3 Pure Precepts

I am beginning to learn about the Three Pure Precepts of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. At this point, the majority of my understanding has been facilitated by this site. And I am grateful for Barbara O’Brien sharing this learning.

The Three Pure Precepts are sometimes called the Three Root Precepts and are sometimes said to be the basis of morality in Buddhism. As I first looked at these, my first thought was, “It cannot be that simple.” But it is, by design. These precepts establish a simple, but powerfully effective framework for approaching my new practices.

Barbara O’Brien shared that these precepts are derived from verse 183 of the Dhammapada. I use Eknath Easwaran’s translation, which reads, “Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind; this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas.” Because the Mahayana school is dedicated to enlightened beings guiding others to enlightenment, the third part is often restated or adapted to something like “save other beings,” from the vows of a bodhisattva.

Avoid All Evil

Buddhist thought does not see “evil” as a force that counteracts “good” nor as a force that causes suffering or wrongdoing. Instead, in Buddhist thought, “evil” is the result of our actions when they are rooted in greed, anger, or ignorance (the Three Root Poisons). These are the root of all dukkha (suffering) because our ignorance of the true nature of reality gives rise to our attachments. And our attachments give rise to greed and anger because we see ourselves as the one who is attached and we see other people and objects as things we are attached to.

Another way to think of this is “avoid unskillful thoughts and practices.” Unskillful thoughts and practices can lead to doing harm to yourself and others. Said another way, unskillful thoughts and practices create bad karma. And the result of this bad karma is revisited upon us now, and in the mid-term future, and also in the long-term future. So it behooves us, in many ways, to do avoid unskillful (i.e., evil) thoughts and practices.

Cultivate the Good

It is not enough to only avoid evil (“unskillful”) thoughts and practices. We must also cultivate the good thoughts and practices, which are called “skillful” or “wholesome.” We do this primarily through the original third part of the verse from the Dhammapada: “purify your mind.” In other words, we learn to practice skillfully, from compassion and loving-kindness and create good karma. And that good karma going out into the world creates more good for others and ourselves.

I like the image that comes to my mind with the word “cultivate.” In my American context and its focus on instant results, instant gratification, go fast, get it now, etc., a word like “cultivate” brings to mind this is a process. And it is a process that requires daily tending, daily care, looking out for the weeds that might spring up and getting rid of those weeds. As the Buddha said, “…drop by drop, the bucket is filled…”

Save Other Beings

In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the highest purpose is to reach enlightenment and then guide others to reach their own enlightenment. This is done from a spirit of compassion and loving-kindness for the other people and not to glorify one’s self. (And honestly, to do this from a spirit of wanting to glorify one’s self would be contrary to practically all of Buddhist teaching anyway.)

The most common word used to express this is “bodhichitta,” which is a Sanskrit word that incorporates all these thoughts of compassionately reaching out to others, from a mind that has been liberated of its attachments and desires. It has been said by Zen masters of the past that a liberated mind naturally “spills over” to benefit others.