Upholding Precepts & Three Acts of Goodness

Speaker: Venerable Zhi Guan

Fo Guang Shan France

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to Dharma friends around the world! Welcome to a new episode of Fo Guang Shan English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Guan from Fo Guang Shan France. Today, I would like to share “Upholding Precept with the Three Acts of Goodness” with you.

Recently, Fo Guang Shan held a worldwide taking refuge and upholding precept ceremony. 3000 people from the five continents took the first steps in becoming Buddhists, which are to take refuge in the Buddha and uphold the Five Precepts.

The first step in becoming a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Triple Gem, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is to have faith in the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism; in the Dharma, the teaching of the Truth; and the Sangha, the teachers that will guide us on the path of Buddhist cultivation. The Triple Gem are important conditions for us to attain liberation. By relying on the power of the Triple Gem, we can be free from pain and troubles and obtain happiness. 

II. Putting Faith into Practice

Having built our faith in the Triple Gem, the next step of becoming a Buddhist is to put the teachings of the Buddha into practice. As Venerable Master said in Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple, “Taking refuge is the first step to learning Buddhism, while upholding the Five Precepts is faith in practice.” The parables in the sutras refer to the Buddha as a good doctor, the Dharma as the wondrous cure, and the Sangha as the carers. Who is the patient? We are the patients. What are our illnesses? Basically, our illnesses are greed, hatred, and ignorance. This parable shows us that even though we have access to the best doctor, the best medicine, and the best carers, it is still up to us, the patient, to see if we are willing to be cured. If we want to be cured, we will accept help from the doctor, take the cure, and follow the advice of the carers. In other words, though we have taken refuge in the Triple Gem, we still need to put in the effort to practice so that our goal of happiness and liberation can be attained.

Upholding the Five Precepts is faith in practice. Precepts are the foundation of all wholesome practices, and the essence of precepts is to not infringe upon others. By doing so, our Three Karmas—physical, verbal, and mental karma—can be purified. What does it mean to “purify” our Three Karmas? In daily life, we are bombarded by all sorts of troubles and afflictions. These troubles can come from external sources, from family concerns, work-related stress, interpersonal issues, to a full carpark, a sold-out supermarket, and even the weather, to internal worries and emotions. These scenarios trigger our physical, verbal, and mental actions, which can be wholesome or unwholesome. When we act unwholesomely, we feel conscientious about it and might even carry the guilt with us. However, by choosing to uphold precepts, we are choosing to practice what is wholesome. Naturally, we will be more mindful with our actions. Not only will we try not to do what’s unwholesome, we will even strive to do what’s wholesome and beneficial. In this way, we are purifying our Three Karmas. We are using our body, speech, and mind for something good.

III. Three Kinds of Precept

During the Buddha’s time, there was a young man who took refuge in the Triple Gem and renounced after hearing the Buddha’s teaching. As he began his new life in the Sangha, an elder monastic took time to explain the practices that a new monastic should do.

The elder said, “Now that you are a newly renounced monastic, you should begin with upholding the precepts. There are many kinds of precepts. First, we need to uphold the Ten Sramanera Precepts. Then we need to uphold the 250 Bhiksu Precepts. You should also be aware that some precepts are more serious than others, hence there are major and minor precepts.”

As the junior monastic listened to the senior, his faith and confidence faltered. He thought to himself. “There are so many kinds of precepts! It is not easy to uphold all of them. If I can’t uphold all of these precepts, then what is the significance of becoming a monastic? Oh, I might as well return to lay life and focus on practicing generosity and doing charity.”

So the junior said to the senior, “Oh elder venerable! I can’t possibly uphold all of these precepts. If I cannot uphold these precepts, what benefits are there to a monastic’s life? I should return to lay life.”

The senior sighed, “If that is the case, you should report to the Buddha.”

When the Buddha saw the approaching monastics, he asked, “Oh bhiksus! Why have you come?”

The senior said, “Oh Buddha! This young bhiksu says he cannot uphold the precepts and wishes to return to lay life, so we brought him here to report to you.”

The Buddha replied, “Oh bhiksu! Why did you approach this young bhiksu with discussion of so many precepts? This is not an appropriate way to teach Dharma.” 

The Buddha turned compassionately to the young monastic, “You do not have to uphold so many precepts. You need only uphold three.”

The young bhiksu asked, “Oh Buddha, what are the three kinds of precepts?”

