January 16, 2012

Tricycle Retreats: The Five Grave Precepts

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Five PreceptsIn this, the third teaching of his Tricycle Retreat, "The Precepts as Practice," Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede delves into the Five Grave Precepts, the first half of the Ten Cardinal Precepts. Here they are as spoken in Roshi Kjolhede's own sangha, the Rochester Zen Center:

1. I resolve not to kill, but to cherish all life.
2. I resolve not to take what is not given, but to respect the things of others.
3. I resolve not to misuse sexuality, but to be caring and responsible.
4. I resolve not to lie, but to speak the truth.
5. I resolve not to cause others to abuse alcohol or drugs, nor to do so myself, but to keep the mind clear.

The most common question about the Precepts asks how they are different than the Ten Commandments familiar to us from Abrahamic religion. Roshi Kjolhede answers this concern succinctly, saying they are "not prescriptive so much as descriptive." That is, the Precepts, far from telling us what to do, describe the nature of the enlightened mind—a mind, he reminds us, that we all possess!

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Will.Rowe's picture

So rather than a command from God about what not to do, we are told what an enlightened person would be like. Yet these 5 Precepts seem just as elusive. For example the more I seek to speak the truth, the more I find myself caught up in gossip or telling a "white lie." Am I just more aware of what has always been occurring or am I fighting a battle I am doomed to lose? If it is the latter, my strategy has not been successful so far--will power has not brought me any closer to the goal of achieving any of the 5 Precepts in their strictest context. To continue the same strategy that has been unsuccessful hitherto would be fruitless and only lead to more frustration at my lack of success. Hence it seems that either I give up the battle to accomplish the 5 precepts, or I change my strategy. At present I do not know what that new strategy will be.

Perhaps it is a matter of degree then. For example I do not drink any alcohol, but I do drink caffeine. If the goal of the 5 Precepts is making progress and not achieving perfection then one can see progress. If the goal is perfection, then I see no way possible for this to occur within one lifetime.

Thank you for this distinction between a commandment and a description. I see the difference, yet both appear to be just as impossible to attain.

Bodhin Kjolhede's picture

Yes, in fact all 10 of the precepts are "elusive" if you're striving for perfection. But "perfection," inasmuch as it's a notion, is itself an impurity of the mind--an imperfection!

With greater experience comes greater awareness, and that can be sobering. Yes, chances are that you're more aware of what has always been occurring. And there's no "battle" any of us is bound to lose. There's no final reckoning by which we either "lose" or "win." The precepts outline a kind of ethical North Star, and we use them to navigate our practice course by. We start with the understanding that until Supreme Enlightenment we'll all stumble on these precepts. But it's the trying that counts. Or as T.S. Eliot said, "For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

sharmila2's picture

I remember the story of when the Buddha was asked " if someone commits an evil act, is it better for them if they truly do not know it is wrong due to societal or personal beliefs? Or is it better that they know it is wrong but go ahead & do it anyway?" the Buddha replied that the latter situation was better, because it bore the seeds of eventual awakening in the fact that the heart recognized the unskilful act. So perhaps what you are noticing is the gradual lessening of ignorance & increased acuity in perceiving areas in which you have some bad habits (as we all do); over time, you will probably recognize the situations faster & faster until you can actually get to the point of averting the act & discovering a better way. Deepening wisdom & increased awareness( in my limited experience) usually lead to worse discomfort & misery before you feel at peace, so take heart - our ideas of what constitutes progress are often quite at odds with the reality. Metta & good luck

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is extreme common sense (i.e. wisdom, the middle way, etc.). It is most immediately effective in one to one personal relationships through dialogue. These 5 precepts can be considered a guide or an outline rather than rules and regs. You, ultimately, are the final judge of how you can conduct your life as a Buddha.