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Observing the Precepts

"Strict observation of the precepts, in the sense of restrictions on behavior, has been supplanted by the ideal of compassionate bodhisattva practice--the self-motivated actions of lay believers fully integrated into the social life of their community who ease the suffering and contribute to the well-being of the members of that community."

Observing the PreceptsBuddhism is often perceived as a religion governed by strict rules of self-discipline, and the ideal practitioner seen as someone who endures great austerities. Certainly, in the early Buddhist order, elaborate rules of daily behavior were developed for the monks and nuns who had taken vows and committed themselves to a monastic life. There were 250 rules for men and, reflecting the social prejudice of the times, 500 for women. These rules regulated such things as diet, hours of waking and sleeping and encouraged a healthful, well-regulated daily life. In many Buddhist traditions, these rules, vinaya in Sanskrit, retain great importance.

In their original sense, however, precepts--the Sanskrit shila--indicate the basic norms of human behavior to which all people naturally aspire. The most fundamental of these were formulated as the five precepts: (1) not to kill; (2) not to steal; (3) not to engage in sexual misconduct; (4) not to lie; and (5) not to drink intoxicants. Even though they have been set out as rules, rather than simply preventing certain acts, the goal of these guides of behavior has always been to encourage a richer, more self-reflective inner life, to set the conditions for religious practice in the pursuit of enlightenment.

Shila and vinaya were translated into Chinese characters pronounced kai and ritsu in Japanese. In the process of translation, the two-character combination kairitsu came to be regarded as a single concept and the original distinction was lost.

The Mahayana tradition has always stressed a flexible approach to precepts. Strict observation of the precepts, in the sense of restrictions on behavior, has been supplanted by the ideal of compassionate bodhisattva practice--the self-motivated actions of lay believers fully integrated into the social life of their community who ease the suffering and contribute to the well-being of the members of that community. Thus, the specific application of the precepts is to be guided by the times and locality. When, for example, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda first traveled outside of Japan, he shocked some of the accompanying Japanese Soka Gakkai members by saying that it was right and natural for Hawaiian members to attend meetings in casual clothes and to pray sitting on chairs rather than kneeling on the floor as was the Japanese practice. This approach expresses respect for the diversity of human cultures.

The many particular precepts came to be replaced by what was known as the precept of the diamond chalice. This is a precept which, like a diamond chalice, is impossible to break. For different schools of Buddhism, this would often mean wholehearted commitment to a particular sutra or teaching. The commitment of Nichiren Buddhists to the Lotus Sutra can be interpreted in contemporary terms as the determination to maintain faith in the ultimately positive possibilities in both ourselves and others, and to make consistent efforts toward their realization. From the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, our highest possibilities--the limitless capacity for wisdom, compassion and courage expressed as Buddhahood--are as indestructible as a diamond chalice. They may be obscured by our own ignorance of them and the self-destructive behavior that grows from that ignorance and consequent despair--but they never disappear. This is the core message of the Lotus Sutra.

Awakened from within to a firm sense of the inviolable dignity of life which is reinforced through daily Buddhist practice, our behavior naturally comes to reflect this belief, as we distance ourselves from acts that would degrade our own or others' humanity. The experience of many SGI members worldwide stands as proof of this formula. People previously mired in cycles of behavior involving, for example, substance abuse, irresponsible sexual conduct or violence (or less dramatic but ultimately no less destructive behavior based on a lack of self-respect) have reconnected to a genuine sense of inner worth. As this awareness takes root, it naturally grows into an awareness of the equal dignity inherent in the lives of other people. Without a conscious effort to follow particular rules of conduct, the determination to put this respect for the sanctity of life into action leads to a way of life in conformity with the ideals expressed by the precepts.

[Courtesy July 2004 SGI Quarterly]

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