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Blog » Symposiums And Lectures » Precepts » Eightfold Precepts prepare you for monastic life and Buddhahood (1)

Eightfold Precepts prepare you for monastic life and Buddhahood (1)2014-02-17


 Spoken by Dharma Master Jin Fan

      English Translation by Peter Wu & Lotus Lee

This morning you took the Eightfold Precepts. This was a rare opportunity. Why? Precepts are the basis for accomplishing unsurpassed enlightenment (Bodhi). When we cultivate, we need to bring forth the Bodhi resolve. This Bodhi resolve requires a foundation which is based on precepts.

When Shakyamuni Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, Venerable Ananda asked Buddha four questions. Among the four questions, Ananda asked: “When the Buddha was in the world, he was our teacher. Now that the Buddha is leaving this world (entering Nirvana), who should we take as our teacher?” Buddha replied: “You need to take the Pratimoksha as your teacher.” The Pratimoksha is the precepts.

From this scenario, we can see that when the Buddha was in the world, when the disciples had questions or made a mistake, they could rely on the Buddha for an answer. Now that the Buddha is not around any longer, what shall we do? Of course there are still good knowing advisors in the world. Venerable Master Hua is an example of an unsurpassed good knowing advisor. We are the Buddha’s disciples and have taken the Five Precepts and Eightfold Precepts; so we have to rely on the precepts as our teacher. The precepts are a guideline. In our everyday action and speech, are we in accord with the precepts? When we use precepts as our guideline like so, then we can call them our teacher.

If we use the precepts as a ruler to discipline ourselves, we should use this ruler to measure ourselves and not others. If we measure others, then it is like what Master Hua said: “We’re washing other people’s dirty laundry and not our own.” We are unable to clean our own laundry. When we take the precepts, we need to use it to guide us and reflect on ourselves. Whenever issues arise, mistakes happen or when people point fingers at you, you don’t need to depend yourself or fight back. You should be as what Master Hua said: “Genuinely recognize your own mistakes. Don't discuss the wrongs of others. Their wrongs are just my own wrongs. [To realize that] one is of the same substance is the great compassion.” This means that we have the precepts as the foundation and our teacher; in that way, we have a guide in our heart. We can use the precepts, as laid down by the Buddha, in our everyday action and speech.

In general, laypeople have plenty of opportunity to take the precepts. If you took the Five Precepts and purely upheld the precepts without violating them, then taking it once is sufficient. Eightfold Precept ceremonies take place very often. In our branch monasteries and in CTTB, whenever there are large Dharma assemblies, there are usually also Eightfold Precept ceremonies held. There are many opportunities to take the Eightfold Precepts. Although laypeople very often take the Eightfold Precepts, the opportunity to study them is rare. Thus, their understanding of the precepts is limited. Time is very limited today so I would like to given a simple introduction to precepts.

Essentially, precepts have four aspects:
(1) The dharma of the precepts
(2) The substance of the precepts
(3) The characteristic of the precepts
(4) The practice of the precepts

Who laid down the dharma of the precepts? The Buddha did. Originally, after the Buddha accomplished Buddhahood, there were no precepts in the first twelve years. Because the disciples followed and lived with the Buddha, their body, mouth and mind were pure and they didn’t violate the precepts. But after twelve years, the disciples began to violate the precepts. Of course, there were disciples who violated the precepts to put on a show and allow the Buddha to lay down the precepts. That way, living beings in the Dharma Ending Age can learn from the precepts. Buddha laid down a precept for each mistake made. Whenever a disciple made a certain type of mistake, the Buddha accordingly laid down a precept for that mistake.

There are two kinds of precepts:
(1) The precepts of the Bodhisattvas
(2) The precepts of the Sound Hearers

The Brahma Net Sutra with 10 major and 48 minor precepts is an example of the precepts of the Bodhisattvas. The precept substance of the Bodhisattva precepts never ceases and remains until Buddhahood is accomplished. It’s common for monastics to take the 10 major and 48 minor precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra. When Master Hua was around, he had expedient means and transmitted this precept to many laypeople. But nowadays, the Bodhisattva precepts taken by laypeople are no longer from the Brahma Net Sutra; instead they’re taken from parts of the Sutra of the Upasaka Precepts with a total of 6 major and 28 minor precepts.

