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Should We All Fully And Strictly Uphold The Five Precepts?

有而犯者,胜无不犯。有犯名菩萨,无犯名外道。

— 释迦牟尼佛
《菩萨璎珞本业经》

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].

— Śākyamuni Buddha
(Sūtra On Bodhisattvas’ Garland Of Their Original Karmas)

In the Pure Land Tradition’s 13th Patriarch Great Master Yìnguāng’s (净土宗十三祖印光大师) ‘Reply Letter To Layperson Zhāng Chúnyī’《复张纯一居士书》, he wrote, ‘Of the Five Precepts, regardless of having received or not having received them, all should strictly uphold them. With the preceding Four Heavy Precepts [四重戒], of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and false speech, they are named as Natural Precepts [that accord naturally with our Buddha-nature]. Even of people who have not heard of these precepts’ names, their breaking of them also have transgressions [naturally].’ (五戒,无论受与不受,皆当严持。以前之杀,盗,淫,妄四条,名为性戒,即不闻戒名之人,犯之亦有罪过。)

Next, the Great Master wrote, ‘However, when those who have received the precepts break them, this thus becomes double in heaviness [i.e. weightiness], upon each original transgression, in addition, also adding once more, with breaking of the precept’s transgression. Thus saying, all people must all strictly uphold them. Abstaining from drinking alcohol, [as the Fifth Precept], is named as a Preclusive Precept, [to prevent possible loss of mindfulness, that might lead to breaking of the Four Heavy Precepts].’ (而受戒者犯之,则成两重,于本罪外,又加一犯戒罪过。故曰,一切人皆须严持。)

[1] As the saying goes, ‘Knowing the law, yet breaking the law, offensiveness increases by a degree.’ (知法犯法,罪加一等) While the possibility of double-faulting might seem to make receiving of the Four Heavy Precepts disadvantageous, it is not so. Knowing this has an advantageous extra deterrent effect instead. As sincere receiving of the precepts expresses commitment to uphold them for life, to thus not break any of them, this leads to less likeliness of creating any original transgression in the first place, thus also not creating any additional transgression by default.

[2] Those who do not receive the Five Precepts however, who prefer to live morally unchecked, what more lacking the deterrent effect, are more likely to create many original transgressions by breaking the Natural Precepts, thus creating much more evil karma that leads to suffering in present and future lives, possibly in the three lower realms of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals, if with strong hatred, greed and delusion respectively. This occurs naturally even without receiving any precepts. Ignorance of the Natural Precepts, and wilful ignoring of them, is not ‘bliss’, leading to suffering instead.

[3] Ironically, those who refuse to receive the precepts already kind of ‘know the law’, but prefer to not receive them, perhaps wanting the ‘upper hand’ to be able to ‘break the law’. This arises from ignorance of the above. If there is unwillingness to commit to the precepts, to be good and ever self-bettering persons, the goal of spiritual purity is far away indeed! How then, can they truly depart from suffering to attain the (actual) bliss (离苦得乐) of liberation? Although the Great Master taught that ‘all people must strictly uphold’ the Five Precepts, whether as Buddhists or not, commitment to them is of course always voluntary. What he was emphasizing is their great relevance and importance for the welfare of one and all, thus urging us earnestly and firmly.

Finally, the Great Master wrote, ‘Of those yet to receive this precept, their drinking is without transgression [unless it leads to breaking of the Four Heavy Precepts]. Having received this precept, afterwards drinking, this is only with once breaking of the precept’s transgression, [in contrast with breaking any Natural Precept above, which creates double transgressions].’ (饮酒,名遮戒,未受戒,饮无罪。受戒后饮,只一犯戒罪耳。)

[4] Although the letter of the Fifth Precept is about alcohol, the spirit of the precept includes anything alcoholic in nature, and whatever capable of creating loss of mindfulness with intoxication, including all other substances that can be abused, such as the growing variety of legal and illegal drugs, whether they lead to unhealthy physical and mental addiction or not.

[5] The seemingly ‘lighter’ nature of the Fifth Precept does not mean there should be less mindful commitment to it. It is just so that not all instances of intoxication lead to breaking of the Four Heavy Precepts, while it does greatly increase the possibilities with impaired mindfulness. When intoxicated and confused, all the Four Heavy Precepts can be quickly broken.

[6] For instance, the drunk might have semi-confused sexual misconduct (which breaks the Third Precept), followed by overconfident drink-driving that kills a pedestrian (which breaks the First Precept), thus ‘stealing’ one’s life (which breaks the Second Precept in spirit), ending up with panicky lying (which breaks the Fourth Precept) upon arrest.

有受一分戒名一分菩萨,乃至二分三分四分,十分名具足受戒。

— 释迦牟尼佛
《菩萨璎珞本业经》

Those having received one part of the [Bodhisattva] precepts are named as one-part Bodhisattvas, and even so accordingly, of those having received two parts, three parts, four parts [and more], with those having received ten parts, named as having completely received the precepts, [as ten-part Bodhisattvas].

— Śākyamuni Buddha
(Sūtra On Bodhisattvas’ Garland Of Their Original Karmas)

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《大佛顶首楞严经·卷第六·四种决定清净明诲》
The Great Buddha Crown’s Śūraṅgama Sūtra’s Sixth Scroll’s Four Kinds Of Clear And Definitive Instructions On Purity
https://purelanders.com/minghuizhang

Is It Better To Not Observe Any Precepts?
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2010/02/is-it-better-not-to-observe-any-precepts

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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