By Thich Nhat Hanh
There are many problems in the world today—alcoholism, sexual abuse, oppression, exploitation of the environment, and so forth. If we look deeply, we can see that our stability and the stability of our family and society require us to discover practices and antidotes to overcome these problems.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha offered us the Five Wonderful Precepts. These precepts can perform miracles. The moment we decide to receive them, a transformation already occurs in us that touches everything. I have seen this many times. During the ceremony to receive the precepts, our internal knots are untied, and afterwards we actually look different. Many small doors are closed, and one big door is opened wide. When we confirm our determination to go through that door, we look and feel happier and more stable. With the community’s support, we attain peace and loving kindness right away.
The foundation of all precepts is mindfulness. We begin each precept with the awareness of a particular problem, saying, “Aware of …” Then, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that,” we say, “I am determined to do this. I am determined not to do that.” Because forgetfulness is such a strong tendency in us, it is very helpful to practice the Five Precepts with a sangha, a community of friends.
The First Precept
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.
To practice the first precept is to protect life. Life has many forms, inside us and around us. When we practice mindfulness, we see that lives are being destroyed everywhere, and we vow to cultivate compassion and use this as a source of energy for the protection of the lives of people, animals, and plants. The first precept is the precept of compassion and loving kindness.
We should not lose awareness of the suffering in the world. We can nourish this awareness by means of sounds, images, direct contact, and so on. But most of the suffering we endure every day—perhaps 95%—is not necessary at all. Because we lack insight, we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others, especially those we love. But when we have contact with the remaining 5% of suffering, we feel compassion, the kind of energy necessary for us to transform ourselves and help relieve the world’s suffering. But if we touch too much suffering, it may be harmful for us. Medicine always needs to be taken in the proper dosage. We should stay in touch with the suffering only to the extent that we do not forget it, so that compassion will flow in us and be a source of energy that can be transformed into action. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that we can use, and compassion is born from insight.
After we have developed compassion, we have to continue practice in order to learn the many ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants. Just feeling compassion is not enough. We also have to develop understanding and insight so that we know what kind of action to take. We say “learning the ways.” We do not know everything. We have to come together as a sangha to discuss together how we can protect life. Confucius said, “To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing.” This is the best way to study and practice the precepts. There are many problems in our society that did not exist at the time of the Buddha, so we have to come together and discuss these things. We and our children have to learn and practice the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants.
The first sentence is: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.” This is about awareness of the destruction of life, the cultivation of compassion, learning the ways of action, and keeping our awareness of suffering alive. There is enough in this sentence for us to practice the rest of our lives.
The second sentence is: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing, in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” This sentence reflects our determination not to kill, either directly or indirectly. But we must also learn how to prevent others from killing. No killing whatsoever can be justified. If you were in Nazi Germany and someone asked you why things were the way they were, if you were practicing the first precept you could not say, “They did it. I am not responsible. My hands are clean.” During the Gulf War, if you did not do anything, that is also an offense against the first precept. Even if you attempted to do some things and did not succeed, what is most important is that you tried something. We must make the effort to stop all wars.
According to the Buddha, the mind is the basis of all actions. To kill with the mind is more dangerous than to kill with the body. When you believe that you have the only way and that everyone who does not follow your way is your enemy, millions may be killed. And it is not just by killing with our hands and our thinking that we can break the first precept. If, in our way of life, we allow killing to go on, we also commit an offense. We must look deeply. When we buy something or consume something, we may be participating in an act of killing.
If someone were to ask me, “What is the best way to practice the first precept?” I would have to say, “I don’t know.” I myself am still learning together with you. We should be modest and open. Because we have made efforts together in looking deeply, we have been able to write a more profound version of the precepts. If we continue to practice, we may be able to offer our children an even better version tomorrow.
The Second Precept
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn the ways of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of others species on Earth.
