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Precepts, Vows, and Looking for Loopholes

July 28, 2015
"Loopholes," Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

“Loopholes,” Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson

No killing. No stealing. No sexual misconduct. No lying. No intoxicants. This is the text of the five precepts I will vow to uphold in two short weeks.

Does this mean I can’t eat steak? Or dink whiskey? Because I like those things and I don’t feel like I’m harming myself or anyone else. Can’t I still…? Do I have to…? Should I even vow…? My clever mind is looking for a loophole to continue my little pleasures, to live my life as though taking on a robe and stole is just a formality. It won’t really change who I am or what I do. Right?

Another part thinks it should change things. Otherwise, what would be the point? I don’t want to make vows I know I won’t uphold.

But what do the vows even mean? Surely it okay to have a little red wine on a Saturday night as long as I don’t get “intoxicated,” as in, falling down drunk.

No intoxicants. That’s what it says. Why is that so hard anyway? I’ve always been a featherweight drinker. A week ago, I left half a carafe of warm sake on the table at a sushi restaurant out of prudence. If I drink once a week, that’s a lot. So why am I trying to wiggle out of what I believe to be the letter of the law?

No killing. I was mostly vegetarian for six years to reduce the suffering of sentient beings. It would be easy to return to that now that I have the means again. I still eat less meat than the average American …

… but I like meat, especially when my partner cooks it for me. I can’t make his life more difficult, can I? Meat is everywhere. It’s so easy…and yummy.

The rest doesn’t seem so difficult. It’s not like I’m into stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying on a regular basis. I can accept those vows gladly.

Surely that’s good enough, right?

But why should I only live by the easy ones?

We received the text of the ordination ceremony today. It says:

“All good men and women! Listen carefully! The Agama Sutras say there are good men and women who observe the precepts without making vows, who thus obtain very little merit.  Excellent results can only come to be when precepts are observed along with great vows.  When merit is cultivated without making vows, it is like a house built on sand. It is also like pottery that cannot be used without being fired in a kiln. Therefore, after bestowing the Refuges and the Five Precepts upon you, I shall teach you the proper way of making vows.  Please join your palms together, repeat after me, and sincerely make your vows in front of the Triple Gem of the Ten Directions.”

I believe that what it means is that doing what is easy requires little effort and makes no real difference in the course of our lives (merit). Only by doing what is difficult, can we shift the flow of our habit energies, the river of our karma, into a better direction. One does not need to bother with a vow to do something easy. Vows are for doing what is difficult. They are for creating intention and commitment. When we uphold our vows, our willpower grows stronger, like a muscle being exercised. Our vow is the foundation of a strong house. Even if the house burns down, if we make a mistake, the foundation (the vow, the intention) remains and the house can be rebuilt.

In this light, the answer seems simple. Of course, I vow and, of course, I keep the vows as best I understand them.

But do I really have to be that good? Does anyone even expect that?

And on it goes.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2015 5:28 pm

    Ahhhh! Sila! Though I too find myself forever looking for loopholes, I now recognize there is virtually and literally very little progress possible on the dharmic path without a solid foundation of morality. Sigh… Sometimes though I wonder if the Buddha wouldn’t have listed more than five precepts if he’d lived in our time. Though I am an avid book lover, I personally am hard pressed to locate my mental state – whilst reading – in any of the four foundations of mindfulness.


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