Exploring the Precepts

Each morning I chant the Precepts, the 5 ethical training rules I have chosen to take on as a lay practitioner. Sometimes it’s pretty rote, just part of my everyday routine. Other times I find myself chanting them with a deep heartfelt desire to not cause harm. And other times, as I chant them, I am able to see where I have not been aligned, where I need to make amends, and work to change my behavior.

For me, the precepts are the backbone of Toward Light. A series of guidelines that help inform me any time I make a choice about how to craft and support this community. Because this is such a foundational part of the mission of Toward Light, I thought it may be useful to begin to explore the precepts. Each of these can be written about in depth, so please know this is just a very brief introduction.

A few things to know: The lay precepts are found in the Noble Eightfold Path in the path factors of Wise Action and Wise Speech. Like any other Early Buddhist teaching, the goal for each of these precepts is to know them through our direct experience. These are not commandments. We take them on and see if by practicing them in our lives, we can reduce harm. The precepts become quite personal as we integrate them into our individual lives.

While I will use a translation common for Early Buddhist lineages, I do want to mention Thich Nhat Hahn’s language for the precepts. He begins each with the phrase “Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine…” I love that important reminder of the universal impact of our efforts to reduce harm.

(1) I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

By choosing not to kill we are reducing harm and protecting life. While many of us can say that we don’t kill other humans, we may be taking the lives of other living creatures. Adopting this precept, we explore the impact we have on all living beings. Two areas of frequent reflection for me are when I interact with household pests, and when I eat animal protein. In both of these scenarios, I am awake to the harm I am causing and looking at ways to reduce that harm as much as possible.

(2) I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

Again, at the most obvious level, most of us will say, “I don’t steal.” Yet, as we explore what it means to take things that aren’t freely offered, we can see many ways that we are overusing resources that aren’t ours. Whether it is dominating a conversation, using the work printer for personal documents, or not recycling, we are using resources that have not been freely given. One way I work with this precept is that I notice if there is any tension in my body as I take something, and if so, explore if I am causing harm.

(3) I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

There are a few guidelines laid out in the suttas to help define sexual misconduct. We are asked to refrain from sex with people in committed relationships, sex with monastics, sex with minors, and sex with beings that do not have the capacity to consent. Outside of that, we are each asked to define for ourselves what sexual misconduct is. As with all the precepts, the underlying intention is to reduce harm to ourselves and others, so we get to explore how that unfolds in our lives. By bringing mindful awareness to our sexual experiences, we see where we can cultivate sexual safety in this society that desperately needs more of that.

(4) I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

One of the path factors solely focuses on Wise Speech. We use language to define our experience, communicate with others, and make sense of the world. Because it is so prevalent, we are asked to pay close attention to how we use words. This precept encourages honesty, truthfulness, and authenticity. While it has been easy for me to see bigger lies, the more I pay attention to this precept, the more I am able see subtle ways I may be dishonest both with myself and others.

(5) I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

There is a story about a monk who is asked to break one precept, and chooses this one because it seems like it will cause the least amount of harm to others. But once he is intoxicated he cannot think clearly, and breaks the other precepts. So much of this path is about seeing clearly, seeing the truth of things, and when we are intoxicated that is not possible. Each of us can explore what intoxication means for us, what blocks our capacity to see clearly, and what causes and conditions lead us to reach for intoxicating substances. We begin to see how clarity supports our desire to reduce harm.

This is a very brief overview of a teaching that unfolds throughout our lifetimes in each one of us. The commitment to reduce harm evolves as our practice evolves, as our compassion develops, and as we see the depth of our impact. May we all find ways to reduce harm. May all beings be at ease.