The word paramita was originally translated into Chinese from two wordsparam and ita. Param translated as “to the other shore” and ita as ” reached.” It is believed that by observing the Paramitas one is able to cross the shore of birth and death and reach the shore of nirvana.
In this installment of my six part blog on the Six Paramitas I will talk some about number two, Observing the Precepts.
There are many precepts given in Buddhism depending often upon whether you are a lay practitioner or a priest and whether you are a female or male. However, what we will focus on are the first five which apply to all.
The Five Precepts are; not to take life, not to take what is not yours, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to tell and untruth, and not to use intoxicants.
Some of these are pretty straight forward and some are variously interpreted, sometime loosely and sometimes very strictly. I guess it depends upon how much ‘wiggle’ room you want to give yourself.
I like to point out though that when ever we equivocate or try to make excuses or bend the rules then we are ignoring an inability to be honest with ourselves. I personally don’t care one way or another how strictly a person adheres to these rules, after all it is not up to me to judge. But what does concern me is when ever someone tries to dance around the point, rather than being honest with oneself and others.
The first one is not to take life. It means what it says, period. Now as to whether you must be vegetarian to be a Buddhist I would say no, you don’t, but I would say that you won’t be able to completely fulfill the first of these precepts. There may be many reasons you have for not adhering to this precept, but you should at least be honest and admit to yourself that you are not. Perhaps in time you will change, perhaps you will have a greater desire to change if you can be honest with yourself.
I am not perfect in adhering to being a vegetarian. I can make all kinds of excuses, but they are just that, excuses. Can I do better, yes I can, should I do better, yes I should, will I do better, I will try. This is my journey to enlightenment and it will depend on me coming to terms honestly and frankly about my inability to follow this precept. I can’t do it if I am making excuses though.
The second precept is not to take what is not yours. This sound easy, but there are some examples where I think for some people it becomes difficult to follow this. One such example is finding money. Do you take it, do you leave it, do you try to return it? What do you do? It is easy to leave it if it is a penny, but are you leaving it because it is not yours or because it isn’t worth your time? What if it is a $20 or a $50 bill? Do you leave it, or try to return it? Remember it isn’t yours, just because someone else lost it. Now if you pick it up are you a bad person, not necessarily it just means you didn’t observe the second precept. ARe you making excuses trying to justify your action, saying things like “if I don’t take it someone else will and the person who lost it still won’t get it back?” Are you trying to justify your action? If so then you have a problem with being honest about what you are doing and this is at the heart of Buddhism. Learning to be honest and true both with ourselves and to ourselves.
Not to engage in sexual misconduct can mean lots of things. Originally when Buddhist priests were required to be celibate it meant maintaining that celibacy. Today in many Buddhist denominations marriage is permitted so the precept now says not to engage in sexual misconduct. Variously this is taught as to not cause harm. So forcing someone to engage in sex, either physically or psychologically would be wrong. Having sex outside of a relationship unless it was agreed upon mutually would be wrong. The list could go on, and I don’t think I need to do that here. It is often said that when the missionaries came to Hawaii they created a list of sexual activities and relationships that were taboo, which was interestingly funny to the Hawaiians because they had so many more than were on the list or else they invented others so the missionaries did little except to increase the creativity of Hawaiians.
The fourth precept is not to tell an untruth. In Buddhism there is often a distinction between a lie and an expedient. A lie is something that causes harm to the other or benefits only oneself. An expedient is something that benefits the other. We often engage in what some call white lies in order to make people feel better or to cheer people up. We don’t do it for our own benefit, though husbands probably do when they say their wife’s hair looks great when they really can’t see any difference. They just know that telling the truth will make the wife mad and get them in trouble. Funny that.
The underlying factor is who benefits and what is the real motivation. Again, we need to be careful about when we find ourselves making excuses about our behavior. It is often a sign that there is an underlying problem we are unwilling or unable to look at with honesty.
Finally the last precept is to not use intoxicants. For some this is further loosened up by adding the qualification of not to use them to the point of loosing control of ones mind or body.
In all of this I think the important thing is what kind of commitment you make to yourself and to the Dharma. Are you true to your commitment and can you be honest about your failings. This isn’t a game of impress others, or putting on false appearances. It is about our own path to enlightenment and our ability to lead others to the Dharma.
If we say we are going to do something then we should strive really hard to do just that. Admit our failure and strive harder the next time to succeed.
The better able we are to follow the precepts the better able we will to model the life of the Buddha and attain enlightenment and enable other to do so too.
Please note, that my intent here isn’t to hold up standards of behavior on which to judge another but to offer what the Buddha teaches us and what our model might be. It is up to each one of us to determine to what level we can and are able to observe the precepts and follow the paramitas.
Tomorrow I’ll write some thoughts about the third paramita, my weakness, and that is patience. I know there are many out there who are so much better at it than I and they won’t need to read what I write, so I’ll be mainly writing for myself.