This seems like a paradox, right?
I recall a conversation with a devotee at my temple. She is a thin, average height woman with short brown hair, probably in her 30s or 40s. I had just taken the Five Precepts a few months prior, and she has been going to the temple for quite some time. I’ve seen her wear a brown robe in chanting services, so I know she had taken the Five Precepts as well. I asked, “Have you taken the Bodhisattva Precepts yet?” She replied, “Well, I don’t know if I am ready. I’m scared that it might put too many restrictions on me.”
The above demonstrates what people usually think about precepts, that they are limiting and they take away your freedom. When I was at the Buddhist College, we had so many rules and precepts, and they seemed limiting at first, but later on, I realized that these rules actually promote harmony within the group. For example, one of the rules is that we must observe silence after 7pm. One thing you may not know about me, I love to talk. Talking helps me process my emotions, and at first, it was really hard for me to stay quiet. But because I couldn’t speak, the evening became time for me to reflect upon my day, and I became more mindful as a result. Another benefit of observing silence is that we didn’t have to do talk to each other. I lived with 99 other classmates, and we did everything together: eating, cleaning, sleeping … you name it. What happens to people who live together? They get into arguments, they get annoyed. Not that there aren’t any conflicts at the Buddhist College, but if we are observing noble silence, then no one can really have an argument, and the conflicts tend to work themselves out. In the end, I did appreciate the rules, they taught me how to respect the group and others.
So, do precepts limit our freedom? On some degree, this is true, if you value personal freedom above everyone else’s freedom. However, we must realize that in order for us to live in society, we must have laws that protect us and keep us from harming other people. This is why Buddha set the precepts, to ensure harmony within the Sangha. While having precepts in place is a good reminder of what we should and shouldn’t do, ultimately it is up to the individual to uphold them. Through upholding precepts, we purify our minds, and our Buddha Nature will shine through.