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The Five Precepts of a Layman

Ven Dr. Thich Huyen-vi 

 The foundation of Buddhist practice is the five precepts that all Buddhists follow. Many people who attempt to practice and understand Buddhism fail simply because they do not follow these moral precepts. As a house is built from the ground up, so must our character be developped. Living harmoniously with ourselves and family is just one of the many blessings that come from practicing these five precepts:

1. Do not kill.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
4. Do not engage in false speech.
5. Do not take intoxicants.

1) Do not kill. This precept is very important and all Buddhists must observe and practice it. As we, ourselves, would not have ourselves killed, we should not kill others. Causing injury and pain is to upset the balance of life. One should neither kill directly or indirectly such as setting traps or ordering others to kill. Some of the many benefits from not killing are that we live peacefully and have no enemy, there is no fear in our hearts and wherever we go others do not fear us. We must not destroy animals and regard all life as sacred.
2) Do not steal. By not stealing one has no dear of the law and suffers no guilt. As we, ourselves, would not want our property stolen, we should not steal others’ property. This precept is not limited to material things such as food, clothing and shelter, but also extends to robbing someone of their confidence and their peace of mind. Once again, stealing can be either directly such as forcefully taking something or stealing without someone’s knowledge, as in the dark or the night, or it can be indirect through fraud, deception or ordering others to steal. All of this must be investigated, for truly it is better to keep this precept in dealing with others.
3) Do not engage in sexual misconduct. Buddhist laymen are not required to be celibate, but they are required to abstain from excessive sexual lust, as this would be a hindrance to higher meditational practices. Engaging in sexual misconduct has many meanings. One should be faithful to one’s spouse and not violate another’s wife, as this would bring loss of respect and dishonor in one’s community. One should also not violate a young girl who is still under the protection of her parents, as this would cause them to grieve. If one always gives rise to sexual desire one’s body loses it’s health and quickly decays. Sexual desire is the primary root of birth and death. One should look into these matters more deeply.
4) Do not engage in false speech. Many people take this to mean not to lie, but it also means not engaging in harsh, coarse and unprofitable talk. Let us begin with lying. Many people deceive people by their words to acquire many different things such as money, property and priveleges. This precept also means to abstain from flattery and criticizing others, as this serves no purpose and only strengthens the ego. One should regard his tongue as a sword and speak with wisdom as to serve and benefit living beings by speaking dharma according to one’s capacity to understand.
5) Do ont take intoxicants. Intoxicants refer to all intoxicating substances: Alcohol, Cannabis (marijuana), Depressant (sedatives-hypnotic, barbituates and non-barbituate sedatives), Hallucinogens (LSD, peyote, etc.), Inhalants, Narcotics, Stimulants (amphetamine, etc.), Tranquilizers, Tobacco, and so forth. To abstain from intoxicants is to respect one’s Buddha-nature. The taking of intoxicante clouds one’s wisdom and one can end up doing many evil things. The loss of one’s wealth, as well as his reputation, can easily be lost by indulging in intoxicants. Having lost one’s way one will encounter few friends and be surrounded by those who would wish to do him harm. Many people believe that by indulging in intoxicants only a little they are safe, but this is not the casee. As the Dhammapada has stated, « Drop by drop is the pitcher filled ». So, is it with evil that comes through the taking of intoxicants! One begins with a small drink ans ends up drinking the whole bottle. No doubt, we have all experienced this. One must guard and practice his Buddha-nature. Intoxicants can easily lead you astray. One must not follow those who indulge in such activities.

The five precepts are not just empty sayings. They are to be practiced and meditated upon throughout the day. One encounters many situations where the precepts are to be used and one must make the right choice in applying his understanding of them. One begins with the words and ends up with their understanding. This takes time and one must not be in too much of a hurry for results. The strengthening of the mind is more important than that of the body. These precepts are the key. May one find peace and understanding in their application.

Minh Quang posted March 1, 2002

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