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Precepts and Paramitas
Precepts and Paramitas is an article on using the precepts as guidance for dhamma practice and the paramitas as qualities of refined mindfulness.
The following is an excerpt from “The Truth of Happiness Course” book and Dhamma study. Being mindful of the precepts provides a simple moment-by-moment moral and ethical foundation for Dhamma practice. The Precepts are a practical application of the Eightfold Path. The Paramitas are qualities of mind developed within the framework of the Eightfold Path and expressed through the Precepts. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and Dhamma study is here.
Jiddu Krishnamurti often said “Look at the lives you are living.” He was stressing the importance of being mindfully present in thought, word and deed in our interaction with others and with ourselves.
As a way of integrating The Four Noble Truths into our daily lives, and as a simple and effective way of being mindful of how we relate to the phenomenal world, the Buddha gave us precepts. Precepts are simply principles for conduct. By following these precepts in thought, word and deed we are living within the framework of The Eightfold Path.
The Buddha taught five basic lay precepts and then three additional principles for those considering monastic life, and sometimes for those on retreat. The Buddha also taught, depending on the source and the subsequent Buddhist sect or school, 200 or more precepts for monastics. Most of the additional monastic precepts are for conduct within a spiritual community or monastery.
The five Buddhist Precepts for lay people are:
- Refrain from killing or taking life. Act with good-will and loving-kindness.
- Refrain from stealing or taking what is not freely given. Be generous.
- Refrain from false, unnecessary, misleading, harmful or impatient speech. Speak with kindness, honesty and mindfulness.
- Refrain from sexual misconduct or using sex in a selfish or harmful manner. Be content and giving.
- Refrain form the use of intoxicants so to be mindful and thoughtful.
The Eightfold Path is a path of virtue, concentration and wisdom, and by being mindful of behavior in relation to these simple precepts, you will develop more virtuous lives. This will deepen your meditation practice, developing deeper concentration. As you become more mindful of virtue and concentration, wisdom deepens.
Wisdom is further developed and expressed by living life with the gentleness that comes from following these precepts.
On the surface these precepts are fairly easy to abide by. As you look deeper at your intentions and intentional actions you may become aware of subtle aspects of clinging, craving, desire and aversion keeping you stuck in conditioned thinking. Do you hold a persistent view of yourself or others that is not in keeping with these precepts?
Do you engage in character assassination, including what you are saying to yourself? Are your thoughts free from aggressive and hurtful thoughts towards others and yourself? Do you try to “kill” another’s spirit through hurtful comments, or imposing negative views of self? Do you gossip or tell small lies? Do you treat sex as a mindful expression of generosity or simply a means of satiating your own desires? Do you take (even emotionally) what is not freely given? Do you obsessively or addictively use drugs, alcohol, TV, food, yoga, golf, work or anything else to escape the reality of your life?
Obsessive behavior of any kind is an expression of discursive conditioned thinking caused by the manifestations of craving and clinging.
While the initial guidance gained from The Precepts is very important, careful consideration of each precept will reveal a much deeper and broader application, and the application of The Precepts will differ for everyone. For example, we all agree that the intentional taking of another human beings life is wrong. Is killing still wrong in the context of war? What about the killing of animals as a food source? Is it wrong to step on a bug or pluck a tick off of a pet? These questions need to be answered in accordance with each individual’s own mindful conscience, and will more than likely change over time and as Dhamma practice develops.
It is quite obvious that these precepts describe an enlightened way of living. The Precepts as an aid, and truthfully a necessity, to Dhamma practice may not be immediately apparent. The awareness gained by Dhamma practice will enhance your awareness of the precepts and a more skillful way of living. Living mindfully with the precepts will greatly enhance overall Dhamma practice.
When you bring yourself to your cushion to sit, you bring all of you. It is much more difficult to realize your true, unfettered self when you are bothered by thoughts of un-skillful actions. The more you can adhere to the guidelines of The Precepts, the more peaceful your life will be, the more loving your relationships will be, and the closer you will be to expressing your true mindful nature.
From an entirely liberated view the precepts lead to being mindful of how you can enhance the life experience of others and free yourself from discursive conditioned behavior. You learn how to use your speech in a loving and compassionate way to bring healing and liberation to yourself and others. Your sexual relations are characterized by gentleness and giving. You develop great generosity of spirit. You keep your body pure and your mind clear resulting in well-concentrated virtuous acts arising from wisdom.
Meditation practice develops concentration and insight of conditioned thinking. Holding in mind, being mindful of The Eightfold Path and the Precepts you are able to remain mindful of conditioned thinking and how conditioned thinking arises in your daily life. As less-than-skillful thoughts, words and deeds arise while maintaining mindfulness of the precepts in this present moment, you are able to clearly see the results of clinging, craving and desire. With this insight you are now able to put these distracting and discursive mind states aside with complete mindfulness of their cause and resulting condition.
Your very life, moment by moment, becomes Dhamma practice. You stay present with whatever mind state arises, without aversion, gaining deeper and deeper insight into your own mind. Ultimately, through a complete practice of integrating The Eightfold Path into your life and being mindful of these precepts, you are able to recognize all conditioned thinking.
An effective way of incorporating these precepts into your life is to spend a few minutes during your sitting practice to review mindfully how you have practiced these principles in your daily life. When you start your day you can develop the strong intention to keep the precepts and to be mindful of them.
Being mindful of these basic precepts in your life will greatly increase your awareness of less than skillful thoughts and actions. Being mindful of your present moment’s thoughts, words and deeds is key to deepening insight into your mind and putting aside conditioned thinking.