Stealing comes in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing, and it causes much suffering both here and in the Third World. Countries are torn by poverty and oppression. We want to help hungry children and adults help themselves, but we are caught in a way of life that keeps us so busy that we do not have time to help. Sometimes all that is needed is one pill or one bowl of rice to save the life of a child, but we are caught up in the tiny problems of our daily lives. We could send hundreds of thousands of pills or millions of bowls of rice, but we feel helpless, unable to do anything to alleviate the suffering.
In Ho Chi Minh City, there are street children who call themselves the “Dust of Life.” They wander the streets and sleep under trees, scavenging in garbage heaps to find things they can sell for five dong. Nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City are organizing daily classes in the temples for these children. If they agree to come in the morning and stay for four hours, learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns, they are offered vegetarian lunches. After that, they can go to the Buddha Hall to take a nap. (In Vietnam, we like to take naps after lunch, because it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought the practice of working eight hours, and many of us tried to follow, but we couldn’t. We desperately need naps after lunch.) At two o’clock there is more teaching and playing, and the children who can stay four more hours receive dinner. The temple does not have a place for them to stay overnight, so they leave after dinner and come back in the morning. We in Plum Village have been supporting these nuns and monks. It only costs twenty cents per child per day, for lunch and dinner, and it keeps the children off the streets, preventing them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. We don’t need a lot of money to help these children. We only need a little time. There are so many things like that we can do to help, but because we cannot free ourselves from our own small problems and our lifestyles, we don’t do anything. The first sentence of this precept is about awareness of the suffering and about cultivating loving kindness and learning the way of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. The second sentence is: “I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.” This is very specific. We may have a feeling of generosity and a capacity of being generous, but we must also develop specific ways of expressing our generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life; time is happiness; time is for bringing joy and happiness to other people. Even if you who are very wealthy, unless you are happy, you cannot make other people happy.
I know one very poor gentleman in Vietnam who has been practicing generosity for fifty years. He owns only a bicycle, but because his heart is so generous, he is able to help many other people in need. When I met him in 1965, I was a little too proud about our School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). We organized to rebuild many villages and promote social reform in the fields of education, health, and economic development. Our project was ambitious—we trained 300 workers, including monks and nuns, who went to the villages and helped the people modernize the economy, health, and education. Eventually, there were nearly 10,000 workers throughout Vietnam. As I was telling this gentleman about our project, I looked at his bicycle and thought that he could bring only a little help to people in one province. But in fact, he has taught me an important lesson.
Although the SYSS accomplished many of its goals, when the communists took over, they stopped our work, while this gentleman continues his small work to this day. Unlike us, he did not have anything for the government to confiscate. Thousands of our workers had to hide; and many orphanages, clinics, and schools were shut down. Because we have learned from this gentleman, now we are more humble. When you practice generosity, looking is very important, so that you can learn all the time.
In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of helping people rely on themselves. We call this the gift of Dharma. The third is the gift of non-fear. We human beings are afraid of being left alone, of becoming sick, and of dying. Helping people not be destroyed by fear is the greatest gift of all.
The second precept is a very deep practice of sharing time, energy, and material resources. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the three kinds of gifts.
The Third Precept
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
We know that in our soul there are memories, pains, and secrets that we want to keep to ourselves or share only with those we love and trust the most. In the royal capital, there is a zone where only the king and his family can circulate. There is a place like that in our soul, where we don’t allow anyone to approach, except our most beloved. The same is true of our body. Our body has areas that we do not want others to approach or touch, except for our most beloved, the person we respect, trust, and love the most. In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of the oneness of body and mind. Whatever happens to the body also happens to the mind. A sexual relationship is an act of communion between body and spirit. This is a very important event, not to be done in a casual manner. When you are approached casually or carelessly, with an attitude that is less than tender, you feel insulted in body and soul. Someone who approaches you with respect, tenderness, and utmost care is offering you deep communication, deep communion. Only in that case will you not feel hurt, misused, or abused, even a little. This cannot be obtained without true love and commitment. Casual sex cannot be called love.
“True love contains respect.” This Vietnamese expression means that a couple respects each other as honored guests. Respect is one of the most important elements of a sexual relationship. Sexual communion should be like a ritual, performed in mindfulness with great love, care, and respect. If you are just motivated by desire, that is not love. “Love” is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say “love” to describe our appetite, as when we say, “I love hamburgers,” we spoil the word. We should not misuse words in this way. We make them sick. We have to make the effort to heal the words by using them properly and carefully.
If love is understood in this way, why do we need to add the phrase, “long-term commitment”? If love is real, there is no need to say or do anything else. We don’t even need a wedding ceremony. True love guarantees everything. It includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he or she is, with all strengths and weaknesses. If you like only the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept his or her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help the person transform. According to the teaching of the Buddha, true love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only do good, and it is safe.
In the West and in Asia, we use the phrase “love sickness.” The kind of love that makes us sick is attachment, or addiction. Like a drug, it makes us feel wonderful, but once we are addicted, we cannot have peace. We can’t study, work, or sleep. We just think about the other person. This kind of love is possessive, even totalitarian. We want to own the object of our love, and we don’t want anyone to prevent us from possessing them totally. It creates a kind of prison for our beloved one. He or she is deprived of the right to be himself or herself. This is neither maitri nor karuna. It is the willingness to make use of another person to satisfy our own needs.
The expression “long-term commitment” is in this precept to help us understand that in the context of love, commitment can only be long-term. “I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for your happiness. But just for a few days.” This is not love. The two people are afraid to make a commitment to the precepts or to one another.
To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey as long as we are alive. When we have a good friend, we also make a long-term commitment. We need him or her. How much more so the person with whom we want to share our body and soul! The phrase “long-term commitment” cannot begin to express the depth of our love, but we need to say something so that people will not misunderstand the word love, especially those who do not have time to join a Dharma discussion or read precepts’ commentaries.
A long-term commitment made in the context of a sangha can be long-lasting, strong, and fruitful. If your longterm commitment is just between the two of you, you will not have the support of friends and family. So we have a wedding ceremony for families and friends to witness. The priest and the marriage license are just symbols. What is important is that your commitment to come together to live as a couple is witnessed by friends and family so that they will support you. The feeling between you may not be enough to sustain your happiness. Without the support of family and friends, what you now describe as love will turn sour later on. If a tree wants to be solid, it sends many roots deeply into the soil. If it has just one root, it may be blown over by the wind. In the same way, a couple needs to be supported by families, friends, ideals, practice, and the sangha.
Every time we have a wedding ceremony in Plum Village, we invite the entire community to celebrate. During the ceremony, the couple recites the Five Awarenesses (See Mindfulness Bell #2), and they agree to recite them every full moon day, with the knowledge that friends everywhere are supporting their relationship so that it will be stable, long-lasting, and happy. If you do not accept the institution of marriage, you still need some commitment, and it is best made in the presence of a sangha—friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of loving kindness and understanding. Even if you do not have a marriage license and are not bound together by the law, your relationship will be stronger if you make a commitment in front of family and friends.
“Responsibility” is the key word of the third precept. In a community of practice, if everyone practices this precept well, there will be peace and stability. Practicing in this way, we respect, support, and protect each other as Dharma brothers and sisters. If we don’t, what happens in our community will also create trouble in the larger community. We have seen that if a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his students, he will destroy everything. So we refrain from sexual misconduct because we are aware that we are responsible for the well-being of the entire community, including the future generations. If we do not refrain, we will destroy everything.
The third precept also applies to society. There are many ways that our families and society are destroyed by sexual misconduct. I know one person who still suffers every day because she was molested as a child. The best way for her to heal herself is to observe the third precept: “As a victim of sexual abuse, I vow to become someone who will protect all children and adults from sexual abuse.” In that way, her suffering can be transformed into a positive energy that will help her protect others. When you take the third precept, you vow to protect children and also those who abuse children sexually. The ones who cause suffering must also become the objects of your love and protection. You see that the molesters are the product of an unstable society. Whether it be an uncle, an aunt, a parent, or a grandparent, he or she should be observed, helped, and healed.
