The Five Precepts

The Five Precepts involve:

– No Killing

– No Stealing

– No Sexual Misconduct

– No Lying (Dishonesty)

– No Intoxicants

According to Chapter 33 of the Samyuktagama Sutra: “The perfection of upasaka Precept is to stay away from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants.” It can be seen that the Five Precepts are essential for upasakas and upasikas. Although there are different precepts for the monastic and the lay, it is important to note that all precpts are based on the Five Precepts. That is why the Five Precepts are also called the “Foundation Precepts.”

Why observe the Precepts?

Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is the initial step to learning Buddhism while observing the precepts is implementing those learning into practice. All Buddhists should observe the precepts after they have taken refuge in the Triple Gem as the precepts represent the foundation of all virtuous actions as well as the moral standard for the human race. Taking precepts is very similar to students following the rules of their school or the people abiding by the common law in society. The only difference is that the school rules and the law are external restrictions while Buddhist precepts are a form of self-discipline and are thus internal regulations. If a person driving on a smooth expressway fails to obey the traffic laws accidents may be caused. In the same way, if a person does not observe the precepts, then he will face the risk of breaking the rules and attracting troubles during his life. Thus, it is essential for a Buddhist to observe the precepts.

Precepts are divided into monastic precepts and lay precepts, or Mahayana Precepts and Hinayana Precepts. The lay precepts include: the Five Precepts, Eight Abstentious Precepts and the Bodhisattva Precepts.

Contents of the Five Precepts

1. Not killing means not harming or terminating others’ lives. This includes not killing any human beings, cockroaches, mouse or any insects, etc. As Buddhism is an anthropocentric religion, this precept is mainly aimed at not killing another human being as it is an unforgivable and major violation (Prarajika), and even repentance will not decrease the severity of the consequence of this violation. While killing insects is still a violation (Duskrta), it is less severe compared to killing a person.

Wasting time or destroying any form of resource is also considered a form of killing because Buddhism teaches that life is an accumulation of time. The formation of materials or substances requires the dedication of time and effort, therefore wasting time wastes shared resources and thus is also considered to be a form of killing.

The major goal of no killing is to develop our compassion. The Nirvana Sutra stated: “Eating meat destroys the seed of compassion and a meat eater’s every action will terrify all beings due to their bodily scent of meat.” Therefore, the main reason Buddhists observe vegetarianism is to develop their sense of compassion and loving-kindness. One may think that plants also have a life but a plant only has biological reactions while animals are conscious, thus eating plants is not considered to be killing.

2. No stealing means not encroaching upon other’s property and wealth. To put it simply, taking anything that does not belong to oneself (either privately or publicly owned) without permission constitutes stealing, and to rob others in broad daylight is also a form of theft. Stealing is a violation of a basic and important precept. Taking public utensils and stationery for personal use or borrowing without returning may not be a violation of the precept but is considered as an impure act in Buddhism and inevitably, one will have to face the consequences of cause and effect. Out of all the precepts, not stealing is one of the most difficult precepts to observe.

3. No sexual misconduct means never having any sexual activities that occur outside a husband-wife relationship. Thus, rape, prostitution, bigamy, seducing any other person who is not your marital partner, trading human beings, obstructing the happiness of other’s family life, and any other immoral sexual affairs are all violations of this precept. One who secretly loves a person but never takes any actions may not have violated this precept, however, if the mind is thinking impure thoughts then s/he will not be living a free life, because the purpose of taking precepts is to purify one’s body and mind.

Sexual misconduct is the fuse to an unsettled society. If a married couple does not commit any sexual misconduct, their family will be happy and harmonious and the moral standard of society will be maintained.

4. No lying means not speaking any frivolous words such as lying, slandering, harsh language, and words which stir up trouble between other people. Exaggeration is also a violation of this precept in Buddhism. In general, lying can be divided into Major Lies, Minor Lies, and Lies of Convenience.

i. Major Lies – people who claim to have achieved enlightenment or supernatural powers but in fact have not done so will have severely violated this precept. Another serious infringement of this precept is criticising the four categories of Buddhist disciples, in particular, the bhiksus and bhiksunis.

ii. Minor Lies – to bear false witness, to misrepresent, to conceal the truth, or to fabricate are all called minor lying.

iii. Lies of Convenience – this is called good intentioned misrepresentation. For example, a doctor may hide the truth from a patient who is diagnosed with terminal illness in order to protect the patient’s emotional well-being. All lies told for the benefit of other people are called lies of convenience.

