September 06, 2010

Precepts & Commandments

ten commandments, god's law, dharma, buddhism, tricycle

From novice Tendai priest Innen Parchelo, in the Ottawa Citizen's "Ask the Religion Experts":

Q: What is the relation between religious laws and state law?

A: There is no parallel between the teaching of the Buddha and the traditions of the Old or New Testaments or the Koran as "God's Law." Dharma declares "the way things are," not a statement of rules or an invocation to behave in some particular way. ...

Buddhists, then, are encouraged to relate to national or local systems of legal structures in a combination of good citizenship and spiritual conscience. We must evaluate any conflict between our obligations as good citizens and good Buddhists and make "in the moment" decisions about our actions.

buddhist preceptsYet on what basis do we evaluate? How different are the Buddhist precepts from other religious injunctions? With all the talk of whether Buddhism is a religion, or what it shares with the monotheistic faiths and doesn't, it's worth considering.

Why do we take the precepts? And do we take them for the same reasons that a Christian, Jew or Muslim follows God's law? Wouldn't a monotheist say that God's law is also "the way things are"?

For Innen Parchelo, Buddhism's dharma, or "the way things are," has little to do with God's law. For the rest of his concise response, click here.

Image: Panch Sila, Mindful Living Journal

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Mark's picture

As with so much in traditional Buddhism, the Precepts both are and aren't religious commandments. It seems clear from the Vinaya tradition that there is at least some extent to which the Precepts were instituted to keep order in monastic communities. In the Dhammapada, a central message seems to be, "Don't be a fool -- follow the Precepts." But I have a different understanding of them after reading the parable of the relay chariots in the Middle Length Discourses. The Precepts won't carry you to awakening, but they're an essential part of the journey. We have to take our first steps from the conditioned realm -- before we can live from unconditioned mind states, we have to cultivate them, and that's what the Precepts are for.

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

The five precepts are training rules for your benefit. For those of us brought up in the west, we may perceive rules or commandments as guidelines against which to be judged by society or judged by God. We might have an underlying resistance to that notion of external judgement. It's important to be aware of our resistance. But if we discard the precepts because we misunderstand their intent, we do ourselves and others a disservice.

We live in a human society. For our own benefit, and for the benefit of those others around us, we try to behave in a manner that is most conducive to awakening. The precepts are excellent training guidelines for this purpose. More information here about "The Healing Power of the Precepts":

Chana Dennis's picture

A certain master of the Precepts School asked Bankei: "Doesn't you Reverance observe precepts?"
The Master said: "Originally what people call the precepts were all for wicked monks who broke the rules; for the man who abides in the Unborn Buddha Mind, there's no need for precepts. The precepts were taught to help sentient beings-they weren't taught to help buddhas! What everyone has from his parents innately in the Unborn Buddha Mind alone, so abide in the Unborn Buddha Mind. When you abide in the Unborn Buddha Mind, your a living Buddha here today, and that living Buddha certainly isn't going to concoct anything like taking precepts, so there aren't any precepts for him to take. To concoct anything like taking the precepts is not what's meant by the Unborn Buddha Mind. When you abide in the Unborn Buddha Mind, there is no way you can violate the precepts. From the standpoint of the Unborn, the precepts too are secondary, peripheral concerns, in the place of the Unborn, there's really no such thing as precepts....."

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wotnext's picture

No laws in Buddhism, but a strong emphasis on ethics. And how do we articulate ethical behavior? Through systems such as the eightfold noble path, or the six perfections of the bodhisattva, and the various levels of precepts.

We need, too, to be wary of lumping monotheistic religions together. Even in Christianity there is a wide range of sophistication in understanding the truths of the gospel. We should never compare a wise understanding of Buddhism with a naive understanding of another religion. They might do the same to us!

T. Esposito's picture

I like the fact that Buddhism shows the way it is and doesn't force anything. No laws, no commandments, (not to say that we don't need laws for of course we do to keep society in check) but spiritually speaking Buddhism is what it is. Always be mindful. If you do something negative expect negative in return no ifs ands or buts. Thank you for posting.