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Subject: The Five Precepts
Date: Wed, 19 Dec 2001 13:24:12 +0800
From: Fung Fuk Lestario

Dear Bro. Piya,

I have some questions about The Five Precepts.

1. You have said that the intention is important. Hence, does it break the precepts if we do something habitual (but it is wrong), like cheating on bus fares, or does it only break if we know that doing so is breaking the second precept?

There are two levels of morality that we should be aware of: conventional morality (created by society, laws, traditions, etc.) and spiritual morality (based on universal truths like value of life, etc.). Rules regarding traffic lights, driving on the correct side of the road, etc. are conventional morality. If someone beats the red light, it is not breaking the precept even if it is breaking the law, but of course it would endanger the person's life and those of others in this case.

On a social level, the precepts are essential for the basic proper functions of a society. Society will break down if the Precepts are constantly broken. The precepts reflect respect for others and a healthy awareness of one's place in society.

Different societies have different laws and customs (compare Singapore and Afghanistan, for example). The poor and oppressed, however, appear to break more precepts more often in trying to survive (for example, the people who loot the stores when the economic system failed in Argentina.) One answer, given by the Buddha in the Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta, says

…not giving of wealth to the needy, poverty became rife; from the rise in poverty, stealing increased; from the rise in theft, the use of weapons increased; from the rise in use of weapons, the taking of life increased––from the taking of life, people's life-span decreased, their beauty decreased. (D 3:68)

As such, if people commonly and constantly break a certain precept (like cheating at bus fares), it reflects more on the problems of society than the individual (like high costs of living, etc). It is important to examine the causes and conditions for such misdemeanour rather than merely treating the symptoms. For this reason, the Buddhist idea is that wealth is to be shared: the duty of the wealthy and learned is to help the less fortunate. This is good theory, but the details have to be worked out carefully.

Spiritual morality deals with moral conduct that conduces to spiritual development. In other words, creating the wholesome environment for spiritual development that leads to enlightenment and liberation. For this reason, we go on retreats where ideal conditions are created for observance of the precepts. For the same reason, holidays and breaks from the rat-race are ideal times for spiritual practice. Of course, good teachers will say that any time, that is the present, is the best time for practice. This means that we should never give up being moral in conduct even if we feel we are weak (for whatever reason).

2. I have some difficulties on the translation, such as false speech, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct... I find it too wide and also can be widely interpreted. Would you mind giving us some idea about the conditions of the Five Precepts, except the first one since you have elaborated about that?

Basically, this is the mechanics of a precept, that is, a precept is broken when the following conditions are fulfilled:
(1) the intention to commit the breach (rooted in greed, hate, or delusion);
(2) the conscious effort in carrying out the intention (planning, manoeuvring, etc.);
(3) the actual realization of the goal (removing the object from its location; raping someone, telling the lie, consuming the drink); and (4) enjoying it or feeling (temporary) satisfaction about it. This is a summary; the Commentaries give broader analyses. (See the Khuddaka Patha or Minor Readings, for example.)

To simplify the Buddhist idea of morality and how it works, let me put it this way. If you are not sure of the morality or wholesomeness of an action, examine what kind of consequences would the action entail. Would it hurt any of these: yourself, others, the environment? By "hurt" here is not only means physical harm or emotional hurt, but more so whether it would hinder the spiritual development of a person. If so, the action should not be done.

3. What are the differences between "Kamesu micchacara" and "Abrahmacariya"?

"Kamesu micchacara" means "misconduct through sense-desires" or in modern terms "sexual misconduct". Disparate conceptions and views on sexuality in our societies have clouded the issue. Basically, the third precept means respecting the person of another and not forcing sexuality (including rape, pornography, etc) on another (even a loved one), especially when the person says "no". Sex is allowed here, but it must be through proper conduct, such as between husband and wife, or between consensual and responsible adults–and within the confines of the law.

"Abrahmacariya" means "celibacy", that is, total abstinence from sex and physical pleasures. Its opposite is "brahmacariya", the holy life. The purpose of the "abrahmacariya" precept, as such, is to lead one to the holy life of a renunciate (monk or nun) or a celibate lay practitioner. This is a moral and conscious choice that creates ideal conditions for spiritual development and should be understood in that context. It does not mean that sex in itself is evil.

4. Would you mind mentioning some books and where can we find the books that we can use as references so we can learn more about the background, guide and the aim of the Five Precepts?

There are numerous writings and free booklets on this topic. Two easy to read and comprehensive teachings from the traditional Buddhist approach to the Five Precepts are:

Ven. Prayudh Payutto:
Bhikkhi Bodhi's booklet:
A contemporary scholarly view (nonetheless helpful) is Peter Harvey's "An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics" (2000), pp 66-79.

5. Last question is does it break the precepts if we thought that we have broken the precepts and felt really guilty although what we've done is not within the range or conditions of the precepts due to lack of knowledge?

Feeling "guilty" about an action done or undone is not encouraged in Buddhism, as it is emotionally unhealthy by way of not doing anything to correct the situation. However, it is healthy if one feels remorse about an unwholesome deed or that one could have done something wholesome but for some reaon one had failed to do so. Ajahn Brahm once admitted that he turned down an offering of almsfood because there was meat in it. On hindsight, he felt that he should have accepted it out of gratitude for the kindness of the giver and for the giver's blessings.

If you only think that you have broken a precept, but the fact is that you really have not, it remains that you have not broken it. However, if you have broken a precept but think that you have not, you still have broken it anyway. If you plan to break a precept, but did not actually carry it out, you have not broken the precept–-but watch that mind!

The best way to keep the precepts is to practise the positive values that the precepts entail. That is, to practise lovingkindness, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and above all wisdom. This means you should be constantly mindful of yourself, others and the environment in your waking life by bringing joy to them: "en-joy" them!


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