Monday, 24 May 2010


These are my notes for a talk given to to a beginner's class at the Bristol Buddhist Centre

The first time you read or hear of the Five Precepts you may be struck by their similarity to some of the Christian Commandments.  However, there are a number of clear distinctions. Firstly, the Precepts are not ‘commandments’.  They are principals for living an ethical life, voluntarily undertaken by those interested in living their lives in accordance with the Buddha Dharma – the teaching of the Buddha.  Secondly, they tend to be much broader than the Commandments and in addition, and most importantly, each has a positive counterpart:

  1. Abstention from killing living beings                      Kindness
  2. Abstention from taking the not given                    Generosity
  3. Abstention from sexual misconduct                     Equanimity
  4. Abstention from false speech                              Truthfulness
  5. Abstention from intoxicants                                 Mindfulness

Generally these five precepts are observed by lay people.  When you become ordained into the Western Buddhist Order, we are invited to observe a further five precepts – rather oddly the fifth precept – abstention from intoxicants – is dropped in favour of several more speech precepts.  Over the following four Tuesday evenings, we are going to be looking at these Five Precepts and in particular, their positive counterparts.

After a few weeks or months attending these drop-in classes, you may develop an interest in Buddhism and wish to know more.  You may eventually consider moving to our Monday ‘Friend’s Nights’.  Whilst these evenings also include meditation, there is a greater emphasis on other Buddhist practices including chanting and ritual.  Inevitably you will be invited to recite the Five Precepts in call and response.  The Precepts will be chanted in Pali, one of the ancient languages of Buddhism, followed by the positive counterpart chanted in English.

The first Precept is ‘I undertake to abstain from killing living beings’ and it is chanted as follows:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

The positive counterpart follows:

With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.

On the face of it the first precept is so obvious, that it can sometimes be overlooked or quickly passed over.  You may think, “OK, I’m not planning to kill anyone in the immediate future, so let’s move on to the next one”.  We may not kill living beings, but there are those that do so in our name.  In Afghanistan, in Iraq British servicemen are killing and being killed on behalf of the British Government who represent the will of the people they serve – that’s you and me.  We may proclaim ourselves to be non- violent but this does little to stop violence being perpetrated on our behalf as British citizens.  As is nearly always the case when considering ethical behaviour, it is seldom that things are black and white – indeed the shades of grey seem infinite. 

Those of us that live in the country frequently find ourselves overrun with mice, usually driven indoors by severe weather.  As Buddhists, should we be using Little Nipper mouse traps to kill them or should we be catching them and taking them a couple of miles away in the boot of a car so we can release them without fear that they will come back.  If an infestation of vermin became a health hazard would we be justified in bringing in the council’s rodent exterminator?

Those of us who eat meat are seldom required to kill a pig or ring the neck of a chicken, but someone has to do so if we are to have our Sunday joint on the table. Slugs are destroying your garden.  You can buy organic slug pellets but should you be killing them at all?

How green are we?  Could our lack of awareness of green issues be contributing towards the destruction of the environment, thereby leading the death of thousands of creatures, perhaps threatening the livelihoods of many distant tribes-people or even putting their lives a risk?

There is the much bigger question of abortion.  If we abstain from killing living beings, should we be against abortion?  What about the grey area of stem cell research?

There are no easy answers to some of these questions and sometimes one is tempted to wish that we didn’t have to face these choices; that we would be better off if Buddhists had someone like to the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury to tell us what is right and what is wrong.  It would be a relief if someone else made these difficult decisions for us. For the moment, let us put aside these contentious issues and consider the positive precept, “With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body”.  This seems to suggest that with the best will in the world, we are somehow going to be involved in killing living beings whether directly or indirectly but if we make a conscious effort to develop loving kindness we may not be absolved of responsibility but we can in some way prepare ourselves and perhaps even counteract the effects of violence in the world and in ourselves.

If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you will have heard Suhada introducing the Metta Bhavana meditation.  For those unfamiliar with this practice this meditation is designed to assist us in overcoming negative emotions such as aversion, jealousy, greed, hatred and ignorance by developing ‘metta’.  Metta may be translated in various ways but we generally like to describe it as ‘unconditional loving kindness’.

Of course, it would be naïve to expect that just by practicing Metta Bhavana we will eradicate all the violence and killing in the world.  However, it may influence the way we vote or indeed encourage those of us who usually don’t vote, to do so.  We may feel encouraged to participate in protest marches or join groups opposed to war and violence.  There are a hundred ways we could manifest our desire to see a less violent world.

Regular metta practice will heighten our own capacity for compassion; little by little we may become aware of our increased desire to work towards a less violent, more compassionate society.  We may slowly come to question the need for animals to suffer in order to feed us.  Why should someone in a slaughterhouse be expected to accept the karmic consequences of killing living beings on our behalf?  We may be prompted to review the harm we are doing to our environment and seek less damaging ways to live. Like the story of the 100 Monkeys, the more of us that practice, the greater the possibility that one day society may change. 

By now you may realise that the first precept, Abstaining from Killing Living Beings, is not as obvious or as simple as you first thought and it is much wider in scope than ‘Thou Shall Not Kill’  demanding a greater level of consideration; possibly bringing your everyday practice of Metta Bhavana into a totally new focus and perspective.  Abstaining from killing living beings and developing loving kindness, requires a great deal of consideration and demands a much higher level of awareness than we may have originally thought necessary.