illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
As I'm doing some preparations for one of my direct students to take precepts —anyone else interested? No, you don't "have to" shave your head!— I'm independently confronted with a conversation in which precepts are being used against another practitioner, in which some "well-meaning" practitioners judge someone and want to coerce him to comply (supposedly for his own good) by forceful feedback or even sanctions.
Maybe this is a good time to present how the precepts work.
For a start, the value of any precept is in the individual practice, not the peer pressure. Leading by example isn't in condemning others, or the example you give is just that of righteousness (and of clinging to the 'letter' of conventional rules)!
Helping someone to remember is rarely best achieved by slamming them down. If failures bring pain (rather than support), then it incentivises people to drop the commitments to save themselves the trouble. While harsh feedback might constitute "expedient means" in specific cases, it usually works the other way: the "expedient means" is precisely based on not fuelling the cycle of harming. What works is precisely to show that another way is possible! So the classical Zenish "whack on the head" is to be limited to very specific instances. If it's abusively generalised, it becomes as efficient as misunderstood, cryptic, Zenish paradoxes to transmit the Dharma: that's… not efficient at all!
To continue, the value of any precept is in the engagement. There's little value in e.g. "not drinking" if you're keeping the precept simply because there's no available drink around.
The value is in engaging with the craving, in not letting the craving be rationalised by the ego, in not letting the desire override a commitment (taken out of understanding consequences and causality, not out of blindly copying ancestors). Some practitioners fall into righteousness after setting an environment in which they'll never be tempted, but that's a case of avoiding the engagement. Avoidance means aversion, and letting aversion dictate your life is certainly a bias, not freedom. You're not free from temptation if you need to be isolated from the temptation in order not to fall.
To finish, there's a coherency in our practice that seems to escape people, there's a principle shared between meditation and precepts!
One of my favourite teachers once said, during a guided meditation: « Thoughts are coming and I’m telling you to go back to the breathing. You automatically interpret this as “We should stop the thoughts.” This is not what I mean. I’m not saying you should stop thinking. All I’m saying is, concentrate on the breathing. When thoughts come, don’t stop them, don’t increase them, don’t encourage them, don’t discourage them. Your job is to concentrate on the breathing. That’s it. Stopping the thoughts is not your job. It’s important to understand the difference: thoughts are going to come; all you do is just concentrate on the breathing. That’s it. »
The value of the training in concentration is in the "coming back". It has little value when your concentration is unbroken. It has value when you notice that you drifted… and you then renew your commitment and re-focus.
Why is that? This is how you train in not letting other phenomena decide for you or carry your mind away. This is how you train to become 'unmovable', not offering a grip for some phenomena to take you away. This is how you train to catch yourself and respond, instead of passively continuing a drift just because it has already started. This is how you train not to be a victim of karma.
If it's appropriate to attend some phenomenon, you don't want to let other phenomena take precedence just by their arising catching your attention. You might be happy to switch to another phenomenon if that's what becomes the new 'appropriate', but the arising itself isn't any sort of discernment of fitness, let alone a wise discernment.
Hopefully, it's now easier to understand how precepts work.
If you were aware of what you're doing moment after moment, and of causality, you would never actively choose to give rise to unwholesome tendencies. If you were aware of what you're doing moment after moment, and of causality, you would not actively choose to harm, to get biased by anger, to get biased by lust or aversion, to get biased by conceit, to lose awareness of what you're doing, etc. But the fact is: regardless of the precepts you took, until you're fully awakened, you'll catch yourself only once the tendency leading to break the precept has already arisen.
When you catch yourself, there and then, you have a choice: do you let the tendency unfold further, just because it's already unfolding, appropriating it as yours and letting the ego rationalise it… or do you re-focus, do you re-commit to the restraints you vowed to hold?
The value of precepts is in the "coming back", just like the value of awareness of breathing is in the "coming back".
As an example, let's assume you take the precept of not getting intoxicated, and you understand correctly that it's not about going tea total but about safeguarding your abilities of mindfulness and vigilance (so that you don't simply lose sight of causality and responsibility).
Of course, you wouldn't actively choose to become intoxicated. But let's assume that, at some point, you "catch yourself" and realise that you've eaten or drunk something which is lowering your vigilance (maybe you're just so fond of chocolate cake that you're becoming sleepy from eating too much of it!). Maybe it's just that you didn't read the composition properly, that someone misled you, or that you took a drink out of old habit without paying much attention to it… Maybe it's because you wanted not to look weird and didn't find a way to communicate "I'll stick to fruit juice" without making it an ego trip and a superiority complex, so you accepted a glass of champagne. In any case, you catch yourself: you're already on the slippery slope towards losing mindfulness and/or vigilance, now what?
The classical reaction is pointless: "feeling bad" ("I'm such a bad buddhist, I broke my precept") simply isn't helpful, wholesome or constructive. This doesn't mend anything.
The other classical reaction is plain harmful: "might as well continue since I've broken the precept anyway, I'll confess and start practicing again tomorrow." Doubling-up isn't helpful, wholesome or constructive. This simply makes things worse and the "catch" is seriously wasted.
The value is found in "coming back". You caught yourself drifting, so you're back in the game: can you stop the drift there and then? How can you engage there and then, for the situation not to decide your life for you any further?
Make no mistake: you shouldn't break precepts voluntarily on the basis that you'll catch yourself later, before it goes "completely" off the rails! You shouldn't voluntarily decide to get intoxicated "just a little". Know that it's a lot harder to stop harmful tendencies after one drink than before! It's easier to stick to fruit juice from the start than to share a drink with a group of friends and then to stop although the group continues rounds.
So I'm not saying that breaching precepts is okay.
But I'm inviting you not to be too harsh when a breach happens, and to simply "come back", without fuss, without self-flagellation, without doubt, but with clear understanding that we learn through mistakes and that what matters is that we do learn!
Just come back, to the 'nobler' practitioner you can embody.
"Right effort" includes 4 exertions:
And what, monks, is right effort?
There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the abandonment of unskillful qualities that have arisen. [This is where the training to "come back" strongly matters, after you caught yourself drifting.]
He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen.
He generates desire, endeavors, activates persistence, upholds & exerts his intent for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen. [This is where the training to "come back" matters, to prevent you from drifting away from what works.]
— SN 45.8 (tr. Thanissaro bhikkhu)
And if others breach their precepts, help them to see why it won't 'work'. Propose an alternative perspective (like this post is doing?), so their self-centred view becomes more 'complete', therefore less self-obsessed… In any case, don't condemn them for being ignorant. "Right speech" includes "abstaining from divisive speech" (SN 45.8); they're already victims of ignorance, and "blaming the victim" is never helpful!
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