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Discourse Practice

The Most Important Precept?

Earlier this week I was chatting with a friend and the Five Precepts came up. (Because that’s the kind of Dharma Dorks we are…)

They said the Fourth Precept, “I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech”, is the most important. Because, they said, if you behave according to all the other precepts, you’ll never have to lie about your behavior.

I gave them a pass in the moment, but having mulled it over, I don’t think this argument holds up. It leaves the skillfulness of one’s conduct to the values and morality of the tribe(s) in which one is embedded.

I have been embedded in several toxic tribes, including my time in the military, where it was completely appropriate to kill things and to use alcohol and to abuse sense pleasures. And then to brag about that behavior. There was some fun in that kind of living… but it never felt safe.

My experience of dhamma friendships is completely different. I absolutely feel safe. And I believe that sense of safety comes, in large part, from a modified first precept: not causing harm.

Of course, surrounded by others who choose to not cause harm, we would feel safer. But what has surprised me is realizing that when I myself chose to not cause harm, I felt safer. It may sound counterintuitive, but I have experienced that cooling my own aggression has concurrently cooled my fear. The aggressive neurology, which I believed was keeping me safe, was actually feeding a neurology of fear. Go figure.

So, friend, if you’re reading this, it’s the (modified) first for me. I undertake the training precept to not cause harm.


PS: I haven’t tried asking for comments before, but if it’s interesting to you, and you have an opinion about which of the precepts is most important, I’d love to hear about it. Comment below! :)

4 replies on “The Most Important Precept?”

there’s really only one precept: don’t make things worse… that underlies all five of the lay precepts and it requires taking into account one’s understanding of the context (e.g. in the face of adinadana do you take a gun away from a resistant child?) and one’s own ability to monitor and manage any arising expressions of upadana.

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Dear Tony, I like that! “Don’t make things worse.” It seems more achievable anyway than “do no harm”. My concern, and it is equal in both articulations, is the proximity to the near-enemy of “don’t get involved”. It seems to me that Dhamma folks, broadly speaking, have a tendency to shy away from activism out of a fear of doing harm. And I get that. The trolley problem. But I wonder if we might someday have a precept that is something like “Don’t make things worse, neither cloak thyself in pious in-action.”

What say you? :)

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for me, ‘not getting involved’ is the distinct form of involvement/engagement that is known as abstention… it’s not non-involvement… it may be skillful or not — may make things worse or not — depending on the situation and the intention behind the involvement… not snatching a baby out of traffic by way of non-involvement isn’t the ethical response since it would be an action [i.e. abstention] that would make things worse, or would allow things to become worse, quite quickly… abstaining from malicious speech, on the other hand, would seem appropriate in most any context I can imagine… “making things worse” is what happens when tanha/upadana gets into the mix…

meanwhile, intentions to cloak oneself in either pious action or inaction would seem to be about the presentation of self — involvement through a fabricated self image — rather than being about the project of not making things worse, of attenuating/ending dukkha…

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Dear Tony, I definitely agree with you. I, too, believe that standing by while harm is happening is not acceptable. But I’m not convinced that the precepts, as formulated, encourage this. A monk in Bhante Gunaratana’s monastery actually said, during a Metta retreat, that activism type behavior was not acceptable because Gotama himself did not practice it.

I disagree on both counts, but I think that frame of mind comes from the precept being expressed in a way that does not encourage us to take action. Do you see my meaning?

Of course I agree with you, and my temperament is pro-action. But I can see how a precept like “do no harm” or “don’t make things worse” or even “don’t kill” might lead to a more passive stance.

Thanks for giving me an opportunity to play around with these ideas! I find this kind of thing very enjoyable. :)))

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