Lists of Rules? Some Thoughts on Practicing Buddhist Precepts.

Why Follow Buddhist Precepts

This is a short essay with my thoughts on the subject of “why follow Buddhist precepts?” What use are they, and can we follow an ethical code without “fixating”? If you don’t know what the five lay Buddhist precepts are, there’s a short blurb here.

At our small zendo, our teacher had decided to ask each of us to give talks during practice sessions on alternating weeks. It wasn’t unusual for him, the following week, to comment on a student’s discourse from the previous week. Feedback such as this can be useful, but, unfortunately, people can also construe such feedback as criticism — especially when it is delivered in front of the entire group.

A member of our group who received such feedback felt criticized and vulnerable — and angry– and decided to be direct about his feelings. Unfortunately, he expressed these feelings not as a private discussion with the teacher but instead as an unexpected and uncomfortable confrontation in front of the whole group. And a confrontation that did not go well, finishing with the student shouting, “Hai!” and storming out, never to return. If you think Zen groups are always peaceful and conflict-free, you don’t know people!

But I found it interesting what it was in my fellow sangha member’s talk that had prompted the inflammatory comment((I note that the teacher’s comment hadn’t really even registered in my mind as a criticism or as inflammatory until the conflict arose.)). While I can’t remember the teacher’s exact words,  I recall being perplexed that the subject being criticized was Buddhist precepts.

I had regarded precepts practice as an integral part of Buddhism. I was fond of reading books like The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh and Waking Up to What You Do by Diane Ezzin Rizzetto, and was quite focused on following these precepts myself.

So I asked our teacher, later, what his concern had been about dwelling on precepts during a talk. While I can’t give an exact quote of what he said at the time, I can remember the gist of it: that people tend to make precepts into a thing and get fixed on them.

OK, so I could relate to that. People do get hung up on rules and codes. In any tradition where there are lists or rules, or things that appear to be lists of rules, some people will fixate on them, turn them into an in-group or out-group thing. I’ve met people who had the “you’re not Buddhist if you do this thing or don’t do that thing” mentality. I’ve met people who wouldn’t study with a particular well-known teacher, for instance, because he wasn’t a vegetarian((And it’s totally someone’s prerogative to steer clear of a teacher if you don’t feel comfortable with their behaviors.)). On the other side of this, I’ve met some Buddhists who like to go out for a beer or who have an excellent wine collection((I’m talking specifically about Buddhism as lay practitioners in the west practice it, generally, and in the US specifically — many Buddhist laypersons in Asian countries neither meditate nor follow precepts and follow a devotional-type path. But I think Americans that drawn to Buddhism are attracted to the idea of its practices and sometimes approach it, at least initially, as a sort of self-help path.)).

The problem with precepts when we follow them in a dogmatic sort of way — when we fixate upon them and make them into a “thing — is that they sometimes make us into Buddhassholes. A teacher — I think it was Ram Dass, but excuse me if I misquote here — said something like, “My family hates it when I’m a Buddhist, but they love it when I’m a Buddha.” In my opinion, precepts are a tool that, when used a particular way, can help us come a bit closer to being a Buddha instead of an -ist.

In the west, many of us are familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition with its ten commandments and tend to see any lists of rules that way — as set in stone tablets. Of course, many people who hang lists the Ten Commandments in their homes don’t indeed follow them to the letter.

In various Buddhist traditions I’ve encountered, and even within subsets of the same sects — different Zen groups, for instance, there may be a vast difference in the emphasis put on precepts practice. Most will have some sort of lay ordination ceremony that involves “taking the precepts.” Still, there seem to be differences in what this means and how stringently practitioners are supposed to follow them.

Though the five precepts seem simple on the surface, they’re open to vastly different interpretations.

What is, for instance, an intoxicant? Is one bottle of beer an intoxicant or only if you drink to excess? Is caffeine an intoxicant1? If you read Thich Nhat Hanh, you’ll note that he includes watching TV in the realm of intoxicants and eschews any alcohol use, noting that one drink might not be wrong — but you never know if it will lead to a larger pattern of alcoholism in the long run.

And what about the precept not to kill? Does this mean that you don’t do the killing? Does it mean you need to be vegetarian2? What if pests are overrunning your house and you’ve exhausted all humane methods?

So what use are precepts? Is not following them to the letter just cherry-picking? Where is the balance? How can we hold them without turning them into dogma or a “thing?” While on the one hand, I can agree with what my teacher said3 about people’s tendency to fixate, I think it’s wrong to throw the whole thing out entirely. Plenty of good reasons for them exist.

Of course, one reason the precepts developed was simply to keep order within a community. If members of a sangha agreed not to misuse sexuality, to not gossip about each other, to not steal from each other, and not to take intoxicants — which could be a cause of slipping up with the other precepts — the sangha might avoid some of the problems that generally tend to plague groups of humans.

Even outside of the sangha, following the precepts can maximize benefit and minimize harm to others.

Another reason for the precepts, of course, is training the mind. It isn’t a stretch, for instance, to imagine that alcohol might get in the way of meditation practice.

But the way I’ve found the precepts to be most helpful in my own life4 is in the aspect of self-knowledge and self-confrontation. 

To hold a precept in your heart and mind is to make you look at your behavior, confront your attitudes, and respond to things in a way that’s intentional and not merely automatic.

If I have an intention not to kill, what does that mean? Precepts, if taken strictly, might be impossible to follow fully.  After all, I’m not a Breatharian and have to kill plants at least to live. However, having the intention to follow this precept might mean I check that instinctual urge to slap that spider.  It might mean I look for non-lethal alternatives to a household pest problem before going for the kill-em-all method.

The hardest precepts for me to keep are the ones involving speech. Not out of the intention to be mean, but because others are often such a juicy subject of conversation. Usually, talking about others (we won’t call it gossip, I just HATE to gossip) can be harmful. Sometimes it is necessary. Having this precept makes me look at intention and necessity before opening my mouth and letting the words spew forth.

So, I find precepts practice to be helpful. But if you ever hear me saying to someone, “I NEVER gossip,” or anything else with that tone focusing on the “I,” you can slap me around a bit.

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  1. Help me! If it is, it means I’m intoxicated every morning. When I was going to my first Buddhist retreat, I made the assumption — without asking — that they wouldn’t have coffee. So I caffeine detoxed myself for a week ahead of time so I wouldn’t have caffeine headaches at the retreat only to find that they had coffee in abundance, of which I heartily imbibed. []
  2. Which one teacher pointed out to me that when you pull a carrot from the ground, you’re still killing. []
  3. and he did acknowledge that he wasn’t saying that precepts were not important at all, just that there was a danger of getting fixated. I’ll also note, though, that I never heard him talk on the subject of precepts unless someone asked him specifically. []
  4. And I’ll divulge that there are plenty of times I’ve slipped off following them! []


Perplexity likes to write, tries to get herself to sit daily, and is working on changing the dukkha she can and accepting the dukkha she cannot change.

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