A fundamental recognition of a maturing life is that rarely is it what we do that defines us, but rather why we do it. The history of jurisprudence reflects the same increasing sophistication; the accused should be judged on the intent of an action, rather than on outcome. Certainly, the people who, out of ignorance or selfishness, break a vow, a Precept, or any sort of law may still need to face the consequences of the action and its outcome, but it is important to not confuse this with any necessary assumption of moral failing.


But our sufficiency is of God: who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament, not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life
~ II Corinthians 3:5-6

The mind, which is generally very lazy and indolent, finds it easier to accept what someone else has said. The follower accepts 'authority' as a means to achieve what is promised by a particular system of philosophy or ideation; he clings to it, depends on it and thereby confirms the 'authority'. A follower, then, is a second-hand human being and most people are completely second-hand. They may think they have some original idea …. but essentially, because they are conditioned to follow, to imitate, to conform, they have become second-hand, absurd human beings.
- Krishnamurti, The Impossible Question


I recently read a comment by Zen author Charlotte Joko Beck who said, regarding the Precepts, that she didn't comment on them much because they could often be problematic for people. An interesting observation that must surely strike the reader as, at least, strange. A Buddhist teacher minimizing what many, surely most, would consider being a bedrock of Buddhist practice.

It begs the question then: Can Precepts be an obstacle on the path? The question deserves a hearing.

A fundamental recognition of a maturing life is that rarely is it what we do that defines us, but rather why we do it. The history of jurisprudence reflects the same increasing sophistication; the accused should be judged on the intent of an action, rather than on outcome. Certainly, the people who, out of ignorance or selfishness, break a vow, a Precept, or any sort of law may still need to face the consequences of the action and its outcome, but it is important to not confuse this with any necessary assumption of moral failing.

So I would answer this question by saying yes, the observation of Precepts can be an obstacle on the path. How so? It may occur when the reason why one observes them conflicts with the essential principles of Buddhism. Some examples of this are simple enough to manufacture; for instance, if I see a man with a gun in his hand running down the street and he asks me if I saw where his battered wife went. If she is cowering behind me fearful for her life, I should hardly have to think twice before lying through my teeth. So much for the Precept of non-lying.

This is a simple example. But given the complex tapestry of life and its myriad possibilities, there will always be countless scenarios which give us cause to question the validity of any law, depending on context.

So, another question: Are precepts meant to be taken as "law" for Buddhists?

For some, yes. For others, no. Each will have to work this out for themselves. But I will argue the position that answers "no" to this question. Relevant to this question is a point that should be raised from the outset, that being that those of a religious persuasion always do well to define for themselves what constitutes "fundamentalism". It is the importance of absolutes, such as law, creed and custom that is necessary for any fundamentalist interpretation of action and belief. I would suggest Buddhism represents a spiritual and psychological technology (some prefer "religion") of rare sophistication that does not lend itself to such an approach. One of its great and enduring attractions is that while some religions and philosophies appear weaker and less relevant in the face of modern advances, Buddhism seems to only grow in significance and value. The advances of depth psychology, fractal geometry, quantum physics and the like tend only to confirm the wisdom the Buddha and the Patriarchs have ever implied.

One such advance relevant to this question comes from the recognition of the concept of "repression" and "suppression", both potentially applicable, first highlighted by Freud. Both repression and suppression are attempts to deny certain tendencies in a person. It is a control and defense mechanism. To most psychologists, repression in particular would also be seen as a generally unhealthy response to life. Certainly, one suppresses the urge to giggle at a funeral, or to pick one's nose at the table. One also suppresses the inclination to seduce a friend's wife. All this is appropriate, and healthy. However, there is a dark side to all this. Who is it that makes the decision to resist urges? Is it society, or is it "self?" And if it is "self," which "self?" Society's sanitized version, or something deeper and more personal? Freud postulated the idea of a "superego," that part of one's "self" that plays school master/policeman and decides what is appropriate, and what not. This superego is invariably a construct created, in part or entirely, by the social norms of a society.

Where we have to be wary is where our adherence to our Buddhist Precepts simply creates a superego which wields control over our other impulses, or alternate "selves." Psychologists are well aware that a simple suppression (conscious decision to control behaviours) can easily translate into an unconsciousrepression, effectively an inner dynamic that buries impulses and desires into the unconscious where, far from being eliminated, they become a dynamic that controls our behaviour without the benefit of conscious awareness. A repressed urge becomes, typically, simply a hidden demon.

Can we see where our precepts can lead us into this trap? Take the (dreaded) Third Precept, regarding sexuality. It does not take a particularly bright psychologist, social historian, or even humble "man on the street" to recognize that denial of innate sexual desire is the root cause of most rape, prostitution, pornography or any form of sexual fanaticism. These are the common outlets of people whose sexual impulse has become repressed at the hands of a thoughtless superego. Religions whose priests preach loudly about sexual impurity are those least trusted by communities who have seen paedophilia and other sexual abuses run rampant at their hands. Their repressions (often created by well-intentioned superegos) have created devils.

