(commentary on Dhammapāda, 183)
This mind of mine went formerly wandering about as it liked, as it listed, as it pleased; but I shall now hold it in thoroughly, as the rider who holds the hook holds in the furious elephant. (Dhammapāda, 326)
Refraining from every evil is alternatively translated as the not doing of any demerit (sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ) or the avoiding of “bad karma.” It is almost always practiced in Buddhism in terms of precepts, as rules of thumb that help us to become harmless. Precepts are similar to the Ten Commandments of the Bible, or to traffic laws, or to the bothersome things your parents told you to do when you were a kid, like not to watch more than seven hours of TV or not to eat the dog’s food. They also might be compared to professional rules of ethics, such of those observed by psychotherapists (not sleeping with clients) or members of the scientific community (not faking data). Traditionally lay people throughout the Buddhist world observe at least the following five precepts:
- I undertake the training step to refrain from killing living things,
- I undertake the training step to refrain from take what is not given,
- I undertake the training step to refrain from commit sensual misconduct,
- I undertake the training step to refrain from falsehood, and
- I undertake the training step to refrain from the headlessness of spirits, liquor and intoxicants.
Some people choose to extend this set in various way, for instance to include prohibitions against malicious, harsh or useless speech, sometimes for just one day a week. I am a Theravada monk, and Theravada monks take on a set to 227 precepts, all the time, forever.
Precepts are almost invariably stated as abstentions, things not to do, for instance, “Do not kill,” rather than “Protect life,” which is why they may be described with the phrase to refrain from every evil. The violation of a precept generally requires intention; accidentally running over the neighbor’s cat cannot violate the precept against killing living beings. Refraining from evil, in other words, applies to karma, which means in Buddhism simply “volitional action.”
The rationale for refraining from evil. Philosophers would classify refraining from evil according to precepts a deontological or duty ethics. The advantage of its concise rule format is that this makes it reasonably clear when we are breaking a precept or not, even when we are drawing a blank and cannot work out all the consequences of a proposed action . We are never sure if we are doing all we can to protect life, for instance, so it is nice to have a rule of thumb to commit us at least to causing no harm. Moreover, a precept is easy to learn and remember, even for the young or young at heart, or for the beginning Buddhist or the one with beginner’s mind. It tends to highlight a basic problem area in human conduct that the sages of past ages must have experienced and recognized, and it applies regardless of the complexity of the circumstances in which one proposes to act: Just don’t do it! Buddhist precepts pertain, at least in the most ancient tradition, to observable actions of body and speech, not of thought. (In contrast, thoughts may sometimes violate Christian commandments, such as coveting your neighbor’s house, cow or wife.) In short, a precept achieves power and clarity in stating minimal standards of physical (bodily and verbal) conduct. It is, in sum, very doable.
A particularly significant difference between Buddhist precepts and Christian commandments should be noted: Buddhist precepts are taken on in Buddhism entirely as training steps (sikkhāpadaṃ, in the Dhammapada verse), that is, they are undertaken voluntarily as an individual commitment, rather than as imposed by a God, a Pope, government or other authority. As a Buddhist, we vow to follow precepts, or not, or choose to take different sets of precepts. In contrast, violating a commandment in Christianity or other Abrahamic faiths is “bad” insofar as it insults the will of God. The one is a demeritorious act and the other a sin.
Although precepts and commandments widely overlap in content, the difference noted entails that one can logically commit a sin without doing or intending harm, or avoid a sin while doing and intending harm, for God’s will can work in mysterious ways. Murder, theft, bearing false witness and adultery are actions harmful to others and displeasing to God. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, making for yourself an idol, not keeping the sabbath or handling leather made from pig skin would seem harmless (“victimless crimes”), yet, we are told in the Old Testament, are displeasing to God. Stoning someone to death is clearly harmful to others and therefore demeritorious, yet might nonetheless be sanctioned by God in response to others’ deeds. As practical consequence, there are no “victimless crimes” in Buddhist ethics. Sexual misconduct in the third precept above, for instance, refers to things like acts of adultery or sex with a child, in which the harmony of standing human relations is violated, tending toward verifiable harmful results, and never to the perceived “kinkiness” that commonly adheres to sexual acts according to societal standards. Buddhist precepts are also to a surprising degree free of cultural norms and surprisingly universal.
