precepts precepts precepts

My post from earlier this month sparked a pretty lively debate and got me thinking. It got me thinking about how I’m perceived by you, dear readers, and my own particular viewpoints vis a vi Buddhist ethics or morality. It’s not something I talk about much, but I hint at it, I think. And that hinting of course lacks specificity. And you know how much I loath a general lack of specificity!

There’s a couple of things to think about when talking about Buddhist ethics. The first and, to me, probably the most important thing is that there is no general “Buddhist ethic” that is agreed upon by every iteration of the tradition. Like any religion, like any social thing really, there’s a spectrum of opinion ranging from lose and free-wheeling Buddhists to pretty dogmatic and conservative ones.

But I think we can agree to start with the basic five precepts for Buddhist lay people.* They are to refrain from killing, stealing, false or malicious speech, taking (or selling) intoxicants, or engaging in “sexual misconduct.”

Of course, because of the diversity of Buddhist schools out there, how we interpret these is a bit more complicated. For example, what counts as an intoxicant? Anything that changes your mental perception of the world? Well, that would include caffeine, wouldn’t it? Let alone prescribed anti-depresants. And we don’t want to sound like Tom Cruise, do we? Plus, I’ve come across rather spirited debates about whether the Sanskrit says “taking” or “selling” intoxicants. And depending on what the Sanskrit means, that changes things doesn’t it? Then there’s “false and malicious” speech. According to Richard Gere, swearing constitutes malicious speech. But that’s pretty subjective if you ask me. One language’s swear word is another’s gibberish. Does malicious depend on context? Or is really just a prohibition against lying?

Don’t even get me started on “sexual misconduct.”

Then there’s a wide variety of practical applications of these precepts. In China, the precept against killing generally extends to not eating meat, and back in the day you could tell who was a more committed Buddhist by virtue of the fact that s/he was a vegetarian. In pre-modern Japan, an island country where you eat what comes your way because you can’t rely on imports of fresh vegetables year round, Buddhist monks made long and impassioned polemics about how eating meat (particularly fish) was okay, you’re not going to hell, don’t worry about it. In some South Asian countries, I’ve been told, the laity pays attention to precepts around festivals or holidays but not so much during the rest of the year.

I say all this because, at the end of the day, I think we get into trouble when we remain fixed and attached to one way of “being a Buddhist” based on any particular point of doctrine, practice, or even precepts. And by fixed and attached I mean remaining firmly convinced that there’s a “right” way to practice Buddhism, an “authentic” teaching of the Buddha, or some essential or irreducible bit of Buddhism that, without which, you’re not really a Buddhist but some guy who likes to call himself one but is really a heretic.

This is problematic to me because I think it smacks of arrogance. I’ve said before that we have no direct access to “what the Buddha taught.” We have only indirect access.** That indirect access comes from texts and/or the tradition itself. And when we claim that there is a “right” way to practice, we are necessarily saying that there is a “wrong” way and also invalidating any Buddhist who practices that “wrong” way. While I’m sure that there is a reasonable way to determine who’s really a Buddhist and who isn’t, I’m not comfortable with making that judgement.

The other thing that bothers me about sticking fast to precepts is that the folks I’ve met who have been most attached to precepts have, ironically, also been the ones who reject the “dogmatic” feel of Christianity. Sticking hard and fast to precepts seems like replacing one dogmatic system for another.

However, and this is the big important however, if you don’t read anything else in this post, read the followinghowever, this does not mean that we can run around being amoral nitwits to each other. I think it’s pretty clear that Buddhist precepts and morals are put into place to help us understand that our actions have consequences. Everything we do either promotes spiritual well-being or diminishes spiritual well being. The precepts are guideposts along that path to that end. They are there to help us make better decisions. Nothing more. We can squabble about the details (can I say “fuck”? is it appropriate to a have glass of wine with dinner? is premarital sex “misconduct”?), but just know that none of us can see all ends. The web of karmic consequences is far too complex for any of us know whether or not our actions will, ultimately, be fully positive or fully negative. Life is considerably more complicated. The best we can do is to try to do good and hope for the best.

Like the proverbial sitar player on the Ganges said, prompting Siddhartha to give up his asceticism, “if the string is too slack it will not play; wound too tight and it will break.”

In his “Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan,” James Dobbins writes that Shin Buddhists were well known and respected as moderate in drink, loyal to their families, and fair in business dealings.***

In my own view, I think Buddhists should abide by the following simple rule: don’t be a jerk. Do what you can to minimize your negative effects in this life, and help others.

Ethics and morality ought not be more complicated than that.

Wow! Footnotes?!

* I could spend an hour disecting the difference between various monastic vows, the vows for nuns, the longer Bodhisattva precepts, blah blah blah. But for brevity (since this is already a pretty hefty rant) I’ll just stick with the five lay precepts.

