4. The Five Precepts

QUESTION: Other religions derive their ideas of right and wrong from the commandments of their god or gods. You Buddhists don’t believe in a god, so how do you know what is right and wrong?

ANSWER: Any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and thus lead us away from Nirvana are bad and any thoughts, speech or actions that are rooted in giving, love and wisdom and thus help clear the way to Nirvana are good. To know what is right and wrong in god-centered religions, all that is needed is to do as you are told. In a human-centered religion like Buddhism, to know what is right and wrong, you have to develop a deep self-awareness and self-understanding. Ethics based on understanding are always stronger than those that are a response to a command. So to know what is right and wrong, the Buddhist looks at three things: the intention (cetana) behind the act, the effect the act will have upon oneself and the effect it will have upon others. If the intention is good (rooted in generosity, love and wisdom), if it helps myself (helps me to be more giving, more loving and wiser) and help others (helps them to be more giving, more loving and wiser), then my deeds and actions are wholesome, good and moral.

Of course, there are many variations of this. Sometimes, I act with the best of intentions but it may not benefit either myself or others. Sometimes my intentions are far from good, but my action helps others nonetheless. Sometimes I act out of good intentions and my acts help me but perhaps cause some distress to others. In such cases, my actions are what the Buddha called ‘mixed’ (vitimissa) – a mixture of good and not-so-good. When intentions are bad and the action helps neither myself nor others, such an action is bad. And when my intention is good and my action benefits both myself and others, then the deed is wholly good.

QUESTION: So does Buddhism have a code of morality?

ANSWER: Yes, it does. The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. The First Precept is to avoid killing or harming living beings, the second is to avoid stealing, the third is to avoid sexual misconduct, the fourth is to avoid lying, and the fifth is to avoid alcohol and other intoxicating drugs.

QUESTION: But surely it is good to kill sometimes, to kill disease-spreading insects or someone who is going to kill you?

ANSWER: It might be good for you but what about the insect or the person who is killed? They wish to live just as you do. When you decide to kill a disease-spreading insect, your intention is perhaps a mixture of self-concern (good) and revulsion (bad). The act will benefit yourself (good) but obviously it will not benefit that being (bad). So at times it may be necessary to kill but it is never wholly skillful.

QUESTION: You Buddhists are too concerned about ants and bugs.

ANSWER: Buddhists try to develop a compassion that is undiscriminating and all- embracing. We see the world as a unified whole where each thing and creature has its place and function. We believe that before we destroy or upset nature’s delicate balance, we should be very careful. Where emphasis has been on exploiting nature to the full, squeezing every last drop out of it without putting anything back, conquering and subduing it, nature has revolted. The air is becoming poisoned, the rivers polluted and dead, so many animals and plants are heading for extinction, the slopes of the mountains are barren and eroded. Even the climate is changing. If people were a little less anxious to crush, destroy and kill, this terrible situation might not have arisen. We should strive to develop a little more respect for all life. And this is what the First Precept is about.

QUESTION: What does Buddhism say about abortion?

ANSWER: According to the Buddha life begins at conception or very soon after and so to abort a fetus would be to take a life.

QUESTION: But if a woman is raped or if she knows that her child is going to be deformed, wouldn’t it be better to stop the pregnancy?

ANSWER: A child conceived as the result of a rape is as entitled to live and be loved as any other child. He or she should not be killed simply because their biological father committed a crime. Giving birth to a deformed or mentally retarded child would be a terrible shock for the parents, but if it’s okay to abort a fetus like this then why not kill children or adults who are deformed or handicapped? There might be situations where abortion was the most humane alternative, for example, to save the life of a mother. But let’s be honest, most abortions are performed simply because the pregnancy is inconvenient, an embarrassment, or because the parents want to have the child later. To Buddhists, these seem very poor reasons to destroy a life.

QUESTION: If someone committed suicide would they be breaking the First Precept?

ANSWER: When one person murders another they might do it out of fear, anger, fury, greed or some other negative emotions. When a person kills himself or herself they might do it for very similar reasons or because of other negative emotions like despair or frustration. So whereas murder is the result of negative emotions directed towards another, suicide is the result of negative emotions directed towards oneself, and therefore would be breaking the Precept. However, someone who is contemplating suicide or has attempted suicide does not need to be told that what they are doing is wrong. They need our support and our understanding. We have to help them understand that killing themselves is perpetuating their problem, surrendering to it, not solving it.

QUESTION: Tell me about the Second Precept.

ANSWER: When we take this Precept we undertake to take nothing that does not belong to us. The Second Precept is about restraining our greed and respecting the property of others.

QUESTION: The Third Precept says we should avoid sexual misconduct. What is sexual misconduct?

