Category Archives: Five Precepts

What code of ethics do you follow?

I recently saw the Japanese film Shoplifters and recommend it. I mention it here because it has an example of how we develop a code of ethics. The boy in the movie is taught that until an item is purchased it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it’s okay to take it. With this moral guidance in place, he feels fine about shoplifting for the family. But then he sees his foster father checking out cars with the clear intent to do a smash and grab. The boy says, “Hey, wait, don’t these cars belong to people?” This new facet of the family business doesn’t fit into the code of ethics he’d been taught. His world tilts on its axis as he begins to see things differently.

We each live by some code of ethics. The code our parents and culture teach us is likely more skillful than what the boy was taught. Perhaps we learned the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Golden Rule, or perhaps more along the lines of ‘What will the neighbors think?’ or ‘Don’t be a loser.’ It’s worth noticing our ethical underpinnings and how they play out in our daily decisions.

The other day I saw a driver pause at a red light, then make a left turn against the light when the traffic was clear. Did he figure that since no police were present to ticket him, he could disregard the law? These laws are, for the most part, an agreement we make as a community, so that, without having the benefit of being able to look each other in the eye or talk, we can fairly predict what another driver will do.

When someone does something that to me seems so blatantly wrong, I have to wonder if he is drugged or drunk or mentally unstable. Is there some rare circumstance that makes him think that it’s okay just in this instance? Is he rushing to someone’s aid, for example? How is he justifying his behavior to himself? Is this just the way he operates in the world, measuring risk against reward and taking chances? Does he not see the risk? Does he not care? Does he think the rules don’t apply to him?

I’ll never know, but it brings up an interesting exploration into ethical decision making. What rules do we follow, what ones do we ignore, and what if any justification do we give ourselves for doing so? If there are unjust laws, do we as citizens work to get them changed? Or do we just accept them or ignore them?

This kind of inner investigation is useful for anyone to do. If you have been doing the regular practice of meditation, you probably have a better ability to slow down and observe the pattern of thoughts as they arise, and to see the source of the particular pattern that gives or denies permission to do something. Is there a code, either obvious or implied, at the core of the choices you make or the justifications you offer up to explain it to yourself? If there is a code of ethics there, are you living by it? And if not, are you punishing yourself, judging yourself, feeling ashamed, or offering excuses to override your code? Such questioning is valuable in uncovering delusion and seeing how you may be creating inner discordance and unnecessary suffering.

Buddhism has a very clear ethical code. Among other teachings, there are the Precepts. These are vows taken at the beginning of a retreat. They are very simple and reasonable, and they help to assure the retreat runs smoothly. They are easy to remember and refer to throughout our lives: We agree to not harm any living being, to not take what isn’t freely given, to not lie or gossip, to not misuse our sexuality, and to not ingest anything that would affect clarity of mind. A very good set of ethical standards to live by all the time! The exact wording varies, but the Precepts are guiding principles of value.

Some of these Precepts may be easier to follow than others. ‘Do no harm’ precept may seem the easiest, because we have good hearts and aren’t killers; but upon further investigation this precept reveals itself to be quite challenging since we are constantly making choices of what we eat, purchase and do, and all these choices may adversely affect the lives of others or the planet. Setting the intention and making wise effort to live by a precept is in and of itself valuable. Any investigation into what it might mean can most effectively be done with loving-kindness instead of shame, fear and guilt. No one is perfect. We do not need to erase our footprint on the sands of life. But joy is more available to experience if we live in a way that causes the least possible harm to ourselves and all beings.

Following the Buddhist Precepts or any other code of ethics we consciously choose, informs the choices we make in every moment and how we are in relation to everything we do and everyone we meet. It is definitely worth discovering what code we are living by, whether it is working well for us, or if we are at odds with it and, if so how that affects our lives and the lives of those around us.

If this feels like a timely investigation for you, I hope you will share any insights or questions that come up.

The Five Precepts – Intrinsic to Right, Wise or Spacious Action

We’ve been exploring the Action aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, with the specific focus of how using the word ‘spacious’ affects our understanding.

No exploration of this aspect would be complete without discussing the Five Precepts. These are the vows we take at the beginning of a retreat, but they are also commitments we make as Buddhist practitioners.

The first is to refrain from harming or killing. At first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no wish to shoot or maim. But of course as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be causing harm or even killing without intention to do so. We use the skillfulness and wisdom that we have developed through our practice and through life experience to help us see more clearly. We accept that sometimes our actions will be unskillful, momentarily unmindful and operating out of life long habits, or simply unable as yet to see the harm we may have caused. We use each experience as a lesson to learn from, to increase our sense of connection and understanding. We make reparations as best we can, and then we let it go.