** Of course, this is assuming that we’re not enlightened. I, not being enlightened, feel like I don’t have any direct access. If someone comes along and tells me that they have direct access because they’re enlightened, well, maybe they do. But it’s a hard sell. I may be a committed Buddhist, but I’m still a rational pragmatist.

*** And it goes without saying that Jodo Shinshu Buddhists generally do not follow any precepts. And Japanese Buddhists in general have not followed the full monastic vows for centuries. If we decide that to be a Buddhist you have to follow all the monastic vows, we’ve just declared that Japanese Buddhism isn’t really Buddhism. But I could rant on and on about that for days!

5 thoughts on “precepts precepts precepts

  1. Hi Scott,

    I knew a guy who drank regularly and in large amounts. He smoked too. He had had a string of girlfriends and was always on the look-out for more.

    He loved gossip, he ate meat, he didn’t steal but if he was given the wrong change in a shop he’d rationalise it and pocket it to his advantage.

    He never meditated but liked to call himself a Buddhist. He’d quote some ancient Japanese text if anyone pulled him up on the precepts and his Japanese Buddhism was always popular with the girls.

    I could ask you if you thought he was a Buddhist or not, but I guess you’ll say that it’s not a good idea to judge others.

    So my question isn’t whether or not he was a Buddhist, my question is whether or not you think he presents Buddhism in a fair light.

    For many people, he is the public face of Buddhism. And there are many young people like him out there.

    And for as long as Buddhists say it’s okay to ignore the precepts (if you are otherwise a ‘good’ person) this will continue to be the face of Buddhism for many.

    I’d prefer to say that precepts are important. That they are the vows we undertake when becoming a Buddhist in most schools, and that far from being dogmatic, they are the very structure of an ethical life.

    But, I’d better stop now! I guess I’m in danger of being a jerk!

    Joke! 🙂

    All the best,


  2. Hi Marcus,

    Let it be known that I never think people who comment on my blog (even those who disagree with me) are jerks!

    Okay. Now that that’s out of the way! I knew a guy who smoked and drank and was popular with the girls and quoted ancient texts and called himself a Buddhist, too. His name was Jack Kerouac. And I don’t think he was a Buddhist. I think he was a drunk.

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to judge people. Then again, I don’t think it’s a good idea to run Windows. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do it. It’s inevitable. The trick is, once you’ve found yourself being judgmental, what next? Do you exclude people you think are full of it? Do you write long-winded rants on your blog about it? Do you get self-critical and feel guilty about it? Or do you allow that this judgment is just part of the ebb and flow of consciousness and know that in the next moment you might be something else? I don’t know. These are just things that come up for me.

    To answer your direct question directly, I don’t know if he (and the other Jack Kerouacs of the world) represent Buddhism in a fair light. That’s a tricky question because I think it has to do with what we think Buddhism is, or should be. If we have a set idea in our minds of what Buddhism should be (lord knows I do) and are unable or unwilling to allow for things that fall outside of that idea to be Buddhist, too, then, no, those people don’t represent Buddhism in a fair light because they’re not conforming to whatever idea we have about what Buddhism is supposed to be.

    For me it’s tricky because I see Buddhism from two perspectives. From one perspective, my secular academic side, I have the urge to allow Buddhism to be whatever the hell it’s going to be and just document it, free from the judgement of what Buddhism is supposed to be. Religious institutions across the world and through time tend to be elusive and dynamic things that resist static definitions. From the other perspective, my practicing Buddhist side, I want to limit “Buddhists” to just those people who actually belong to some Buddhist organization, however that organization defines itself or its members, and exclude people who do stuff that I think is wholly un-Buddhist even if they claim to be Buddhists (like Kerouac). So, in short, I agree and disagree with you. And remain unsettled. Comfortable with uncertainty, to borrow a phrase.

    Nevertheless, I will say that I fully agree with you that precepts can form the basis of an ethical life, and I also fully agree that Buddhists (and people in general) should be ethical. However, I also know that not all Buddhists throughout history have followed the precepts to the letter (if at all) and were still ethical, wise, Buddhists. So we have to account for that. I don’t think this means that we should all abandon the precepts. That no one should follow them. I think it just means we have to be open to other ways of “being a Buddhist” than just one.


    p.s. For the record, I enjoyed On the Road, but couldn’t get through Dharma Bums because I got tired of a couple of homeless drunks calling themselves Bodhisattvas. Wandering around San Francisco listening to Chet Baker and reciting the Heart Sutra doesn’t make you a Bodhisattva. You gotta work at it. And it ain’t easy.

  3. Thank you Scott,

    A thoughtful, considered and considerate response (matching the original post of the same qualities!) that gives me a lot to chew over.

    Thank you so much.

    And all the very best,


Comments are closed.