Monday, July 14, 2003

Graping Precepts & Practices

The third fetter to Enlightenment (as an Arahant) is sometimes translated to be "grasping to precepts and practices." We should realise that the precepts are moral guidelines, not hard and fast rules to stick by fundamentally. Here's an example- the Buddha as a Bodhisattva once killed a man on a boat, who was going to kill over 100 people onboard. Did he break the first precept of abstaining from killing? No. The spirit of the precept is not simply not to kill any being, but to protect life. He killed one person to save 100- the effects of goodness heavily outweigh the evil. In fact, not killing the potential murderer in this case leads to the murder of 100. If one grasps at the letter of the precept blindly, one might just freeze and let the massacre happen without any action. Is this not truly breaking the first precept 100 times over?

Another example of how one can wrongly grasp the precepts is the case of Angulimala, probably history's most infamous single-handed serial-killer, who killed 999 people before repenting his ways. He doubted his potential for Enlightenment or even spiritual progress, having broken the first precept through and through so many times before. But the Buddha assured him of his genuine spiritual transformation. Later, he attained Arahantship. In both cases of the Bodhisattva and Angulimala, they still experienced the "inescapable" karmic consequences of their voluntary actions. The Bodhisattva was reborn into hell for an instant only though, before ascending to a heaven, since his act of killing was of altruistic intention. Angulimala was stoned to death by villagers who did not realise his true repentance. In both cases, the "suffering" was inconsequential in the sense that it did not disturb their minds. As Sylvia Boorstein puts it, "Pain is inevitable, but suffering optional."

What is grasping to practices? This is also sometimes translated as "attachment to rites and rituals." For one to break the third fetter, one would have realised the basic insight knowledges and know that all Buddhist rites and rituals, or even practices such as observation of precepts, meditation and chanting, are to lead to realising the 3 Universal Characteristics. All practices are not yet the "real" thing, not the substance of Truth (the Dharma) yet- they are merely skillful means to the ends of attaining insight realisation. In this sense, they can be arbitrary in nature though essential. Grasping to them thus becomes a fetter.

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