The 5 precepts are similar to the Christian 10 commandments. They are an ethical system. There are many things that can go wrong with an ethical system. These failures can make the idea of any ethical system unpopular on one hand. On the other hand, every time I point out any problem with the 5 lay precepts, people seem to think I’m advocating alcoholism, rape, lying, murder and theft. Let’s see if I can clarify anything.
What could go wrong with an ethical system? For example, someone might be smug that they follow the rules. Someone might be a jerk in enforcing the rules. Someone might miss the point of the rules and be a jerk whilst following the letter of the law. The alternative to ethical systems include things like internalized ethics– i.e. you do good because doing otherwise doesn’t occur to you, it just happens naturally. Another alternative is guiding themes, which are vague, diffuse rules making strategies where you kind of make it up as you go along using themes and discretion.
Internalized ethics are difficult to teach. So we get instead, long lists of rules. In the Buddhist tradition, we have the 5 precepts: no alcohol, no (harmful) sex, no lies, no theft, no killing. For lay followers, this mostly means, no alcoholism, no rape, no lies that make matters worse, respect property rights and don’t kill other people unless sanctioned by civil government. For monks, it means something more specific depending on the particular traditional rule list. I in particular have a problem with the lay rules, not so much with the monastic ones.
These particular rules are often the ones that monks say lay followers should follow. I cynically believe it is because these rules ask the least of anyone, at in how they are suggested to be followed, namely, no more strictly than the Ohio Revised Code (i.e. secular law) would require.
Furthermore, imagine a person who is inclined to drunkenness, rape, lying for gain, murder and theft. Are they doing this *solely* because they don’t know the rules? Unlikely. These are exactly the sort of rules (for this level of stringency) that people already are following– there already are merely rational reasons why you wouldn’t want to engage in these behaviors– alcoholism has it’s own punishments, secular governments punish the rest of the crimes just fine. Following these rules asks very little of you. There are two main defects of ethical systems that bother me: antinomianism and complacency. The lay 5 precepts (when taken to mean follow civil law in these 5 areas) is antinomianism and complacency. The former because the rules are limited to things you weren’t going to do anyhow– the rules don’t constraint you, they don’t matter. Complacency because your behavior before and after subscribing to the set of rules has no effect on your behavior. It’s like a fad diet where you eat what ever you want.
Every time booze, family (aka sex), and dare I say it, eating meat, owning guns come up, everyone creates a huge dog pile until everyone concludes, it’s just ordained monks that have to teetotal, abstain from sex, skip the meat (well, just in China), and that owning guns, drinking beer (in moderation), etc is fine for a lay follower. In otherwords, following the Ohio Revised Code, the ordinary secular law of the land is lay Buddhism. (If I were to believe the average sentiment on many popular Buddhist forums)
So by the Ohio Revised Code, as I have never, never, never been convicted of a crime in Ohio, I am a lay 5 precepts grandmaster. The rest of Ohio is packed with similarly enlightened beings.
Should we build a new ethical system from scratch?
Again, as a *new* lay practitioner, I have no choice in the matter but to either roll my own or pick an ethical platform. Buddhisms present themselves a bunch of different orthodoxies, not one orthodoxy. If I like my beer, Shambhala seems to tolerate that. If I like sex, extinct varieties of Shingon seem to tolerate that, ditto for post-Meiji Japanese Buddhism. If I like lies– sorry, expedient means– Lotus Sutra has me covered so long as it is a lie for a good cause. If I like killing, I got the Jataka tales, where killing is okay as long as its pirates and we get a utilitarian outcome (potential # of pirate victims < # pirates killed) and the vinaya where as long as butchering is by proxy, its fine.
Am I twisting the teaching? I don’t need to twist, all I need to do is choose, and I can’t avoid choosing, I wasn’t born into this.
I’m convinced that ethical systems are engines of antinomianism and complacency, but they’re handy means for reminding oneself of goals and they are handy ways to instruct kids & peasants while waiting for them to develop some internalized ethics.
As such, a lay precepts list must go beyond obeying the secular law (which may or may not be ethical), but short of renunciation, (i.e. the ethical system of one who owns nothing isn’t going to be the same as someone with a family, job and an estate to manage)