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Liberation and Precepts
Liberation is the word that the Buddha used to sum up all of his teachings. In the traditional presentation of Buddhadhamma it is said that there are 84000 teachings and that they all have a single flavour. Just as all the waters of all the oceans of the world have a single salty flavour, so all the teachings of the Buddha have this single flavour of liberation.
When we are practicing generosity, sharing, giving to others, it is a liberating practice if done in the sense that the Buddha taught it. There has to be a liberation from attachment to material things, a liberation from meanness, a liberation from stinginess. This is how we develop this very first stage of letting go. We let go on a material level; let go of our attachment to money and to wealth. When we practice generosity wisely, we have to start thinking about other people, which is a meditation in itself. If we are going to give something to somebody we have to think about what they might want. What would make them happy? We are liberating ourselves from the self-centred point of view. We are taking into consideration somebody else’s wishes, someone else’s happiness. This is liberating and that is why there is so much joy that comes from giving and sharing.
When you can share and not want anyone else to know about it, that is the most wonderful kind of sharing. The Thai idiom for this practice is “attaching gold leaf to the back of the Buddha.” If you put the gold leaf on the front of the Buddha, everyone can see it. If you put the gold leaf on the back of the Buddha, nobody can see it, but you know that it is there. That is a more liberating kind of giving than one in which someone expects something. Basking in words of praise and appreciation can lessen the liberating power of giving. If you give and you desire something in return then you get less merit than if you give without expecting anything.
Keeping precepts is also a practice of liberation. There is a great deal of misunderstanding of the role of precepts and sīla, or ‘morality’, in Buddhist practice. Keeping precepts and leading a moral life is not some sort of preliminary practice. It is in itself the practice of Dhamma. It is in itself the development of mindfulness.
In the practice of meditation you take a particular object: it might be a word or it might be one part of the body, the breath, the image of a skeleton or whatever, and then you let go of everything else except for that one thing. You cannot just jump from attaching to all kinds of things to attaching to nothing. You need a halfway house to give a sense of stability and confidence. So you take a meditation object as your halfway house. It gives you a focus, and you let go of everything else except for that one thing. Eventually you can let go of that one thing.
The Thai word for sati, which is usually translated into English as mindfulness, is ‘ kwahm raleuk dy’ or ‘recollection’. One important aspect of mindfulness is the recollecting of what needs to be recollected at any time and place. It is a form of non-forgetting and may include not only the bearing in mind of a meditation object, but also certain teachings or appropriate information. Mindfulness is not a floating nebulous ‘awareness’. You cannot just be mindful. You always have to be mindful of something. In meditation you are mindful of a particular object, but in daily life what can you be mindful of? It is the failure to ask this question and therefore being left with a lack of clear objects for mindfulness that helps to explain why it is so easy to get distracted in daily life. On a more subtle level you can be mindful of thoughts and emotions and so on, but it is important to have an object of recollection that is a little more concrete and coarse and it is the precepts which provide this function. We are mindful of precepts. In other words, when we are keeping precepts we are practicing mindfulness.
The Buddha said that the essence of sīla or ‘morality’ is cetanā or ‘intention’. Cetanā is also the essence of kamma. From this we can see the fundamental importance of cetanā. We are only going to be effective in our efforts to avoid creating bad kamma, and our efforts to create good kamma, when we have some real time awareness of cetanā or ‘intention’. So how are you aware of intention? It is difficult. It is very difficult to keep track of a moving object, if the background for that moving object is multi-coloured and unstable. But if you have a plain background and you have a grid, then you can follow the movements of a moving object much more easily. We can plot it moving say from square A3 to B4 to C6. Having that grid is extremely helpful, and the precepts form the same kind of grid—a matrix or framework in which one can see the complex movements of the mind when they start to lead on to actions of body and speech which constitute bad kamma and create problems both for one’s self and others in the present and the future.
Take the first precept: We make a clear-cut determination not to not harm any living creature, even if it is frightening or dangerous or irritating. Now we are no longer taking seriously or identifying with the intention to harm. By consciously, willingly, voluntarily taking on as a life principle the intention not to harm, we immediately illuminate, whenever it arises, the intention to harm. We become mindful of the arising of the intention to harm because we are sincere in our intention not to harm. Similarly with the other precepts. This is why keeping precepts is not a preliminary to the practice of the Dhamma, it lies right at the very heart of practice.
We can expand this practice from the five precepts, which forms its most basic level. In the monk’s life we have a large number of precepts that we use as pegs for mindfulness. Notice how I have put my bag here. That is not just by accident. I have been taught that I have to fold it like that. There are many rules like this that monks keep, many of them not directly concerned with refraining from unwholesome activities, but designed to bolster mindfulness and keep us grounded in the present moment.
In the West, we tend to have a rather difficult, dysfunctional relationship with rules. We feel that rules are something imposed upon us, and we often feel impelled to rebel against them, and that there is something noble in doing so, and indeed, sometimes there is. My idea about practising with rules—and this is speaking from the experience of living within the boundaries of the Buddhist monastic code for over thirty years now—is that it is like a musician playing a piece of classical music. If you listen to a violin concerto, I doubt that you will think: “That poor violinist has got no freedom at all. Every single note that comes from his musical instrument was decided for him two or three hundred years ago by Mozart.” We do not consider that someone’s creativity in that context is constrained or compromised by the necessity to follow the score. On the contrary, the score becomes the vehicle of expression for the musician. This is true in other arts as well. There is a famous quote by Robert Frost about free verse, which he rejected. He liked to write rhyming verse and said that writing free verse would be like playing tennis with the net down. The very constraints of having a net makes tennis interesting. Just so, when we voluntarily take on certain restraints, deciding not to do certain things, with a clear understanding of the value of doing so and the sufferings inherent in not doing so, we do not feel imprisoned or constrained at all. Quite the opposite.
Liberation in the psychological realm begins with the reduction or elimination of guilt and remorse. The liberation from guilt and remorse is a wonderful thing and is reliant upon sīla. We freely set boundaries for ourselves. Not having precepts imposed upon us, we willingly take them on. Through a practice in which we consistently are able to live within those boundaries a growing confidence arises. We know that we have certain principles that we can uphold even in situations or circumstances in which it might be quite difficult to do so. As a result, we do not have the thought “Why did I say that?!? Why did I do that?!” constantly going over and over in our minds. The practice of sīla is liberating.