Upholding Precepts For a Harmonious Future

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 continue on the theme of “Upholding Precept.” Last week, we discussed how upholding precepts is essentially being mindful with our physical, verbal, and mental actions. As Venerable Master Hsing Yun reminds us, by practicing the Three Acts of Goodness, which are to do good deeds, speak good words, and think good thoughts, we are upholding the precepts.

II. The Five Precepts: To Not Violate Others

Today, let’s take a closer look at what is considered “good” or “wholesome” physical, verbal, and mental actions. The Five Precepts are the fundamental guidelines to our actions.

To recap, the Five Precepts are:

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

On the surface, it may seem that the Five Precepts are rules to restrict our actions and therefore not so different from school rules or the law. But as Venerable Master Hsing Yun says in Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple

“A Buddhist observing the precepts is like a student following school rules, or a citizen abiding by the law. The only difference is that school rules and a nation’s laws are externally enforced rules, while Buddhist precepts are inner values of self-discipline.”

The Five Precepts may seem like five separate aspects, but fundamentally speaking, there is only one core precept: to not violate others. Let us examine each precept to see what it means to not violate others.

1. Refrain from killing

Refraining from killing can also be understood as refraining from taking life. This is not limited to refraining from taking the life of other human beings, but all sentient beings including animals and insects. Furthermore, we should also refrain from hurting or injuring others physically. As with all the precepts, the key that determines if one has violated a precept is one’s intention. In this case, we can reflect, was the action done intentionally to hurt people? To summarize, abstaining from killing is to not violate the physical wellbeing of all beings.

2. Refrain from Stealing 

Refraining from stealing can also be understood as refraining from taking what is not given. This refers to not illegally taking possession of others’ properties, namely, taking without permission. Taking things without permission, instructing someone else to do so, or delighting upon seeing such action are all considered inappropriate. Furthermore, opportunism, corruption, embezzlement, misusing public funds, operating illegal businesses or fraud are considered unacceptable illegal proceeds in Buddhism.

3. Refrain from Sexual Misconduct 

Refraining from sexual misconduct refers to refraining from being involved in extramarital relationships, which bring misfortune to families and upset the order of society. By upholding this precept, we vow not to violate the body and family of others. 

4. Refrain from Lying 

Refraining from lying means not to speak words that are not the truth. Additionally, this precept also includes refraining from harsh, divisive, flattering, or dishonest speech. Gossip and slander that damage another’s reputation, sabotage the good intentions of others, or result in grave harm are considered lying. In other words, refraining from lying is to not violate another’s reputation through our speech as well as their trust.

5. Refrain from Taking Intoxicants 

As a general rule, this refers to not partaking of substances that harm one’s health or impair one’s judgment. For example, drugs like morphine not only harm the body and mind, it also corrodes one’s reputation, wealth, and affinities with others. Alcohol is a stimulant that poisons the body and mind when taken in excess. When we are under the influence of intoxicants, not only are we a danger to ourselves, we might even violate the first four precepts. Therefore, to refrain from intoxicants is to not violate ourselves and others.

This is the first part to upholding precept, which is to exert self-control over our physical, verbal, and mental actions. When we read the news, we can see that the crimes that people have committed basically falls into one of these five categories. As a result, these people might be arrested, punished by the law, and put to prison. They would lose their reputation, wealth, and even personal freedom. Such news might remind us of the gravity of the law and we will learn not to do illegal actions. However, this means that our obeying of the law stems from fear. For example, we will follow the traffic rules because we don’t want to be fined or have our driver’s license suspended. On the other hand, if we truly uphold the precept, we will not do actions that violate others because we have loving-kindness and compassion towards them. Going back to the traffic rules analogy, instead of driving carefully because we are afraid that we will be fined or our driver’s license will be suspended, we drive carefully because we don’t want to hurt others. We drive carefully because we respect people’s lives and families. More importantly, we also respect our own lives and family.

