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Do the 'precepts' conflict with the "three characteristics"?
August 23rd, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Do the 'precepts' conflict with the "three characteristics"?

The first precept invites the practitioner to refrain from killing.
One of the three characteristics is selflessness.
So 'who' could you kill anyway???

A diverse audience

The two concepts are not for practitioners at the same stage on the Path. The 'precepts' are not particularly destined to the same audience as the "three characteristics":
• the 'precepts' are there to establish a supportive context for realisations and insights;
• the "three characteristics" are the resulting insights (relevant to Liberation (other insights might accompany them, but they're not directly relevant to the cessation of suffering)).

This is to say that the 'precepts' are aimed at people still subject to ignorance, still seeing others as entities (susceptible of a binary life / death distinction, qualifiable independently of context)…
The "three characteristics" summarise the "right views" of people free from ignorance…

The distinction between degrees of practice / realisation when considering a particular doctrine is a feature of the "three types of persons" (a classification made explicit 'late' in the history of Buddhism, but which made sense since the origin of the Dharma. Formalisation is just that). Cf.

Why is "refraining from killing" supportive?

The desire to kill is itself based on ignorance:
• it implicitly assumes that killing someone will make it disappear as if it never existed (no legacy… 'cancellation' of some of the consequences that already manifested…);
• it implicitly assumes that what's bad now will always be bad, projecting permanency and context-independence: it basically projects entity-ness (or self-ness) on the object of hate;
• it also projects that the cause of suffering is an external phenomena (that we contextually find unpleasant) rather than our clinging to a mentally fabricated "ideal state";
• one of the ridicule consequences of associating suffering with an external phenomena is the delusion that suppressing the said phenomena will 'necessarily' improve the situation (it fundamentally denies that the situation might get even worse)…

To refrain from killing is to refrain from using wrong views to justify a particular act (killing)… To refrain from using wrong views opens the possibility for the cessation of wrong views…

As long as you're having absolute 'certainties' that someone undoubtedly deserves death, you're clinging! And the second noble truth suggests this is unhelpful.

Important note

For the avoidance of doubt, none of the above suggests to do nothing with bearing witness to atrocities: it only suggests that pretending to have certainties is the weak point when doing something… and what would lead the 'doer' to unsatisfactoriness.

Accepting that you're doing your imperfect best, given imperfect information, is a better 'place' to act from (i.e. to make moderate wise judgements and choices, rather than black&white caricatures).

photo: © Jack Birns (for LIFE Magazine?)