So I ask again, should Buddhists view Precepts as laws? I will suggest that a Precept is a point of reference, a "departure point" for reflection. We assume that a Precept contains wisdom that we might apply to our life. But if we simply declare it to be a law, which must be obeyed, then we run the risk of "dividing" ourselves; superego versus id, or control versus desire, and often to our (and society's) detriment. We become deeply immersed in the dualistic illusions of samsara.

Psychologists in the field of addiction (of any kind) are increasingly turning to mindfulness-based therapies rather than behaviourist models. One element these therapies have in common is a tendency to be mindful of the process of addiction rather than controlling of it. An alcoholic, for instance, may be encouraged to be mindful of the first impulses to imbibe, to be mindful of the "feel" of the addiction, to be mindful of this feel from that first point of desire, to the purchasing of the bottle, to the actual drinking. To be mindful of where that desire disappears - is it at the point of purchase? Is it only when the last drink has been taken? Nowhere, however, is there the process of "willpower" used to stop the process.

Similarly, consider the person who feels the urge to say something to a colleague that they know is hurtful, but they also know they will "bust a gut" if they keep their mouth shut, and will probably go home and kick the proverbial cat. They may indeed, and should, look to the Precept of "non-violence" and reflect, to the best of their ability under the circumstances. They may understand that, were they the enlightened soul they wish to be, they would hold their tongue. And perhaps this reflection will be sufficient. But then again, perhaps it will not. Perhaps they will say, rather, "Precept be damned" and go ahead and say what they want to say. OK. But then hopefully, once done they will reflect further. In light of the instruction of the Precept they will be mindful and will consider what part of them felt appeased by their behaviour, and which part ashamed. And which "part" do they now identify with? Perhaps, then, they will learn and grow in wisdom. And perhaps next time, they will act differently.

The Precept is not a law or rule which guarantees nirvana, or heaven. It has been said that one has attained when it is as easy to keep a Precept as it is to break it, and in that sense the observance of Precepts is a barometer of progress, an indicator of where one stands on the Path

So is someone a worse Buddhist because they "violate" a Precept? The answer to this, I would suggest, is "no." I am not a "good" or "bad" Buddhist because of my actions. I am a relatively "good" or "bad" Buddhist because of my mindfulness, my ability not to judge (or probably even define) myself as a "Buddhist" at all. One watches one's mind, one watches one's behaviour. One lets as little of "me" remain as unconscious as one can.

But one should not allow Precepts to provide cause to go to war with oneself, or let oneself become "divided" and fall into the fragmentation of samsara.

So I wonder further, question: Can Precepts actually make one a "worse" person, more ignorant, more mired in ego and delusion?

I answer "yes" they certainly can. When our attachment to Precepts becomes a tool of the ego, and keeps us locked into samsara, they are harmful. Precepts, to my mind, are little pointers to "truth;" glimpses into behaviours we would perform were we free of ego and desire. But, what is "truth?" How is it relevant?

There is a story of the Devil and his friend walking down a street and they see a man stoop down to pick up a shining gem. The friend asks the Devil, "What was that?" to which the Devil replies, "Just a piece of Truth." The friend suggests that can't be a good thing for the Devil, but the Devil just laughs and says "Not at all, I'm just going to go and help him use it!"

If that "Truth" were the Precepts, could the Devil get that man to use it in such a way as to harm himself and others? Most certainly he could. I wonder if any readers of this essay have ever been accused of being a "good" or "bad" Buddhist because of their lack of vigilance to their Precepts? Have they ever been accused of being "Buddhist Lite" because they hold to different standards (such as eating meat or not accepting reincarnation)? If so, then they have witnessed first hand how "Truth" can be used to harm, to divide, to set one higher than another.

Precepts can be used to divide, to set self against self, self against "other", Buddhist against non-Buddhist, good Buddhist against bad. Does your application or interpretation of a Precept set you against others applications or interpretations? If so, then your Precept is harming you. Drop it. Pick it up again when and if you become ready to do so.

The real question is: What is the essence of Buddhism? What is the path to awakening? Precepts should help us, but perhaps at times they will hinder. Do we care enough to wonder when they do the former, when they threaten the latter, and how do we know the difference?

There are many answers to that, and many different tools of self-inquiry we may use. But we should always remember what our Buddhist ancestors carefully advised us, and that is we should "be a light unto ourselves" and that we should "put no head above our own."

When all is said and done, there is no other authority other than our own experience.

I opened this essay with a passage from Krishnamurti's book, "The Impossible Question," and will close with another, equally worthy of reflection;

"Religion - in the sense in which we are using that word, where there is no kind of fear or belief - is the quality that makes for a life in which there is no fragmentation whatsoever. If we are going to inquire into that, we must not only be free of all belief, but also we must be very clear about the distorting factor of all effort, direction and purpose. Do see the importance of this; if you are at all serious in this matter it is important to understand how any form of effort distorts perception. And any form of suppression obviously also distorts, as does any form of direction born of choice, of established purpose, created by one's own desire; all these things make the mind utterly incapable of seeing things as they are."


May all beings be happy
May all beings be free from suffering

Fa Gong Shakya, OHY
November 2008