“We protect virtue, so that virtue will protect us.”
– Ajahn Chah
So here’s a great Buddhist teacher who’s NOT saying, “Oh, we don’t need the precepts. Precepts are just a provisional teaching.” He’s NOT saying that we can dispense with the precepts.
On the contrary, Ajahn Chah is saying to protect them:
- Protect your precepts.
- Protect your ethics.
- Protect your morality.
- Protect your character.
- Protect your integrity.
In short, protect your virtue.
Because if you protect your virtue, then you won’t have to deal with the consequences of not being virtuous down the line:
- If you harm someone – their families will want to get back at you in some way.
- If you steal from others – they’ll want to get back what they worked so hard to buy
- If you lie – people will not trust you and will be suspicious of whatever you say
- If you sleep with someone’s wife – the husband will want to kill you when he finds out
- If you take intoxicants – like alcohol, one drink can easily lead to another and before you know it, you are drunk can easily do all of the above 4 without realizing it.
The precepts are the foundation of human interaction – they help us live peacefully and harmoniously in the world, protecting us from these harmful consequences of living unvirtuously.
Virtue also becomes the foundation for our peace of mind:
- If we do no harm – we don’t have to live with the guilt of having harmed someone. Then others are much less likely to harm us in revenge.
- If we stop ourselves from stealing – then we will not have to pay back what we took.
- If we do not lie – but then we won’t have to keep remembering and lying further to cover up our lies – it can easily become a mess before too long.
- If we do not sleep with other’s wives or husbands – we don’t have to live in fear of someone coming to kill us just because of a few moments of pleasure for the body.
- If we do not take intoxicants – then our mindfulness won’t be sullied and we don’t risk doing stupid things that we will regret once we come back to our senses.
And with our conscience clear, our mind naturally becomes more peaceful. Meditation will be just that much easier because our minds will have been unburdened of so much nonsense that we no longer have to deal with from unvirtuous actions.
So we protect these 5 precepts so that they will protect us in return:
- Not killing – we do our best to live harmlessly (ahimsa), protecting life, becoming more compassionate by respecting each creature’s right to live out their lives in their own way.
- Not stealing – we respect other’s property, because how would we feel if someone stole the same thing from us?
- Not lying – we respect honesty and truthfulness. We are true not only to others, but we are also true to ourselves.
- No sexual misconduct – because we respect the sanctity of marriage. People’s spouses and children are the apples of their eye – so respect that.
- Not taking intoxicants – this is a protective precept that protects the previous 4.
There’s a story where one day, a guy decides to have a glass of beer – because he thinks that 1 glass won’t hurt. After that glass, he thought, “Another glass won’t hurt” and before you know it, he’s drunk.
Suddenly, the neighbor’s chicken flew into his backyard. Feeling a bit hungry, he kills the chicken for food (killing and stealing).
Then, the neighbor who was a young wife suddenly knocks on the door, asking, “We’ve just lost our chicken, would you happen to have seen it?”
The guy replies, “No.” (lying)
The guy suddenly takes a fancy to the young girl, and appropriates her for himself (sexual misconduct).
Now this story may not have really happened, but what it does do is that it illustrates how you can do stupid things whilst under intoxicants like alcohol and drugs because they can take over your mind. Any what little restraint that you might have had in your normal state can easily become no restraint.
People on illicit drugs for example, once addicted, may do anything to get high again. They may lie, steal or harm someone to get enough money for their continuous habit of drugs.
What can also happen with drugs is something called tachyphylaxis – where the body becomes gets used to it and gets desensitized to it. So the high that people experience becomes less and less over time. Eventually, it can get to the point where people are taking the drugs just to feel normal again. They are no longer in power – the drugs are.
Some people who are searching for spiritual truth like to experiment with drugs to get into altered states of consciousness from things like Ayahuasca – there are cases where people have died from taking things like that.
From the Buddhist perspective:
- Illicit drugs are simply not needed.
- And they can be addictive and harmful.
- They can further confuse the mind.
Buddhism is the path of wisdom, not of confusion. If people take hallucinogenic drugs to experience altered states of consciousness – they’ll mistake these hallucinations to be real, compounding confusion upon confusion. I heard a story once (it might have been a bouncer that told me this story) where he’s seen people on drugs talking to a bottle. An hour or so later, the bouncer returns – the guy is still there, having the most fascinating conversation – talking to the bottle. So drugs can easily cause people to mistake hallucinations to be real – but in reality, they are just illusions caused by the chemicals affecting the brain.
Simply put – If drugs were the answer to enlightenment, then all the junkies in the world would be enlightened.
So just say no to drugs! Do NOT try drugs – not even once.
Hence why the 5th precept is a protective precept – protecting all of the other 4 precepts.
In summary, don’t believe it when people say, “The precepts are beginner’s Buddhism. We practice the higher path – we don’t need precepts”. But a great Buddhist Master like Ajahn Chah didn’t hold that view at all – he said the opposite:
“We protect virtue, so that virtue will protect us”.