The five precepts

And now for something completely different: Sujato does basic Buddhism! Yes, i really just wrote an article on the five precepts. It was a struggle, but i persevered. I really find it hard to teach basic Buddhism, there’s something about saying the same simple things over and over again that I just can’t do. Some teachers are fabulous at it; they make it fresh and alive every time. I just get bogged down in cliche and pomposity. Anyway, here’s a little article I just did for our local paper. I think it’s stiff and uninteresting, but hopefully it might do some good.

All religions offer an ethical code to help guide us through life. At the heart of ethics lie the principles of harmlessness and compassion. If we look beyond the differences between religions, we all share the insight that, as fragile, vulnerable human beings, we must learn to live together in recognition of our common humanity.

Of course, religion is not really necessary for ethics, as non-religious people often live perfectly ethical lives. But still, religious ethical codes offer structure and support, a tried and proven framework to help remind us what really matters.

While Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments that were recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, Buddhists have the Five Precepts. These are not ‘Commandments’ as such, but are called ‘ways of training oneself’. In Buddhism, ethical principles are consciously undertaken in awareness that living an ethical life is essential if we are to find true happiness ourselves, and to keep those around us happy and safe.

Buddhist communities gather on holy days to recite the five precepts together, reaffirming their common dedication to living a good life. When reciting, we say ‘I undertake the way of training…’. This means the precepts are not intended as a rigid or inflexible set of rules, but as something to reflect on and continually practice and improve.

Here’s the five precepts, with a brief explanation of each.

1.To not harm any living being.

According to the Buddha, all living beings feel pain, and so must be treated with kindness and respect. This respect is not just for other humans, but for all animals, right down to the little creatures who we share our environment with. If we pass through life without harming any being, our compassion will grow, and our fear will fade away.

2.To not steal.

Our possessions are an extension of ourselves. If we respect the property of others, we will be trusted and respected in turn. How many careers have been ruined by excessive greed and dishonesty in business? It’s easy to make a quick buck, but at the risk of losing everything. Real financial security comes from an honest living, not from cooking the books.

3.To not harm those we love through sexual infidelity.

When we enter into a sexual relationship, we open ourselves to another. In our intimacy we are vulnerable. Betrayal of that trust is one of the most painful things a human can endure, and forever damages the thing that brings us the greatest happiness, our relationship with the one we love.

4.To not lie.

Human connections are built on trust. We really hate to be lied to, and once we become known as a liar, our friends will never see us the same way again. But if we always speak the truth, especially when it’s a hard truth, we’ll win respect. We’ll be trusted, and our friends will listen carefully to what we have to say.

5.To not take intoxicants.

Perhaps not the most popular precept, but important still. Drink and drugs cause immeasurable harm in society, destroying countless families. Obviously there’s a matter of degree: a glass or two of wine with a meal is not the same as getting smashed at the pub, or addicted to crack. But all intoxicants dull the mind, so if you’re serious about clarity it’s best to avoid or minimize.

So that’s that. The basic Buddhist ethical code. It’s pretty simple, but not all that easy to do well. Buddhists, of course, often fail to live up to principles, just like everyone else does. Falling down and getting up again is another human trait that we all share.

22 thoughts on “The five precepts

  1. I like to view the precepts as something, that when embraced, provide limitless protection from danger and fear. Like a good shield can protect one from swords and arrows and other deadly weapons (if properly wielded), the precepts can protect one from all sorts of painful, disagreeable, even deadly, outcomes (if properly wielded). To extend the shield metaphor, the precepts are something you want to cherish like one would cherish a shield when deadly arrows are raining down on you.

    Upon reflection this makes perfect sense, because from killing, from stealing, from adultery (and worse), from lies, deception and fraud, and from intoxication – can only spring disagreeable outcomes, often severely painful ones. Everyone would probably know at least a friend of a friend, who came to dire ruin through intoxication, and would also have to recognise, that if that person had embraced the precepts, he or she would not have came to ruin.

  2. In my broken English and my poor understanding about Buddhism, I really like to say something about your way of teaching, and expressing your self. When for the first time I start listening and reading about Buddhism , not long ago, I was just learning about a religion that always call my attention, and admiration.
    I wanted to know more about the precepts and the culture, and the admirable life of these wonderful, wise Monks that live so distant from my world.
    That was before watching you for the first time, now I know Buddhist monks are here ,close ,in the same world ,and they do speak the same language, and they do care about changes and they do care about the West.
    Of course, I just started, but now I don’t want to stop learning. Thank you

  3. One very interesting interpretations of the five precepts I have read or heard (if I am not mistaken it was by then Ven. Sagarakshita – my apologies if it was someone else) is to consider the precept as a continuum towards perfecting Skillful Action of the Noble Eightfold Path.

    For example, start with non-killing then aim towards non-harming and then move towards loving kindness to all beings. Start with not stealing, progress the practice by giving and aim towards not taking anything that is not specifically given to you. Abstain from sexual misconduct, stay in a loving sexual relationship and then abstain from sex altogether. Dont lie and improve on abstenance from harsh, frivolous and malicious speech and aim towards kind and gentle speech always. Avoid substances that intoxicate the mind and progress towards developing high levels of mindfulness throughout the day and so on.

