With great respect to the Venerable Luang Phaw. Today I have some questions about the meaning of a Buddhist word. The word “Sila” (precepts) has many facets: the 5 precepts, the 8 precepts, the 10 precepts, and the 227 precepts. I would truly like to know what the word “Sila” (precept) means. How important are the precepts? Why do we need to keep the precepts?
by Venerable Dhattajeevo Bhikku
You are a lawyer. In this world, countries can co-exist because everyone obeys the law. Laws are what inform us what we can and cannot do. What we do and what we don’t.
Laws exist to protect people from each of us violating each others’ rights.If someone crosses the line for whatever reason, there are consequences.In order to prevent these consequences from occurring in the world, there must be laws controlling people’s actions.
There are civil laws, criminal laws, and other laws. But in Buddhism, the Lord Buddha taught the precepts for similar reasons. To engage in a comparison, the precepts are the mechanism for controlling our physical actions and our speech.
The precepts frame our behavior, controlling our deeds so that our wrong actions (sins) will not adversely impact our minds. The precepts also stop us from causing others torment.
First we must look at the meaning of the precepts. Precepts (“sila”) is not Thai but from an Indian language. Sila (precept) translates as “common” or “natural.” “Common” or “natural” are such familiar words. So we have to ask what these words mean.
Things in their normal state, their inherent condition, are common or natural. For example, our bodies usually maintain a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. If the temperature is higher or lower than this, the person is ill, the condition is abnormal.The Lord Buddha taught us the standard for our physical and mental behavior. There are 5 principles.
In our physical actions, it is normal for us not to kill, not to steal, and not to engage in sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. Anyone who goes beyond any of these three principles has behaved in an abnormal physical manner.This is morally wrong and a mental flaw as well.When the behavior is abnormal like this, it is an invitation for sin to enter you because it clouds the mind.
At the same time we usually speak truthfully to one another. We do not lie. But when we speak falsehoods with one another, this is abnormal. When a person lies to another, this clouds the mind, contaminates it.
The actions (karma) of a clouded mind push us into actions which cause further damage of many kinds. The Lord Buddha taught us to continually maintain our normal and natural state.
This means not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse, and not lying. These four tenets will remain with us when we are mindful. When we lose our mindfulness, the normal condition of maintaining these 4 tenets will disappear.
Mindfulness can be defeated by intoxicants: alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drugs destroy mindfulness. Alcohol and drugs lead people to break the 4 tenets, to behave abnormally. So the Lord Buddha added the fifth principle of not consuming intoxicants.
What is the importance of keeping the 5 precepts?
Primarily, the precepts prevent us from committing wrong actions that harm others. They stop us from harming ourselves. Anyone who considers killing another person or animal, just this thought by itself causes distress.
To actually kill produces anguish and torment because this only resigns the killer to the same fate later.
To steal and cheat others, to dupe another, beware because you will suffer the adverse consequences of these actions.
To have an affair with someone else’s child, with someone
else’s spouse, these are people beloved by someone, people someone feels
possessive about. Sometimes the bad results of these actions will create
immediate problems. Sometimes the
results will be indirect, coming in the form of an illness such as AIDS.
First, we prevent ourselves from suffering.
Second, we do not cause others to suffer.
By fully maintaining the 5 precepts, we become prepared to perform good actions of many other types. When the 5 precepts are combined with the worldly laws that you have studied or that you use in your job, When these two things are combined, they are a force for the stability of nations. But the main benefit of keeping the 5 precepts is for yourself because they prevent you from going astray.
There are even finer ways to keep the precepts: 8 precepts, 10 precepts, 227 precepts. These precepts are called “Sila Prot” (for religious observance). They are used to eliminate the defilements. So the use of precepts can be divided into two stages. The five precepts create the foundation for goodness, preventing the defilements from arising. The 8 precepts and 10 precepts are even better than the 5 precepts.
They eliminate the defilements, expunging them to ever deeper degrees depending on the determination of the one keeping the precepts. Therefore, during the rainy season monastic retreat, the monks who keep the Sila Prot (227 precepts) at all times – should not be the only ones keeping the Sila Prot. You should emulate them during this period too.
Keeping only the 5 precepts during the rainy season monastic retreat is too little.For those of you who regularly go to the temple, it would be wise to keep the 8 precepts. If you have the opportunity, it would be excellent to ordain as a novice (10 precepts) or a monk (227 precepts) with me. You can join us for the next rainy season monastic retreat.