Three Pure Precepts: Cleansing the Mind

by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

Buddhist tradition teaches that the Three Pure Precepts came from the Dhammapada, Buddhavagga Sutra , verse #183 – To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. Translations have changed over the centuries and according to the culture, place and tradition, though they are all directed toward doing good as a fundamental part of Buddhist practice. They pay homage to the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana tradition as they are as much a social contract, as a personal one.

Evil in Buddhism is not that of the Judeo/Christian worldview. Evil is not a thing, it is an effect of the bad choices that human beings make when they live a life ignorant of the causal nature of the Universe. They lack the realization that there are karmic consequences that go way beyond just one person’s view. Bad choices that arise from bad intent and action don’t just fall away. They tend to be the cause and effect of more bad choices.

To cleanse the mind is to subtract the negative dispositions and habits, the hindrances of the mind so that they fall away, and if they arise again are immediately recognized for what they are and are allowed to immediately fall away again.

Cultivating good begins with the individual making better choices and thus causing the arising of positive karmic consequences . . . again that engenders more positive intent and action beyond the individual. Engaging the intentional practices of doing only good leads naturally to doing good for others when one experiences that their good actions result in more good actions, and they accept that most of the positive consequences they will never be aware of. This is one aspect of Buddhist practice where faith if essential. Faith that one person’s good thoughts and actions encompass much more than they will ever know.

In Engaged Buddhism we not only view the Pure Precepts as a vow to be memorized and recited but as actionable instructions in our practice. The Buddha taught, “to lay down a gradual training, a gradual doing, a gradual practice in respect of this dhamma and discipline”, so that knowledge and practice would lead to wisdom and appropriate action. For the beginning practitioner the action and mindfulness required for each Pure Precept are meant to be learned gradually, step-by-step; and as experience and knowledge are gained they become spontaneous thoughts and actions. They become part of how we truly are. They are our Buddha-nature realized fully.

Like any learning and practice of Buddhist philosophy the initial effect of any training is personal. For Engaged Buddhists these precepts are not only viewed as personal objectives but are equally important focuses of social engagement.

The Three Pure Precepts

  • Cease to do harm.

  • Do only good.

  • Do good for others.

  • Cease to do harm.

There is a man who says, “I do no harm.” He doesn’t pick fights and he avoids hurting living beings whenever he can. His major past times are sitting on the couch eating chips and watching horror movies. “How can I do any harm that way?” This is ceasing to do harm through inaction, which by the way is really still an action 🙂

The first precept isn’t just about the harm we do to others; it is also about the harm we do to ourselves. Avoiding exercise, except for walking back-and-forth to the kitchen or DVD player is doing harm. The bodymind needs the stimulation in order to be healthy. The mental ingestion of violence for violence’s sake will do harm to the psyche. This doesn’t mean that one will go out and perform violent acts, but de-sensitization through what we put into our experiences will dampen our awareness of violent acts and thoughts.

Let’s use the metaphor of the bodymind as a tub of muddy water, the mud being the negative dispositions, habits and influences we are subject to. An objective of Buddhist practice is for the “water” to clear as the bodymind sets aside the negative influences and aims toward the positive. Gradually the mud settles to the bottom and the “water” clears. This happens in the bodymind. Think about how you feel after watching violent acts (queasy, excited, nervous, agitated, anxious) and recognize that these are negatives, they stir up the mud at the bottom. The practice of positive actions and thoughts add clear water that will eventually dilute the mud so much that it will hardly be noticeable.

Mindfulness directed inward and outward will reveal instances of causing harm that we’ll have never realized. It will help our awareness of the Three Root Poisons — greed, anger, ignorance the most common dispositions that can lead to harming ourselves and others. That same mindfulness will direct us toward ways to change, to make positive differences both personal and social. Then we can really begin to “cease to do harm”.

Do Only Good.

No pressure here, right? C’mon it must be easy to do only good . . . just don’t do bad things.

In every lesson I teach at the Buddha Center, whether I am talking about karma, Buddhist history, pluralism, or even the Three Pure Precepts my INTENTION is to do only good.

Somewhere, sometime in some talk I am likely to say something that upsets someone, that goes against their worldview or beliefs. Does that mean that I, or any of the other teachers/facilitators at Buddha Center should not talk about difficult subjects for fear of upsetting someone? NO, because our purpose or intent is to do good, we are intent on presenting a message that we believe will have positive value to those hearing it. None of us want to upset or anger anyone. When it happens it is not a product of our intentions, instead it is a product of the person’s perception and their own negative habit energy.

This is where “do only good” becomes a personal act. Don’t take things so personally, seeing other people’s actions or life’s experiences as personal attacks. The majority of the time they aren’t, and so what if they are? Those experiences are impermanent, sure to pass so why waste good emotions on them?

Do Good for Others.

Doing only good would seem to automatically lead to doing good for others. Looking closer at human tendencies it becomes clear that doing good can end with the self. Self-gratification, self-love, and self-involvement. While a tiny amount of good might extend to others with those actions, there isn’t the intent to do so.

Doing good for others must be intentional thoughts and actions in order for the positive karmic consequences to encompass the whole of humanity. So many times I hear, “Doing good for others takes so much effort and time”, and this delusion becomes the excuse so many use to hide from the suffering that is all around them . . . unless it is their own. Doing good for others can be as simple as smiling at others, showing gratitude for what is given, and offering compassion and respect to all without any expectations. It can be as complex as volunteering for a group that helps others, starting your own non-profit meant to meet a need that you recognize, or setting up a regular donation to an organization that does work to alleviate suffering.

Cleansing the Mind

Looking back to the traditional precepts you’ll notice that “cleanse the mind” is not mentioned in the more contemporary precepts. Cleansing the mind is an important ideal in Buddhist practice. All of the intent and action, the effort and concentration that is integral to that practice will result in cleansing the mind of hindrances as the defilements are subtracted from the unconscious and conscious mind through that intent, that action, the effort and concentration. Gradually the mud will settle out of the water.

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