Practicing the third precept is to help ourselves and others avoid being wounded. We usually talk of women being wounded, but men also get deeply wounded by love relationships. We have to be very careful, especially in short-term commitments. The practice of the third precept is a very strong way of restoring stability and peace within ourselves, our families, and our society. We should also discuss the many problems relating to this precept, such as the “sex industry,” advertising, and loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. There is so little real communication, even in our own families. That feeling of loneliness can push us into a sexual relationship. We believe in a naive way that having a sexual relationship will make us feel less lonely. But when there is no communication between you and the other person on the level of the heart and the spirit, having a sexual relationship can only widen the gap. It can destroy you and the other person. Your relationship will be stormy and will cause both of you much suffering. You will both feel even more lonely. The belief that sexual relationships help us feel less lonely is a kind of modern superstition; we should not be fooled by it. The union of the two bodies can only be positive when there is understanding and communion on the level of the heart and the spirit. If the communion between husband and wife doesn’t exist on this level, then the coming together of their two bodies will separate them further. It is better to refrain from sexual relations until you make a breakthrough to communicate.
The third precept can help us protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, communities, and society. So many children and adults, couples and families, communities, and nations have been destroyed by sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. For many people, this kind of responsible behavior may be easy to practice, but for others, it is quite difficult. These people have to come together to share their experiences and help each other learn and practice responsibility and non-harming. We all have to do the same.
The Fourth Precept
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
This precept is directly linked with the second precept. There is a saying in Vietnamese, “You don’t need a lot of money to have kind speech.” Loving speech is freely available. We only need to be mindful, choosing our words carefully, and we can make many other people happy. This is generosity. Many of us think that we can only practice generosity if we spend a lot of money. We dream of getting rich so that we can bring happiness to others. We don’t understand that once we are rich, it may actually be more difficult to practice generosity. When we are motivated by loving kindness, maitri and karuna, we can bring happiness to others through our kind speech. With kind speech, we offer people joy, happiness, confidence, hope, and trust. Mindful speaking is a deep practice. Avalokitesvara is able to speak in a way that helps people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. Without looking deeply into ourselves, this is not easy. When we have a lot of suffering in ourselves, it is difficult to speak mindfully or with loving kindness. So we have to look deeply into the nature of our anger, despair, and suffering in order to free ourselves and be available to others.
Suppose your husband tells you something that hurts you. If you reply out of anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making the suffering deeper. But if you suppress your anger and remain silent, you will suffer more later on, and your suffering will also bring about more suffering for your partner. I recommend that you breathe in and out: “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my anger.” Then, when you are calm enough, you can say, “Darling, I am angry. What you said hurt me.” You will feel some relief just from saying that. During that moment, you are really in touch with your anger. You are not denying it.
Then you can invite your spouse to meet with you on Friday evening so that the two of you can look together at the disturbance. If you discuss your feelings right away, while you are still angry, you risk saying something that will make the situation worse. Between now and Friday night, you both have a few days to look deeply into the nature of your anger. While driving the car to work, for example, he may ask himself, “Why did she get so upset? There must be a reason.” Hopefully, before Friday night, one or both of you will see into the true nature of the problem and say, “I’m sorry, I was not very mindful.” Then, when Friday comes, you won’t have to look at the problem. Instead, you can have a cup of tea together. Making an appointment will give both of you time to calm down and look deeply.
When Friday night comes, if the suffering has not already been transformed, you can both practice deep listening. You sit quietly together and then one person expresses himself or herself, while the other person sits and listens. When you speak, try to tell the deepest kind of truth and practice loving speech, knowing that only with that kind of speech will there be a chance for the other person to understand and accept. The other person, while listening, knows that only with deep listening can he relieve the suffering of the other person. If he listens with half an ear, he cannot do it. His presence and his listening must be of good quality. It is good to meet on Friday night, so that after you have neutralized the negative feeling, you still have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the weekend and each other.
