3 Pure Precepts

The Three Pure Precepts: Mindfulness of Action

by Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)

In the Dhammapada, Buddhavagga Sutra, verse #183 is the basis for the Theravadan Pure Precepts – To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. Translations are different 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.

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 the Three Pure Precepts, like the Eightfold Path, have no orderly progression but serve as guides for moment-to-moment actions.

Like any learning and practice of Buddhist philosophy the intitial 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.

They sound pretty easy but the mindfulness and action required to actually accomplish them proves different. We’ll take them separately and as we do the recognition that there is no separation between them will become clear.

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 pasttimes 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.

Each Friday I deliver a Dharma lesson here in 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, in some talk I am likely to say something that upsets someone, that goes against their held worldview or beliefs. Should I, or any of the other teachers/facilitators at Buddha Center not talk about things 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. Our intent is to do only good. 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.

Let’s take a classic example of doing good for others. Walking down the street you are approached by a man who asks, “You got any spare change.” And, he looks like he could really use it. A common response, spoken or unspoken is, “He’ll just use the money for drugs or booze.” That may or may not be true, and I call that “fondling the future” or “just making an excuse for being greedy”. This is a time, if you have any to give, to practice generosity of spirit, not judge.

In the above instance there are some clever ways to be compassionate that I have heard from others. At some coffee places and donut stores they have cards that they punch when you purchase. After ten punches you get something free. A guy I know holds onto to those and when someone asks for change he gives it to them saying, “I can get you cup of coffee.”

Another person buys books of coupons from hamburger places and gives them in lieu of money. A buck coupon can buy a burger, a couple of apple pies, or a drink for someone who is hungry.

Cornerstones of Buddhist practice are generosity and compassion. Compassion being a word so packed with emotional content I tend toward the term altruism, being altruistic. It is the same action as compassion but with a slightly altered intent. There are two avenues to altruism: emotional altruism, the “that is pitiful, or heartwrenching” where decisions are made with a heavy emotional context – intellectual altruism, the “there is a need and I am going to figure out a way to deal with it” where thought goes into just what can be done to help the most people, the best way. Independently they are viable and needed actions; put together they can be a powerful force for positive change.

Think about it and you can come up with other ideas. Oh yeah, share those ideas with others.

Engaging the Pure Precepts

When we learn to be mindful of the intent of the Three Pure Precepts, and practice them we are less likely to cause unsatisfactoriness and suffering in ourselves or others. Doing good for others by ceasing to do harm, doing only good so others benefit, or ceasing to do harm to others are noble efforts. These are not intellectual exercises, they are actions that must be performed. We cease, we do.

Additionally this practice will lead us to better understandings of our own intent, selflessness, to situational ethics, to karma, and generosity of spirit.

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