Note to non-practitioners: The below is a brief write-up required of all those who ask to take the first Five Precepts from the Zen Community of Oregon (my sangha).  I posted this here because it's a Buddhist blog, but also because this understanding of the Precepts traditionally should be publicly illustrated.

Thoughts on the first Five Precepts

In the Abhisandha Sutta, the Buddha said that the commitment to live by the precepts is a gift to oneself and all others:
... This is the ... gift, the ... great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and priests. This is the ... reward of merit, reward of skillfulness, nourishment of happiness, celestial, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven, leading to what is desirable, pleasurable and appealing; to welfare and to happiness.
I find this a very useful way to look at the first five precepts. I believe it was [my sensei] Hogen [Bays] who said that if each person were to undertake and live by just the first five precepts, the world would never know war, crime, rape or addiction. The universal begins with the personal, and the idea that this undertaking is a gift to the world—to the Universe and all beings in it—is a very powerful one. We all at times feel helpless and ineffectual, and remembering that you are able to do something to help the entire universe by virtue of the way you live your very life can help anchor you when you feel at the mercy of this existence.

I look at these principles and how they apply to my life in the following ways:

  1. Do not kill: This seems so obvious, yet people do this every moment of every day. Bugs, mites, and all manner of tiny things end their existences every time I breathe, walk, shower, and eat. We tend to think only of the overt idea of killing (that is, taking of a human life) because that to us is the most obvious limit that humans should abide by. Many of us, however, take that practice to a greater degree. I am (primarily) a vegetarian. I have been for five years. I was a strict vegan for three. I decided that after thirty-some years of eating mostly animal products that I should no longer contribute to the suffering of animals simply because I like the way they taste. That decision made an immediate impact upon the world in which I live in a number of ways, not the least of which is that animals are no longer dying in my name. But it also changed who I am directly by making me more aware of suffering in general. The learning of the idea of ahimsa—of non-harming—directly manifested a growth of it in my life, and in many directions. I notice now that I am as aware of the killing of the experience of joy, or the killing of a person's spirit as I am that of a living being. I value this awareness very much. When I kill something, part of the Universe dies, and that is as much damage to myself and my own progress as it is the thing that has died, because the truth is, there is no difference.

  2. Do not steal: I am always moved by the rephrasing “Be satisfied with what I have”. The drive to have, to posses, to acquire; these are all like essential nutrients to the weed that is “desire”. At times in the past, I have fallen into this. “To want what isn't” is what is needed to incite someone to steal. The practice of the acceptance of what is is the medicine the Buddha gave to heal the wound that is this desire. Choosing to steal only creates negative consequences that last long after the initial satisfaction or gratification of possession are gone. The karma of stealing will always outlast the mere thing that has been stolen. Acceptance and true appreciation of what one has will only foster positive things into the Universe, and help us all.

  3. Do not misuse sexual energy: For many, this means to not stray from the bonds of marriage. To some, this means to be celibate. For me, the most important aspect of this precept is that of respect. “Encountering all creations with respect and dignity, this is the precept of Chaste Conduct” encapsulates this very well for me. Not only should we live in a way that shows respect for all the people we encounter and have relations with throughout our lives, but we should remember to include ourselves in that number. Constantly doing whatever it takes to satisfy sexual urges—be it allowing ourselves to stay in unhealthy or dysfunctional relationships, enticing someone romantically simply to satisfy a desire for sex, or withholding our sexual energy as a way to punish someone for some perceived wrong—is also damaging. Allowing yourself to be a slave to your sexual desires is possibly the greatest misuse of sexual energy, and is most certainly the cause of any other damaging sexual misconduct. If one understands that sexual energy must always be rooted in right action, then all sexual conduct that follows will always be in accord with the precepts.

  4. Do not lie: Again; simple on the surface, but more nuanced than first appears. Obviously, lying is bad, and generates negative karma. One should always observe right speech. I tend to turn this precept back upon myself, as I have a tendency to lie to myself. When things aren't going as I'd like, I will tell myself that they are, instead of working with the idea “Why am I dissatisfied?” or “Who is it that feels this way?” When I inadvertently hurt someone by word or deed, I may say “They didn't notice” or “It's not important” when I know full well that they did or it, in fact, is important. These kinds of lies are just as damaging as bold-faced lies to the public, because they kill off the truth from inside, and allow a self-delusion to persist. Accepting lies in one's life is not acting as a Bodhisattva, no matter where the lie occurs or how “big” it is. As we often interpret it, “Listening and speaking from the heart” is the medicine to keep lies from further damaging the world.

  5. Do not be intoxicated: Ah, the sticky one. For me, this is all about motivation. As I am openly and legitimately on the Medical Marijuana program here in Oregon, many would think that I come at this precept from a slightly more challenging position, but I do not see it as such. I am anything but intoxicated while using cannabis. In fact, I am ever mindful of its effects on both my body and my mind. I use just enough to alleviate my physical symptoms. In this way, I am probably more mindful of its presence in my life than, say, someone given a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, or a narcotic pain-killer. For me, intoxication has less to do with a given substance than it does the desire for mind-states that are not the state one's mind is currently in. In that way, anything can be an intoxicant, and I personally believe that to be true. It would be of wrong motivation to tell someone not to take an opiate pain-killer if they legitimately needed one merely because one of its side-effects is a distortion of perception or a feeling of euphoria. In the same way, it would be wrong to take said pain-killer merely to experience the side-effects because one is bored, lonely or otherwise unsatisfied with their current connection to the present moment. In that way, constantly watching TV, playing video games, or eating when not hungry are as intoxicating as any drug or alcohol. It is the desire to distract oneself from the direct experience of the current moment that is of poor and unhelpful motivation. “Cultivate a mind that sees clearly” is something I've used while volunteering and helping the terminally ill many times, as these people are very often heavily sedated. One can most certainly still practice “seeing clearly” when one is experiencing the side-effects of a given substance. One can never see clearly when they are willfully distracting themselves from reality merely as a cure for boredom or to escape what they see as a negative experience or circumstance. With the former, one is striving for a connection to the now, while the latter is trying to escape. As with all actions, karma is generated. The former will always generate merit, even if one fails; the latter can never do so, no matter what comes of the experience. For me, there will always be a distinction between use and misuse, and while that mindfulness is not something I have always had, I now value it greatly.