Let me offer another illustration of practicing the fourth precept. Suppose you have some kind of internal formation regarding a member of your family or your community. It may not be very deep, but because of it, you don’t feel much joy when you are with that person. You don’t mind talking to him to settle a number of minor things, but you don’t like to confront him about the deeper things that are troubling you. Then one day, while you are doing housework, you notice that he is not sharing the work that needs to be done. You feel uneasy and begin to wonder, “Why am I doing so much while he is not doing anything?” You should be practicing mindful working, but because of this comparative thinking, you lose your happiness, comparing yourself with another person, expecting that person to share the work with you. But for some reason you are unable to go to him and tell him, “Please brother, come help with the work.” Instead, you say to yourself, “He is an adult. Why should I have to say something to him? He should be responsible enough to help without my asking.” You behave like that because you already have some internal information about him. In fact, the shortest way to deal with it is directly. You go to him and say, “Brother, please come help.” But you don’t do that. Instead you keep it to yourself and blame him.
The next time that kind of thing happens, your feeling is even more intense. Your internal formations have grown little by little, until you suffer so much that she needs to talk about it with a third person (“C”). You (“B”) look for sympathy in order to share your suffering. Instead of talking directly to “A,” you talk to “C,” who you think has a similar internal formation. You look at “C” as a kind of ally who will agree with you that “A” is not good enough in the practice.
Since you already have some internal formations concerning “A,” you will be glad to hear that there is someone who feels as you do. Talking to each other makes you feel better. You don’t know that you are becoming allies—”B” and “C” against “A.” Suddenly “B” and “C” feel close to each other and distant from “A.” Very soon “A” will notice that. He may not be at all aware that “B” feels some resentment towards him. He is capable of helping “B” if “B” can express her feelings directly to him. But “A” doesn’t know. Suddenly “A” feels some coolness between himself and “B,” but he does not know why. He sees that “B” and “C” are very close to each other, and they are looking at him in a cold way. “A” suffers. “They don’t want me. Why should I try to be close to them?” So he steps farther back from them, and the situation becomes worse. A kind of triangle has been set up.
If I were “C,” I would try to practice like this: First of all I would try to listen to “B” attentively. I know that “B” needs to share her suffering. So I listen deeply in order to relieve “B” of her suffering. The second thing I would do is to offer my help to “B.” “My sister, why don’t you go directly to talk to him? If needed, I will go with you to talk with him.” After practicing the art of deep listening, “C” will try to practice mindful, loving speech with “B” and convince her to go directly to “A.”
The third thing “C” can do is also very important. She is determined not to transmit what “B” has told her to another person. She knows that if she is not mindful, she will transmit to others what “B” has told her, and very soon the family or the community will be in a mess. If “C” can do these three steps, she will be able to break the triangle. She will help solve the problem, and peace and joy can be assured in the family, the society, or the community. It is best to do this as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. We shouldn’t let things drag on for a long time. They will become much more difficult to solve.
“Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.” When we tell someone something that makes him or her happy, that is a great gift. When we say something that is cruel or distressing, the other person may lose hope, even the joy to live. Our speech can be constructive or destructive. This is linked to the first precept, not to kill. When we advocate an ideology, we may feel that our way of thinking or of organizing society is the best. We can even put anyone standing in the way of our realizing our ideology into a gas chamber, because of our beliefs. Ideology, a kind of speech, can be used to kill millions of people.
The fourth precept is also linked to the second precept, not to steal. Just as there is a “sex industry,” there is also a “lying industry.” Recently, a corporate executive whose job is to write articles about his company’s products told me that he has to practice lying in order to earn his living. If he tells the truth about the products, people will not buy them. There are many people like that in business and in politics. Communists, capitalists, socialists, and others lie all the time. Even in regards to the third precept, when someone says “I love you,” it may be a lie. It may be just some desire. Advertisements are also linked with sex.
We must use words that inspire self-confidence, especially with our children. If we treat our children as worthless, they will suffer in the future. If we encourage them with positive words, they will flower.
In the Buddhist tradition, the fourth precept is described as refraining from: (1) lying, (2) exaggerating, (3) saying one thing to one person and something else to another person, and (4) using insulting, abusive language.
“I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”
We can practice reconciliation with our deep listening and our mindful, loving speech. To reconcile means to bring peace and happiness to nations, people, and members of our family. This is the work of a bodhisattva. In order to reconcile, we have to refrain from aligning ourselves with either party in order to understand both parties. This is not just the work of diplomacy. It is not because we travel by air a lot and meet with foreign ministers that we can do the work of reconciliation. We have to use our bodies. We can be suppressed or even killed by the people we want to help. We have to listen to both sides and then tell each side of the suffering of the other. This work takes courage. We need people to do this in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.
The fourth precept is a bodhisattva precept. We need to study it deeply in order to be able to practice within ourselves, our family, our community, and in the world.
The Fifth Precept
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
I would like to explain the “emptiness of transmission.” In the formal meals at Plum Village, the monks and nuns pick up their bowls, look into the emptiness that is inside it, and recite this gatha: “This bowl was handed down to me by the Tathagata. I now have the honor of holding it in my two hands. I vow to realize the threefold emptiness.” The Buddha gives us transmission, and we receive it. Between the two, there is the object of transmission. When we eat the food in our bowl, we contemplate the emptiness of the one who made the offering, the one who received the offering, and the offering itself. These three things are empty, empty of a separate self. When we look deeply, we can see that the three are one.
The gift, the giver, and the receiver are one. We are practicing not only for ourselves, but also for the one who made the donation. This is the true practice of giving and the true practice of receiving. The giver should give in that spirit and not think, “I am the one who gives, and you should be grateful to me.” She knows that she is one with the recipient. And the recipient does not think only that this is a gift given by someone. He knows that what has been given is for him to maintain himself for the practice, and the practice will benefit everyone, not just himself. In that kind of spirit, we are grateful, and this is called the “emptiness of giving.”
When we hear the words, “Love your enemy,” we may ask, “How can we love our enemies?” When we are able to love our enemies, they will stop being our enemies. We are practicing the “emptiness of loving.” There is no distinction between lover and beloved. The other person is not our enemy, but ourselves. Loving our enemy means to love ourselves. When we look at our father with anger, we do not see that we and our father are one. At the moment we understand and love our father, we realize the emptiness of loving. Loving ourselves is to love our father, and loving our father is to love ourself. The fifth precept needs to be practiced in this spirit.
We take care of our body and our consciousness and keep ourselves healthy for our ancestors, our parents, and future generations. We do it for everyone. We are not practicing as separate entities. When we take a glass of wine, we are doing it for our ancestors. All of our ancestors and all future generations are taking the wine with us. That is the true spirit of the emptiness of transmission.
People who drink alcohol and get drunk are destroying their bodies, their families, and their society. They really should refrain from drinking. But what about drinking two glasses of wine a week? Why should you stop? What is the use of refraining if your drinking does not hurt you or other people? The answer is that, although you have not harmed yourself, your drinking may have an adverse effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply to see it. We are not practicing for ourselves alone. We are practicing for everyone. What if your children have seeds of alcoholism in them? When they see you drinking wine, they may think that it is completely natural, and later, they may become alcoholic. If you give up your two glasses of wine, even though they have not brought any harm to your body, you are showing your children, your friends, and society that your life is not only for yourself, that it is also for your ancestors, the future generations, and society. This is a very deep practice. It is the insight of a bodhisattva. That is why the emptiness of giving is the basis of the fifth precept.
In modern life in the West, young people have the impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body. They feel they have the right to live their own lives however they please. And the law supports them. That is individualism, but according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours alone. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations, and it also belongs to society and all other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body—the trees, clouds, everything. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos—to all ancestors and to future generations. We practice this precept for everyone. If you are healthy, physically and mentally, all beings will profit from it, not just men and women, but animals, plants, and the whole cosmos. The practice of the fifth precept should be based on that kind of insight. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.
When it is clear to you that you are practicing not only for yourself, you will stop drinking even one or two glasses of wine a week. At a reception, when someone offers you a glass of wine, you can smile and decline. “No thank you. I do not drink alcohol. Do you have any juice or mineral water?” You do it gently, with a smile. This is a true act of a bodhisattva—setting an example by your own life.
Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or fears has an effect on the baby inside her. If she is not aware of the nature of interbeing between her and the child, she may cause damage to both at the same time. If she drinks alcohol, she can destroy herself and also the child. Modern research has shown that when expecting mothers drink alcohol, it creates brain damage in the fetus. Studies at the University of Vancouver and elsewhere have proven that mothers who drink alcohol during certain periods of their pregnancy give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume, we will know our own nature. Mindful consumption is the main object of the fifth precept. We all have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do so unmindfully, we can destroy our bodies and our consciousness, expressing a lack of gratitude to our ancestors, parents, and future generations.
When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. If we can touch even one piece of fruit with our eyes and our mindfulness, we show our gratitude and experience great joy. If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch.
When we are mindful, we see whether there are toxins in our food. Before eating, we can look at our food mindfully, perhaps even calling out the name of each dish: “tofu,” “tomato,” “rice.” Calling something by its name is a good way to touch it deeply, to see directly into its true nature. At that moment, mindfulness will reveal to us whether the food is nutritious and healthy, or whether it contains toxins. Children can enjoy doing this if we show them how.
We can also talk about a diet for our consciousness. (See Mindfulness Bell #5.) We should refrain from ingesting intellectual and spiritual food that brings toxins into our consciousness. Some television programs contain toxins; others can educate us and help us lead a healthy life. We should make time to watch good programs, but there are other programs that can poison our consciousness, and we should refrain from watching them. This can be a practice for everyone in the family.
We label cigarette packs: “Warning: Smoking may be hazardous to your health,” but we still have to be strong, because smoking advertisements are so compelling that they make us feel that if we don’t smoke, we are depriving ourselves of everything worth living for. Smoking is linked with nature, expensive cars, beautiful women, high standards of living, and airplanes. This kind of advertising penetrates into our consciousness. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show our young people how this kind of propaganda creates a very wrong impression. Now it is possible to take an airplane without suffering from the smoke. We have to make more effort in that direction. We have to write articles and do everything in our power to step up these kinds of campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol. There is the danger that even if we don’t drink alcohol ourselves, we may get killed by a drunken driver. In persuading one person to refrain from drinking, you make the world safer for all of us.
I know that drinking wine is an important element running deep in Western civilization, as is evident in the ceremony of the Eucharist and the Passover meal. I have spoken with Catholic priests and nuns to see whether it might be possible to substitute grape juice for the wine, and they think it is possible. I suggested that they use real bread—not just symbolic bread—in the Eucharist for people to enjoy eating. We can make the ceremony into real life, something like a tea meditation. We really enjoy the cookie, not just as a symbol but truly.
Sometimes we don’t need to consume as much as we do. But consuming has become a kind of addiction, because we feel so lonely. It is similar to the third and fourth precepts. We feel lonely, and we want to engage in a conversation or a sexual relationship, hoping that our loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating may be the result of our loneliness. When we feel truly alone, we may want to drink to forget our loneliness. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modem life. When we are lonely, we ingest food in our body and into our consciousness that can bring toxins into us. We watch television, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone. We make our condition worse by unmindful consumption. If we spend one hour watching a film filled with violence, we water the seeds of violence, hatred, and fear in us. We do that, and we let our children do that. We need to have a family meeting to discuss an intelligent policy for television watching. We may have to label our TV sets the same way we label our cigarette packages: “Warning: Watching television can be hazardous to your health.” Many children have become violent, some have even joined gangs. They have seen so many violent images on television. We must have an intelligent policy concerning the use of television.
