The Five Precepts
-- by Kusala Bhikshu
from a talk given at Benedict's Dharma 2


Today I am going to speak on the five precepts.

The five precepts are the foundation of Buddhist practice. Some of the five precepts are found in the Noble Eightfold Path under the category of personal discipline. In that category we find, right speech, right action and right livelihood.

If the launching pad is askew, the rocket takes off and misses the mark. The foundation is very important to the rest of the sturcture. The five precepts are the foundation of Buddhist practice.

What is right speech? The Buddha said there are four kinds of unskillful speech. They are false, malicious, harsh, and gossip or iddle chatter. Those four kinds of speech always increase suffering.

When I was a volunteer at a state prison for men, I realized these men already understood the importance of right speech. If they said the wrong thing at the wrong time, they could be killed. Talk about a great incentive to speak skillfully.

If they made you feel uncomfortable, they would say, "Excuse me." If they needed something, they would say, "Please." If you gave it to them, they would say, "Thank you." Skillful speech reduces suffering, and you don't need to be a great yogi to do it.

There are three kinds of action that always increase suffering: Killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. The Buddha said killing causes much suffering, all creatures have a desire to live.

I was surprised that a cockroach might enjoy and cherish his life, but you try to kill one, and they'll run away. And those ants in your kitchen, they want to go on living as well.

It's a cruel joke, if you truly want to hold this precept, you are doomed to failure. Because everything we eat, was at one time alive. Killing is a part of living.

A vegetarian might say, "You know, I don't kill anything." I would say to him, "That's because you can't hear the screams of the broccoli."

We are all faced with the same dilemma, which is not should I kill, but what do I need to kill to stay alive. Vegetarians choose to kill the lowest life form they can, while meat eaters just aren't as picky. But let me say here, I am not aware of anyone achieving enlightenment because of what they ate. The Buddha ate meat, he ate what was offered.

Being a police chaplain puts me in an interesting place, especially with the first precept, not to kill. I have received e-mails from police officers asking, "It's sometimes necessary for me to use lethal force, from a Buddhist perspective what should I do?

I reply in this way, "Never kill out of hatred and anger. Only service and duty. The consequence of your actions will be greatly reduced if your intention is one of service and duty to the community."

There is a zen story I'd like to share with you about a samurai warrior.

There was a great battle, and a shogun was killed. It became the Zen samurai warrior's duty to revenge the death of the shogun, and it took him an entire year to find the culprit.

One morning at 4:00 am, he went to this small house in an outlying village. He knocked on the door and it swung open. There, standing in the doorway was the man he had been looking for an entire year. He could now revenge the death of his shogun and go home. He pulled his sword to slay the man, but just as quickly put it back in the sheath and left.

The reason was, as he pulled his sword he was filled with a great anger and hatred. He would have to come back another day to fulfill his duty in the proper way. He had made it personal.

Beside the problem of taking life, it is really hard to be born. In the Buddhist tradition, we feel that life begins when a sperm, an egg, and karmic energy come together in the womb. The karmic energy necessary for life is called gandhabba, in the early Buddhist language of Pali. In Buddhism karmic energy is what transmigrates from lifetime to lifetime, not the soul.

Think of being reborn as a human and the chances of that occuring, like this.

There is a giant ocean, and at the bottom of that giant ocean is a one-eyed turtle. Every hundred years this one-eyed turtle comes to the surface for a breath of air.

Floating in the great ocean is a wooden yoke, having fallen from the neck of an ox. The chances of that one-eyed turtle surfacing through the center of that wooden yoke, are the same chances we face being reborn as a human being.

Now, there are times when I might have to kill.

When I have to kill something like a bug, I try to be as conscious as I can. I don't just react. I think about the consequence's of my actions, and my accountability.

If there is any way not to kill -- Well for instance, if there is a spider in the corner of the zendo. I could go and fetch a jar and chase the spider down, and then take him outside. It may take five or ten minutes, but in those five or ten minutes I can reflect on the value of life, his life and mine.

Now, I know it's only a matter of time until that spider comes back, and I'll have to do it again. But that's okay, it's good practice and in the end, my practice benefits the spider and me.

When people ask me, "How I feel about war?

I share with them my sadness over the loss of life. Governments come and go. Nations are here today, and gone tomorrow. The lines drawn on this earth by politicians, have been redrawn many times. Ending the lives of humans, animals, and insects because of certain views or agendas is really stupid. It's very unskillful karma and it causes a lot of suffering.

So, Killing is always a big deal, no matter what's being killed, an ant or a human. Though human life turns out to have a bit more value, because a human can achieve nirvana, an ant can't, until it's been reborn as a man or woman.

Okay, on to something else. Stealing, what's wrong with stealing? We all own or at least think we do, and are attached to stuff.

In Sr. Meg's case, she uses stuff, but doesn't own it, because of her vow of poverty. Most folks think they own the stuff they use, and that's where the problem comes in. And some people have so much stuff, they rent storage lockers to store the excess.

Now, if somebody comes and takes the stuff you think you own, you're going to be really bummed out. A lot of the young people in juvenile hall are there because they didn't understand this concept, they took the stuff people thought they owned.

In order for us to live in community we need to respect each other's stuff, even if ownership is just an illusion. Okay, enough said on owning and stealing.

Now, we come to sexual misconduct. In Los Angeles where I come from, it's okay to do or be anything you want. When I was a young man growing up in Phoenix, Arizona. I could only do half the stuff they do today, and I felt guilty about that.