Unpleasant or agitated mind states that arise, whether fleeting or persistent, are all born of desire. Desire is a reaction due to ignorance of The Four Noble Truths. Out of a perceived need to be different than you are in this present moment, a choice is made that more of what brings pleasure should be pursued and what brings unpleasantness should be avoided.
Avoidance or aversion is also pursuit through worry, self-doubt, harsh judgments and fear. Aversion is the desire that a past or present experience be different than experienced, or a desire that a future event be different than expected.
Holding in mind negative mind states is mindfulness arising from conditioned thinking. This unskillful mindful pursuit leads to more craving and aversion and more delusional thinking. Often being mindful of negative mind states is viewed as a way of understanding how these mind states were caused.
A singular phenomenal cause is impossible to determine. Attempting to isolate a specific singular cause will only lead to more discursive thinking. All stress arises from manifestations of desire, and once acknowledged within the context of The Eightfold Path and the Precepts, insight arises and the reaction of conditioned mind is interrupted.
By following these five precepts, you will develop a moral and ethical life, liberated and free from harmful actions and reactions. You will be able to develop deeper levels of skillful mindfulness.
Through mindfulness of The Four Noble Truths including The Eightfold Path, and by holding in mind the Precepts, you are placing mindful awareness on the path of liberation and freedom and ceasing mindfulness of stress-causing desire.
A complete Dhamma practice of mindfully integrating The Four Noble Truths will lead to liberation and freedom from stress, confusion and suffering. Holding in mind the precepts in thought, word and deed develops a gentle and compassionate integrity to practice.
The Paramitas were taught to Sariputta by The Buddha (and many others). They have been adapted by various schools depending on what early influences were a part of forming the direction of the school. They were developed further a few centuries after the Buddha’s death as a way of defining the behavior in thoughts, words, and deeds of one engaged in the Dhamma. As the Paramitas were developed as part of a Dhamma practice there were differences as to quality and quantity relevant to the focus of the practice. There were basically three separate paths that early Buddhists chose to practice:
As a Savaka, a disciple of the Buddha
As a Pacceka-Buddha, one who attained awakening but could not teach
As a Samma-SamBuddha, A Rightly Self-awakened Buddha
Each path defined its own Paramitas depending on the path practitioners felt most important to follow. Those that believed that the Paramitas could be defined by quantity would be able to develop their implementation of the Paramitas based on the Pali Canon and the Buddha’s teaching to Sariputta. Those that believed the Paramitas differed in quality from the Buddha’s teaching, would not be able to use the Pali Canon as a guide to defining the Paramitas, The Saravastidians for instance. The Saravastidians were a form of Buddhism that would influence the formation of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
This difference in quantity and quality had to do with the form of Dhamma practiced that had developed and the choice of which Paramitas deemed to be most important would influence the practice of the divergent schools to this day. The key difference being the purpose of practice which influenced that path followed.
The practitioners who believed that there was a difference in quality in the Paramitas had an early belief in the bodhisattva ideal. A boddhisattva is one who vows to put off their own awakening until all beings awaken, or seek awakening in order to lead others to awakening.
These early practitioners often engaged in meditation practices that included intricate visualizations of buddhas and bodhisattvas of infinite realms who would provide an “insiders” knowledge of reaching buddhahood. The teachings that were a result of these visualizations would coalesce in the 3rd century C.E. with the development of the Yogacara school and formally the Mahayana movement.
Even so there remains a great void between the many Mahayana schools of the importance of the Boddhisattva ideal and how the vows are fulfilled.
Since the split in the 3rd century B.C.E. there have been two major schools of Buddhism, the Hinayana and the Mahayana. The Hinayana schools, followed most closely today by Theravadins, follow the guidelines found in the Pali Canon.  The Mahayana follow influences gleaned from the experiences of visionaries from the early part of the common era.
I will focus on the Paramitas developed from the Pali Canon and practiced by most Theravadins today. There is an overlap throughout all modern schools.
The Paramitas should be viewed much like taking vows of refuge and precept vows. Taking Paramita vows is another way to maintain mindfulness of Dhamma practice and develop a mind inclined towards peace and equanimity. By incorporating through Right Intention to hold to these perfections of thought word and deed develops focus and patience. The paramitas also provide a framework for viewing progress along the way.
Sariputta questioned the Buddha one day: “How many qualities are there to be developed in the Dhamma?”
The Buddha responded: “There are ten qualities developed in the Dhamma. What are the ten? Giving, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity are qualities developed in the Dhamma.”
Giving, or Dana, is the first perfection and incorporates all of the other perfections. In fact, there is an aspect of each paramita in all the other paramitas. These are qualities we all possess and are developed further as the behaviors rooted in greed, aversion and delusion are put aside
The Buddha described an awakened human being as “unbound” or “released” from clinging to objects, events, views, and ideas rooted in ignorance of The Four Noble Truths. Dana, being mindful of, and expressing, great generosity is the outward expression of freedom from clinging. Developing refined mindfulness through wholehearted engagement with the Eightfold Path develops this quality of mind.
The ten Paramitas can be integrated into Dhamma practice by bringing each paramita to mind directly after shamatha-vipassana meditation and generating the intention to remain mindful of each paramita. This will incline the mind towards thoughts that are in keeping the qualities of these Great Perfections moment to moment.
These ten perfections are all aspects of the Eightfold Path and when developed free the mind from greed, aversion and further deluded thinking. When fully developed, the mind remains at peace and unmoved from impermanence of phenomenal life.
Holding in mind and acting in accordance with these ten perfections directly influences the unfolding of karma. Kamma is always an immediate result of present intentional acts AND the ripening of past intentional acts moderated by present mindfulness. Our present moment intentional acts determine the unfolding of our past intentional acts.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.