This is the preface from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.
I have been travelling between the East and West teaching for the past ten years and found that as the world becomes more globalised, human beings (both Eastern and Western) suffer from a greater spiritual vacuum. This book has been written to address social problems peculiar to this globalised age and how the Buddhist Five Precepts:
1. To abandon killing
2. To abandon stealing
3. To abandon sexual misconduct
4. To abandon lying
5. To abandon taking alcohol and illegal drugs and to abandon misusing prescription drugs
… can be an ethical framework for modern living.
Traditionally, religion had great influence over society, and religious scriptures provided the guidelines for ethical behaviour within cultures. Today, as societies become seemingly more materialistic and economies more boundless, the role of religion has weakened tremendously. Modern society tends to view ethics and morality as limiting, and in some cases irrelevant. Some quarters might even have developed the extreme view that religious teachings are an obstacle to individual and societal progress. Overall, I believe our moral values are in decline, particularly in Asia, where economies are booming and many people have replaced religion and moral values with consumerism. Shopping malls have become the new places of worship for the young, and branded goods, the new objects of their idolisation.
With religion losing its place of reverence in our lives, and with no alternative system of secular ethics to replace it, a spiritual vacuum has evolved. Compounding this new emptiness, we are constantly fed with commercial advertisements which nourish the seeds of desire and indulgence. As a result, we fill the blanks in our lives with shopping, eating, drinking, surfing the Internet, doing drugs, gambling, indulging in pornography, or even overworking, causing much confusion and suffering within self and society. We need a medicine for society, something to protect us from social illness and to make us physically, mentally and spiritually healthy again.
All human beings want happiness. To achieve happiness, I believe in Buddhist principles which are universal in nature, with which to direct our lives. The Five Precepts set forth by the Buddha are not commandments. Rather, they are practical guidelines that can govern our behaviour, helping us to live peaceful, wholesome and happy lives. They were developed by the wise via insights born from mindful observation and direct experience of suffering and happiness.
The Five Precepts are based on karma and the interconnected-ness of all beings, whereby we take responsibility for our actions and live with respect for and in harmony with the people and natural environment around us. Karma refers to our actions, which create the cause for what we are experiencing.
The Law of Karma is the universal guiding principle for good and bad. It is not based on the concept of reward and punishment, but rather, on self-responsibility, where we are ourselves solely responsible for our own physical, mental and verbal actions and thus, for what we experience due to them. Positive emotions and wholesome behaviours lead us to happiness, whereas negative, unwholesome emotions and behaviours lead us to suffering. In other words, we are responsible for our own happiness and suffering. The Five Precepts are based on the principle of non-harm – of self and others. It is the path to happiness for ourselves and others. Actually, they are universal ethics that go beyond culture and religion and are relevant at all times, even today. Abiding by them will certainly have a positive impact in making a person happier and healthier, and the world a better place to live in.
It is therefore important for practitioners to sincerely upkeep these ethical principles. Do you really care for yourself? Do you care about life? Do you care about the well-being of society? The Earth? We answer this question not by words alone, but through our actions, that is to say, we do not just study them at an intellectual level. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the values of ethics, one must integrate them into our lives with conviction and use them as a source of our inner strength. By doing this, we will then cultivate peace and develop the power of our minds, which are essential ingredients in living a happy and successful life.
Ethics and Inner Discipline
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:
“I think that ethical behaviour is another feature of the kind of inner discipline that leads to a happier existence. One could call this ethical discipline. Great spiritual teachers like the Buddha advise us to perform wholesome actions and avoid indulging in unwholesome actions. Whether our action is wholesome or unwholesome depends on whether that action or deed arises from a disciplined or undisciplined state of mind. It is felt that a disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering, and in fact it is said that bringing about discipline within one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.” (Tenzin Gyatso, p32)
Many of us “know” that negative emotions and behaviour are unwholesome and lead to suffering, and that, in contrast, positive emotions and behaviour are wholesome and lead to happiness. Yet, even with this knowledge, few of us are dedicated practitioners, following the Buddhist Five Precepts faithfully and sincerely on a daily basis. In other words, there is a gap between “knowledge” and “practice”.
The purpose of Dharma education is not the accumulation of knowledge, but the use and application of knowledge to bring about change within us. The teachings of Dharma help us develop a good heart and true happiness for the benefit of ourselves as well as for others. True happiness requires training and a certain degree of inner discipline. We need to train the intellect and feelings, as well as heart and mind. In this process we undergo a transformation of our attitudes, and our entire outlook, as well as our approach to living. Buddhism provides the framework and guidance to work towards this transformation.
However, such transformation does not come naturally. As human beings, we have many negative mental traits; we need to address and counteract each of these and there is no easy way out. We are unlike computers, where a simple push of a keyboard button can delete a negative trait from our mind. As humans, we need to apply a variety of approaches and methods, such as observing the precepts, meditation and so forth to deal with our varied and complex negative mental traits. Observing the Five Precepts is one of the very basic methods, a set of guiding principles with which to counteract our negative traits. The Five Precepts also help to guide our bodily actions, our speech and our mental attitudes. It is a systematic means of actualising our aim of purifying our body, speech and mind. The process of transformation requires commitment and perseverance. We need to constantly apply various techniques and take time to familiarise ourselves with the practices. Determination and inner discipline are important qualities we need to develop if we are to bring about successful transformation.
The training process encompasses faith, understanding, practice, experience and realisation. First, we need to have a certain degree of faith to enter the path. We need to have faith that the Five Precepts will lead us to happiness and that we can uphold them. Next, we need to learn the value of upholding the precepts, and how this can be accomplished by understanding their contents and principles. Learning the precepts helps us to understand the importance of becoming more ethical in our behavior and increasing our mental discipline. Subsequently, we transform this knowledge into action, that is, keeping the precepts sincerely on a daily basis. Determination and inner discipline are very important in upholding the precepts. By learning, understanding and upholding the precepts, we change our perception of the world, and most importantly of ourselves. As a result, our interactions with others and the way we conduct our daily lives will become positive, fruitful and light. Such experience and realisation will then further enhance our faith and understanding of the precepts.
In the beginning, positive changes may be very minor. The negative influences that we have held for so long within our minds remain strong, leading us to continue to violate the precepts. We have to be patient with ourselves and keep working at it. Little by little, our life will come into alignment with wisdom. With growing wisdom, we will become more mindful (aware) of our thoughts and actions. Negative actions that we once committed with little or no awareness are suddenly revealed to us. As a result, it becomes easier to maintain the precepts. Just like learning to ride a bicycle, we will fall often. However, with constant practice, we will get there eventually. Observing the Five Precepts is an ethical discipline which will require constant effort within ourselves as old negative habits are replaced with new and positive ones. We need to work with ourselves and be patient. No one saves us but ourselves, and the Buddha merely guides the way!
VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.