Many people have a common misunderstanding that the 10 major and 48 minor Bodhisattva precepts can only be taken by monastics. That is however not true. In the sutra, it states that heavenly beings, dragons, ghosts and spirits can all receive the precepts. As long as one brings forth the Bodhi resolve, even beings without reproductive organs, or hermaphrodites can receive the Bodhisattva precepts. So many living beings can take these precepts. The 6 major and 28 minor precepts come from the “Sutra of the Upasaka Precepts”, which actually belongs to the precepts of the Sound Hearers. Therefore, this set of precepts is suitable only for laypeople. The “Brahma Net Sutra”, on the other hand, belongs to the precepts of the Bodhisattvas. However, since the 6 major and twenty-eight minor set of precepts are also built on the spirit of the Bodhisattva precepts, they are included in the Lay Bodhisattva Precepts manual. If preceptees who are receiving these precepts can truly bring forth the Bodhi resolve, they will definitely receive the Bodhisattva precept substance of inaction.

The precepts of the Sound Hearers are the second type. “Sound Hearers” are great Arhats who got enlightened by hearing the Buddha’s sound when the Buddha was still in the world. The precepts of the Sound Hearers were laid down precisely for the Sound Hearers. The precepts of the Sound Hearers encompass the laypeople’s Five Precepts, Eightfold Precepts, Shramanera and Shramanerika’s Ten Precepts, Bhikshu’s 250 precepts and Bhikshuni’s 348 precepts and, as well, the abovementioned layperson’s Bodhisattva precepts. These are all precepts of the Sound Hearers. When we receive the precept, we bring forth and realize the precept substance. When you now took the Eightfold Precepts, the part when you took refuge in the Triple Jewel, you also realized the precept substance. According to the precepts of the Sound Hearers, how long does the precept substance last? Except for the Eightfold Precepts, the precept substance for other precepts (like the Five Precepts, Shramanera/Shramanerika precepts, Bhikshu/Bhikshuni precepts) last for a single lifetime. This means you don’t carry over the precept substance to the next life. In the next life, you have to retake the precepts to regain the precept substance.

The Bodhisattva precepts from the “Brahma Net Sutra” and the lay Bodhisattva precepts are not the same. The precept substance stays with you in life after life until you reach Buddhahood. Some people may doubt, “I now take the Bodhisattva precepts. But how do I know if I’ve already taken the Bodhisattva precepts in my previous life; in that case, why would I need to retake them in this life?” If you already took the Bodhisattva precepts in previous lives, taking them again in this life isn’t considered taking the precepts as a newcomer. Retaking them in this life actually increases your understanding of the precepts which allows you to carry out the precepts with better care. That is, the precept that you retake in this life are called reinforced precepts. Many monastics, even though they were ordained by taking the Great Triple Platform precepts in life after life, still continue to retake the Bodhisattva precepts. They aren’t necessarily taking the precepts for the first time but rather taking reinforced precepts.

The second aspect is called the precept substance. This substance is similar to how we have a body. This precept substance is, however, characterized by non-action or non-doing. You have no need to perform any particular action. When you bring forth the Bodhi resolve while taking the Three Refuge, the good in your mind is produced and the evil automatically disappears. That is, you turn away from evil and go towards the good. The good dharma wells forth and fills the entirety of your body. The greater your Bodhi resolve is, the more your mind is filled with good; the precept substance obtained is thereby greater. The precept substance essentially takes in the inexhaustible good dharmas as our precept substance.

What is the purpose of the precept substance? It has no form or mark. We cannot see it so does it actually exist? Yes it does. The Brahma Net Sutra states: “one carries a lifebuoy to cross the ocean.” The precept substance we obtain from taking the precepts is just like the lifebuoy, which is simply a cover filled with air. When you’re in the middle of a rapidly flowing river, you need to quickly cross over to the land. Likewise, when you’re tossed around in the midst of the sea of birth and death, what should you do? The precept substance is like the lifebuoy that saves us from drowning. Therefore, the precept substance protects us and safely crosses us over the suffering sea of birth and death.

How do we use the precept substance to help us protect and purely uphold our precepts? After taking these precepts, you have to “receive with the heart and uphold with the body”; that is, we receive and uphold the precepts. In every thought, you never forget about the precepts and take the precepts as your teacher. In this way, the precept substance will constantly function. When you are about to go against or violate the precepts, the precept substance will come to protect you and prevent you from doing so. When you are asleep, dreaming at night, and not in control, even if there were demonic states or improper situations in your dream, this precept substance will come into action. Being able to uphold the precepts while asleep is precisely due to the functions of the precept substance.

