by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

The Spirit of the Precepts

A pacified heart and a truthful body lead to the Real, the Still, the Unborn.


The "spirit" of the Precepts is the meaning of the Precepts. And the meaning of the Precepts is found in their purpose.

What is the purpose of the Precepts?--To help us be true to our own True Nature.


I am not you; you are not your neighbor: we are different beings. Each of us makes our own choices and gets the consequences thereof. This shows that All is Different.

While I am not you, and you are not your neighbor, we are all equally of the Eternal. I cannot act toward you as if you are not of the Eternal without hurting myself; you cannot act toward your neighbor as if your neighbor is not of the Eternal without hurting yourself. This shows that All is One.

Rev. Master taught that when we view the world with enlightened eyes we "see with both eyes," that is, we see the All is One and the All is Different simultaneously. She went on to say that when we see the world in a deluded way we "see with only one eye," that is, we see either the All is One or the All is Different, but not both together.

To see only difference is to see without sympathy. To see only Oneness is to see without comprehending the nature of individual responsibility. To act on the basis of either one-sided point of view is to create suffering for ourselves, and sometimes for others as well.

How do the Precepts help us see with both eyes?--By "lighting up" in consciousness to signal when we are seeing with one eye only. Thus, for example, if I start to find fault with others, seeing only with the "All is Different" eye, the Precept "Do not speak against others" might start flashing a warning. Or if I start to gloss over the potentially serious consequences of a contemplated course of action, seeing only with the "All is One" eye, the Precept "Do not say [or think] that which is not true" or the Precept "Do not sell [or buy] the wine of delusion" might light up.

And behind this "lighting up" of the Precepts is the spirit of the Precepts--the purpose of the Precepts. When the purpose of the Precepts is our purpose, then the Eternal uses the Precepts to help us be true to Itself.


The word "conscience" means "to know," or "to be conscious." Although the English word "conscience" did not originate in Buddhism, it seems to me to convey better than any other English word the Buddhist concept of our innate capacity to recognize that a particular action is good to do, or not good to do, in a particular situation. This capacity is rooted in the Buddha Nature Itself.

When Rev. Master writes of asking, listening to, and following the guidance of the Lord of the House, she is describing a process in which the full power of meditation is brought to bear in considering matters of conscience--"truly important matters," as she expressed it in one place.

What is a "matter of conscience?" I think of a matter of conscience as being any problem in which I have an intuitive sense that my choice may have serious consequences. A problem can appear to be relatively insignificant from a worldly perspective, but in fact be a genuine matter of conscience. Our own past experience, and, to some extent, the experience of others, can be helpful in determining the gravity of a problem. But in the end, the best indicator is our own spiritual instinct.

Many times, I was privileged to see Rev. Master apply meditation and the Precepts in seeking the best course of action. In every serious matter, she asked the Eternal for help and meditated deeply. And often a unique and surprising course of action would emerge from thus turning to the Source for help. Sometimes she would say, "Everything in me says that . . . . . . . . . . is the thing to do." Whenever she said that, I knew that any discussion was at an end. A difficult situation was not necessarily instantly transformed into sweetness and light; often the path that she chose was a hard one. But it did the best for everyone, especially in the long run.

The true voice of conscience is always in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Precepts. And it never ignores the letter of the Precepts, even though sometimes it may be good to break one Precept in order to keep a higher Precept.

The Higher Precept

It is never good to violate the spirit of the Precepts. That is, it is never good to wilfully ignore, and act in a way that is contrary to, our True Nature.

It is never good to wilfully misconstrue and violate the letter of the Precepts.

Sometimes it may be good to break a Precept in order to keep a higher Precept.--And there will be consequences. Always our volitional actions have consequences.

How can it ever be good to break a Precept?--Life is complex and messy. The best examples of breaking a Precept in order to keep a higher Precept are drawn from the mess. Consider the situation of people who chose to hide Jews and others who were being rounded up to be sent to concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe. These people were engaging in deception, but they did it in the service of an act of compassion requiring great courage and unselfishness.

While it is technically correct that this is breaking the Precept "Do not say that which is not true" in order to keep the higher Precept "Do good for others," I doubt that anyone was thinking along these lines. Rather, people would have been thinking in terms of following their conscience, or being true to something within themselves, or serving God by serving their fellow man.

This is the Higher Precept. It can never be adequately expressed in words. We have the Buddha Nature; we are of the Eternal--and we can follow It. We can be true to It. We will not always get it right, but the Eternal does not keep score. When we miss the mark, we can accept the consequences, learn from our mistake, and keep going. Every day offers new opportunities to act in harmony with our wonderful True Nature.


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