In the Five Mountain Zen Order Precepts ceremony, we say, “Most religions have moral and ethical rules and commandments. In Buddhism there are Precepts, however the Buddhist Precepts are not a list of rules to follow, they are signposts meant to guide us on our path to awakening”.
One thing I like about the Precepts as they are commonly given now, is that they not only tell you what not to do, they also spell out what to do instead. They affirm as much as they proscribe. It's a nice signpost, “don't be greedy, be generous”. Sometimes that's a real head-slapping moment.
But...they are no more hard-and-fast than any other of the Buddha's teachings. The moment you think there is something firm on which you can put your foot, the Buddha swipes it away. And those of us who really are looking for something solid, for something, predictable, something that's going to last, well, we're out of luck. They require us to pay attention to situation, relationship, and function. Since even the Precepts are subject to causes and conditions, always changing, changing, changing, we've got to be flexible and adaptable, just to keep up with the changing situations and relationships, if we want to respond according to the way our innate Buddha would respond with correct function.
These are the Five Lay precepts, first from the Five Mountain Zen Order, then another couple versions from other sources (I believe the “disciple of the Buddha” versions are from the San Francisco Zen Center, but I'm not quite sure where the first alternate is from).
The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
Affirm life; Do not kill
A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
Be giving; Do not steal
A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, and refrain from objectifying others.
Honor the body; Do not misuse sexuality
A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages open and honest relationships
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
Manifest truth; Do not lie
A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.
Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind.
A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity.
There are a couple different approaches to the Precepts: Hinayana and Mahayana. And that's not Hinayana as a pejorative term for any other form of Buddhist practice, it's just Small Vehicle versus Great Vehicle, as Asvagosa referred to it in “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.” Think of it as “Little 'I'” versus “Big 'I',” if you like.
The Hinayana level is the most literal: The first precept is to refrain from killing, So one doesn't go out and kill. This corresponds to the relative—there's a you, there's a me, and I should not kill you.
The Mahayana is the compassionate level—that of the Bodhisattva. We refrain from killing not because the Precept tells us not to do it, the Bodhisattva couldn't conceive of taking a life by violent means without the thought of all beings.
That's not a particularly bi-leveled set of interpretations and actions, either Hinayana or Mahayana. One can start out really literally just not killing other humans, then maybe moves on to not squashing bugs underfoot, then maybe moves on to some of the proscriptions from the Pali Canon. The Buddha said in those scriptures not to kill directly another being (hopefully not a human) for your own food, and also not to have someone else directly kill for your food. The lobster in the tank has nothing to fear from you at this point.
Then later on, maybe due to taking another set of precepts, or reading some of the Mahayana Sutras where it eating flesh is proscribed, you might move into vegetarianism or veganism. (This is probably also the point where arguments with other Buddhists ensue as to whether being an omnivore is against the Buddha's teachings or not). Speaking facetiously, as much fun it is to argue that issue, it's not really as simple as “Well the Sutras say this,” or “The precepts I took say...” Situation, relationship, and correct function comes into play. Much as we might want to have that black & white reliability of “Kill=Go to Hell,” it's just not that way with the Precepts. It can be argued that it's not that way in general, Buddhist or not, Precepts or no Precepts. But that's another argument to have “fun” with some time. Some sort of karmic response to the intentional thought, speech, or action will come, but it depends....
Here's a hypothetical situation for you, and unfortunately one that you might see in the news any day. And let's say you identify yourself as a vegan Buddhist.
You're walking down the beach, and you encounter a starving, half-dead, extremely weakened Syrian child. And there's a ham sandwich just out of his reach. You have choices of what to do next:
Because you're a Vegan Buddhist, you think about it, and decide not to give him the sandwich, but will go off and try to find a salad for him.
Because you're a vegan Buddhist, you you think about it and decide that the Buddhist thing to do would be to show the kid some lovingkindness, and give him the sandwich.
You're in turmoil because your two self-identification labels are confusing you as to what you should do, so you walk away, and hope that someone else will deal with it. Maybe you mutter something to the effect of “No birth/no death, the kid and the sandwich are made by mind alone. They're both just illusions.”
You react to the situation at hand, see starving child, see sandwich, feed the sandwich to the starving child, without needing to contemplate it at all.
Maybe another hypothetical situation, one from ZM Seung Sahn's “Compass of Zen” lectures. It's also something that you could also encounter virtually any time you walk down the street lately. A gunman is in the midst of committing mass-murder at a school. You're a police officer. The side of your squad car even says, “To Protect and Serve.” You're on-duty, and you have your weapon, the one you've never used before. And, for the sake of this being hypothetical, let's say you are a Buddhist and have taken the Five Precepts. Again, you have a choice to make:
You can say, “The First Precept says not to take life, so I'll try to reason with him.” And then maybe he's “unreasonable,” and continues shooting away.
You can say, “Oh, I'm a police officer, so maybe I should try to do something about this.” And then maybe he continues shooting away.
Or, before thought, you can react to the situation at hand, and proceed with whatever the correct function is, as it presents itself at that moment.
Bodhidharma states in the Breakthrough Sermon, and Huineng echoes him—Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom—that these are the practices that matter. The Three Pure Precepts—vowing to “Put an end to Evil,” “Cultivate Virtues,” and “Liberate all beings” combat the Three Poisons of Greed, Anger, and Delusion. First we stop being greedy, angry, and ignorant. Then we move on to practicing Generosity, Lovingkindness, and Wisdom. We save all beings by allowing them to express their own Awakened “Big 'I',” we allow ourselves to do the same.
All the precepts are to be taken seriously...but carried lightly. As Wonhyo is reported to have said, “Even hell-beings need saving.” If saving requires a Precept or two to be broken, break them. But do it skillfully, and with proper motive. Breaking one because it's simply more convenient is not Bodhisattva action.
And unfortunately for those of us who'd really like to take the easy way, sorry. The Precepts are “Not-Thou Shall Not.”
Click on the title to listen to the Dharma talk.