By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳
It is important to understand that our practice is a three-part plan: i) stop doing harm (Live By Principles), ii) Do only good (engage the Four Truths) and, iii) Do good for others (Develop Your Character).
The Principles are something that needs to be personal in order to work to maximum advantage. Generally speaking, most people tend to adopt a list of five Principles (also known as Precepts, or Mindfulness Trainings by Thich Nhat Hanh) but there is also a set of eight and ten that one could use. The five are: avoid killing, avoid lying, avoid stealing, avoid sexual misconduct, and avoid taking intoxicants.
You may notice that they are phrased in the negative with the word “avoid” introducing each one. This makes sense since the first point of the three-part plan is “Stop Doing Harm”! Each one of these five life principles is like a line that you draw in the sand and refuse to cross. Because of this each has to be specific to you and the way you live your life, and so before you adapt these Life Principles, consider each one carefully and wholly, and then commit them to writing so that you can refer back to them and update them as your life changes.
The first of the five asks you to consider just what it means to avoid killing. Simplistically, it may mean that you don’t go around murdering people willy-nilly. But deeper thought may show a variety of facets to this principle. It could extend to animals as well, hence the idea of not killing indirectly, and many people become vegetarian or vegan as a support for this principle. But once the concept of indirect killing is taken into serious consideration, then your practice may expand even more; what products do your purchase that helps to support companies or organizations that destroy ecosystems, or cause serious harm to localized people in under-privileged countries, or aid in the extinction of entire species, or harm the oceans or the earth? The list goes on and on. So each person must decide for themself how they specifically, are going to engage this idea of not killing.
The same process can be followed for the second principle “avoid lying”. On the surface of course, this might be the simple admonition to tell the truth. But we know from our life experience that black-and-white ideas are rarely black-and-white, for example often a mistruth is told to protect feelings of others. We may also consider the indirect approach to lying as well such allowing others to believe something because facts have been omitted or not refuted when we know differently. We may also consider the habit of accepting things as truth without first verifying for ourselves the reality of it, so this may require us to suspend belief temporarily before we commit to a particular point-of-view. And what about our own thoughts? What do we believe about ourselves that isn’t necessarily true?
These complicated, indirect angles extend to the third principle “not stealing”. Once we get past the obvious idea of theft, how else might we be stealing? Do we knowingly take credit for ideas that are not ours (or allow others to believe that the idea originated with us)? Do we misdirect in order to achieve some sort of gain from others – to inflate our reputation for example? How else might we be gaining something due to someone or something else’s loss? Do we delight in the misfortune of others because it makes feel good about ourselves? Do we take advantage of others in any way?
Sexual misconduct causes all sorts of difficulties for us and others impacted by these acts. One might ask do I cause harm or hurt feelings by what I do or how I treat others? We know that many people in these modern times use sex as another outlet to hide from the pain in their lives so we even need to question the habit of casual hookups – are these causing harm?
Often sexual misconduct is the result of intoxication, the fifth principle. Intoxication isn’t just through drugs or alcohol, but extend to sex, gambling, eating, video games, movies, etc. Anything that can lead our thinking to a place where harm can be done is a form of intoxication. We might ask ourselves does this lead to harm in any way?
So we can see that consideration of these is complex and takes time. But it needs to be specific to you. Ultimately we ask, “What is the line I will not cross?”