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. Continue reading