The five precepts are a set of training rules that the Buddha laid out for his followers. Buddhist monks follow over 200 training rules, but many lay Buddhists adhere to these first five. We will also discuss the sixth, seventh, and eighth precept, as these are precepts worth investigating. When visiting a monastery or attending a meditation retreat, practitioners often undertake the eight precepts. Buddhists have taken these precepts for thousands of years, vowing to practice them in daily life. By undertaking these precepts, we are practicing sila, or ethics. The precepts serve to create a community of safety, and it is easy to see how the first five precepts lead to a safer community for all.
The Five Precepts
The first precept is undertaking the practice of not killing other living beings. This is up for interpretation, as many people understand it to mean not causing harm to other beings, not just killing. In its most obvious interpretation, this means we do not murder. It is pretty easy to see that killing other people causes great harm. However, the precept instructs us to not kill living BEINGS, not living HUMANS. The encouragement here is to not kill anything that is sentient. This includes animals, insects, and some take it as far as plants. Whatever your understanding of this precept is, the point is clear: don’t cause physical harm.
As with the other four precepts, the Buddha encouraged us to also not encourage others to break this precept. This means that we should not tell someone to kill a bug on our behalf in order to avoid doing it ourselves. Furthermore, we should examing the way in which we may be condoning the killing of living beings. This includes things like eating meat, wearing animal product, and consuming dairy. If you eat meat, wear leather, or drink milk, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. However, it is worth tuning into the suffering that comes as a result of these industries. We keep some chickens ourselves for eggs, and know this can be an interesting practice in mindfulness and care, and also tuning into where our products and food come from.
The second precept lay Buddhists take is to refrain from taking that which is not freely offered. On its surface, this is a suggestion to not steal. Of course, we should not steal goods, money, belongings, etc. AS with the other precepts, this rule serves to create a safe community for people to grow. When we steal, we don’t allow others to feel safe. In addition, stealing creates an unwholesome habit in our lives of deceiving others.
Again, there is something deeper to the precept. What is something that is “not freely offered?” There are many things that can not be “freely offered” such as time, energy, attention, and food. It is relatively easy for most of us to not physically steal from people’s homes or department stores. However, it is a bit more difficult to not take time and effort when it is not freely offered. It is worth investigating. Do you interrupt people when they are speaking? Do you talk a lot and not allow others the space to share their opinions? Do you ask for favors a lot from others? These things aren’t necessarily “bad” all the time, but it is a place where we can bring our mindfulness to see how we are interacting with others.
The third precept covers our sexuality. This precept is to not engage in sexual misconduct. To Buddhist monks and nuns, this means not having sexual relations. Engaging in sexual activity puts us at high risk of falling into craving and clinging, and we may accidentally cause harm with our sexuality. For the monastic community, it is simply easier to steer clear of sex completely.
For the lay community, this means not causing harm with our sexuality. Some suggestions include not engaging in sexual activity with a minor, with anyone who has not consented, and with people in a committed relationship. Whatever this means to you, the point is to watch how your sexuality may cause harm. Knowing what we know about the porn industry, this includes (for me personally) not watching porn. Do we have sex solely with the intention of fulfilling a craving? Do we have sex after an argument, after a bad day, etc. Or do we engage in sexual activity out of love and care. This is a truly deep topic that frankly isn’t discussed enough. I highly recommend reading Kate Spina’s piece on the third precept.
The fourth precept is to abstain from false speech. This one, again is fairly obvious. We should not lie. When we lie, we foster a community of deception and do not create safety. When we are truthful, we help create a safe space for both ourselves and others. In addition, honesty helps us feel safer, as we tend to think others are lying when we lie to others. Although this precept does focus on false speech, we must consider the grey area here.
In general, we should not go around blurting truths out. If you see somebody who you find unattractive, you should not shout out that they are ugly (at least in my opinion). Furthermore, there is the example of somebody asking if their pants make them look fat. Is it “right” to tell them truth, that they do a little bit? Some helpful tips for investigating wise speech is to consider if what you are saying is truthful, kind, timely, and what the intention behind it is. Also, what may be wise with one person may not be with another. Speech is a huge part of our lives, and there is a ton opportunity to practice with the words we use (or don’t use).
The final precept that lay Buddhists generally undertake is to abstain from intoxicants. The precept specifically says to refrain from fermented drink that leads to heedlessness. Fermented drink refers to alcohol, but many people who walk the path still drink here and there. Some people believe drinking is acceptable as long as we don’t drink to the point of being drunk. Others believe that any alcohol is to be avoided. It is up to you to investigate this precept and see what your truth is. Personally, I am a recovering alcoholic so I just avoid it altogether!
Although the precept specifically mentions alcohol, we may also consider our relationship to other substances that cause heedlessness. This includes drugs in the traditional sense, such as marijuana or marijuana wax, amphetamines, hallucinogens, etc. As I myself did at one point, many people consider marijuana to help them along the Buddhist path and in meditation. It definitely is worth examination, as drugs lead to heedlessness. The Buddha’s encouragement was to remain mindful and careful. Drugs get in the way of this. If we wish to take it even further, we may investigate our relationship to things like nicotine, caffeine, sugar, and even exercise.
The Eight Precepts
When we hear about the precepts, we most often hear about the five precepts. This is because the five precepts are generally undertaken by most lay Buddhists. The following three precepts are also important. We may find ourselves following these precepts when we undertake a serious practice on retreat or at a monastery, and I personally think they are really important to take a look at an understand. Unlike the first five precepts that serve to create a safe community, the sixth, seventh, and eighth serve to create healthy conditions for practice.
Not Eating at Inappropriate Times
The sixth precept, and the first of this set of three is to avoid eating at inappropriate times. This is another practice in mindful eating. Specifically, this training rule is to abstain from teating after solar noon. The instruction is to avoid consuming any solid food after noon, although we may drink tea, suck on chocolate, or consumeo honey if need be. For years this precept confused me, as it seemed to be rather silly. Then, I undertook this precept while staying at a monastery. This precept serves two purposes. First, we are less likely to fall into sloth and torport when we are not overfed. Eating can cause some laziness or tiredness. When we are meditating in the container of a meditation retreat, we really don’t need very much food. When we stop eating after noon, we are able to conctentrate and meditate better. Furthermore, this is a practice in addressing craving. This precept helps us look at ourr relationship to food, and the craving thaat arises with it.
Abstaining from Entertainment
The seventh precept is to abstain from quite a few things. They include wearing jewelry, putting on makeup, dancing, singing, listening to music, seeing movies, and wearing perfume. Just like the previous precept, this precept serves as a training rule to encourage healthy practice. When we are consumed by beautifying the body and entertaining ourselves, we are tempted to fall into craving and aversion. By avoiding these things, we are able to spend more effort on our practice. In periods of intensive meditation practice, listening to music or watching a movie can take us away from mindfulness. Beautifying the body may bring delusion, unawareness of the body’s impermanent nature, and craving. Even in daily life, we can investigate our relationship to these things in order to see how they interact with our practice.
Not Sleeping in Luxurious Beds
The final precept we may undertake is to abstain from using high and luxurious beds and chairs. Traditionally, this means not using a mattress and not sitting on a chair with cushions. This precept helps us abstain from laziness. When we have a really comfortable bed, we are tempted to sleep longer and return to bed during the day. When we have a very comfortable chair, we may get sleepy during meditation. By following this training rule, we are watching for these physical comforts that often lead to sloth and torpor. Avoiding beds and “luxurious thrones,” we are able to be more attentive and energized in our meditation practice.