A Zen Buddhist's perspective on the five precepts.
I don't remember much about the fifth grade. Oh, I remember a few faces, what the school looked like, and other such inane details, but I don't remember specifically what I learned that year. All of my elementary school years kind of blend together in that regard. However, there is one lesson in particular that I do remember from that year that has always stuck with me. Of course, it had nothing to do with the official curriculum, but the important teachings in life rarely do. I recall my teacher talking to the class one day about how he had been visiting with a friend of his, who happened to be a kindergarten teacher. His friend was grading a test that the kindergarteners had taken, which amused my teacher. "A test?" he scoffed. "What kind of test could you give to kids that age?" His friend laughed at this and told him that it was a test that the kindergarten students generally did very well at, but that most adults failed. Intrigued, my teacher decided to take the test himself, and proceeded to do quite poorly. The test, he told us later, was a simple bit of color identification. He had failed by labeling ‘yellow-green', ‘maroon', and ‘sky-blue' to what were quite simply green, red, and blue. His friend told him that the problem with adults is that they over-complicate matters. In essence, they've lost the ‘beginner's mind' of which Suzuki Roshi spoke.
Many years later, another teacher of mind put it a little differently when talking about what it takes to be a Buddhist. "It's not so much a matter of what you do", he said, "but what you don't do. Don't do the things that hurt yourself and others. Simply identify these things, and stop doing them. Stop causing suffering". The Buddha himself taught essentially the same thing. Sickness, death, and old age are universal conditions - all of us experience the first two, and many of us the latter, so in this regard, we may consider that some level of suffering is unavoidable. But how we react to and deal with these things, whether we dwell on them and how much - this is suffering that we cause ourselves. This is the suffering that the Buddha taught us that we can be free of. "It hurts when I think about death" or "when I poke my eye with my finger" . . . so stop doing that! Stop over-complicating matters, look at the simple basis of the suffering, and stop doing it. Sometimes it really is that simple.
With these things in mind, here is a look at the five lay precepts of Buddhism.
Precept 1: "We don't hit" or "I take up the practice of not harming living beings"
Every child is taught this basic concept, that it's not nice to hit other people (or push, kick, pinch, etc). As adults, we expand this to the idea of not killing other people. And what is killing, other than just hitting a little too hard? Many Buddhists further expand this notion to the idea of not killing other animal life-forms. This is a very human thing to do, to want to expand our morality to include those things that we can anthropomorphically identify with. This usually includes any creature with which we can see that we share a common physical trait, like eyes, legs, or an ability to feel pain. What we have to realize, though, is that everything that lives does so at the expense of another life form. Everything that lives lives because something else died, whether or not it killed that something else directly. We often ignore this fact, or justify it through the fine art of rationalization, or "deferred karma". "I can eat plants because they feel no pain". "I can eat this cow because I did not kill it myself" and so on. Ultimately, it comes down to individual choice. We must choose where we draw the line, and live with the consequences of our choice. As a starting point, we can be grateful for the living things that died that we may live, and we can do our best not to cause excess suffering to those things before they die. In other words, if you have to kill the chicken for food, don't make it live in squalor or beat it up before you do. Don't hit.
Precept 2: "Share what's yours and don't take what's not" or "I will not take what is not offered"
"Don't take things that don't belong to you", we tell our children. Then we advise them to take the high road, and "share your things with others". Why do we forget this as adults? Why are we so willing to steal and so unwilling to share? Well, we know how much hard work went into acquiring something, so we become attached to the idea that we earned it, and someone else should have to go through what we did to earn it - they shouldn't just get it for free from us. On the flip side, we may use the reverse argument as justification for stealing - "It would be too much work to make my own pie, but here's one already made sitting on this windowsill . . ." To further complicate matters, as adults, we recognize that there are intangible things that can be taken from others, too, like their time, their spirits (the ‘wind from their sails' if you will), their affections, and so on. When we simplify matters, though, we see that there are very few things that we actually need: air, food, water, protection from the elements, love. There is more than enough of all of these available for everyone, if we can avoid being stingy. If we can recognize that we have enough, not only will we be more willing to share what we don't need (and maybe even what we do need, as a mother will feed her child before herself), but we will feel less inclined to take what is not offered, simply because we know we don't need it. A good place to start is to practice being generous. The more you share, the easier it gets. Don't take your neighbor's pie - bring him some ice cream to go with it. Share.
Precept 3: "Don't touch others' private parts" or "I will not misuse sex"
This simple edict is about as far as young children get into the realm of sexuality, but it really is enough. Even with more advanced concepts, like sexual/emotional blackmail, this precept can really be seen as an extension of the previous one. Don't take (or touch) what is not offered and don't withhold what has been offered (share). Don't make unwelcome advances, don't withhold sex from a partner to get what you want from them, and above all, don't touch others' private parts without their permission.
Precept 4: "Don't lie, and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" or "I will practice gentle, truthful speech."
The basic idea here, of course, is to tell the truth and don't say anything mean. As kids, we are taught this to avoid hurting other people's feelings. As adults, we deliberately ignore this so that we can hurt or manipulate other people's feelings, whether because we really just want to hurt somebody out of a sense of retribution (after all, he called me a name/cut me off in traffic/stole my girlfriend) or because we want somebody to do something they wouldn't if we told them the truth (see Precept 3, for example). I don't deny the argument that sometimes lying can be the right thing to do ("No Herr Hitler, there are no Jews in this house" for instance), nor do I disregard the truth in the statement that "Truth is in the eye of the beholder". What's important to remember, though, is the intention of the speaker, and that the listener might not perceive the same intention. Is the intention to hurt somebody, or to help them? Furthermore, is it necessary, or can the same result be achieved through gentle, truthful means? Though you may find it necessary, for instance, to warn a potential student that the teacher they're seeking is abusive (or fraudulent, or manipulative, or . . .), remember that the good intention is to help the student, not to defame the teacher. Don't exaggerate unnecessarily (don't lie), and remember that even the most well-intentioned gentle words can be seen as a twisted lie from the other person's point of view. So, when at all possible, don't lie and don't use harsh words. The more you practice this, the easier it gets, and the more you'll recognize how much it really is unnecessary to bend or distort the truth. Then, when these complex situations come up (and they will), it may be easier to simplify the situation. Maybe it really will be as simple as holding your tongue and not saying anything at all.
Precept 5: "Don't eat that - it's bad for you" or "I will not deal in nor misuse intoxicants"
For the most part, we say this to kids because they really don't know that what they're about to eat, drink, or touch will hurt them. As adults, though, the ideas of over-complication and willful ignorance rear their heads yet again. We like the (all-too) temporary good feeling we get from intoxication, whether it's from alcohol, drugs, power, love, sex (or many, many more), and we like to ignore the effects this has on ourselves and others, both at the time of intoxication and afterward. If the idea of Buddhist meditation is to help calm or clear the mind to identify and reduce the roots of our suffering, intoxication (or clouding of the mind) is the antithesis of our practice, and it leads so readily into breaking the other four precepts in one fell swoop. So stop inviting intoxicants into your life. Get that horrible thing out of your mouth!
So, return to your Beginner's Mind. Simplify. Remember the Golden Rule - "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto yourself". In fact, do not do unto yourself as you would not have done unto yourself. It's so simple that even a child can do it. As Robert Fulghum said, "Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten" (or maybe fifth grade, if you're a slow learner . . .)