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The Five Precepts : Basics, part 5

The Five Precepts
By Brian Schell

Today, we start looking at the last of the major Buddhist “lists.” We’ve talked about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path already. Let’s look at the Five Precepts now. First, I will point out that some groups of Buddhists have eight precepts and some have ten, but these five are universal and apply to all Buddhists of every group. These rules apply not only to monks, but to laypeople like you and me as well. The five precepts are the rules of behavior, much like the Judeo-Christian “Ten Commandments.” These are the things you cannot do.

The five precepts are often written and recited as a vow, repeated regularly by the Buddhist. The recitation goes like this:

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

These are often shortened to say no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no drinking. But this is vastly oversimplifying things.

The First Precept

The first precept is to refrain from destroying living creatures. Killing causes suffering and we already know the Buddhist perspective on suffering. This is a lot harder than it may appear at first. At first glance, you are probably thinking it matches up with the Biblical “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Actually the Biblical Commandment more correctly translates to “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” and really only applies to humans. The first precept, however, applies to all living creatures. All life is valuable.

One very famous modern-day Buddhist teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk from Vietnam. He’s written dozens of fantastic books on Buddhism. He has come up with his own modern translation of the five precepts. Here is his version of the First Precept:

“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”

Take some time and think this one through for yourself. There’s a lot more to this than skipping the steak dinner or not going on a rampage to kill your co-workers. This precept covers supporting wars, capital punishment, or even supporting governments that condone those things.

Yes, the bottom line is that Buddhists are often vegetarian and most usually pacifists.

The Second Precept

The Second of the Buddhist precepts is no to take that which is not given. Nope, stealing is a bad thing, but living in a modern civilized society, we already knew that. But just as with the first precept, there’s more to it than it appears at first glance. Remember that one of the steps on the Eightfold Path was Right Livelihood. That means not making a living taking or exploiting what is not yours. There’s no cheating or stealing allowed either. Being lazy at work is even a form of stealing; you are taking time away from your job that you are being paid for.

This also means that Buddhists encourage charitable giving. Give to the poor, the needy, and the sick. Give your money, give your time, and give as much as you can. You don’t have to give everything you own, but selfishness and greed are really bad.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Has this to say in his updated version of the precepts:

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well being of people, animals, plants and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.”

As you can see there’s a lot more to this than just not stealing.

The Five Precepts: The Third Precept

Rule number three is no sexual misconduct. How do you define misconduct? That depends on where you live. The social rules are different from country to country and region to region, and what’s considered misconduct in America might be completely appropriate elsewhere in the world. That doesn’t matter; the real problem here is suffering. If something is inappropriate to the society you are in, then it needs to be avoided.

Self-restraint is crucial to a Buddhist. Remember the eightfold path again; right effort, right action and right mindfulness all deal with self-control and restraint.

What does our new friend Thich Nhat Hanh have to say?

“Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.”

He seems to enhance the importance of responsibility and commitment beyond simple sexual misdeeds. There is definitely an emphasis on commitment; monogamous relationships and marriage are strongly advocated.

The Fourth Precept

Rule number four is to refrain from incorrect speech. Right Speech, if you remember was a step on the eightfold path all by itself. Not only is right speech promoted and valued with Buddhists, but here “Wrong Speech” is singled out for special negative treatment. We all know how damaging our words can be. Buddhism is all about seeking Truth, whatever that may be, and falsehoods work against that goal, often causing suffering in the process. Our words are powerful, and that’s really all that needs to be said. Even Thih Nhat Hanh had little to really add to this precept. In his words:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Lying is bad.

The Fifth Precept

The last rule is to avoid intoxicants.

Why? The first-glance answer is that drunks cause all kinds of suffering. Drug addicts harm everyone near them over and over again. This is bad behavior, and we all know it. Yet, most of us are not alcoholics or drug addicts, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. Mind-altering actions of all kinds, including smoking, coffee, caffeine, and other stimulants are also prohibited. Why? They affect your state of mind, and Buddhism is all about the mind. Your world is created by your own perceptions and mindfulness. If you change the way your mind works by the use of stimulants or mind-altering drugs, you are harming your own chances for enlightenment. These chemicals are also often bad for your physical health as well, and causing physical harm and suffering is bad, even if you are doing it to yourself.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a field day with this one:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.”

Yes, he really did say that TV shows, conversations, and magazines can be toxic as well. He also suggests that a proper diet can be good for all of society.

4 comments to The Five Precepts : Basics, part 5

  • Matt

    A very in-depth review, I enjoyed reading through this again.

    Why I consider myself a Daoist who believes in some Buddhist principles is the first precept. I have a hard time being a pacifist because I believe all life is sacred, including my very own. I have a choice when getting in a fight, but I don’t think I have a choice when it comes to defending myself or my family. Some would argue that I do have a choice, but by valuing my own life I don’t think I do. Then again, valuing my own life is probably the strongest form of attachment there is. I would gladly give up my life for my family, but then I am showing attachment to them instead of myself. Seems to cause quite a conundrum for me.


  • Jami

    Very wise words. I see the deeply ‘engaging’ Thich Nhat Hanh is allowing the basic principles to be applied to the lives of a modern audience (those ‘in a committed relationship’…).

    Tea, I think, with chunks of Yat’s cheese, is drunk by Tibetans- and thoroughout Asia, there is a weakness for sweet-n-sour things (pretty toxic stuff). Just wondering if the Cafffeine rule, though wise, is really followed by many in the East. I love tea (one of my attachments!)

    A curious question: what misconduct (sexual?) may be acceptable ‘elsewhere’ but not in America?

  • Matt: I don’t think being willing to give your life for your family is attachment. That’s just willing to sacrifice for what you love; I don’t see any unhealthy grasping there.

    Jami: I don’t think too many drink tea to the point where it affects the ability to meditate or has much in the way of physical effects. It’s more about the abuse that anything else. If you MUST have to have your three cups of coffee in the morning, that’s an addiction.

    America’s a big place. There are things that are commonly accepted in California that’d get you beat up in Alabama. “Socially Acceptable” is a very relative thing. I’m not talking about any kind of higher morality or “Truth” here, just society. If you live in an area where your actions are considered unacceptable, suffering of some form is likely to follow, even if it’s only shame or guilt from hiding something.

    As far as outside America, take nudity for example. Remember the exposed nipple fiasco from the Superbowl a few years ago? Europeans just didn’t get it, while it was a major deal in America.

  • helena

    Isnt following these precepts itself just attachment , and in some cases almost impossible given how the world works i.e. capitalism ?

    Which has, and continues to cause suffering