In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddhist scriptures, this word means ‘morality,’ or ‘living a moral life.’ It implies that one is living a life in accordance with five very basic vows:
1) Not to kill
2) Not to steal
3) Not to tell lies
4) Not to engage in sexual misconduct
5) Not to take intoxicating substances
For monks and nuns, these five basic precepts are expanded upon, and depending on the branch of Buddhism (Mahayana, Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, to name just a few), a member of the clergy will have to take dozens, sometimes hundreds of vows on top of these basic five.
It is worth noting that generally (if not always), it is the nuns who must take the highest number of vows. Apparently women are inherently wicked and unclean, and must be whipped into moral shape by living in accordance with a sometimes mind-boggling number of precepts.
Every time I’ve done a Buddhist meditation course, I am required to take at least the first five precepts for the duration of the course. In a monastery setting, these vows are easy to keep, unless of course there are an absurd amount of mosquitoes around who are out for your blood. I confess to having broken the first precept more than once due to these pesky, whining creatures.
In the outside world, the vows are not always so easy to keep. If you are a social person, chances are you will encounter at least alcohol when you go to a party, or a restaurant, or a wedding.
Sexual misconduct is rampant throughout the world. It shows up in the form of affairs, sexual abuse, and the often prosecuted cases of harassment in the workplace. Read “Savage Love” once a week to find your own jaw-dropping example.
Lying (or by the Buddhist definition, even speaking slanderously) is everywhere, from small white lies, to ego-boosting tales of personal superiority. And who hasn’t engaged in a little shit-talking from time to time?
Stealing (or “taking that which is not given”) is easy- every time I break into my sister’s closet without asking, I’m breaking the second precept.
And killing, though hopefully not as prevalent as the previous four, happens constantly, and in some parts of the world, it happens en masse. Genocide is just a grossly exaggerated, sickening example of what happens when the first precept is broken. And genocide continues to occur down the ages, raging in our world even today.
One of my problems with Buddhism for so long was this: Besides telling us that all life is suffering, it told us we had to live a life of morality, which I thought it was so boring. How do you live an exciting life when you’re not allowed to drink, or steal, or have random one-night stands? I mean, come on!
Buddhism even says that passion is a vice, on par with greed, anger, or ignorance. Passion!? Hello! So many of us live for passion! What would life be like without passion? I could tell you- boring!
But I’m starting to rethink my previous stance. I’m starting to look beyond the language, and instead watch examples of morality in action. And they are anything but boring. I’m not talking about the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m talking about real people, young people, who are embodying a life of morality, and who glow more luminously than anyone around them.
Two nights ago I met a girl named Brit. She is Swiss Australian, with shiny black hair and bright eyes. She sat quietly in the corner for awhile before I leaned over and asked her a question, and from then on, we spent the whole evening talking. She is twenty-six years old, and a midwife.
I had a million questions to ask her, as that profession has always fascinated and inspired me. Midwives bring babies into the world, and help new parents with the transition from pregnancy, to childbirth, to beginning a new life as a family. I think it is one of the noblest professions on the planet.
As Brit told me about fathers crying in the delivery room, mothers giving birth with no drugs, tragic cases of stillborn babies, and the way nature has designed the female body to be the perfect carrier of new life, I found my throat constricting and tears in my eyes.
When we parted ways that night, I kept seeing Brit’s eyes in my mind, so bright, happy and wise. She was an old soul. She sipped tea all night and told me, “If you want to do something in life that will bring you great joy, be a midwife.” It was so clear to me that she was joyful, that she was on the right path. And without asking or knowing, I had a strong feeling that Brit probably lives a life of morality. I just couldn’t see her killing (when her job is to bring life into the world), or stealing, or lying, or getting wasted, or bedding countless men. I just couldn’t see it.
Today I met a Dutch guy named Tu. He is a huge dude, but within moments of meeting him, you sense his “gentle giant” quality. He works with patients of schizophrenia, and films documentaries whose proceeds go towards helping out local charities. He told us all of this without a trace of ego. Everyone in the small room was leaning forward to hear him speak, asking questions, and regarding him with wide, respectful eyes.
Tu then mentioned that he had recently taken the Tibetan Buddhist “Layman’s Vows.” These are the vows not to kill, steal, lie, or take intoxicating substances. He wants to get married and have a family some day, so he didn’t take the vow to remain celibate.
Interestingly, Tu smokes cigarettes, parties all night, and is a favorite with the ladies. The day he left, one young lady who was particularly taken with him burst into tears. He’s quite popular. And upon first glance, he isn’t a guy you would associate with having monkish qualities. I’ve seen him in the restaurant across the way charming women and laughing heartily nearly every evening. He’s a “cool” guy, very social and well-liked, but there is something about him that is… different. He emanates a quality that I have recently begun to recognize as purity. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, he finds joy in helping those less fortunate than him, and he is at peace with himself. He’s a wonderful guy to be around.
Brit and Tu are just two people I have met in the last few days who have me rethinking what I previously regarded as a boring, passionless life. They are beautiful people, and I eat up their wisdom and energy when I am around them. They are far more alive and interesting than the dreadlocked stoners in the corner passing the joint. They make me want to be a better person, to write something worth reading, to make a positive difference in people’s lives. They make me want to be bigger than I am, in an honest, pure way.
Brit may not have tattoos on her back, and loudly broadcasted plans to motorcycle across America like another “hot” girl who hangs out in the same restaurant, but she is calming to be around. I am inspired when I come away from being in her company.
Tu may not kick asses in bar fights, or shave his head to look intimidating, but he is more powerful than any slimy sex-obsessed guy on the street. These type of people are real helpers in the world, and they continue to give, not just take away.
I don’t know that I’m going to take any Buddhist vows, but I am going to start living my life a bit differently. I already have. I might still write racy stories, and take pride in lookin’ fly when I’m out on the town, but these vices are okay with me. Spiritual evolution happens slowly.