Anyone who is committed to practicing the precepts is in danger of becoming self-righteous or puritanical. When youíre a beginner, youíre more likely to become fanatical about them, because youíre afraid that if youíre not absolutely strict, then youíll lose sight of your commitment. If youíre in this initial, self-righteous phase, then itís important to remember that by taking refuge in the sangha youíre practicing as part of a community.
As part of a sangha you expose your fanaticism to more mature practitioners, who, having worked through their own self-righteousness, can help you to open up to other possible meanings of the precepts. They can show you that although your understanding is valid as one particular aspect of the truth of the precepts, there are other possibilities, including some of the thoughts of people who disagree with you. Listening to the experience of other practitioners, both senior and junior to you, will naturally soften your vantage point and help you to relax your understanding.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may fall into complacency and avoid examining your life for fear of arousing anxiety. You donít usually emerge from complacency unless some crisis presents itself. If youíre complacent, then something has to wake you up, either from the inside or the outside.
Most often, you wait until an experience of pain and suffering breaks through your denial system, but a kind and generous person can also open your eyes to your life and help you to notice your pain. Then you realize that you donít want to be complacent, because life is really wonderful. This generous being makes you feel, I want to do more than just get by. I want to be generous, too. Or you might see something beautiful, and that beauty opens you to both the beauty and the pain of your life.
In a sangha, the complacent people have to bump up against the fanatics, and the fanatics have to run up against the complacent people. Each group can learn from the other. The fanatics need to relax more, and the complacent people need to open up to the anxiety of the self-righteous fanatics. The more mature and balanced people in the community can help those who are leaning to either of the extremes.
If you are committed to the precepts, you need to be in dialogue with other practitioners in order to remain honest about your practice. Otherwise, you can get caught up in your own fixed ideas of what the precepts are. The precepts are never what you think they are or what I think they are. They are something that all of us arrive at together.
When you begin to take other peopleís views into account, you move from a self-centered interpretation of the precepts to a more compassionate understanding.
óReb Anderson, Being Upright (pp. 84-86)