By: Rev. David Shi Shen-Xi
The Buddhist precepts have over the years taken on a force of their own, it seems, as Western teachers work to creatively re-describe them in terms that their Western students can relate to. What makes the precepts a bit confusing perhaps is that the various Buddhist schools and traditions have different terminology for them that has been driven by past cultural expectations as Buddhism moved East out of India. A valid question may be, “Why are the precepts identified differently depending on what Buddhist books I read?” This is a fair question, and one that confused me many years ago too. The Buddhist precepts are moral and ethical guidelines and as such have evolved through the ages based on the realities of their day. Originally, they were developed by Siddhartha in order to foster harmony within those that lived together in the Sangha of his followers. In the beginning no precepts were needed, but as time went on the Buddha found it necessary to confront the inequities of human behavior and addressed disharmony by setting some “rules” for personal conduct. For this reason it is not surprising that the Ten Grave Precepts sound a lot like the Ten Commandments. In fact, you can find similarities in the precepts to the Golden Rule which is really the basis of the Buddhist Three Pure Precepts, when you think about it. Consider it like a ruler for drawing a straight line where this line is a path that helps prevent us from getting lost along the way of our practice. Precepts are not goals, but are realities that emerge from the Four Noble Truths. The precepts are like a mirror when held up to a mature practice reflects back these truths. They are something we undertake, not something we are given.
The Ten Grave Precepts are, in a way, another example of a Buddhist paradox. They can be viewed both as a negative and a positive. In fact, in older descriptions of the precepts they reflect what we should NOT DO. But as Western teachers engage them from a contemporary and pragmatic perspective, they are articulated in positive and useful language. In fact, we might consider them as seeds, that have been planted in the enriched soil of the Western culture that are producing a bumper crop of new plants that are better recognizable as something we can consume for nourishing the human spirit.
It is not my purpose to discuss each of the precepts here, we have done that many times. But I would like to reflect on how they ennoble a dedicated practice. It is our responsibility when we make the decision to study the precepts to first engage them in their contemporary language, and make them our own by internalizing them through hours of consideration and contemplation. To do this, I encourage my students to next rewrite them into their own words. This exercise leads the student to discover the richness underlying the lessons learned in the Four Noble Truths. It is a path of self-discovery that in the Four Noble Truths the reality as reflected in the precepts is the path away from suffering. The student discovers for themselves that the precepts ARE the path too.
A few words come to mind when we contemplate the underlying significance engendered in each of the precepts: loving-kindness, patience, self-control, truthfulness and watchfulness. Think about it. When we consider the driving force behind negative dispositions, cravings, attachments, addictive behaviors, hate, anger, selfish desires, self-centered consumerism, and disregard for our environment to mention a few, we are reminded of how we must change to move from the Second Truth into the truths associated in the Eightfold Path. The way of the Golden Rule.