By Annabel Laity
Like a coin, the precepts have two sides, and both are essential for our practice. One side guides us toward what is beneficial and protects us. The other side is the emptiness of the precepts. To describe the first aspect, I would like to share this story: When I was a child, my father had some cows. From time to time, we would take them to another field for grazing. Along the way, there was a beautiful path lined with rhododendron bushes and lush grass. The neighbor who owned these bushes and grass did not like the cows to stray off the path into his shrubbery. So we walked along with the cows, always watching them and keeping them to the middle of the path. In that way, we arrived at the new grazing land, keeping good friends with our neighbor. A precept serves as a reminder a bit like "Do not go off the path, dear cow!"
The Buddha often spoke of the triad--precepts or morality (sila), concentration (samadhi), and understanding (prajna)--as the foundation of practice. Sita, samadhi, and prajna go hand in hand, enhancing one another. Each is necessary for the others. To give a simple example: if we consume alcohol and intoxicate our bodies in various ways, we are not in the best position to realize concentration in our daily activities or during meditation. So we are encouraged to keep the Fifth Precept.
A healthy body is one of the most important bases for our meditation practice, and, if we think in these terms, we may want to include junk food, or coffee, or even tea in the Fifth Precept as intoxicants. Some people want to develop concentration in order not to be aware of the body, in order to be able to escape from the body and its various discomforts, but that is not what is meant by samadhi in Buddhism. Buddhism teaches mindfulness of the body. It is on this basis of mindfulness that concentration is developed--a concentration whose purpose is not to obliterate sensation but to lead to an understanding (prajna) of the way things are and to allow for a deeper insight into the true nature of things.
Now let us look at the other side of the precepts, concerning their empty nature. This does not suggest that the precepts have no basis in reality; it means that the reality in which they are based is interdependence. A precept exists in dependence on causes and conditions, and one of the conditions is the person who receives the precepts. Precepts can heal and transform, but they need to be administered by a doctor who understands the sickness of the society and the individual. A precept has no absolute self-identity.
For the community of monks and nuns in the lifetime of the Buddha, there was a precept prohibiting the taking of one's own life. In spite of that precept, there was a monk who, after he took his own life, was commended by the Buddha for having achieved complete liberation. Before he killed himself, the monk was very ill and in great pain. He was almost certainly not in a position to teach the Dharma any more, and there was probably little hope for his recovery. He had been instructed in and fully realized the fruits of the meditation. The Buddha said that this monk was fully liberated when he took his own life, in spite of the fact that he broke the precept. (This example is not altogether out of place with regard to the question of euthanasia which is currently much discussed.)
In the Majjhima Nikaya (Sutra no. 65), there is another instance of the Buddha adopting a relaxed view of the precepts. One monk asked the Buddha why it was that another monk could break the precepts and not be reprimanded by the community. The Buddha replied, "There are monks who have only a very little faith in the Dharma. If they are dealt with severely, what little faith they have will be destroyed and their practice will also be destroyed. It is for this reason that the sangha will sometimes be seen as lenient in its treatment of those who break the precepts." The Buddha compares this case with that of a child who has lost one eye: "Do the parents not take every care to see that the second eye receives no injury? So with a monk who has only a little confidence in the practice. The sangha will take great care of that little faith in case it too is destroyed."
However, in order to be successful in helping someone weak in the practice, a sangha needs to be strong in its practice of mindfulness. That is why we talk about mindfulness as being the basic precept. It is not that in these two cases the Buddha was expressing the uselessness of the precepts. The usefulness of the precepts is strengthened by the fact that they are empty. The precepts are a part of life and not abstractions. The person who has taken precepts and sees that they are empty will keep the precepts with the understanding that they lead to greater happiness, not that they have some absolute existence apart from the person who has taken them and the love and understanding of the lineage which has transmitted them.
Annabel Laity is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing (Tiep Hien) living in Plum Village.