How Commandments are different than Precepts.


In Buddhism, we don’t have commandments.

Growing up Catholic, I learned about commandments. There are ten of them. They are a code of ethics handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, divided into three commandments about treating God right, and seven about treating our fellow humans right.

God’s passing down these Ten Commandments established Judaism as an early mono-theistic religion. Particularly the first commandment: I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.

A clear message. Disobey a commandment and you’re disobeying God. And he’s the judge.

But Buddhists believe neither that there is or isn’t a God. If you believe in God or many gods or no gods, they all fit within the lives of Buddhist practitioners.

But Buddhists do have what might pass as commandments. The precepts. The precepts focus not on obedience but on creating harmony. Harmony within oneself, with one’s fellow beings, and with the world at large.

Yes, I understand, the Ten Commandments are also about creating harmony. Any system of law is, really. The difference is between judgement and consequence: a third party judge determining whether you’ve done right or wrong, and the need to live with the effects that your actions create.

What does that mean?

The precepts are more a guide for attuning ourselves to the natural world. Some say there are five precepts. Some expand the list and say ten. Others say thirteen or sixteen precepts exist in all.

Maybe it’s the Catholic in me, but I say ten. A nice number—ten. Like the commandments. And like the commandments, precepts are basically do’s and don’ts, and can be viewed as three distinct groups.

  • four Speech Precepts, guiding how we speak,
  • three Body Precepts, guiding proper body actions, and
  • three Mind Precepts, guiding our thoughts and intentions.

Ten total.

The Body Precepts are easy. Do not steal. Do not engage in destructive sex. Do not kill.

Out of all the precepts, Do not kill is a big one. One of the two worst, some lamas say. The other bad one is a mind precept—do not have wrong view. But wrong view, that’s complicated. Whereas no killing, everybody understands that.

It’s like wrong View, but with more gusto. Do not kill others. Do not kill animals. Do not kill fish, bugs, plants. Nothing.

Which leaves me wondering—how am I supposed to eat?

There’s an answer, of course. These are not commandments, but guides. We don’t live with judgement; we live with effect. Of course you need to kill something. Even if only for the nourishment. The self-perpetuation.

But maybe the attitude is, don’t kill like you mean it. Kill like it’s an accident. Or a weakness. Something you did out of hunger.

There are lamas who say not to step on bugs. If you find one in the house, don’t step on it. Pick it up and carry it outside into the snow, or rain, or heat, or whatever it crawled in from. Put it back out there.

Sometimes when it’s autumn and I am out on my morning walk, I see bugs lugging themselves over the cold macadam. Moving slowly, like they don’t want to be there. Like they don’t have much time left. Winter’s coming. Soon they’ll be dead. Why fight it. Why not accept it.  In this bug’s slowest moment—perhaps even now—birds will come for him.

So I wonder: shouldn’t I just go ahead and step on him?

Because that’s the way my ego thinks sometimes. That I should do something, and I only need to decide what. As if making a decision is a benevolence I can bestow.

Like I am God.

Like I am forgetting to realize—it’s not what I do that matters, but what it does to me. What do my thoughts and decisions make me into? It is not right. It is not wrong. It is about accepting what I do and lugging that around with me.

Like a bug.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *