The five precepts, listed here, are generally recognized by most Buddhists, though they're expressed in a variety of forms. They're not commandments but descriptions of the moral stance that would necessarily be taken by one who is on the path to Awakening.
1. A follower of the Way does not kill.
2. A follower of the Way does not take what is not given.
3. A follower of the Way does not abuse the senses.
4. A follower of the Way does not speak deceptively.
5. A follower of the Way does not intoxicate oneself or others.
There are additional precepts in Buddhism as well. In all cases, however, if we are to think, speak, and act as moral agents, what we do must come out of wisdom and compassion-from seeing-and not from some structure imposed upon us.
There's a Zen story about a student who made a special point of keeping all the Buddhist precepts. Once, however, while walking at night, he stepped on something that made a squishing sound. He imagined that he must have stepped on an egg-bearing frog. Immediately he was filled with fear and regret, for the precepts include not killing. When he went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came to him, demanding his life in exchange.
When morning came, he went back to the place the incident had occurred and found that he had stepped on an overripe eggplant. Suddenly his confusion stopped. From that moment on, the story says, he knew how to practice Zen and how to truly follow the precepts.
Like many people who practice Buddhism sincerely, this student erroneously thought of the precepts as a training manual or code of behavior. Identifying himself as someone who had mastered this training and who could keep the precepts, he created all kinds of trouble for himself and for others. Although he could expound upon the precepts at length, when he stepped on something squishy in the night, his understanding of the precepts did nothing to bring him peace or stability of mind. In fact, it did just the opposite: he needlessly tortured himself with guilt.
Because he had only an intellectual understanding of the precept against taking life, he was thrown into anguish. He had completely forgotten that in Reality he didn't know what he stepped on. And instead of living with that uncertainty, he made up an explanation for what happened-and made himself miserable believing it.
This story reminds us that if you hold the precepts in your mind, then you don't understand them, for the precepts are not anything you can grasp or package up into concepts.
To keep the Buddhist precepts, we simply must be here, immediately present with what's going on and not lost in thought or speculation. We need to see what's going on in this moment-including what's going on in our own mind.
And when we don't know what's going on-when, for example, we step on something in the dark-then it means fully realizing that we don't know. This is the deeper understanding of this story-to know when you don't know.
We often think we know things when in fact it's only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we're caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings.
But if you're here-truly present-you realize there's nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm, even if you did accidentally step on a frog. Just be with this moment and see what's going on. Know your own mind.
This story is about how we conjure up imaginary worlds and trap ourselves in them. But if we would only look carefully, we would see that the world is not the way we think it is-and that it can never be the way we think it is.
We strive to master and control our imaginary worlds. We create all kinds of rules and regulations, goals and values, do's and don'ts, and we strive to become skilled in dealing with them all. This is where we expend so much of our time and energy yet exercise so little of our awareness.
What the Buddhist precepts are about is noticing how we do these things all the time. The precepts direct us to notice what's going on from moment to moment-to see what's going on in your mind right now. How does it lean-toward this or away from that?
The precepts help us to come back to this moment-where Reality is immediately experienced-before we interpret anything.
Moment after moment, we have to come back to this moment to see what is actually taking place. Otherwise we live in a fantasy world where we see ourselves as separate and where we become preoccupied with pleasing and protecting ourselves.
When the student in this story saw the squashed eggplant, he suddenly woke up-not just to the reality of what he had stepped on, but to how he had been creating all kinds of needless and distracting fears and concepts in his mind. He suddenly saw the imaginary worlds he'd been creating for himself, and he woke from his dream of separation, pride, and guilt.
In just such a moment-at the sight of a squashed fruit, at the sound of a pebble striking wood, at the sight of the morning star-any of us can awaken. Nothing holds us back but our thought.