How can the Buddhist Five Precepts be liberating when one is forbidden to do certain things after taking the precepts?

The Buddhist Five Precepts form a framework which allows us to take care of ourselves, as well as the society. It prevents us from creating problems for ourselves and others, and guides us in doing what is beneficial. It provides a path through which we learn to live in harmony, with honesty, strength and dignity, which will then bring happiness to ourselves and others, and ultimately lead us to liberation.

We need to ask ourselves what we mean by freedom and liberation. Society tends to define freedom as the ability to do what we want, and say whatever we think and feel. Actually, this sort of freedom is an illusion. The actions we do to get what we want are often motivated by disturbing emotions, which in turn are often driven by external or environmental forces. These forces can be social, political or economic in nature, for example, peer and societal pressures, and media influences. Such forces create great feelings of inadequacy and an exaggerated need for acceptance from others. To compensate, we try to add “value” to our lives through material acquisitions or changing our behaviour in ways that are often against our natural or true feelings. We conform to what we believe to be others’ expectations so that we will be seen as the individual we want to be. We are not really free when our decisions mindlessly comply with these external factors. We are not free if our actions are driven by our wants and desires! Instead, we become a slave to our desires.

From the Buddhist perspective, true freedom is only attained when we transform our desire, hatred and ignorance into compassion, love and wisdom. Morality and the Five Precepts guide our speech and action; meditation helps us develop the awareness of our mental attitudes and how external forces influence our feelings and motivate us to act. When we are able to uproot our three “poisonous roots” – greed, ill-will, and ignorance – we can then be in control of our mind, speech and action, and not be driven by external factors or by internal emotions or attachments. It is only then, can we claim to be truly free and liberated.

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