Q60. How can I obey the precepts (Buddhist commandments) well?

A. Once upon a time there lived an old man in a village, who was well known as a good Buddhist and respected by all the people in the village. People often came to him for advice when they had problems in their lives. One day he happened to talk with an old monk.

Monk: I’ve heard that you are much respected as a very good Buddhist. How do you lead your life?
Old man: I always try to obey five precepts.
Monk: (looking surprised) Do you still obey the precepts?
Old man: (looking surprised) Of course, don’t you obey the precepts?
Monk: No, I don’t.
Old man: (looking more surprised) Do you break the precepts then?
Monk: Of course not.
Old man: What do you mean by that?
Monk: I neither break the precepts nor obey them.

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Let me take an example. What do you think is the most important to keep your life? Of course, to be alive we need a lot of things such as food, water, air and so on. However, no one can deny that air is the most essential of all we need to keep our life because we can’t maintain our life even for a few minutes without air though we can stay alive for a few days without water and even for over a month without food. In other words, not a moment can we live without breathing. Then do we feel ourselves breathing every moment we breathe because breathing is very important?
Of course, we don’t feel ourselves breathing as long as we are healthy even though we can feel it if we try to feel it consciously. If someone, feeling himself breathing every moment, tries hard to breathe, he must have a problem in his health, especially in his breathing system of his body. Likewise, if someone, Buddhist or Christian, conscious of the precepts every moment, has to try to obey them, he must have a problem in his life.

How can we obey precepts as naturally as a healthy person breathes? In a word, the precepts should become part of ourselves, and we should be able to obey them so naturally that we can obey them unconsciously just as we breathe.
Only then can we be said to obey the precepts perfectly.
Strictly speaking, to obey precepts perfectly means not that we hold back our desires to break the precepts but that we have no precepts to obey in our mind because we have realised by practising that everything including desires to break the precepts and even the precepts themselves, is an illusion.

I don’t mean that we need not obey the precepts until we realise that everything is an illusion. We should try to obey the precepts consciously because trying to obey the precepts is not only part of practice but also the minimum moral attitude we must take as human beings. Whenever you are tempted to break a precept, trace back the temptation to its root and the temptation will die away before you know it. That is a good Zen practice as well as a way to obey the precepts. With time the precepts will become part of you naturally like breathing.

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway.

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