Filed in Theravada, Compassion

Precepts: Ethics in Action: By the People, For the People

An excerpt from the MahavastuShakyamuni Buddha

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This excerpt from "The Great Story," or Mahavastu—the Buddhist text that appeared about three hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha is part of a cohesive cosmogony that provides an account of the origins of precepts and their necessity. The story, told by Shakyamuni Buddha to his monks, describes the human compulsions toward greed, anger, and ignorance, the need for precepts to inhibit these tendencies, and the responsibility incumbent on a community—or state or nation—to elect a wise and noble leader. Theft, as described in the story, evolves from the idea of property, which is itself a consequence of a worldview grounded in duality. But this passage also suggests that while precepts can provide valuable and necessary resistance, they cannot in themselves return us to the "self-luminous state of joy," described here as our primordial condition. So while the election of a just ruler ends the chapter, it's not the end of the path of liberation. Reprinted from J. J. Jones' 1949 translation with permission from the Pali Text Society.


MONKS, there comes a time, there comes an occasion, when this universe after a long stretch of time begins to dissolve.... There comes a time, monks, there comes an occasion, when this universe, after a long stretch of time, begins to re-evolve once more, and while it is reevolving certain beings, in order to achieve the extinction of existence and karma... are born in this world. These beings are self-luminous, move through space, are made of mind, feed on joy, abide in a state of bliss, and go wherever they wish. That, monks, is the appropriate condition of these beings who are self-luminous, move through space, are made of mind, feed on joy, abide in a state of bliss, and go wherever they wish. The moon and sun were not yet known in the world. Hence the forms of the stars were not known, nor the paths of the constellations, nor day and night, nor months and fortnights, nor seasons and years.

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