Question: I wish to commit to the five precepts but worry about unintentionally breaking them. I have also heard a ‘Buddhist’ say that as the negative karma from breaking precepts is serious, it is better not to commit to the precepts formally, while just trying to observe the few that we think we can. Otherwise, to commit yet break the precepts would be lying to the Buddha. What do you think?
Answer: Such thinking is unsound. Here are reasons why… As the Buddha clearly taught us to take the precepts as our teacher (以戒为师), he only encouraged commitment to precepts; never non-commitment or half-hearted commitment. His teachings are distorted if so-called ‘Buddhists’ discourage Buddhists from committing to the precepts. It is best to advise or avoid those suggesting neglect of basic morality through proper observation of the precepts. It is through keeping to the five precepts that one retains at least the precious human rebirth for spiritual betterment.
Formal commitment to the five precepts via a simple but solemn ceremony is encouraged to express and fortify commitment. To lack formalisation means weak or no commitment. To intentionally not commit to the precepts is to possibly be morally lax, to intentionally give oneself leeway to break the precepts. This can harm others and oneself, which creates more serious negative karma as there are no functioning moral brakes. Unintentional ‘breaking’ of precepts is not actual breaking of precepts as they are accidents. As such accidents can still be harmful, again, it is with mindful commitment to the precepts that they occur less.
To deceive the Buddha or anyone else, there must be intention. As above, accidents do not involve intention. If there is intentional lying despite committing not to lie, it does create more negative karma, but to not commit means one is ready to lie even more, and indefinitely, which creates even much more negative karma in the long run. Just as we do not like to be with such a person, we should not become such a person. Remember… While non-commitment to the precepts means one is still potentially dangerous to oneself and the world, commitment to the precepts is straightaway meritorious. It also lays an essential foundation stone for progress towards Buddhahood. No one can get near this goal without any commitment.
Is It Better Not to Observe Any Precepts?