Book of Analysis, the precepts (Vb 14): translator's introduction

By Waltham St. Lawrence

(14) Analysis Of The Precepts (Sikkhāpadavibhaṅga),

It might have been thought that Analysis of the Precepts should have been placed at the beginning of this central section of the work, as being a stage towards progress preliminary even to the stating of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. This is particularly so, as the usual order for stating the three aspects of Buddhist training is moral practice (sīla), mental development (bhāvanā) and attaining of understanding (paññā). It is, however, another example of arranging subject matter not necessarily to show its direct connection with adjacent chapters, but rather that it may be [lix] grouped within a suitable section in accordance with a numerical plan, Here, since the Precepts are analysed by only two methods, Abhidhamma and Interrogation, whereas the other seven chapters of this central section each have the three methods, Analysis of the Precepts is placed last.

As to the Precepts themselves, the five discussed in this fourteenth vibhaṅga are those which still, even at this present day, are formally recited when a person seriously undertakes to himself to maintain these abstentions.

From the point of view of translation, only one difference from the usual version of these five has been adopted. This is in the final precept where instead of the customary English form of saying, " I undertake to abstain from taking drugs and intoxicants ", a translation has been adopted which perhaps agrees more closely with the explanation of this precept as given in the Commentary. The Pāḷi word concerned is, 'surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā'. Here 'surā' means a liquor made from grain meal (piṭṭhasurā), or from cake or bread (pāvasurā), or from rice (odanasurā), or one to which yeast has been added (kiṇṇapakkhittā) and associated preparations (sambhārasaṃyutta). These have here been referred to as "beers". The word 'meraya' means an intoxicant (āsava— which morally means a defilement) which can be made from flowers (pupphāsava) or from fruits (phalāsava) or from sugar or molasses (guḷāsava) or from honey (madhāsava) and associated preparations (sambhārasaṃyutta). In this translation these have been referred to as "wines and spirits". The word 'majja' means an intoxicant; 'pamāda' means heedlessness and 'ṭhāna' means cause. Therefore the whole word has been translated as "Intoxicating beers, wines and spirits causing heedlessness".

The Abhidhamma analysis which follows the statement of these five precepts concentrates on dealing with each precept separately, and showing how it affects every type of consciousness with which it is associated. This of course excludes all the bad (akusala) states, for it will be clear that if a precept has been undertaken no bad state of consciousness can arise in direct association therewith. In the section of Interrogation they are dealt with according to their characteristic values in Dhammasaṅgaṇī classification.

It may be wondered why this particular chapter, although of the greatest possible fundamental importance to a student wishing to [lx] follow the one Way prescribed by the Buddha, is not dealt with in a more exhaustive manner in this Book of Analysis; why it is that only Abhidhamma treatment is given to such vital items, The reason for this is that the whole and very particular matter of moral behaviour and discipline is more properly dealt with by the Vinaya Piṭaka where every possible aspect of correct behaviour is specified in the greatest detail, and is formulated in terms of rules, their origins, their proper interpretation and practice. Moreover, the matter of moral behaviour is also so extensively dealt with throughout the Sutta Piṭaka that to have included in this volume a section of Analysis According to the Discourses would have been unwieldy in the extreme. Nevertheless, a statement of these five major and basic precepts is necessary, for the method of examining them in the terms of Abhidhamma indicates how, from the point of view of fundamental analysis, the full range of preceptual behaviour can be expressed in this basic and all embracing form. A proper and thorough understanding of the full and massive implications of each of these five precepts will show how all correct behaviour does ultimately derive from them.

It should, therefore, in no way be considered that because this vibhaṅga devoted to the Precepts is rather short in its treatment of the subject that it is of minor importance. On the contrary, the whole structure of the Buddha's exhortation,'' This Path, Bhikkhus, is the only course for the purification of beings…; that is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness", with its emphasis on the eradication of bad states and the fostering of the good, depends first of all on the knowledge and practice of proper and correct behaviour; that is, that which in itself constitutes the central section of the Noble Eight Constituent Path, viz,, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.