Weaknesses of precepts (as well as commandments) as guides to ethical conduct are that they generally allow loopholes and they don’t permit appropriate exceptions, that is, precepts are porous and rigid. There is the case in which the Gestapo shows up at your front door and asks you, gleefully aware that a Buddhist will not lie, if you are hiding Jews in the attic, or that in which you just happen to be returning from a softball game with a bat in your hand and walk in right behind a man who has just “gone postal” and has begun shooting at fellow employees. There are, moreover, many harmful, generally mildly harmful, behaviors that simply are not covered in precepts, like taking up two parking spaces.
It is significant that the Buddha rarely sanctioned exceptions to precepts, perhaps because he wanted us to be fully aware of the dilemma of the human condition rather than regulating it away. The one example I am aware of in which the Buddha discusses the kinds of contradictions that may arise in following precepts is in MN 38 where the Buddha was challenged for his own use of disagreeable speech against Devadatta, his cousin, who had created a schism in the Sangha, had injured the Buddha in an assassination attempt and had committed other odious misdeeds. The Buddha’s response was that sometimes it is necessary to dig a pebble out of a child’s mouth even though it causes great discomfort. Providing a metaphor rather than loophole was wise: given the smallest loophole, many people might become quite creative in their exceptions to precepts, for instance, soon allowing exceptions in the case of people one does not like, or of those who they otherwise imagine to be undeserving.
It is important to note that precepts, as formal rules, sometimes serve purposes other than refraining from evil. The fifth of the common five precepts, for instance, might best be understood as sustaining certain qualities of mind (heedfulness and mindfulness) that are important in the overall project of purifying the mind, our third ethical project. Although it has ethical value in this sense, it does not have the direct relationship to harm that the other four precepts enjoy. . Similarly, optional sets of lay precepts include a prohibition against idle chatter, on the surface seemingly even more benign than inebriating oneself. This also contributes to the overall project of purifying the mind, for which its friend idle thought is understood as problematic. The very first precept in the monastic code prohibits monastics from engaging in sexual acts, a serious disrobing offense. Sex, in itself, is not necessarily harmful, but monastics practice, by definition, as renunciates. Maintaining a sexual relation is thoroughly in violation of a monastics’ practice commitments, the keeping of which are a part of the social contract with the laity that supports the monastic. If such a violation causes harm, it is an obscure kind of harm distributed over weakening practice commitments, unmet obligations, breaking of trust, weakening of the reputation of the Sangha and thereby of the Sāsana, and so on. The rationale is, rather, regulatory. Moreover, many minor monastic precepts are really rules of etiquette, and are actually exceptions to the cultural universality of precepts, in that they regulate socially acceptable comportment for the monastic community.
Entering into the practice of refraining from evil. As Buddhists we take on a number of practices and open our hearts and minds to understandings and values that may be initially unfamiliar. Taking on the precepts is one of life’s landmark decisions, like choosing a spouse, career path or dog. We honor this decision with a sense of vow or commitment, dedication and devotion, with full awareness that, “This will be the shape of my life.”
In vowing to live according to precepts our intentions are most often mixed. A very pure motivation indeed for the practice of refraining from evil is one rooted in the virtues of harmlessness, generosity, kindness and wisdom. I think humans are born with a degree of innate goodness: people want to do good, to benefit and live in harmony with others. One sees this often even in small children and (as I observed in teaching Buddhism and meditation in prisons) to some degree in the most ignoble ruffians. To the extent that we already possess these virtues, we are already progressed in virtue ethics, the third ethics, that of purifying the mind. To the extent that these virtues are wanting, other intentions weigh in.
A second reason for becoming a precept practitioner is this very sense of vow or commitment to the Buddhist path, of which precept practice is an integral and highly recommended part. For the Buddhist born, this generally already has the great momentum of cultural and family tradition behind it, sustained already without question for many generations. It is on behalf of this kind of commitment and with the opening up to Buddhist practice and understanding that we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. All of these practices are further reinforced for those active in a Buddhist community with the under the influence of its behavioral norms.
The third reason for commitment to refraining from evil is the law of karma. Karma, we have seen, is volitional action and therefore the stuff of ethical conduct, and, in fact, the stuff of our entire Buddhist practice. All three ethical practices recognize that volitional acts have consequences for the future world, for good or bad, harm or benefit (except where some happen to be neutral). The law of karma recognizes that our volitional consequences have consequences for our personal future as well. It is roughly described as follows.
Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)
Our karmic acts not only help make the world what it will be, but make us what we will be. Good deeds (meritorious karma, puñña) work to our own benefit as well as to the benefit of others. Bad deeds (demeritorious karma, pāpa ) work against our own benefit as well as against the benefit of others. The effects on oneself are often referred to as karmic results (vipāka) or fruits (phala). Now, exactly how and why the law of karma works is subtle and complex and will be discussed in psychological terms later in connection with the more sophisticated practice of purification of the mind. Nonetheless, the law of karma is taught in Buddhism, and was taught by the Buddha, even to newbies, to those who lack a theoretical understanding of the Dharma and even to children. The reason it is taught so early is certainly that its applicability to our personal situation is particularly cogent and that it therefore provides a powerful incentive for Buddhist practice, starting with the precepts. Most Buddhists see in the law of karma a system of personal reward or punishment for our karmic actions, or learn to see our actions as seeds that once planted will someday produce either sweet or bitter fruit. The actual payback may assume different forms but was most commonly related by the Buddha to circumstances of our rebirth (including possible rebirth in heavenly or hell realms). Beware that there are a host of naïve misunderstandings of the law of karma in circulation not supported in the early texts, probably exactly because this theoretical teaching is introduced typically so early in Buddhist education.
We make decisions to shape our lives in many ways aside from taking on the precepts. Prominent among these is our choice of livelihood. Unfortunately certain livelihoods entail repeated evil behavior. Therefore a part of entering into refraining from evil is not to enter into certain livelihoods. The Buddha highlighted right livelihood by giving it the fifth position on the Noble Eightfold Path, the master checklist of Buddhist practice. Right livelihood is an enabling condition for fully entering the practice of refraining from evil.
The Buddha listed the following as livelihoods to be avoided (AN 5.177):
Business in weapons. This precludes hunting, soldiering (see SN 42.3 for more on this) or weapons manufacture. (I used to write software sometimes under Defense Department contracts, including for a project in missile guidance. This ended up being a major factor choosing my present way of life.)
Business in human beings. In the Buddha’s day this had to do with dealing in slaves and prostitutes. There may be modern institutional parallels in coercive labor markets.
Business in meat. This precludes raising animals for slaughter, slaughter itself or selling meat.
Business in intoxicants. This precludes tending bar, selling or producing alcohol, pushing drugs, growing opium, and so on. Modern allowances should be made for compassionate medicinal uses of intoxicants and poisons.
Business in poison. This would include manufacturing pesticides but also applying them to crops.
Notice that these for the most part evade the killing living things, and they are also broadened to avoid supporting conditions that might cause others to violate precepts.
Elsewhere (MN 117) the Buddha describes wrong livelihood as that which involves, “scheming, talking, hinting, belittling, pursuing gain with gain,” which sounds embarrassingly like conventional modern corporate business culture. In fact, modernity seems to provide fewer options for right livelihood than what was available to our ancient forbearers. Modern enterprises are much larger, decisions are distributed in such a way that obscure ethical responsibility and workers compensated through wages have little control over the product of their labor. For instance, given modern labor options we might be lucky to find a job at a retail store, in which we might be required to sell pesticides, booze, meat, and (especially in the USA) guns, with skillful whatever scheming, talking and hinting will close the sale. No religious exemptions are generally offered.
This raises an important question: If your act of selling pesticides to a customer (and convincing him he needs two cans, where one would do) is this your boss’s decision, or yours as his paid subordinate, that is, is it your bad karma? If your act of taking out an enemy combatant is your commanding officer’s decision, not yours, are you breaking a precept? If you don’t do it, someone else will, so aren’t you off the hook? The Buddhist answer is much like the decision of the Nuremberg Trial: you are not off the hook, orders are not just orders, you are the heir of your own deeds. This is also consistent with the role of such actions in the process of purifying the mind. Issues in right livelihood in our modern times may create dilemmas and and lead to compromises; a right livelihood may be elusive for the practitioner who us unwilling to let his family starve.
As a point of resistance to entering into the practice of refraining from evil, Westerner Buddhists often regard rules and regulations as infringing on personal freedom, or would like to keep their options open rather than to commit themselves to anything. These same Western Buddhists also often think of following ritual forms or sorting through what is skillful and unskillful in human thought as a kind of tyranny. This is a misdirected attitude:
First of all, Buddhism is not unlike many other areas in which we apply discipline in order to improve our skills. Becoming a master potter or a professional tennis player requires more than just doing our own thing, it requires years of training in technique and practice. Following a recipe in baking a pie could likewise just as well be considered an infringement on our right to cook anything we please, as we please, yet we keep buying cookbooks and following the recipes therein. In Buddhism our concern is to master the skill of life; this takes training, this takes discipline. It is not concerned with doing our own thing spontaneously in all situations. But at the same time it is an exercise of free will: We decide to follow the discipline and take the vows in the first place. The Buddha can demand it of us no more than Julia Childs can demand that we follow her recipes.