5. No intoxicants means mainly not drinking alcohol, but it also involves not taking any stimulus or anything that causes one to lose conscience or conduct immoral behaviour. For example, marijuana, opium, amphetamine, sniffing glue, morphine, etc. must not be taken.

The first four of the Five Precepts are ones that constrain behaviours that may cause sins or transgressions, thus, they are rules against evil deeds. Not drinking alcohol is a feature of the Buddhist’s Five Precepts, because even though alcohol by itself is not a sin, it is still a major cause of loss in self-discipline and the commitment of crime, thus this final precept is a rule against acts that may obstruct the well-being of others.

According to the Mahavibhasa Sutra, there was a layman in India who, after drinking alcohol, stole a chicken from his neighbour (a violation of the no stealing precept) and then killed it for food to go with the alcohol (a violation of the no killing precept). When his neighbour started to look for her chicken, the man lied to her by saying that he had not seen it (a violation of the no lying precept), at the same time, he saw how beautiful this neighbour was so he sexually harassed her (a violation of the no sexual misconduct precept). Drinking dulls one’s awareness of shame and conscience, and because of drinking, the precepts of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying are all violated. Therefore, it is important to abstain from drinking.

Buddhism is a religion that emphasises wisdom and it is by not drinking that one remains sober, clear minded and wise.

The Overall Meaning of the Five Precepts

Even though there are five separate precepts, their basic principle is not to offend others. When one does not offend others but shows respect to them, s/he will be free. For example, no killing is not causing any harm to other’s lives; no stealing is where one does not invade other people’s properties; no sexual misconduct is not offending other people’s honour and integrity; not lying is not offending other people’s good name; and no drinking or taking intoxicants is not offending one’s own intellect thus not offending others.

It is a common misconception that taking precepts is about tying oneself down, thus certain people would say: “Why observe precepts? It is only a burden!” The fact is that if we look at the people in jail, all of them have violated one or more of the Five Precepts. For example, murder, physical assault and disfigurement are all violations of the “No Killing” precept.

Corruption, embezzlement, stealing, theft, robberies, kidnapping and abduction are all violations of the “No Stealing” precept. Rape, prostitution, seduction and bigamy are all violations of the “No Sexual Misconduct” precept. Libel, defamation, breaking a promise, falsifying evidence and intimidation are violations of the “No Lying” precept. Drug dealing, drug taking, drug trafficking, smoking and drinking alcohol are violations of the “No Intoxicants” precept. It is due to the violation of these precepts that a person has lost his/her freedom; therefore, observing these precepts is also a way of abiding by the common law.

Those who observe the Five Precepts, and those who have a clear understanding of these precepts will be the ones to enjoy true freedom. Therefore, the real meaning of precepts is freedom, not burden.

It is a common belief that violations of the precepts will become inevitable once they are taken, therefore if one does not observe any precepts then there will be no violations. The fact is, even if one violates a precept after taking them, one will have a sense of shame and will repent. Thus the sin will be less severe and there will still be a chance for one to attain enlightenment. On the other hand, people who are reluctant to observe the precepts would not repent if they have violated the precepts and would remain in the Three Evil Realms (Realms of hell, hungry ghosts and animals) and may never become a Buddha. Furthermore, not taking the precepts does not mean that the precepts are not violated when one does something wrong for one is still guilty of the crime and will have to bear the consequences of cause and effect.

In addition, if we do not kill but protect lives we will enjoy health and longevity; if we do not steal but give generously to the poor and needy, we can enjoy wealth and will be honoured; if we do not commit sexual misconduct but respect other people’s honour and integrity we will possess a fortunate and harmonious family; if we do not lie but praise others we will enjoy a good reputation; and if we do not drink alcohol and keep away from other intoxicants such as drugs we will have a healthy body as well as high awareness.

(Source: FGS Nan Tien temple’s webpage “Five Precepts”.)