The Five Precepts Create Freedom

An exploration of Wise Action would be incomplete without a look at the Five Precepts, the vows we take at the beginning of a meditation retreat. These five vows are a part of a longer list of vows taken by monks and nuns. They prescribe wise action when living in community.


Depending on the teachers on the retreat, you might experience a call and response of the Precepts in the original Pali language. (You will not be expected to know them, just to repeat what the teacher chants. We did this in class and everyone agreed it was very easy.)  If you would like to hear how these Pali words are pronounced, here is a video of Ajahn Amaro at Spirit Rock leading the chant.The Five Precepts (in Pali and English)
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I vow to refrain from harming or killing living creatures.


2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI vow to refrain from taking that which is not freely given.


3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I vow to refrain from misusing sexuality.


4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I vow to refrain from false and harmful speech.


5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I vow to refrain from consuming intoxicants which lead to carelessness.

By taking these vows to refrain from unskillful actions we create freedom for others and thus freedom for ourselves. Freedom might not be the word we automatically think of when we promise not to do something. After all, haven’t we narrowed our options? Haven’t we limited our freedom? Well, let’s apply the question we asked last week to this enigma: What if everybody did it?

If everybody followed the Five Precepts, what would the world be like? We all would feel free from fear of being harmed by others. We would not feel we had to constantly protect ourselves and our property from those who would violate us in one way or another.


The retreat experience is an experiment in this level of trust. Together we create a sense of freedom within what from the outside looks like constraints. The more earnestly we follow the heart of the Precepts, the more freedom we find. If you doubt that the Precepts can create freedom, consider this: What do any of these precepts keep you from doing?


If you look at these things closely, these things you are reluctant to give up, you might see that the desire to do them comes from the murky mire of mindless motivations.


Let’s look at some examples.
  • If I have the urge to hurt someone, if I want someone to suffer, what is my motivation?
  • If I have the urge to steal something, what is my motivation?
  • If I use my sexuality in a way to gain power over someone, what is my motivation?
  • If I want to get drunk or high, what is my motivation?
These questions take us back to Wise Intention. If we are in the present moment and compassionate to ourselves and others, then we see clearly what’s really going on when we feel anger arising. We see the fear that creates the reactionary impulse.

These questions also bring us back to Wise Effort and to Wise View. If these terms are new to you, look back over the past months of posts and follow along. We have spent more than a year studying the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness. 

We are nearing the end of this focus, but in fact there is no end to the experiential investigation of the dharma, because it lives on in our lives, and we are given so many opportunities to see it in action.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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