We are shocked when humans break the Five Precepts because observing them [makes or] keeps us human[e], while breaking them leads to loss of precious human rebirths.
As many of us know, in terms of cultivating morality, Buddhists are encouraged to at least commit towards observing the Five Precepts (of abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking of intoxicants). However, some Buddhists choose not to, assuming that if they do not commit to them formally through the ceremony of receiving the precepts, they will be free from creating negative karma that arises from breaking them. Such hesitation is usually due to fear of breaking them, while having subtle desire to have leeway to do so. The truth is, whether one commits to the precepts or not, doing any unwholesome deeds will still create negative karma. In fact, to deliberately not commit to the precepts and to go ‘unchecked’ opens oneself to the possibility of ‘breaking the precepts’ – even if one has no formal ones to break. Since negative karma is created by intentional action, this can create more, instead of less negative karma. That one already knew something to be wrong according to the precepts, yet chooses to ignore this is worse! It is likened to not listening to one’s conscience or not having a healthy sense of moral shame.
Conversely, it is also a misconception that if one observes the precepts, one will create worse negative karma when one breaks them. The reality is that commitment to the precepts means there is awareness of the need to be moral. This creates strong deterrence from breaking them. Even if a precept is broken unmindfully, it will be easier to be mindful of the need to repent. This contrasts with those who choose not to receive the precepts, thus remaining unrepentant while continually creating more negative karma. This is why the ‘Sūtra On Bodhisattvas’ Garland Of Their Original Karmas’《菩萨璎珞本业经》teaches that ‘Those having precepts, yet breaking them [unmindfully], are superior to those without precepts, not breaking them. Those having precepts to break are named as Bodhisattvas, while those without precepts to break are named as those of external paths [which lead away from liberation, [as they are not committed to right guidelines for moral perfection].’ (有而犯者，胜无不犯；有犯名菩萨，无犯名外道。) Though this is about the Bodhisattva Precepts (of avoiding all evil, doing all good and benefiting all beings), it also applies in spirit to the Five Precepts as commitment to them benefits all beings due to our refrain from harming them. Abiding by the precepts is thus meritorious.
The Five Precepts mark the starting point of the path towards the perfection of morality, which is fully expanded as the Bodhisattva Precepts (and Vows) – which shape the cradle from which all Buddhas of the past, present and future are ‘born’. Thus, if we are unwilling to try to commit to the Five Precepts, we are very far away from Buddhahood indeed! We should not fear observing the Five Precepts as they are meant for beginners like us! It is natural to break some precepts at times, but practice does make perfect eventually, while not practising at all will never lead to perfection. Once one resolves to observe the Bodhisattva Precepts, one becomes a beginner Bodhisattva, even if unenlightened. Even if one breaks the precepts, one is still considered a Bodhisattva-in-training, while one who does not commit to these precepts and has none of them to break cannot be considered a Bodhisattva at all. When a precept is broken, we should immediately and sincerely express repentance by regretting our mistake and resolve not to repeat it. Doing so is important as it maintains the integrity of our precepts, while ‘diluting’ the negative karma to some extent!
It is better to observe the Bodhisattva Precepts than only the Five Precepts. It is better to observe five precepts than only four precepts. It is better to observe four precepts than only three precepts. It is better to observe three precepts than only two precepts. It is better to observe two precepts than only one precept. It is better to observe one precept than no precept.
~ The Difference Between Having & Lacking Moral Commitment
~ Key to Moral Happiness: The Five Wonderful Precepts
~ The 5 Precepts & 5 Ennoblers
~ Illustrations of Simple Dynamics of Karma
~ Take the Precepts as Your Master
~ Must the Five Precepts Be Taken with the Threefold Refuge?
~ The Danger of Not Observing the Fifth Precept
~ The Wisdom of Abstaining from Alcohol
~ How Good Are You When No One is Watching?
~ What is Not the Middle Path (of Morality)?
~ The Bodhisattva Precepts: Directions to Buddhahood