Beyond this, the common notion of personal freedom referred to is actually almost always at odds with the Buddhist concept of liberation; the latter is not the freedom to do what you want but rather the freedom from having to want anything. The former is freedom for the self, the second is freedom from the self. In Buddhism we seek freedom from the tyranny of the self, with its endless desires and needs, dislikes and fears, that keep us stressed and miserable and that restrict the free flow of compassion and kindness to benefit the world. But then, this belongs to purifying the mind.
The practice of refraining from evil. Our incentives for following precepts compete with needy and aversive impulses rooted in the central importance of a misperceived self that must navigate a harsh, competitive and often abusive world. Without precepts we more often than not take more from the world than give, harm others, often unspeakably, as we accrue personal material advantages and become ever more entrenched in reprobate behaviors as a result of acting out our greed, hatred and delusion.
Bad deeds, and deeds hurtful to ourselves, are easy to do; what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do. (Dhammapāda, 163)
Following precepts requires discipline and mindfulness moment by moment, not to let our worst impulses overwhelm our vows. Most of all, it requires restraint.
The main challenge in following Precepts comes from the demands of one’s unskillful thoughts, which must often be brought under control in one way or another in order to act in accordance with the precept, for instance, in order not to sneak a cookie while struggling with an enormous sweet tooth. Following the precepts presents an opportunity to confront and begin to correct our worst impulses. As such, it actually provides a foundation in the third ethical practice of purifying the mind. The impurities of the mind largely reside in habit patterns that have been learned, traditionally over many lifetimes. Following precepts tends to thwart and break up these established patterns so that they begin to be unlearned.
In this way refraining from evil affords us an opportunity more closely to observe the contents of the mind: every time an existing pattern is broken through observing a precept, some unconsummated impulse is clearly left dangling. For instance, many Buddhist codes include a precept to abstain from gossip, which is a carefree pastime that many people enjoy without regarding it as harmful or particularly unskillful or stressful. However, following a precept not to gossip gives one pause as certain situations open up this otherwise alluring option. At that point if one looks one will see a bit of ill-will hanging unexpressed, and, peeling off of this, unmistakable stress. One will also take note that the unexpressed gossip has a dangling victim that has just benefited as a consequence of your choice not to gossip. We thus begin to see in what sense many of our thoughts and impulses are unskillful, in fact dangerous, and how renouncing or giving them up is quite appropriate.
As we break accustomed habit patterns, new kinds of mental factors arise to take their places. The results can be quite remarkable. For instance, we may start our practice with an established impulse to kill insects and other crawling “vermin,” an impulse that runs up against our new commitment not to kill living beings. As we repeatedly find ways to avoid killing living things, for instance by relocating snakes and scorpions or plugging up ants’ means of access to our living spaces, our ill-will fades and is replaced by a strong sense of kindness; we begin to feel that we are the protectors of our ugly or dangerous little friends. Impure mental factors are replaced by pure mental factors.
The precepts may feel like a box that you’ve put yourself uncomfortably into, one that affords little ability to move. Nonetheless, we are given an opportunity to observe and understand self’s needs and this understanding provides a basis for purifying the mind. There is a Zen saying that if one puts a snake in a bamboo tube it will finally become aware of its own shape. This works for us too. In summary, the practice of refraining from evil already begins to support the practice of purifying the mind. The opposite is also true. The practice of purifying the mind, which itself has a number of supporting component practices, supports the practice of refraining from evil. As the mind becomes pure, the impulses that challenge refraining from evil begin to disappear and refraining from evil becomes effortless.
We have seen that precept practice is often undertaken with mixed motives. In fact, weak, impure intentions for following precepts reinforce impurities in the mind. For instance, if we perpetually think as we apply a precept, “This makes me look good to others,” or even, “I’m making sure I will be reborn in a heavenly realm,” then indeed one is reinforcing an unskillful habit pattern, one rooted in self-centeredness and craving. However, it is rarely that simple. The desire to benefit others even if initially weak will likely be a growing part of the motivational mix as one practices with precepts, particularly as the joy that comes with pure motives continues to be experienced, and as the mind becomes purer through a variety of practices. As one’s motives center around the potential harm to others rather than around one’s own gain, one is also likely to go beyond the precepts, which are after all simply pointers for how to avoid harm, and consider every unregulated way one can avoid harm, like recycling one’s trash.