Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

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Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

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