In one sense, the precepts are the moral code for Buddhists. If one could just hold that notion of them very loosely, that's a complete description. The problem is, human beings being what we are, we can't do anything like hold such a thing loosely. Once you draw a boundary we want to test it, probe it, capture it.
The root "-cept" is derived from the Latin verb "capio," which means "to take" as in to capture, as in capturing a flag or something, and also to comprehend, to understand, to grasp a concept, or what Uchiyama might refer to as "closing the hand of thought."
The prefix "pre-," of course, means "before."
So, one way to approach a deeper understanding of the precepts is to look at them as the conditions of the mind before we mentally grasp something--pre-concept, i.e., before grasping. The precepts describe our natural state before we separate into self and other, into good and bad, into safe and dangerous, etc. So, as such, they serve to remind us when we have done just that, that is, when we are viewing the world of dualistic opposites, populated with individually-identifiable separately-existing entities. The precepts are a way to remind ourselves that the self has come into existence.
This is when all the trouble starts. Once we start to see the world as populated in this way, with definite separate entities that live and die, we are bound to suffer in the way that human beings suffer. Buddha's fundamental teaching sought to reveal this pattern to his students, and to further assert that it can be released, i.e., there is a way off this merry-go-round.
The precepts help us recognize when we've signed up for another ride.
Stating them is problematic all by itself. Stating anything is problematic, because once you do you have declared what something is and isn't, and reality really doesn't work that way. There is only reality, there's nothing not reality.
But, as one of the beloved teachers in my lineage is known for saying, you've got to say something or there will never be any understanding. So, here goes.
A follower of the Way does not kill.
A follower of the Way does not take what is not given.
A follower of the Way does not engage in sensual misconduct.
A follower of the Way does not speak deceptively.
A follower of the Way does not intoxicate oneself or others.
A follower of the Way does not slander others.
A follower of the Way does not praise self.
A follower of the Way does not possess anything selfishly.
A follower of the Way does not harbor ill will.
A follower of the Way Does not abuse the Three Treasures.
You could also say, don't kill, don't steal, don't rape, don't lie, don't get drunk, don't disrespect, don't brag, don't be selfish, don't hate, and don't defame the Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism, or other Buddhists.
I think that's pretty good advice, and like I said, if you could just hold that loosely, like a handful of sand, you'd be in good shape. But, you won't.
The value of the precepts for me is they help me recognize when I'm similarly gripping things too tightly, when I've lost contact with reality, when....oh anything else I say is just closing the fist around something, so I'll leave it at that. They help me recognize when my mind is leading me away from my direct experience of reality.
I am planning to "take" the precepts because I want to show up for my functioning role as a member of the human organization that is responsible for passing these teachings along. People have been doing things like this for 2500 years before me and I am grateful to them. They're dead, I can't really thank them, or buy them a beer or something, but I can show up for others the way they showed up for me, so that's what I'm going to do.
In practical terms this means I will be endeavoring at least to be a role model for others. I will live my life with attention to this moral code.
In these next few essays I will discuss each of the precepts singularly, relating a bit of what each of them means to me. Thanks for reading.