What are the Buddhist Precepts?

me and Gudo

The precepts are kind of rules or guidelines for Buddhists. I grew up as a Catholic, and learned the ten commandments off by heart in school. When I first read the precepts I noticed they were similar. Things like "don't destroy life", "don't steal", "don't lie". The Buddhist precepts also include three "universal" precepts, "to observe the rules of society", "to observe the moral rule of the Universe", and "to work for the salvation of all living beings". But the precepts are a bit different from the ten commandments because no-one is expected to observe the precepts all the time and it's not a sin if you don't. You just try to keep them as best you can. The idea behind the precepts is that they're good guidelines to live by. I've met people who try to follow the precepts even though they don't want to do any kind of ceremony.

I used to have a lot of trouble figuring out the value of the precepts. But after a while I realized that keeping the precepts as best I can is a good way to eliminate a lot of hassle and problems from my life. The precept "don't lie" is a good example of this for me. It's normal for people to lie sometimes, and in some cases it's unavoidable. But I've often found out the hard way that telling lies can eventually catch up on me and cause a lot more trouble than if I'd just told the truth in the first place. I often see examples in the news and daily life of people who told lies and are found out later. It always reminds me of the "don't lie" precept.  However, the hard thing for me is still not to actually tell a lie.

One reason Zen Buddhists practice zazen is that by practicing regularly we gradually reach a point where we naturally follow the precepts. The urge to steal something or lie about something goes away all by itself. If you practice zazen for a while you probably won't feel quite right if you tell a lie or steal something. You might also notice that there's no real reason to steal something or lie about something anyway. What's the point.

But it's not always like that. Even people who practice zazen break the precepts for one reason or another. Because at the end of the day everyone is human, and we all make mistakes. But even if we do make a mistake or do wrong behavior, we can still do zazen again and try to learn from what happened. Eventually you might decide that you just don't want to bring that kind of trouble on yourself or other people anymore.

So what exactly are the precepts anyway? Well here are the ten main precepts along with a short comment by Gudo Nishijima's on what each one means:

No.1: Don't destroy life. We all have our life, The Universe is life itself. We should not destroy that of which we are a part. We should not destroy life in vain.

No.2: Don't steal. We have our own place in the world; our own position and property. We should not invade another's position. We should not steal.

No.3: Don't desire too much. We all have desire. Desire is an important factor in our life. But excessive desire is not the origin of happiness. It destroys our composure. Too much desire tends to make our life unhappy. So Gautama Buddha recognized the existence of desire but he warned against too much indulgence. He advised us not to desire too much.

No.4: Don't lie. We are living in the Universe. The Universe is the truth itself. Truth and honesty are bound together. If we want to find the truth we must be honest. If we are not honest we can never find our real situation in the Universe.

No.5: Don't live by selling liquor. This seems rather strange as a religious precept. The original concept might have been not to drink liquor. Perhaps as Buddhism spread from India to countries like China and Japan this precept was altered to suit local conditions. In those northern countries alcohol was considered an important aid to survival during the cold winter months. So personally I feel that it is important not to drink, but we should recognize the precept in the form that it has come to us from the past.

No.6: Don't discuss failures of Buddhist priests and laymen. As Buddhists we try our best to live and practice the Buddhist life. In doing so we often make mistakes. This is natural. Our mistakes come directly from our efforts. This may sound strange, but it is the fact in our life. So when we see the mistakes of others we should not be critical, for their mistakes are only the product of their efforts in this life.

No.7: Don't praise yourself or berate others. Modern psychology tells us that most of us have some sort of superiority or inferiority complex. I think this is basically true, and because of these personal inclinations we are prone to praise or criticize ourselves and other people. But we are all human beings. If we recognize the true situation it is impossible to blame others for their faults, and praising ourselves is needless.

No.8: Don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things, but give them freely. Our tendency is to want more than we have. We want more teachings; we want more things. But when we see our situation clearly we realize that we are part of the wide and glorious Universe. We have everything we need already. In such a situation it is natural to give. We want to share the teachings and what wealth we have with others. It is a natural activity of our true situation.

No.9: Don't become angry. Many of us are prone to become angry. It seems a natural outcome of our personality, but in fact anger is not our natural state. In Buddhism we try to maintain our composure. To be composed is our natural condition. To be natural is the teaching of Gautama Buddha.

No.10: Don't abuse the three supreme values. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are the foundation of Buddhist life. We must honor them, esteem them and devote ourselves to them.