More on the five lay precepts

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Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • The precept against lying
  • The precept against taking intoxicants

The Essence of a Human Life: More on the five lay precepts (download)

10-17-15 The Essence of a Human Life: More on the five lay precepts - BBCorner

We’ve been going through Je Rinpoche’s text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for the Lay Practitioner. We’re on the verse now that after thinking about death and the effects of karma (how it might ripen in a future life), this verse recommends that we take refuge in the Three Jewels, which we talked about pretty extensively. Then it says,

Live as best as you can according to the five life-long precepts praised by Buddha as the basis of lay life.

Yesterday we talked about the first three of the five lay precepts: to abandon taking life (or killing), taking what has not been freely given to us (or stealing), and unwise and unkind sexual behavior.


The next one is lying. Lying means when you know what is, you say it isn’t. And when you know what isn’t, you say what is. Or have, you say have not, or have not, you say have. In other words, it’s consciously distorting the truth for a self-centered purpose.

Lies can happen very easily. The biggest lie to be careful of is lying about our spiritual attainments. In other words, pretending to be somebody that we aren’t, pretending to have realizations that we don’t have. This can actually happen quite easily. People come up to you and go, “Oh, you’re so kind, you must be a bodhisattva.” And you just sit there and accept it. Or, “You’re so brilliant, you must have realized emptiness.” And it can be very misleading. The reason this is the worst of all the lies is because when we lie about our attainments in order to deceive people, in order to get offerings or a following, or something like that, then people could think that we know a lot about Dharma when we don’t know much, or that we have realizations that we don’t have, and it really misleads them on the path. It’s so detrimental to other people’s spiritual paths that we have to be very careful about that.

Then, of course, there are all sorts of other big lies, especially in lay life. People might still lie about their spiritual attainments, that happens, but all sorts of other lies that we tell that are often based on doing something that we don’t want anybody else to know about. That’s why I call lying “double double toil and trouble,” because there’s the original action we did that we don’t want anybody to know, and then there’s the lie. So you usually have two negativities there. So instead of cleaning up the original action and saying, “Yes, I did this and it was wrong and I’m sorry and I made a mess,” and just opening up and clearing it out and confessing it and making amends, then we stuff it down, we rationalize it, justify it, and then distort the truth when we’re talking to somebody else so that they don’t find out about it. Problem with lying is people usually find out about it afterwards, and that really destroys trust.

I don’t know about you, but I actually feel quite insulted when people lie to me, as if they’re saying, “You can’t handle the truth.” And I can handle the truth. I can handle the truth much better than somebody lying to me. Because if somebody lies, then I can no longer trust that person again, because then after that I never know, are they saying the truth? Are they saying something false? What’s going on here? So for me, lying really destroys a lot of trust. Whereas if somebody tells me the truth, even if it’s admitting something really crummy that they did, I respect them for having the courage to admit that and to clean it up. That person I do have trust in later, in terms of telling me the truth, because they were courageous enough to say what was actually going on.

Then there are all the little white lies that we do to save face. Some of those little white lies, I don’t know why we even need to do them. Like it used to be, when people used the telephone (remember that, years ago, centuries ago, when people used the telephone instead of texting?), that somebody called and you were busy, you would say to whoever (your friend or relative who answered the phone), “Tell them I’m not home.” Well, why not just say, “She’s busy.” Why do you need to say she’s not home? That’s not true. She’s busy. Or she can’t take your call right now. These kind of things where we make excuses, whereas actually just telling the truth would be just as good, and I don’t think people would be offended by it.

I know in Asian culture, a lot, the definition of lying is very different than in Western culture. These kinds of lies they consider them actually good manners. Because it’s bad manners to say to somebody, “No.” So it’s good manners to say “yes” and then do what you want. But maybe that’s understood in that culture, so even if you say yes people know that it’s not really meant that way. But in Western culture if you say yes, people take you literally, and if you say no, they also take you literally. So we have to, I think, be a little bit more vigilant with this kind of thing.

Also, to look into the mind and see what is it that makes us want to lie? Is it shame? Is it embarrassment? Is it wanting to look better than we are to make a good impression on somebody, to appear to be somebody we’re not? In which case you have the mental factors of pretension and deceit working: pretension, pretending to have good qualities you don’t have; deceit, pretending not to have bad qualities that you do have. Then we just get so tangled up in all of this because we’re not being straightforward.

I remember even as a child I was never good at lying because I always knew people would find out. And also it was hard to remember which lie you told to which person. So it gets kind of confusing, and I always knew that if I lied I would really get it. So telling the truth was a better option. But I’m glad now that I was brought up that way.

That’s a little bit about lying.


The last of the five precepts is taking intoxicants. That includes alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, and abusing prescription drugs. All of that. In other words, it’s kind of recreational intoxication.

Some people give the precept and say, “Just don’t get drunk. As long as you don’t get drunk or completely loaded, then you’re keeping the precept.” I give it very clearly, straightforward: not one drop, not one puff. Nothing. Zero. Because you don’t know that you’ve gotten intoxicated and taken too much until afterwards. And also because if you can’t refrain from taking one drink, then how are you going to refrain from taking many drinks? Because many drinks are just a series of one drink. I think better keep it easy: nothing. Zero.

