When the precepts don’t feel like precepts

After reading Edward Conze’s translation of the Diamond Sutra, I had to lie down – or rather sit. In fact, it took a number of days of reading and sitting, and reading and sitting, and waiting for stuff to re-arrange in my heart. Like a penny dropping in slow motion, it was like a 14 day yawning realisation that the way I had been approaching Buddhism wasn’t really as helpful as it could have been.

This happened a few years ago before I wrote the Anxious Buddhist. More recently I came across a series of videos by the Venerable Guan Cheng at the International Buddhist Temple, British Columbia, on the Diamond Sutra, and the introductory video reminded me of a question I once heard someone ask of Thich Nhat Hanh – it was something like, “don’t you find it difficult to follow the precepts?”

Ven. Guan Cheng begins by placing Prajna (Wisdom) into context as one of three foundations of Buddhism, namely Sila (Morality or precepts), Samadhi (Meditation) and Prajna (Wisdom).

You can watch the video, but he draws an analogy for the three foundations as might be applied to a country or state.

He describes Sila like a country’s armed forces, protecting us at the borders. It prevents us from committing physical transgressions – from planting seeds of suffering to later manifest – and from watering existing seeds which are already latent in our sub conscious. Sila, our morality and the precepts are what generally protect us from the grossest causes. They are designed to work most clearly at the conscious level in our day to day lives – to form part of our habitual behaviour.

In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, these are the Five Mindfulness Trainings, namely

  • Reverence for life
  • True Happiness
  • True Love
  • Loving Speech and Deep Listening
  • Nourishment and Healing

So, even without any further teaching, by following these 5 precepts (not like commandments – i.e. don’t spend your time finding fault in others), you can avoid a lot of trouble!

Ven. Guan Cheng then goes on to explain meditation, or Samadhi, as being like a country’s internal police force. If all we have are our armed forces at the borders (Sila – morality or precepts), then while we may be safe from gross transgressions, our internal state of affairs is still a mess. Crime and vice can still run rampant inside the country – that is to say, our mind will be all over the place! This will make the act of maintaining the armed forces (our precepts) seem like a painful austerity.

By practicing Samadhi (meditation) we calm and control our internal population. We come to recognise the more troublesome characters and show them compassion and understanding – or Maitri (loving kindness). By meditating, we aim to bring harmony to our internal population. By removing internal tensions, giving attention to and accepting who we are, we naturally start to experience less anxiety, anger and fear. By learning to recognise the bad characters that are in our internal population we are able to deal with them and prevent them from developing and taking control – we become less reliant on the precepts (Sila) to prevent our gross transgressions because our practice of Samadhi already reveals to us when damaging thoughts and views are arising.

Finally the topic of Prajna is discussed, and in the context of our pretend country, Prajna is represented as the central government, universities and education. This is the core of our wisdom. It has the ability to eliminate our bad characters at the very source by eliminating ignorance. It is the ability to recognise not just the harmful characters in our internal population, but to also understand the causes and conditions that led to their manifestation. Prajna is the ability to intuit the very seeds of our suffering at the most subtle level.

Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked “don’t you find it difficult to follow the precepts?” His answer was, predictably, “No”. He went on to explain that through meditation, and mindful living that one develops a way of life that is very much in harmony with the Precepts. This doesn’t mean that the precepts are not important – or that Samadhi and Prajna are all you need – it simply means that our daily life, and our morality, naturally begin to reflect the precepts without any conscious effort.



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