    This approach makes the five precepts an interesting and ‘living’ challenge where one can see one’s own progress – or failures. To this day I greatly appreciate the beauty of this teaching and would like to share it with others.

  4. Dear Bhante

    To borrow a Kantian dichotomy, how much of the Pancasila do you find to be in the nature of Hypothetical Imperatives (ie do it because it is SKILFULL), as opposed to being Categorical Imperatives (ie do it because it is MORAL)?

    I ask only because I recall an official Catholic position (under JP II)that Buddhist ethics are essentially for the sake of ends, and has nothing to do morality. A bit crude, compared to Kant, but maybe it wasn’t drafted by a savvy Jesuit🙂

    I see so many skilfull ends being achieved by the Pancasila. Eg freedom from remorse as a factor to the standard formulaic cascade of joy, rapture, tranquility etc. As an Abhayadana, the thought of the security from fear we give is also a mental state that leads to joy, and perhaps the rapture-tranquility formula (altho’ I’ve not read a sutta which expresses this directly).

    How and when can we lay people use the Pancasila to bridge the mundane and supramundane Eightfold Paths outlined in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta? Or is the transition facilitated by something else? Nibbida perhaps?

    • “….. that Buddhist ethics are essentially for the sake of ends, and has nothing to do morality. A bit crude, compared to Kant, but maybe it wasn’t drafted by a savvy Jesuit”. I happened to hear a professor of religious study on a talk on comparitive religions and he said that religion (cannot remember whether he specified Buddhism) has no morality. However, the gist is morality has got nothing to do with religion. So when asked to define his understanding or meaning of religion, he didn’t want to.
      Now, what is religion and what is morality? And for that matter, whatever one does or believe in is for the sake of ends. We eat to end ____? We abstain from killing to end _____?

  5. Thanks ….I appreciate a reminder of the 5 precepts.

    I wonder if you are up to a similar task on the noble eightfold path🙂 I for one would appreciate your views on each.


  6. Thanks Sujato — simple or not, I’d say we all need to be reminded.

    You express the Precepts well in a manner suitable for beginners, new comers and long term practitioners too.


  7. Wilc wrote — ‘Thanks ….I appreciate a reminder of the 5 precepts.

    I wonder if you are up to a similar task on the noble eightfold path I for one would appreciate your views on each.’



  8. What do you think about viewing the precepts within the context of the following quote? (I’m sure Thanissara will forgive me for quoting her quote. I got this from the Women and the Forest Sangha on Facebook wall.)

    “First one learns the Dhamma, but does not yet understand it. Then one
    understands, but has not yet practiced. One practices, but has not seen
    the truth of Dhamma, then on sees Dhamma, but one’s being has not yet
    become Dhamma. So one may study Dhamma, understand Dhamma, practice Dhamma and see Dhamma, but to actually be Dhamma is something quite difficult. It is a place for each individual to reach, a point where there is no falsehood.”
    Ajahn Chah


  9. thanks to kanchanaa for the wise text from ajahn chah. very good and very wise and oh so true. being buddhist has much to do with patience with oneself, with understanding and growing into it. like every complicated art you want to learn it’s a process of many years in order to get it “into” yourself – at least that’s how i understand the way of buddhism as a layperson.

    i actually think to really become or be dhamma one must practically become a buddhist monk and be willing to really go on this way without any worldly disturbances and influence. it is so complex to train the mind to a, let me say.. buddhist “master-degree” that one really must dedicate the main goal of life to buddhism.

    hard to reach that stage of wisdom and inner peace for somebody who has job, family and a so called “regular lifestyle” – don’t get me wrong … not that this furstrates me – no not at all… on the conterary it shows me that one always have to let go and be patient in order to really internalize the dhamma.🙂

    any one agree – disagree ?

    i’d appriciate to know sujato’s sight on what i wrote.


  10. “While Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments that were recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, Buddhists have the Five Precepts.”
    Of the 10 commandments, 4 are quite similar to the 5 precepts. Which came first – the 10 Commandments of the 5 Precepts?

    • Hard to say – they’re probably independant teachings. The five precepts are more or less similar to pre-existing Indic moral codes, adapted by the Buddha, so should be dated pre-500 BCE. The 10 commandments were probably formulated in the Babylonian exile, maybe 600 BCE, so around the same period. It’s entirely possible that both were influenced by much older Mesopotamian ethics, but I doubt if there’s any evidence one way or the other.

    • Thank you Ajahn for your reply. So it does seem that social/moral/ethical problems pre-500 BCE are no different from today. That means morally or ethically we have made no improvement despite there being more religions, more sermons, more worships, more prayers, more police, more laws, more studies, more modernism!

  11. “… So one may study Dhamma, understand Dhamma, practice Dhamma and see Dhamma, but to actually be Dhamma is something quite difficult. It is a place for each individual to reach, a point where there is no falsehood.”

    No doubt. But surely practice enhances understanding? I’m surprised by the linearity of this aphorism.

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