The second precept is to refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. Again, at first glance this seems easy for most of us. We have no urge to rob a jewelry store. But as we sit with what this means, it unfolds to reveal the myriad ways we might be taking from others without their having offered it. This is more often true with the people who are closest to us, where we may assume the right to take or even feel they have the obligation to give to us. Our expectations about what constitutes an intimate relationship get in the way of seeing clearly that we are taking what has not been freely given. This is a valuable area to observe. For some of us there may also be a gray area around theft when it comes to large corporations or faceless institutions. In a state of disconnect we cannot see how what we are doing hurts anyone. But as we look more closely we begin to see all the ramifications of our actions, and see that even ‘minor’ theft has affected us all. The fabric of trust is broken and, for example, safeguards to prevent such activity create hassles to deal with for everyone.

The third precept is to refrain from misusing our sexuality. Perhaps we have been careless, hormone driven and hard-hearted, harming others and ourselves through our actions. Sexuality can also be used to lure, promote and satisfy an agenda, and all of these uses are unskillful.

The fourth precept is to refrain from speech that is unkind or untruthful, and we will be covering this when we discuss the Speech aspect of the Eightfold Path.

The fifth precept is to refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind and judgment, thus making it more likely that we will break the four previous vows. Intoxicants also inhibit our ability to end the very suffering we are trying to escape from by using intoxicants.

For each of these precepts, at first they may seem simple but then seem more complex and challenging, but ultimately each becomes a key to liberation. As we let go of behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others we are freed from the guilt, shame and anguish caused by unskillful, mindless or habitual behavior.

Yes, this is clearly a list of ‘don’ts’ or ‘thou shalt nots’ but it’s also more importantly a list that helps us to clarify how we create suffering and how, at the very least, we can refrain from doing so.

Our meditation practice helps us to develop an understanding of connection, and to be responsible for how we impact others, as well as how we respond when the unskillfulness of others impacts us. Do we give others the power through their actions to cause us suffering? Do we feel the need to make sure others are taking and living up to these precepts? It is important to remember that these are vows we take for ourselves, not to enforce in others and not to become self-righteous, which is surely a cause of suffering. So those are the precepts. If you want to commit them to memory, you could make a simple list of them to have with you to ponder, and to set your intention. As people living in the busy world of infinite interactions we have many more opportunities to err and rededicate ourselves to these vows, so it helps to keep them close.

Or perhaps you are not interested in another set of ‘commandments’ and the precepts are not of interest to you right now. That’s fine too. When you are ready for them, they will definitely be available for you!

Meanwhile, we are wrapping up our Spacious Action discussion. As I’ve been experimenting with adding this word ‘spacious’ to Right or Wise Action, I have found it to be very useful. I suggested to the class that each meditator take a specific area of action to focus on for the duration of our exploration. I focused on my challenging relationship with food. I had come to a place where I recognized that the marshal law that I had to lay down in order to keep my weight down was not meeting my intention to be compassionate. So I was searching for a way to be conscious and healthy, while appreciating Bobby McFarrin’s line ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time but it’s painful.’ This addition of the word ‘spacious’ seems to be helping me. For example, I have learned I can simply make more physical space between food and me, as well as more space (time) between the impulse to eat and the actual action. I can make more space between bites, thus slowing down my habitual speed-eating. And I can also have thoughts of food take up less space in my life. Noticing a food thought, I visualize it in a bubble in the space of my mind and allow it to come into a more proportional relationship as I watch it shrink down to a much smaller. This last one seems especially helpful, as part of my resistance to past marshal plan type diets is how all-consuming they become, so that conversations stray off into discussions of diet techniques, life is measured by the bathroom scale, and I’m suddenly all goal-oriented and checking myself out in the mirror every two minutes. I’m just not interested in going through all that, and my body agrees as it has firmly resisted rewarding me with sustainable weight loss on any diet I have tried over the past few years, whereas in younger years shedding pounds was as easy as …well you get the gist.

With spaciousness we can pay kind attention to how we react or respond to any person or situation, and notice our patterns of behavior. And if we find they are unskillful, we return to our intention to be present in this moment – not dredging up the past as an excuse for present behavior – and our intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others. As much as we are able in this moment, we act out of these intentions.