The Editors

The 5 Precepts: Buddhism and Morality

The 5 Precepts: Buddhism and Morality

In essence Buddhism is all about liberating the mind. To accomplish this, the Buddha taught his path of morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā).

These three trainings support and strengthen each other. It is through paññā that the practitioner eventually realizes from his or her own experience that everything in this world is changeable, unsatisfactory and without an underlying self, but you cannot just develop paññā.

The mental strength and purity needed for paññā comes from samādhi and sīla. So important are these two pillars that the whole teaching of the Buddha is summed up in the Dhammapada (verse 183) as:

Abandoning what is evil, developing what is good, purifying the mind – that is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Abandoning what is evil and developing what is good refer to the development of sīla. Purifying the mind refers to the purifying effect of samādhi. It is in a pure concentrated mind that wisdom can arise. Paññā begins with the first insight into the interdependence of these factors (or the whole Eightfold Path) and the awareness that it is important to develop all aspects in balance with each other. For anyone who wants to take steps on the path that the Buddha taught, it is essential to give the training in morality a prominent place in one’s own practice.

A life grounded in morality is a life free from restlessness and remorse as a result of regret. For those who are free of restlessness and remorse, samādhi is a lot closer. If you have samādhi, paññā can arise, and with paññā and samādhi, the desire to develop sīla increases further. The wish, or call it intention, aimed at wholesome moral behavior increases and gains strength because based on one’s own experience, it becomes clear that sīla contributes to love and compassion, to inner and external peace. The latter by stimulating the externally directed fear of the consequences of moral misconduct (ottappa) and the inner shame regarding moral misconduct (hiri), known in Buddhism as the ‘protectors of the world’. Your moral conduct thus becomes a pleasant abiding and not a ‘must adhere to rules’. This creates a powerful upward spiral.

The practice of sīla makes a wholesome contribution on the road to liberation in various ways. For example, sīla is closely related to the practice of sati (mindfulness). For high morality requires a high degree of mindfulness to continuously monitor the mind, speech and actions. Sati is that mental vigilance with which you know at all times what your mind is doing, from moment to moment. You need very high sati to keep yourself from even the slightest and subtlest misbehavior. Sati is in itself a prerequisite for samādhi, which further supports the meditation process. Conversely, a lack of sīla is an indication that sati is only weak and that concentration can only be superficial. Wisdom then cannot arise.

Sīla is also an excellent antidote to desire. Desire, as we know, is the cause of all the suffering in the world, of all our problems. If you give sīla a place in your life, then there are things that you might want to do out of desire, but that you don’t do because you know that in the long run they only carry suffering with them. In this way, sīla helps to curb your desire in your daily life. Desire is a hindrance for deep samādhi. If your desire diminishes, your meditation will be easier, and if your meditation is easy and samādhi deepens, it becomes easier to get further away from desire.

Ahba has sometimes said that if you love desire, it is better not to meditate. If you like a clean and free mind, then you should meditate, because with meditation you slowly but surely put an end to desire.

If you want to create the right conditions for deepening your meditation, then sīla must be an essential part of your practice. There is no end to the practice of sīla after which you can say that you don’t have to do it anymore, that you can move on to the next step. Sīla is always important, in fact, the further you go, the more important it becomes.

The Five Precepts, a Practical Guide

But what is moral behavior in Buddhism? As a practical guide for lay people, the Buddha gave five moral precepts (pañca-sīla, also translatable as the five virtues). The Buddha advised over and over again to:

  1. Abstain from killing
  2. Abstain from stealing
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct
  4. Abstain from wrong speech
  5. Abstain from the use of intoxicating substances that cause inattention

These precepts are nothing other than the path-factors Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood that the Buddha taught in the Eightfold Path. They are precepts, not commandments, because the Buddha does not impose them or order you to abide by them. That would not possible, the wish to adhere to the precepts always must be an internal wish.

Maybe at first the precepts seem simple and create a feeling of ‘I stick to them anyway’. However, if you give them a place in your practice for a while, you will notice that they are not easy at all. They have a lot of depth, and in addition to renouncing certain behavior, they also involve the development of wholesome qualities.


But what is moral behavior in Buddhism? As a practical guide for lay people, the Buddha gave five moral precepts (pañca-sīla, also translatable as five virtues). Just as in the entire Buddhist path, when it comes to the precepts the Buddha emphasizes the underlying intention. This does not mean that you can invoke ignorance or inattention to justify misconduct. You cannot say that you meant well or did not know better and that it was therefore moral. Much more it means that your consciousness is the forerunner of your actions and that the consequences of your actions follow, as the Dhammapada (verse 1) nicely states:

“Mind is the forerunner of all things, mind is their leader, they are made by the mind. When someone speaks or acts with impure thoughts, suffering follows, like the wheel follows the hoof of the ox.”

The practice of sīla begins with the renunciation of things of which you may not know why. These are just rules that you adhere to. Later, when you have found more depth in your practice, you will be able to see your consciousness better and better and work on the source.

We will now consider the different aspects of each of the precepts to try to share some of the beautiful depth. Ultimately, however, you can only experience the positive effects of these precepts by incorporating them into your daily life.

1. Abstain from Killing

The first precept is to abstain from killing. Maybe you think this is easy, you weren’t planning on killing anyone after all. However, it rhis precept not only incorporates people but all living things. This includes all beings from the Buddhist lower worlds, such as animals, insects and the like. Abstaining from suicide is also part of this precept.

