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Taking the Eight Lifetime Precepts

Bhante Gunaratana

[Please Note: The lifetime precepts are different from the monastery precepts.  The lifetime precepts do not include the training precepts of celibacy, not eating after noon and not using cosmetics or entertainment.  They include the right speech precepts found in the eightfold path and right livelihood.]

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from malicious speech.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from harsh speech.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from useless speech.

     I undertake the training rule to abstain from wrong livelihood* and drinks and drugs that cause heedlessness.

(* In traditional Buddhist countries, abstaining from intoxicants is assumed to be included in the precept on right livelihood.  For clarification, we spell it out.)

We take precepts to make our lives happy, not miserable. People have unhappy lives because they are not observing any discipline, they aren’t following the normal guidelines or principles for a happy life. Sooner or later they need to realize the importance of precepts.

Observing the precepts also improves meditation. When the mind is clear, the conscience is not pricking the mind, and there is no reason for remorse, concentration will be better. Taking the precepts is a reminder, a way of helping us to be mindful. When you begin an action that violates one of the precepts, your mind will say, “Stop! Remember?” and you will say, “Ah! I’ve vowed not to . . .”

The precept operates like the light touch of a whip that reminds the horse to stay on course, like the beep of a horn to remind a driver to stay in his lane. Some people say, “What good would this be to me? I don’t like following these external rules. My life is all right the way it is.” But their lives are not all right. If they were, they wouldn’t need to engage in lying, stealing, gossiping, or speaking harshly. Instead of spending their energy breaking the precepts, they would be better off using it in wholesome activities.

If we habitually break the precepts, we will have great difficulty when we try to stop. We are addicted. We constantly get ourselves in trouble. Not just through stealing or sexual misconduct, but also by lying, participating in gossip, speaking harshly.

Here are some words from the Buddha that remind us of the importance of precepts.

Every fool who is born
Has an axe within his mouth
With which he cuts himself
When he uses wrong speech
Sutta Nipata, 657

One should utter only words
Which do no harm to oneself
And cause no harm for others
That is truly beautiful speech.
Sutta Nipata, 451

Speak kind words, words
Rejoiced at and welcomed
Words that bear ill-will to none;
Always speak kindly to others.
Sutta Nipata, 452

The worse of the two is he
Who, when abused retaliates.
One who does not retaliate
Wins a battle hard to win.
Samyutta Nikaya, I. 162

The fool thinks he has won a battle
When he bullies with harsh speech
But knowing how to be forbearing
Alone makes one victorious.
Samyutta Nikaya, I. 163

You shouldn’t be afraid to make the commitment to keep the precepts. You should be happy that you have determined to take steps to make you life happy.

People addicted to alcohol or drugs or gambling or some other unwholesome activity-have a very hard time deciding to stop. They drag their feet and come up with many excuses. But once they have made the commitment to stop and have maintained that commitment for a period of time, suddenly they find they are thinking clearly, eating well, saving money, and developing good relations with their families and other people. Then they are grateful and congratulate themselves for taking this step.

Giving up an addiction is very difficult; a person may make many attempts that fall short of the goal. But if his aspiration remains strong, eventually he will succeed. In the same way, we may have difficulty making the commitment to abandon unwholesome behavior, but once we make the commitment and work at it consistently, we, too, will be very happy, very glad to have made a decision that brings such an improvement to our lives.

You may also wish to read one woman's account of taking the lifetime precepts at Bhavana's very first ceremony held August 9th, 1998. The Seeds of Dhamma Take Root: the Lifetime Precepts Ceremony by Libby Reid.

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