When we go against or violate the precepts, the precept substance will have a puncture, similar to that of a punctured ball or a punctured bicycle tire. They will slowly and eventually deflate. But if the puncture is too big, the bicycle would immediately become immobilized and the ball would be unusable. The precept substance has the same principle. If the precept we violate is minor, the puncture is a little smaller. If the precept we violate is major and more fundamental, then the entire precept substance will disappear. What do we do then? There is a method: Repentance. Repentance is like patching the hole of the ball with glue so the ball can continue to work. The tire can also be patched so that you can continue to ride the bicycle. If the puncture is too great, however, you would have to swap in a new tire. In the Theravada teaching, many precepts cannot be recovered even after repentance. But in the Mahayana teaching, you can still recover the precept substance and return to purity through repentance.

There are many types of repentance. I’ll give a simple introduction of methods that can easily apply to our daily lives. For example, we may have violated a small precept; many people who have taken the Eightfold Precepts or Five Precepts might step on an insect. They would get afflicted and think: “I’ve killed.”

Actually, there are many kinds and degrees of killing. There are different severity levels in judging the precept violation. There is intentional killing and unintentional killing. When it’s unintentional, the violation is quite different from intentional killing. Therefore, if you’ve taken the precepts but you accidentally step on an insect while walking, what should you do? In this situation, you can repent by reprimanding yourself, saying to yourself: “How can I be so careless and kill this insect? In the future, I should be more careful when I walk.” This is called repentance by reprimanding yourself. This type of informal repentance is applicable to small violations of the precepts. You can certainly recite the Buddha’s name or transfer the merit to the insects you’ve unintentionally killed.

If the precept violation is major, then there is a different method of repentance which requires a witness. This formal repentance requires you to reveal the mistake you’ve made in front of a person who observes the precept purely. If you regularly go to a monastery, then you can find a dharma master you trust and reveal your mistake. By repenting this way, you regain purity.

If the precept you violate is fundamental, such as the four fundamental precepts, then the method of repentance will be different. It’ll require you to publicly repent and reveal the mistake in front of an assembly. It is common for Buddhists to repent through expedient methods, such as through Emperor Liang’s Repentance, Samadhi Water Repentance or the Ten Thousand Buddha’s Repentance. By bowing to the Buddha to repent and revealing your mistakes or precept violations in front of the Buddha, many people have had very good responses. If, during the process of bowing to the Buddha in the repentance, you’re able to see auspicious signs, such as seeing light, seeing flowers, seeing the Buddha or seeing the Buddha anoint the crown of your head, then, generally speaking, your karma should have been eradicated.

The aforementioned methods of repentance apply to when we’ve taken the precepts and have obtained the precept substance but have gone against or violated the precepts. Through the repentance, we can recover the purity in our mind and body. At the same time, the precept substance can then continue to protect and help us uphold the precepts.

The third aspect is the characteristic of the precepts. When we were transmitting the eightfold precepts earlier, there was a section for proclaiming the characteristic of the precepts. Here, we can also refer to characteristic as appearance. Every person has a body, but we all have different appearances. We differentiate between people using their appearance. After we have received the precepts, we also have the precept substance, but how should we uphold these precepts? In order for us to know that the first precept is against killing, the precepts require an appearance that gives us the standard of not harming sentient beings. You will then refrain from killing because you know how to uphold the first precept. Every precept has different characteristics. For instance, you have taken the eightfold precepts, of which there are eight. The characteristics of the eightfold precepts and the five precepts are quite similar, but not exactly alike. In the five precepts, the third precept is against sexual misconduct, but the corresponding precept in the eightfold precepts is against sexual conduct, which rules out even spousal relationships. They are different in this way.

The fourth aspect is the practice of the precepts. The practice of the precepts comes about when you put the appearance of the precepts into practice in accord with the dharma of the precepts and the substance of the precepts that has been evoked. Using our body, mouth, and mind, we uphold the precepts according to their appearances. We know that the body, mouth, and mind are tools that we use to create both wholesome and negative karma. The body can create three kinds of negative karma: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; the mouth can create four: lying, flower speech, evil speech, and backstabbing; and the mind can create three negative karmas of greed, anger, and delusion.

After we have received the precepts, we can turn these unwholesome dharmas into wholesome dharmas, and turn deviant actions into proper actions. How do we do so? We add a “no” in front of every unwholesome dharma. For the body, the wholesome dharmas are no killing, no stealing, and no sexual misconduct; the four unwholesome karmas of the mouth become no lying, no flowery speech, no evil speech, and no backstabbing; and the three unwholesome karmas of the mind become no greed, no anger, and no delusion. Putting them into practice is upholding the precepts. Therefore, the practice of the precepts can also be interpreted as taking the dharma of the precepts which we have received and applying it to the three karmas of the body, mouth, and mind, thus turning them into proper actions and conduct.