“From today onwards, you need only to guard your body, speech, and mind carefully and prevent them from unwholesome actions. You can now begin your cultivation as a monastic. There is no need for you to return to lay life. By upholding these three kinds of precepts, you will attain liberation and joy.”

The young bhiksu was grateful of the Buddha’s teachings, and he vowed to uphold these three kinds of precepts mindfully. Soon enough, he attained arhatship. 

The news of his attainment spread in the monastic community, and everyone was impressed by the Buddha’s wisdom. They reported this event to the Buddha, and the Buddha replied,

“Oh bhiksus! When a heavy burden is separated into a few, smaller ones, the load is lighter. There once was a farmer who found a chunk of gold in his field. He tried to pull the gold chunk out from the ground but could not due to its heavy mass. Finally he thought ‘I may as well as split this gold chunk into several pieces. I shall use some of it for my livelihood, some of it for investment, some of it for charity, and leave some of it underground.’ Once he split the gold chunk into several pieces, he could use them easily.” 

The key to upholding precepts is to understand the essence of precepts. If we are too attached to the form of precepts, one is instead bound by the precepts instead of liberated.

III. Three Acts of Goodness

This story also shows us that upholding precepts basically has to do with our body, speech, and mind. Take the Five Precepts for example.

The Five Precepts are:

  1. Abstain from killing,
  2. Abstain from stealing,
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct,
  4. Abstain from lying, and
  5. Abstain from taking intoxicants.

The first three precepts correspond to our physical actions. Abstaining from lying is connected to our verbal deeds, and abstaining from taking intoxicants has to do with our mental deeds because by not consuming intoxicants, we are keeping a clear mind. Furthermore, the Five Precepts are not just a reminder for our action, it is also a reminder for our mind. As thought usually comes before action, abstaining from the thoughts of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicant are very important aspects of upholding precepts. In this way, we can see that the Five Precepts are closely related to our Three Karmas.

In 1998, Venerable Master Hsing Yun initiated the “Three Acts of Goodness Campaign.” The Three Acts of Goodness are:

  1. Do good deeds
  2. Speak good words
  3. Think good thoughts.

The Three Acts of Goodness are a simple but profound reminder for us to be mindful of our physical, verbal, and mental actions.

As Venerable Master explains in Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple:

  1. Do Good Deeds

To do good deeds means to cultivate wholesome actions as a means to purify our physical karma. Instead of engaging in unwholesome actions that violate and harm others, we uphold buddha-like actions that benefit others. For example, we abstains from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and other illicit acts. Instead, one engages in wholesome, benevolent, and altruistic deeds for the benefit of others. This is what is meant by doing good deeds or doing wholesome physical actions.

  1. Speak Good Words

To speak good words is to cultivate wholesome speech as a means of purifying our verbal karma. Instead of insulting others out of hatred and jealousy, we speak buddha-like words of kindness and praise by abstaining from dishonest, divisive, flattering, or harsh speech. When interacting with others, speak words of loving-kindness, compassion, wisdom, and truthfulness. Good affinities are formed when our words are honest and righteous.

  1. Think Good Thoughts

To think good thoughts means to cultivate wholesome thoughts as a means of purifying one’s mental deeds. It means to transform an ignorant, unwholesome mind into a buddha-like mind of loving-kindness, compassion, and wisdom. Let the mind be free from doubt, jealousy, greed, anger, and hatred. Instead, fill it with loving-kindness, compassion, vow, wholesomeness, and aspiration. Be mindful that every thought is a kind one and good affinities will naturally follow.

Spiritual cultivation starts from cultivating wholesome physical, verbal, and mental karmas, and the Three Acts of Goodness are a wonderful mental reminder for us. You might find that when you are caught in a dilemma, a simple “do good deeds” will help you make the right choice. When your tongue is about to get the better of you, a quick mental reminder of “speak good words” will help prevent trouble, and when your emotion gets the better of you, a simple “think good thoughts” might save you from a regrettable situation.

III. Conclusion

Throughout history, sages were known for their good deeds, good words, and good thoughts. Moreover, one of the earliest teachings of the Buddha is to practice wholesome actions and to “do no evil, do all that is wholesome, purify the mind.” The Three Acts of Goodness may seem simple, but contain the profound Dharma that holds true to the Buddha’s original intents. If everyone is able to practice the Three Acts of Goodness, society will become more harmonious, and the world will become a better place. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of English Dharma Services. May you find inspiration and joy in the Dharma. Omitofo.