ANSWER: If we use trickery, emotional blackmail or force to compel someone to have sex with us, then that can be said to be sexual misconduct. Adultery is also a form of sexual misconduct because when we marry we promise our spouse we will be loyal to them. When we commit adultery we break that promise and betray our partner’s trust. Sex should be an expression of love and intimacy between two people, and when it is it contributes to our mental and emotional well-being.

QUESTION: Is sex before marriage a type of sexual misconduct?

ANSWER: Not if there is love and mutual agreement between the two people concerned. However, it should never be forgotten that the biological function of sex is reproduction and if an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, it can cause a great deal of problems. Many mature and thoughtful people think that it is far better to leave sex until after marriage.

QUESTION: If a married man committed adultery with an unmarried woman he would be breaking the Third Precept. But what about her? Would she be breaking the Precepts?

The main thing that determines whether an act is good or bad is one’s intention (cetana). If the woman did not know that the man was married she would not be breaking the Precept. However, if she suspected that he was married but decided not to ask him so that she never knew for sure and thus avoid responsibility, she may not have broken the Precept but she would have certainly acted in bad faith and made some negative kamma for herself. As said before, not every deed is 100% good or 100% bad. Many of the things we do are a mixture of good, bad and neutral, and will have mixed kammic results. We should always try to act with straightforwardness, honesty and sincerity.

QUESTION: What does Buddhism say about birth control?

ANSWER: Some religions teach that having sex for any reason other than procreation is immoral and thus they consider all forms of birth control to be wrong. Buddhism recognizes that sex has several purposes – procreation, recreation, as an expression of love and affection between two people, etc. This being the case, it considers all forms of birth control except abortion to be alright. In fact, Buddhism would say that in a world where the population explosion has become a major problem, birth control is a real blessing.

QUESTION: But what about the Fourth Precept? Is it possible to live without telling lies?

ANSWER: If it is really impossible to get by in society or do business without lying, such a shocking and corrupt state of affairs should be changed. The Buddhist is someone who resolves to do something practical about the problem by trying to be more truthful and honest.

QUESTION: If you were sitting in the park and a terrified man ran past you and then a few minutes later another man carrying a knife ran up to you and asked if you had seen which way the first man had gone, would you tell him the truth or would you lie to him?

ANSWER: If I had good reason to suspect that the second man was going to do serious harm to the first I would, as an intelligent caring Buddhist, have no hesitation in lying. We said before that one of the factors determining whether a deed is good or bad is intention. The intention to save a life is many times more positive than telling a lie is negative in circumstances such as these. If lying, drinking or even stealing meant that I saved a life I should do it. I can always make amends for breaking these Precepts, but I can never bring back a life once it is gone. However, as said before, please do not take this as a license to break the Precepts whenever it is convenient. The Precepts should be practiced with great care and only infringed in extreme cases.

QUESTION: The Fifth Precept says we should not drink alcohol or take other drugs. Why not?

ANSWER: People don’t usually drink for the taste. When they drink alone it is in order to seek release from tension and when they drink socially, it is usually to conform. Even a small amount of alcohol distorts consciousness and disrupts self-awareness. Taken in large quantities, its effect can be devastating. Buddhists say that when you break the Fifth Precept you can break all the other Precepts.

QUESTION: But drinking just a small amount wouldn’t be really breaking the precept, would it? It’s only a small thing.

ANSWER: Yes, it is only a small thing and if you can’t practice even a small thing, your commitment and resolution isn’t very strong, is it?

QUESTION: Would smoking be against the Fifth Precept?

ANSWER: Smoking certainly has a negative effect on the body, but its effect on the mind is very minor. One is able to smoke and still be alert, mindful and self-possessed. So while smoking might be inadvisable, it would not be against the Precepts.

QUESTION: The Five Precepts are negative. They tell you what not to do. They don’t tell you what to do.

ANSWER: The Five Precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. They are not all of it. We start by recognizing our negative behavior and then striving to stop it. That is what the Five Precepts are for. After we have stopped doing wrong, we then commence to try doing good. Take for example the fourth Precept. The Buddha said we should start by refraining from telling lies. After that, we should speak the truth, speak gently, politely and at the right time.

Giving up false speech he becomes a speaker of truth, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Giving up malicious speech he does not repeat there what he has heard here nor does he repeat here what he has heard there in order to cause variance between people. He reconciles those who are divided and brings closer together those who are already friends. Harmony is his joy, harmony is his delight, harmony is his love; it is the motive of his speech. Giving up harsh speech his speech is blameless, pleasing to the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, liked by most. Giving up idle chatter he speaks at the right time, what is correct, to the point, about Dhamma and about discipline. He speaks words worth being treasured up, seasonable, reasonable, well defined and to the point.’ M.I,179