I think one interesting aspects of Buddhist practice is the voluntary acceptance of precepts and vows, both within the monastic and lay community. I think for someone who isn’t familiar with this practice, it seems like something very restrictive and unwanted. However from an experiential standpoint, I’ve noticed that taking precepts and vows have actually brought freedom and mental space. Any resistance that I have from taking precepts, I’ve found to be more a reflection of me not being ready to relinquish a part of my ego.
When vows or precepts are broken, there isn’t a 3rd party somewhere watching over me like a precept or vow police. Their main purpose is for training purposes. If they were so easy to keep, we probably wouldn’t need to take them.
Within the Buddhist tradition, the refuge vows and 5 lay precepts are consistent within all traditions. Within the Mahayana, the bodhisattva vows vary a bit, and I’m only familiar with its presentation from the viewpoint of the Tibetan tradition. The tantric vows are exclusive to the Vajrayana tradition. Monks and nuns vows have different lineages, so there is some variation throughout the different traditions. For those considering Buddhist monastic ordination, you can find more information on its vows and precepts here
How does one know its time to take precepts?
I don’t know if there’s a general answer to this, but I’ll just answer from my experience as a lay practitioner. As a lay practitioner, the first vows and precepts available are the refuge vows and the 5 lay precepts. Depending on the preceptor, some preceptors allow people to decide which of the 5 precepts they want to take, while others require someone to take all 5. A preceptor is someone has who received the vows and precepts and keeps them purely, and has received them from an unbroken lineage that traces back to Buddha Shakyamuni. So this can be a monk, nun, or lay practitioner, but they need a pure lineage and to hold their vows purely in order to transmit them purely.
Before I took the precepts, I did kind of a test run. I practiced living with them before actually taking them. I wanted to get a feel for if it would be beneficial to take them and if I could actually keep them. Once someone takes the refuge vows and precepts, they’re taken for life unless someone gives them back to their preceptor. I’ll share some of my thoughts on my experience of the five lay precepts.
This is actually a very freeing feeling, not killing any beings, even to the smallest of insects. When I examined my motivation for killing insects in the past, I didn’t really have a logical reason for doing it. Usually I found them to be annoying or inconvenient, but they weren’t logical reasons for killing them.
When I stopped killing, what arose was an understanding that all beings want to be happy and not suffer, even the smallest of creatures. If someone approaches an insect, it’ll play dead or run away in attempt to protect its life. If I was small creature and a large and menacing figure came, I would actually do the same thing. Even the smallest of creatures are not so different from us as we may sometimes believe.
In the past when I’ve stolen, I thought I would profit somehow. All the things I’ve stolen, I don’t even have or profit from anymore. Those items never brought long lasting happiness. What ended up being the result was guilt and regret, even if it was repressed, it was still there. Not stealing brought a sense of relief in that I felt I was trying to change and I didn’t have anything to hide.
Lying is like an intricate web. When I lied about one thing, I had to make up a new set of lies to coverup for my previous lie. And then make up more lies to cover for those lies, and then I have to keep track of all the lies I made. Then came the fear of slipping and being caught.
Not lying is such an incredible relief. What’s shocking is that even though I have precepts not to lie, it’s still very difficult to stop white lies. I’ve noticed this to be the same experience with many long time practitioners. It’s not that people want to lie, but the habits run so deep that it’s hard to break, which is very shocking in a way. Understanding how vulnerable we are to our habits and how difficult they are to change, I believe, is a gateway to understanding how much work we have before us.
Not having unwise sexual behavior
This refers mainly to having affairs, rape, etc. Most people don’t rape, but many people have affairs. I don’t think most people want to do this, but because the habituation is so strong, they do it anyway. If they were caught, they would feel horrible. Just like lying, some habits are so habituated that it’s a hard trend to break. I think taking precepts like this helps prevent people from engaging in this behavior. I haven’t raped or had any affairs, but this precept acts like a safety belt.
Not taking intoxicants
This one is a very difficult and many Buddhists don’t take this one. I found that as I meditated more, not taking intoxicants is a natural progression. For instance, if someone smokes, but starts going to the gym, they’ll probably smoke less over time. It’s just part of a natural progression. It’s the same with meditation, more mindfulness and clarity will naturally lead to less desire for alcohol and other intoxicants.
The last time I had a drink, I had two glasses of wine. I was having a conversation with my cousin and we were talking about philosophy and life. I remember being irritated in that I couldn’t think straight as clearly as I would like, because I really wanted to explain something I thought was important. That was reason enough for me to want to stop drinking all together.
I think so much time and money is spent trying to gather alcohol. I notice on New Years, people usually have too much to drink, and end up regretting the things they said/did the next day.
More thoughts of precepts
Thich Nhat Hahn makes an interesting comment in For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, in that if one lives fully in one precept, they actually live fully in all five, because they’re interdependent. Essentially, mindfulness is contagious and affects all facets of life. So even if one takes only 1 precept but they live fully in it, according to Hanh, they’ll eventually keep all 5 precepts. I think thats an interesting thing to ponder.
Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchock says that keeping even one precept really well during this degenerate time, is equivalent to keeping many during the time of the Buddha in terms of merit.
While living in precepts, it’s very important not to get into guilt trips. If someone lies 15 times a day while living in precepts, one shouldn’t get upset. If that person wasn’t being mindful of their lying habit, they would probably lie 80 times a day on autopilot, so now it’s down to 15. That’s actually something to rejoice about. Living in precepts and vows, is part of a long journey of purification and clearing the mind.