This is 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.
Can we observe the Precepts without going through the official ceremony?
Some people say that they are already keeping the precepts and are spiritual, and feel there is no need to go through the official ceremony. In fact, they argue that they are better than those who go through it but do not uphold the precepts.
The ceremony is a time when we can express our faith, confidence and commitment. By participating in the ceremony, we express our determination and commitment to observe these Five Precepts in our daily life. It means we have strong faith in these Five Precepts as a framework for us to transform our life; without faith, it will be difficult to observe/practise the Precepts. In the ceremony, we publicly accept the Five Precepts with a strong intention to use them as a guideline for living an ethical life. In other words, we are committed to live a virtuous life, with dignity and mindfulness, to be in harmony with all beings around us; in short, to bring our actions into harmony with our spiritual ideals.
The Pali word Sila (morality) has the connotation of virtue, skillfulness, nobleness and wholesomeness. By taking part in the official precepts ceremony, we formally take on the qualities of Sila in the presence of a spiritual mentor, the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and arahants. Therefore there are only benefits and no harm in participating in the precept ceremony when we are intent on living virtuously.
The Buddhist Five Precepts provide a wholesome foundation for personal and social growth, by providing practical and universal principles for a good life and the cultivation of virtues. It is based on the principle of non-harming and has the effect of harmonising our true interest for the well-being of others, and the universal laws. Action taken without regard for ethical principles leads to relationships scarred by competitiveness, exploitation, and aggression. In contrast, actions guided by ethical principles promote harmony among people, bringing about peace, cooperation and mutual respect.
The Buddhist Five Precepts are not commandments imposed by force; rather, they are a course of training that we take on willingly. They are not taken to please a supreme being, but for our own cultivation. The Five Precepts function as the core training in moral discipline and form an integral part of a Buddhist’s life. They are used to help us become better people and are not to be taken as a burden we feel compelled to shoulder. The upholding of the precepts includes recitation of the precepts daily, mindfulness, self-discipline and reflection. It requires a high level of sincerity, honesty and inner discipline.
How can the Buddhist Five Precepts be liberating when one is forbidden to do certain things after taking the precepts?
The Buddhist Five Precepts form a framework which allows us to take care of ourselves, as well as the society. It prevents us from creating problems for ourselves and others, and guides us in doing what is beneficial. It provides a path through which we learn to live in harmony, with honesty, strength and dignity, which will then bring happiness to ourselves and others, and ultimately lead us to liberation.
We need to ask ourselves what we mean by freedom and liberation. Society tends to define freedom as the ability to do what we want, and say whatever we think and feel. Actually, this sort of freedom is an illusion. The actions we do to get what we want are often motivated by disturbing emotions, which in turn are often driven by external or environmental forces. These forces can be social, political or economic in nature, for example, peer and societal pressures, and media influences. Such forces create great feelings of inadequacy and an exaggerated need for acceptance from others. To compensate, we try to add “value” to our lives through material acquisitions or changing our behaviour in ways that are often against our natural or true feelings. We conform to what we believe to be others’ expectations so that we will be seen as the individual we want to be. We are not really free when our decisions mindlessly comply with these external factors. We are not free if our actions are driven by our wants and desires! Instead, we become a slave to our desires.
From the Buddhist perspective, true freedom is only attained when we transform our desire, hatred and ignorance into compassion, love and wisdom. Morality and the Five Precepts guide our speech and action; meditation helps us develop the awareness of our mental attitudes and how external forces influence our feelings and motivate us to act. When we are able to uproot our three “poisonous roots” – greed, ill-will, and ignorance – we can then be in control of our mind, speech and action, and not be driven by external factors or by internal emotions or attachments. It is only then, can we claim to be truly free and liberated.
What should I do when I violate a precept?
Some people worry too much over the violation of precepts, as if it were something fatal. The fear of violation is so great that they dare not take the precepts. Some think that they will take the precepts only when there is no possibility of violating them. The reality is that we may break the precepts. No one is perfect when he/she just begins to observe the precepts and even after some time of upholding the precepts, faults may occur. In fact, it is because we cannot keep the precepts perfectly that we need to take and keep them. They are a tool for us to develop our mindfulness and to prevent us from doing unwholesome actions. Hence, the precepts should be understood as a tool to train ourselves.
When we violate the precepts, the best thing to do is to sincerely and truthfully confess to the Buddha by imagining the Buddha in front of you. Sincerely acknowledge the transgression and say, “I am aware that I violated the precepts of […..], “I know it is not beneficial to […..].”
Next, reflect on how and why the transgression arose. Was it due to lack of mindfulness? Greed? Anger? Ignorance? Carelessness? Then make a determined decision not to do the action again.
In examining our actions and intentions in this way, we are constantly refining them. In the past, we may have used to do many harmful actions, were unaware of them or did not care. Now, we are aware of them, regret them and are motivated not to do them again. This helps us to develop our mindfulness and work against our three “poisonous” attitudes of attachment, ill-will, and ignorance.
Do not feel guilty over transgressions. Rather, regret them, learn from them, and be strongly determined to change. Our negative habitual energy is strong and causes us to violate the precepts. The fact that we are aware of our transgression and making an effort to change, will certainly decrease that negative habitual energy.
We need to keep in mind that upholding the precepts is a constant transformation of ourselves. We need to be patient and keep working to improve by saying to ourselves each time we confess, “From now on, I will try to do better.”
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.