Commentary on Summary of Faith and Practice


Part 27 "Delineated by the Precepts" from the sentence "The Buddha Body is delineated by the precepts"

To delineate is to loosely define. It is to create a sketch or outline that indicates the shape or nature of something. The precepts thus define the Buddha. Buddhas are those who keep the precepts as a matter of course. For a buddha, preceptual conduct is 'second nature', though in this case we might say 'first nature'.It simply does not occur to the Buddha to be otherwise and if it were to do so then the Buddha would immediately see the disadvantage. 'Seeing the disadvantage' is one way of thinking about what enlightenment is.

Now, bearing in mind the ideas that we discussed in the last section about transcendence, it should be apparent that the Buddha as one who perfectly keeps the precepts is a Sambhogakaya. It is an ideal, a vision, a dream of Buddhaness. From the actual living Buddha we extract this ideal. The Sambhogakaya Buddhas come as embodiments of this perfect state. Quan Shi Yin is perfect kindness and compassion. Samantabhadra comes as perfect action and generosity. Manjushri as perfect wisdom and so on. these are the figures that inspire us.

However, if we consider the next step that brings us back to earth, we must consider how Buddha acts in invidious situations. What does Buddha do when telling a lie will save a life or when stealing medicine is the only available means of helping a person who is seriously ill. One can readily imagine many such conflicts of morality. Actual Buddha does not live by rules. So whereas the precepts delineate the Sambhogakaya Buddha, the Dharmakaya Buddha transcends even the precepts. However this second level of transcendence does not take us into a higher realm even more remote from real life, it takes us into the hurly burly of reality where, ultimately there are no rules, only faith and good heart.

This alerts us to the fact that the precepts are themselves creatons of fallible mortal beings. They are our attempt to indicate – to delineate – the Buddha as Buddha appears to us.

We say that there are three pure precepts: (1) Cease from harm; (2) Do only good; (3) Do good for others. These three encompass all other precepts. No others are necessary, even though others may be useful.

Then we have the five precepts against: (1) killing; (2) stealing; (3) sexual misconduct; (4) wrong speech; (5) intoxication. Clearly one cn go into more detail. In the sections on the moralities in the scriptures one will find longer descriptions of each. In the Mahayana texts these same injunctions are often divided into ten items, mostly be separating out different elements of wrong speech.

All of the above are the type of precept that define general virtue or morality. One might wish for a world in which everybody managed to keep such precepts all the time. There are also other sets of precepts that are specific to people undertaking articular forms of spiritual training. Thus there are the pratimoksha rules for monks, which vary slightly from order to order. Many of these rules are not to do with general morality, but are concerned with particular lifestyles – when to eat, how to take care of one's robe and bowl and so on. Such rules only apply to those who undertake them.

When we look at such systems of rules we can also distinguish between the kind of rule that is nonspecific good advice, eg. Be generous; and the kind of rule that is specific and behavioural, eg. do not carry weapons. With the latter type it is clear when one has broken the precept whereas in the former case it will be a matter of degree and of opinion.

In some orders there are systems of sanctions. The traditional pratimoksha rules are divided up into groups according to the severity of the sanction to be applied in the case of an infringement. Sanctions can range from making an apology through to expulsion from the order and even complete excommunication. In the self-power approach to Buddhism, keeping the precepts is considered to be a means toward enlightenment, or, at least, toward the accumulation of merit.

In Amida Shu the precepts are seen primarily as an aid to reflection upon one's faith. The precepts delineate the Buddha. Therefore the precepts themselves are an object of worship. Reflecting upon them and revering them are wholesome things to do. When one notices that one has broken a precept it is also a cause for reflection. This reflection will bring one back to a consideration of one's faith. If one had complete faith one would be a Buddha and keeping the precepts would come naturally. If one has broken a precept, therefore, it indicates that one's faith is less. There may not be anything one can do about this – faith is a grace – but it is valuable to reflect upon it. One might pray for more faith, but one cannot make it happen. Thus one comes to a deeper understanding of one's bombu nature. The precepts thus show us our nature. Thus the precepts are Buddhas. Buddhas are those beings who show us our nature. Reflection of this kind can bring us to a deeper acceptance and willingness and this may well indirectly lead to us being given more faith, or, at least, to us having a greater appreciation of the spiritual path.

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