illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
Most buddhists share an understanding of the "5 precepts", "8 precepts", "10 precepts" or even (to a smaller extent) of the 200+ monastic rules… But this apparent display of unity hides divergences beyond the choice of the appropriate subset of rules according to one's commitment. Below is an illustration of diversity.
The classical five precepts for laypeople are:
• to refrain from killing,
• to refrain from taking what is not given (stealing),
• to refrain from sexual misconduct,
• to refrain from false speech,
• to refrain from consuming fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
The Japanese understanding of Mahāyāna's 'universalism' led e.g. Saichō (767–822) to dismiss the 250 rules of the vinaya and instituting the "bodhisattva precepts" of the Brahmajala Sūtra (or "Sutra of Brahma's net") as the "Mahāyāna precepts" of the Tendai tradition. These include 10 major and 48 minor 'rules'. Because these rules were rather 'vague' and 'universal' —applicable to both monastics and lay people in China,— Annen's ordination manual 普通授菩薩戒広釈 ("Extended commentary on universal ordination with the bodhisattva precepts") was instrumental in precising them and making these rules replace the vinaya in a monastic context.
Later, Annen (841–?) went further though, as certain elements of Tendai (in tantric rituals) demanded that the adept in fact break what would normally be a proscription. He then insisted on the 4 samaya precepts, found in the Mahāvairocana Tantra (said to have been granted directly to Śākyamuni):
• never to abandon the True Dharma,
• never to abandon the aspiration to enlightenment (bodhicitta),
• never to refuse to confer Buddhist teachings on someone who sincerely wishes to study them,
• never to cause any sentient being any harm (or, to benefit all sentient beings).
By placing such precepts above the Mahāyāna precepts, themselves above the earlier precepts, Annen was obviously opening to a 'relative' interpretation of the precepts and more generally of ethics. Controls and discipline became harder to enact, but precepts lack substantiality like everything else. Call it anattā or śūnyatā, but this is a direct consequence of the Buddha's teachings: precepts are dependent on a context, there is no permanent, unchanging, unconditioned absolute.
Intentions matter. Intentions are karma: not only a particular intention is based on accumulated karma, but having an intention will in itself create matching karma for the future. Intentions are based on habits and perpetuate or create habits; habits are karma.
One may note that there is no rejection of the 'Hīnayāna' precepts, the situation is merely seen as progressing through understanding: one starts with strict prescriptive rules as a conditioning and will later continue with looser rules, just like one learns on simplified examples at school but will tackle more diverse applications in the external world after graduation…
In Shingon Buddhism, the samaya precepts precede the abhiseka initiation ceremony (used to confirm that a student of esoteric Buddhism has now graduated to a higher level of practice).
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[photo: statue of Saichō, via http://www.asianartnewspaper.com/article/omi-spiritual-home-gods-and-buddhas]