Of course there are many healthy and beautiful programs, and we should arrange our time so that the family will benefit from these. You don’t have to destroy your television set. You only have to use it with wisdom and mindfulness. There are a number of things that we can do, such as asking the television stations to establish healthier programs and suggesting to manufacturers to offer us TV sets that only transmit the signals from television stations that broadcast healthy, educational programs. During the war in Vietnam, the American army dropped hundreds of thousands of radios in the jungle that could only receive the station that broadcasted anti-communist propaganda. This is not psychological warfare, but I think many families would welcome a kind of television set that would allow us to see healthy programs. We need to be protected because the toxins are overwhelming, and they are destroying our society, our families, ourselves. Dharma discussions on this subject can generate ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from destructive programs.
We also have to discuss in our family and our community the kinds of magazines we and our children read. We have to boycott the magazines that spill toxins into our society. Not only should we refrain from reading these magazines, we should also make an effort to warn people of the danger of reading and consuming these kinds of products and conversations. From time to time, after speaking with someone, we feel paralyzed by what we have heard. The same is true of what we read or see. Mindfulness in TV watching, reading, and conversations will allow us to stop the kinds of activities that overwhelm us with their toxins.
The idea of a diet is the essence of this precept. War and bombs are the fruit of our collective consciousness. Our collective consciousness has so much violence, fear, craving, and hatred in it, it manifests in war and bombs. We hear that the other side has very powerful bombs, so we try to make bombs that are more powerful. When the other side hears that we have powerful bombs, they try to make even more powerful bombs. Bombs are a product of the fear in our collective consciousness. Just to remove the bombs is not really the work of peace. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we would still be unsafe, because the roots of the war and the bombs are still in our collective consciousness. We cannot work to abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming the toxins in our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot war.
Therefore, we have to practice a diet for ourselves, our families, and our society, and we have to do it with everyone else. To have healthy television programs, we have to work with artists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and lawmakers. We have to step up the struggle. Awareness should not be only in us, but in our families and in our society. We have to stop the kind of consumption that poisons our collective consciousness. I don’t see any other way than the practice of these bodhisattva precepts to produce the dramatic changes that we need. To practice as a society will not be possible if each of us does not vow to practice the Five Precepts.
The problem is very big. It is the survival of our species on the Earth. It is not a question of enjoying one glass of wine. If you stop drinking your glass of wine, you do it for the whole society. The fifth precept is exactly like the first one. If you are not able to entirely stop eating meat, at least make an effort in order to reduce eating meat. If you reduce eating meat by 50%, you perform a miracle. You will solve the problem of hunger in the Third World. Practicing the precepts is to make a little progress every day. That is why, during the recitation when we are asked whether we have made an effort to study and practice the precept read, we answer just by breathing deeply. That is the best answer. Mindful breathing means, “I have made some effort, but I can do better.”
The fifth precept can be like that also. If you are unable to stop drinking completely, then stop 75% or 50%. But alcohol is not the same as meat. Alcohol is addictive. That is why I encourage you to stop drinking even one glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You are doing it for all of us. You set an example for your children and your friends. On French television they say, “One glass is alright, but three glasses will bring about destruction.” They don’t say that the first glass brings the second, and the second brings the third, because they belong to a civilization of wine. In Plum Village, we are surrounded by wine. Many of our neighbors are surprised that we don’t profit from living in an area where the wine is so good. We are a pocket of resistance. Please support us.
When I was a novice, I learned that from time to time we had to use alcohol in preparing medicines. There are many kinds of roots and herbs that have to be macerated in alcohol so that they will have an effect. In these instances, alcohol is allowed. When the herbs have been prepared, they are put in the pot and boiled. Then they no longer have an intoxicating effect on us. I think if you use some alcohol in cooking, it is the same. After the food is cooked, the alcohol in it will not have an intoxicating nature. So I am not narrow-minded about this.
I know that no one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha. The vegetarian dishes that were offered to him were not entirely vegetarian. Boiled vegetables contain dead bacteria, and the vegetables themselves were also alive. But because of the real danger in our society—alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about so many unhappy people, old and young—we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.
We need to have Dharma discussions to share our experiences and deepen our understanding and practice of the Five Wonderful Precepts.
This is excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s forthcoming book on the Five Wonderful Precepts.
First photo by Tran van Minh.
Second photo by Michele Hill.
Third photo by Simon Chaput.