a big feature of our society, and the precept doesn’t mean that unless we become abstemious teetotaler right now we cannot practice the dharma – the precepts are training principles, which we take at our own pace.
● The significance of the precept can be extended to everything we use to escape from reality: it could include habitual mindless TV, internet surfing, and excessive input of all sorts
These are the five basic principles of Buddhist ethics that can be practiced at deeper and deeper levels, and to really live by them would mean a radical change in our approach to life. What would it mean to be perfectly generous, or perfectly aware?
Until we are enlightened we can only practice them imperfectly. But if we do this we will become happier, and we will make those around us happier. We will make the world a better place. If everyone tried to practice the five precepts the problems the world would be less man made.
We offer you a challenge to take on one precept, as fully as you can, for one day.
Reflect for a moment on which precept you will take on.
Choose a suitable day now.
Examples of how this might work. E.g.
● Kindness – Try to be more openhearted with someone in your life and maybe a kindly act.
● Generosity – be open and positive to requests looking out for that unsaid implicit requests. Maybe do some generous act you would not normally do.
● Contentment – choose some addictive habit you can abstain from for a day
● Honesty – perhaps the most difficult! – just gently watch your speech and see how truthful you are. If you can choose to be as truthful as possible for a whole day, but beware speech that is unkindly, causes disharmony, or is just unhelpful.
● Awareness – watch for when you find your mind is escaping from the present. Also watch for when your mind drifts from the present. Maybe its wants to turn to drink, drugs, TV etc; If you can you might chose to occupy your mind on something more immediate , like a walk, or cooking a meal, or reflecting.
Share which precept you will take on, and what you intend to change to practice it more fully.