Today you can be, bisexual, homosexual, tri-sexual, trans-sexual, non-sexual, a-sexual, always sexual, etc. It's so confusing! The idea of finding the right combination, or your true sexual identity, is very seductive.

Buddhism says, ultimate satisfaction is never going to happen. The activity of sex will never ultimately satisfy your desire for sex.

Now, is that a bummer or what? I mean you can have sex a thousand times and want it a thousand one. When you seek satisfaction through sexual activity, your desire only gets stronger.

I'm thinking it's a lot like hunger, and to be honest with you I'm getting tired of being hungry.

I've been hungry every day of my life. I'm hungry in the morning, and I have breakfast. I'm hungry in the afternoon, and I have lunch. I'm hungry in the evening, I have dinner. Sometimes I'm hungry after dinner, and I'll have a snack.

I'm thinking if I could end my hunger forever, I'd have a lot of extra time and money. So tomorrow morning I'm going to get up real early, and I'm going to eat as much as I want, as often as I want. I'm going to be so full that I'll never want to eat again.

If I could somehow do that, it would only take a day of two to be hungry again. That is essentially how sexual desire works. It's the same deal.

What did the Buddha say specifically to lay people about sex? He said four things.

He said, do not have sex with people who are married. Do not have sex with people who are engaged. Do not have sex with people who are being supported by their parents -- children. And do not have sex with people against their will.

That's all he said. He didn't say anything else. I'm assuming he felt every community, every city, every state, every nation would initiate their own laws, their own way of moderating sexual activity.

He did say a lot to monks and nuns about not having sex... Let me say there is nothing wrong with sex. Sex is wonderful... It's the desire for sex that keeps getting in the way of our ultimate satisfaction.

Celibacy offers a monk or nun greater flexibility in how they live their life.

I don't look at not having sex as a penalty. I look at it as an opportunity. When I stopped having sexual relationships, I started to see myself in a totally different way. Not having sex became part of my inner exploration, part of my practice.

Now, does not having sex end suffering? No, it just means you suffer in a different way. Desire in not ended by not having sex, desire only ends with Nirvana.

Okay, now we come to right livelihood. The Buddha said there are certain kinds of livelihood that increase suffering, and certain kinds of livelihood that decrease suffering. For instance, it's not skillful to be a butcher, or sell drugs and alcohol. It's not skillful to sell human beings... slavery, or to make poison. Certain livelihoods aren't conducive to Buddhist practice because the create more suffering, not less.

One time I was teaching a meditation class, and I was talking about right livelihood. A woman in the class was a bartender, and she never came back after my little talk. I see now, I should have been more skillful. So, if you find yourself involved in a livelihood that seems to increase suffering, just don't quit your job. It's really hard to find work, and there may be people dependent on your pay check. Retrain yourself, and then seek other employment.

I was giving a talk at USC to a group of business majors. One of the guys came from a Buddhist family and asked if it was okay for a Buddhist to make a lot of money. I said, "Oh, yes, think how much more money you can give away."

There is one precept I haven't talked about yet, and I'm a bit hesitant because it's the hardest one for some folks. So, let me go over the five precepts, and then I'll talk about the fifth precept.

The first precept is, and it's said this way -- the wording is very important -- "I accept the training precept not to kill."

The second precept... I accept the training precept not to steal, not to take what is not given.

A story comes to mind about the second precept that was played out in real life for me at a Buddhist conference.

There was this monk, he was eating lunch and he had this beautiful red apple sitting on the table in front of him. One of the other monks -- not from his tradition -- was taken aback by how beautiful it was, and picked it up and said, "What beautiful apple, I bet you're going to enjoy eating this one," and he set it back on the table.

Now, the first monk who was going to eat the apple, couldn't touch it until it was reoffered to him. Because, as soon as that second monk touched the apple, ownership transfered to him. So, please, don't touch a monk's food.

Okay the five are... I accept the training precept not to kill. I accept the training precept not to steal. I accept the training precept not to indulge in sexual misconduct. I accept the training precept not to lie. I accept the training precept not to consume intoxicants.

The fifth precept... Not to consume intoxicants.

A lot of people want to become Buddhists, but enjoy a beer or two once in awhile.
So, at the IBMC where I live, we changed the fifth precept for lay people to read... Not to consume intoxicants to the point of intoxication.

Now let me say here, there anything wrong with wine or beer?

In fact, they have some medicinal qualities. The problem with consuming any alcoholic beverage is... Sooner or later it will steal your wisdom. If enough of your wisdom is stolen, you might break the other four precepts and not even know it.

How hard won is wisdom?

Buddhists sit quietly for hours at a time, go on long retreats, read Buddhist texts, listen to their teachers, and try to be mindful of everything they do. All it takes is a few beers, and it's all out the window. When you start to see how much time you've invested in your wisdom, not drinking makes perfect sense.

Eventually it becomes clear: Why, not killing, not stealing, not indulging in sexual misconduct, not lying, not consuming intoxicants is the path to freedom, and leads to end of suffering.

Following the five precepts is a way to live in the world and not cause more suffering.

Also by Rev. Kusala Bhishu

How I Became a Buddhist

Do Buddhists go to Heaven?

Do Buddhists Believe in God?

The Problem With Sex in Buddhism

Buddhist Enlightenment vs Nirvana