‘I am the owner of my action, the heir of my action; I have action as my origin, action as my relative, action as my resort; I will be the heir of whatever action, good or bad, that I do.’ (from AN 5.57)
- refrain from killing/striking other sentient beings,
- refrain from taking what is not offered,
- refrain from harming others with our sexuality,
- refrain from false speech, and
- refrain from consuming intoxicants that lead to heedlessness.”
In Buddhist countries, these five precepts form the basic social contract. This is in contrast to most English-speaking countries where the dominant approach is to look out for ourselves. The precepts apply to others and ourselves equally; we protect ourselves by protecting others through our actions. At first it may seem an awkward challenge to measure what we do by the five precepts rather than “what’s in it for me?.” We can’t paste the five precepts onto our existing worldview, but to whatever degree we can make the shift, benefits will accrue to us and to those around us.
In the Pali canon, the Buddha often linked Understanding and Action; he called it Dhamma-Vinaya (the Dhamma and the training rules). In the eight-fold path, Right View and Right Intention are the foundation for the behavioral part of the path (speech, action, livelihood). Our beliefs influence our behavior, so it’s important to be clear in our own minds what we believe and what motivates us. After considering, do we think that the five precepts form a better guide to living a good life than keeping ourselves at the center as the basis for decision-making?
Mindfulness requires that we not rush our actions of body, speech, and mind. If we are deliberate in this way, we are more likely to make skillful choices with our actions and interactions. We may have to slow down to notice what we’re doing, before, during, or after the action happens. But once we adjust, a more considered pace becomes more pleasurable than hurrying.
The fifth precept for laypeople appears to have come later than the first four. The Buddha adjusted his rules for skillful action as the need arose. It became clear among monastics that intoxication was leading to undesirable behavior, specifically to breaking the precepts, so the rule against intoxicants was originally added to the rules for monks and nuns. It seems to have been applied to laypeople later.
What life situations are conducive to keeping the precepts, and under what conditions are we likely to behave unthinkingly? Each of us is in a unique situation; we have our personal histories, energy levels, inclinations, hopes, relationships, etc. Within our own life, what would keeping the precepts look like? Is there one that clearly requires immediate attention?