Precepts are a cultivator’s life. If one transgresses them, this would be as grievous as having one’s life cut off. Before the World Honored One entered Nirvana, he told the Venerable Ananda, “Take the precepts as your teacher.” This shows how important the precepts are.
“Strictly” means with certainty, cautiousness, and percept-iveness. Cultivators should not talk carelessly. When you need to speak, do so in a discreet and appropriate way, and don’t babble nonsense. In other words, there’s a definite way to act whether you are walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. You can’t just do whatever you want; that wouldn’t be upholding the precepts.
To “uphold” means to manage. It also means to carefully hold something with your hands, being constantly attentive and never lax. We should uphold the precepts with full concentration.
Precepts serve to prevent mistakes and to stop evildoing. “Do no evil; do all good.” Precepts serve to warn us before we commit offenses; they also stipulate the penalties incurred by offenses. A snake normally slithers in curves, but when it goes into a pipe, it straightens out by itself; this is the function of precepts.
Precepts are laws. In everything we do, we should abide by the rules. There’s a saying: “Without a and a T-square, you can’t draw circles and squares.” [Note: In Chinese the words for and ‘T-square’ form a compound that means “rules”.] We should not act carelessly, hinder other people’s freedom, or usurp others’ benefits.
In a nutshell, upholding precepts means not having a temper. When we cultivate patience to the utmost degree, then we’ll be able to handle favorable as well as adverse states without losing our calm; we’ll deal with everything naturally and easily. When we reach that level, we won’t transgress the rules. People don’t abide by rules because they don’t have enough patience; they can’t keep the fire of ignorance under control, and it burns up all the merit and virtue they have cultivated.
A talk given on June 6, 1981