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The Five Precepts: The First Precept

The Five Precepts

Today, we start looking at the last of the main Buddhist ‚Äúlists.‚Äù We’ve talked about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path already. Let’s look at the Five Precepts now. First, I will point out that some groups of Buddhists have eight precepts and some have ten, but these five are universal and apply to all Buddhists of every group. These rules apply not only to monks, but to laypeople like you and me as well. The five precepts are the rules of behavior, much like the Judeo-Christian ‚ÄúTen Commandments.‚Äù These are the things you cannot do.

The five precepts are often written and recited as a vow, repeated regularly by the Buddhist. The recitation goes like this:

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

These are often shortened to say no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no drinking. But I think this is vastly oversimplifying things.

Over the next few days, we’ll talk about all five of these precepts. These are clear and simple, and I think we can cover them quickly and easily. Many of the ideas we have talked about so far, I have explained that we’ll get back to it later. That’s not the case this time; by the end of the week, you’ll know the ‚Äúrules‚Äù of living a Buddhist life and can begin following the precepts yourself. That’s not to say obeying the precepts is easy; I think you’ll soon see that there is far more to them than not getting drunk or having inappropriate sex.

The First Precept

OK, let’s get started then. The first precept is to refrain from destroying living creatures. Killing causes suffering and we already know the Buddhist perspective on suffering. This is a lot harder than it may appear at first. At first glance, you are probably thinking it matches up with the Biblical ‚ÄúThou Shalt Not Kill.‚Äù Actually the Biblical Commandment more correctly translates to ‚ÄúThou Shalt Not Murder,‚Äù and really only applies to humans. The first precept, however, applies to all living creatures. So much for hamburgers, people. In defense of your steak dinner, you might argue that you never killed a cow in your life. It doesn’t matter, because by purchasing that beef, you are indirectly causing the death of that cow. Don’t misunderstand me, Buddhists don’t have any special love for cows; the same applies to fish, birds, and anything else that falls under the heading of ‚Äúliving creatures.‚Äù If you want to get technical, you shouldn’t kill plants either, but living creatures have to eat something. If you are a farmer or gardener however, you can take care not to waste plants or kill them needlessly. All life is valuable.

One very famous modern-day Buddhist teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk from Vietnam. He’s written dozens of great books on Buddhism. He has come up with a modern translation of the five precepts. Here is his version of the First Precept:

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

Take some time and think this one through for yourself. There’s a lot more to this than skipping the steak dinner or not killing your co-workers. This precept covers supporting wars, capital punishment, or even supporting governments that condone those things.

Yes, the bottom line is that Buddhists are often vegetarian and most usually pacifists. In the real world, that’s pretty hard to do, but bear in mind that this is really the ideal if you want to live according to the precepts.

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