III. The Five Precepts: To Respect Others

This is the second part to upholding the precept. Not only do we practice not to violate others, we also learn to respect others. As Venerable Master says, “Five Precepts are a progression from a passive practice of non-infringement to actively respecting and benefiting others.”

Let us take a look again at the Five Precepts and see how we can proactively uphold them:

1. Refrain from killing

Besides not violating the lives of other people and sentient beings, we are respecting their right to life. 

2. Refrain from Stealing 

Refraining from stealing is also about respecting others’ wealth and properties.

3. Refrain from Sexual Misconduct 

Refraining from sexual misconduct means respecting the body, reputation, and integrity of others. Not only will families be happy, societies and nations shall also be stable and harmonious. 

4. Refrain from Lying 

Refraining from lying means respecting the reputation and credibility of other people.

5. Refrain from Taking Intoxicants 

Refraining from intoxicants is to respect the health and intelligence of oneself and others.

When we first become aware of our thoughts and behavior, it might be easier to control our body, speech, and mind. For example, when we are angry, it is easier for us to control our tongue from speaking harsh words than for us to speak nice words at that moment of rage. This is why we begin the practice passively. In other words, we try not to do something. Hence, all five precepts begin with “to refrain from” doing something, or to stop ourselves from doing something. In this process, we are also taming our Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. 

When we have good self-control, we are ready for the next phase of upholding precepts, which is to actively do something. This is the time when we can actively protect the lives, belongings, reputation, family, and intelligence of the people around us. This is the time when we can increase our kindness, compassion, and respect towards others.

III. The Buddha and the Bird

One day, the Buddha and his disciple, Sariputra, were standing under the sun. A little bird came flying by and sought shade in Sariputra’s shadow. But instead of being calmed, the little bird was twittering in fear and its body was shaking in fright. Very quickly, the bird flew away from Sariputra’s shadow and went to the Buddha’s shadow. As soon as it landed, the bird was calm and sat there peacefully, as if it had found a safe shelter.

Sariputra, who was the Buddha’s number one disciple and known as the wisest disciple, was surprised by this incident. He asked the Buddha, “Oh Buddha! I have no thoughts of killing or harming this little bird. Why does it shake in fear and is afraid of my shadow?”

The Buddha replied, “Though you have no intention of hurting it, your residual tendency of hatred that was built up across beginningless lifetimes is still felt  by the little bird. This is why it is afraid of you.”

Sariputra felt ashamed after listening to the Buddha’s words. “Oh Buddha! This signifies that my loving-kindness and compassion is not enough, hence I still have residue hatred in my mind. From today onwards, I shall take more care to be compassionate to all beings, for if even a little bird is afraid to approach me, how can I possibly reach out to the people and teach them?”

III. The Five Great Offerings

The Five Precepts are also known as the Five Great Offerings. When we nurture loving-kindness and compassion inside of us, naturally we will have no intention of hurting or violating others through our body, speech, or mind. Hence, people will feel safe and secure when interacting with us, for they know we will not hurt them in any way. In Buddhism, the greatest of all giving is the giving of fearlessness. When we truly uphold the Five Precepts, we are in fact giving the people around us fearlessness.

 Upholding the Five Precepts enhances one’s faith and wisdom, gives rise to merit, and strengthens one’s practice. This strength prevents unwholesome conduct and wrongdoing from arising. Not only will we enjoy personal freedom by respecting others and refraining from infringing upon them, we will also be respected by others and coexist in harmony with all.

As Venerable Master said in his book, “Of Benefiting Self and Others”: If one person in a country upholds the precepts, then one person is sound; if one household upholds the precepts, then one household is sound; if an entire society uphold the precepts, then the society will be stable.”The Five Precepts are not simply rules and regulations for Buddhists, they are also guidelines to be a kinder, more compassionate, respectful, and wiser person. Peace and harmony are our shared dreams, and it is possible to achieve through upholding the Five Precepts.

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