If you have medicine that is based in alcohol then you just put it in a little bit of hot water for a minute, the alcohol evaporates, and then you can take it.

In terms of cooking with alcohol, food tastes just as good without the alcohol. It really does. And also, sometimes, the alcohol taste may remind somebody who has difficulties with alcohol of the taste of alcohol. So better just leave it out.

I think nowadays abuse of prescription drugs is the thing that, together with booze, is the most dangerous. More people die from overdose of prescription drugs in the US than from recreational drugs. I remember talking to somebody who was telling me…. She was so addicted to prescription drugs and all the things that she had to do, going from doctor to doctor, feigning illnesses to get prescriptions, lying to people. Eventually she got into prostitution because it was the only way to make some money to get the prescription drugs, and so on. It really makes a mess of our lives.

The whole reason to abandon intoxicants is because our mind, when we’re intoxicated, we can’t think clearly. I think all of us have had some experience with intoxicants in the past. Is that true or not true, that you can’t think clearly when you’re intoxicated? It’s very true, isn’t it? And then you say all sorts of things that you wish you hadn’t said. And you do all sorts of things that you wish you hadn’t done. And you even put yourself in dangerous situations where people can take advantage of you just because you’re too out of it. So I think better to just, I mean, let’s be who we are. We’re good enough as we are. We don’t need to “relax” by drinking booze or taking drugs, whatever.

Why take precepts

These are the five precepts. Now, some people, especially in the West, they view precepts like they’re rules, telling me you can’t do this and you can’t do that, and that’s a no-no, and that’s a no-no. So they react to precepts as if they’re being put in prison. It’s just a bunch of rules telling you “no.” If you see precepts like that, then don’t take them, because you don’t have a correct idea of what the precepts are all about. Precepts are not external rules that somebody else made up that are being imposed on us involuntarily. Rather, we, through our own experience living and observing other people’s lives, can conclude that when we do these five actions it creates a mess—in our lives, in the lives of others. And we’re at a point where we just want to stop creating messes.

At some point you kind of grow up in your life—you hope you grow up in your life—where you say, “It’s just not worth it anymore to keep creating messes. I need to clean up my act and live in a good way, and have good relationships with other people instead of always getting involved in all sorts of who-knows-what.” Then you begin to see the precepts as a protection. They protect us from doing what we don’t want to do. They’re not externally imposed rules. They’re things we take voluntarily because we’ve ascertained, through our own wisdom and our own experience, that we don’t want to get involved in those actions. We really see the precepts as something designed to benefit us and something that in our heart of hearts we really aspire to keep. We take them because we’re limited beings and we’re afraid of our mind getting uncontrolled and doing those actions. We know having the precept, taking it in the presence of our spiritual teacher, in the presence of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, that that will give us a lot of inner strength to abandon those actions. So we take the precepts for that reason, voluntarily, to help us be strong in situations where we may not be.

The thing is, when you’ve taken a precept, then when the situation presents itself to you, to lie or to sleep around, or to steal, or whatever, you’ve already made the decision, so you don’t need to get confused. Your friends can pressure you, “Oh, why don’t you do this, are you one of those Buddhist prudes who have just a bunch of rules?” You know how people can be sometimes. Even people pressure you or whatever, you don’t need to get confused, “Well, should I? Shouldn’t I? What are they going to think of me? What are they going to think about Buddhism? I don’t want them to think bad of Buddhism so I’d better do this.”

You don’t worry about such things. You’ve just determined already, “I’m not doing that,” and you just say to the other person, “Sorry.” And if the other person can’t accept you living in an ethical way, check up what kind of friend they are. If somebody is just always pressuring you to do something unethical and doesn’t respect your own spiritual values, your own ethical values, are they a real friend? Who wants to have somebody like that pressure us into doing something we don’t want to do that’s going to have negative repercussions on us and on other people? And we do this just to please that one person, who doesn’t have a very strong set of ethics themselves.

I think we can stand firmly and with our own dignity and self-confidence. And other people like it, they don’t like it, doesn’t really matter. Because so many people come to me and it’s like, “Oh I was at this family dinner and everybody was drinking wine, and I felt so out of place not drinking wine, and my relatives really wanted me to drink, and they don’t know anything about Buddhism, and they’re going to think Buddhism is just this really prudish, horrible religion that you can’t do anything with, and I don’t want them to think badly about Buddhism, so I thought it was better just to drink and blend in.” Does that person have wisdom? No. They have attachment to reputation. They don’t have wisdom.

Audience: I sometimes hear people say that “I don’t drink too much, but I do drink, so I’m not going to take this precept.” But I think what people who do drink don’t understand is it’s not that the alcohol only affects you when you’re drunk. If it’s part of your life, to the point that you’ll give in to your family, then it’s also affecting the way you think between drinking sessions. And that I don’t think is so….

Venerable Thubten Chodron: You’re saying that even if somebody isn’t an alcoholic, that just having drinking as part of your life influences how you live your life. And it influences how you think. It influences you financially, too. In a big way. And influences what kind of friends you have, what you do with your friends. And so the issue isn’t just abandoning getting drunk, it’s abandoning the issue that drugs and alcohol have in your life to start with.

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