There’s something very humble and straightforward about taking the precepts. It’s a major step in one’s commitment to peace, and one of the first really active steps. Before this step people tend to be quite critical of precepts and the idea of giving something up – even frightfully destructive things like killing, stealing, and lying. They challenge those who take precepts and try to prove the effort is vain and pointless. Others, long after becoming seasoned meditators and card-carrying Buddhists, can sometimes relate to the precepts like a meaningless piece of ceremony. “Come on,” they say. “It doesn’t take any effort. There’s nothing to do. Just don’t kill anyone.”
But right there at the point where we finally acknowledge the suffering caused by our choices, and feel the pain acutely enough to resolve on change – that is a beautiful moment. It is the admission that we are tempted, but that we suspect we may have the strength to face those temptations. The reality of the situation is that Sila, Morality, is at the heart of all spiritual growth, and every stage of the path is accompanied by important moral decisions and lessons. If we were in control of our lives, we could simply decide how we wanted to be in the world. But we are reminded again and again it’s not up to us. Every day is a unique challenge. The precepts are not divine mandates or rules written in stone. They are physical examples and guidelines meant to teach us about subtle mental and emotional processes. Following them leads us onward to the true roots of our suffering.
The Five Precepts, the first and most basic moral standards in Buddhism, are pretty simple. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, or get drunk. The world, however, is far from simple. It continues to hand us situations not covered in the instructions, and the way forward is not always clear. One person is trying to figure out how to navigate complicated social situations without lying; another struggles working at a company that is cutting corners and seemingly cares nothing for its employees. A Burmese friend wants to support loved ones back home but suspects donations might be spent on weapons. And even long-time meditators find themselves in the occasional rut – what to do when everyone around you is using one substance or another? How to resist the temptation? How to recover if you give in?
The precepts are not just rules. They point the way on a journey of self-discovery. We ourselves get to explore these situations, and try to figure out the right path forward. We get to try making new choices. We get to experience new ways of being alive. That’s why the precepts are called ‘sikkhāpadā’, or ‘trainings’. They are what we use to develop our sense of ethics. We see where we fall short, we try to change, we experience success, and in the end we develop confidence in ourselves and our conduct. This confidence is the one thing that can never be taken from us.
Applying precepts in real life has been the theme of the week. In this, I am as much student as teacher. Life will never stop creating new situations with which to test us and our Sila. But that’s okay. It’s not just rules we are cultivating, but the very Wisdom that allows us to discern the true nature of things. It’s takes energy to apply ourselves, but growth in Wisdom will affect every aspect of our lives.