The emphasis on intention comes to the fore nicely in this precept. If you walk down the street and step on an ant that you have not seen, this does not result in remorse or unwholesome karma. However, if you do see the ant, you should consciously step around it if you adhere to this precept. Another nice example is a mosquito that stings you. Maybe you are inclined to crush the mosquito. In fact, it could be an almost unconscious reaction to the sting. The latter offers, another starting point for practice besides extending this precept to all living creatures. Because it is important to live mindfully and to refrain from these kinds of primary reactions in which you kill living beings. This is an aspect of sati.

Above are examples of physical behavior. But verbally instructing someone else to kill is no different than killing yourself, after all, the intention to kill is behind it as well. In this light, a common question is whether a Buddhist should eat vegetarian food only. In any case, the Buddha himself was not a vegetarian and neither were the monks at the time.

The third and most subtle form is keeping to the precept with your mind. That is, not having thoughts that go in the direction of killing creatures, and even more subtle, not harbouring malicious thoughts. So not only not acting on it but slowly but surely diminishing the first mental inclination itself.

This brings us to the active side of this precept. For if the foregoing is the passive side, not doing something, then the active side must be developed to protect the mind. To abstain from killing is on a more subtle level to do no harm out of malice. The positive force that counteracts this is loving-kindness (mettā). In order to adhere to not killing, it helps to develop mettā. If you do this, other beings around you do not have to worry anymore. You will become a safe haven, a beacon of peace for all beings, completely non-violent (ahiṃsā).

2. Abstain from Stealing

The second precept is to abstain from stealing. That seems easy, just don’t break in or rob people and the like. However, this precept goes further than that. A better translation would perhaps be ‘abstain from taking what is not given’. It presupposes a deep respect for the property of others. Don’t just assume that you can borrow something. Don’t just move things from someone else around. You can extend it to property that is less tangible. For example personal space or time. In that context, for example, it means not uselessly wasting someone’s time.

Here, too, giving someone else the order to steal something is not in accordance with the precept either. The more subtle mental side of this precept is aimed at countering the mental greed for the property of others, and in essence the first mental underlying intention of greed in general.

The active side of this precept, that which needs to be developed, is generosity (dāna). Dāna has many different aspects, for example, giving material things, immaterial things like the Dhamma and giving your own life. Dāna helps to gain more distance from the idea that things have intrinsic value, that something is ‘mine’ or ‘yours’, and so it helps to slowly but surely create hairline cracks in the underlying conceit that there is a ‘self’.

3. Abstain from Sexual Misconduct

Although the Buddha and his monks lived a life of celibacy, and the Buddha repeatedly indicates that desire is the cause of the unsatisfactoriness of existence, he does not speak out against sexual acts in general for lay people.

But the Buddha does speak out against sexual misconduct. As an example of sexual misconduct he mentions sexual acts with someone who still falls under the protection of mother or father, with someone who already has a steady relationship (cheating), and unwanted or punishable sexual acts (abuse). In essence, it concerns any form of sexual act that harms the other person. Of course, ordering sexual misconduct is also unwholesome.

Sexual misconduct stems from sensory desire. The desire for pleasurable experiences can be so great that you lose the ability to lookout for the well-being of yourself and the other. This desire can completely control us. In the first place it is important to regain control, you do this by meditating, by practicing samatha meditation (concentration meditation) and by adhering to moral rules of conduct.

Ultimately, nekkhamma (renunciation) is the active opposite of sexual misconduct that needs to be developed. Nekkhamma means almost literally being free of sensory desire. Developing nekkhamma is seeing and giving up and letting go of desire every time it comes to the surface in your mind. It is part of Right Intention in the Eightfold Path and helps to live in deep contentment. In addition to nekkhamma, active aspects of this rule of life are developing respect for the other and loyalty to your partner.

4. Abstain from Wrong Speech

The fourth precept is to abstain from speaking in the wrong way. This is a very difficult thing in daily life. Abstaining from wrong speech means:

  • Not lying
  • Not speaking in a way that causes division among others
  • Not using rude language
  • Not gossiping

Actually, this rule means that you don’t chit-chat with your colleagues at the coffee machine, that you don’t gossip and don’t swear. Just look at most of the conversations you have and you will see how difficult this is. Causing no divisions means that you don’t say things that sow discord between people or groups. And then there is no lying, which also means lying for good or white lies.

The Buddha equates lying with standing still on the road and throwing away everything you have accomplished. Only someone who speaks the truth, he states, can see through the truth. In a piece of text about Right Speech as part of the Eightfold Path, quote a part of the sutta that deals with this, it is very worthwhile to read.

Although it is about abstaining from speaking the wrong way, every form of communication falls under it, even non-verbal or written communication. The mental aspect is abstaining from false and coarse thoughts, fooling yourself and the mental illusions about reality that occur to our untrained mind.

The active side of this precept is the development of honesty or truthfulness (sacca). Those who live in honesty and speak the truth focus on reality. If you adhere to this rule of life, you also bring harmony into your own life and into the lives of those around you, you gain a soft and friendly mind, and you are trustworthy. It then becomes nice and inspiring to listen to you, and others never have to worry about what you say, whether they are there or not. In this way you contribute to peace and tranquility in the world.

5. Abstain from the use of intoxicating substances that cause inattention

The last precept is to abstain from using intoxicants that cause inattention. Quite a mouthful. The piece ‘that cause inattention’ is essential. This precept is specifically about abstaining from things that prevent or work against sati (mindfulness). Alcohol is the most commonly used of these substances. Alcohol divides the mind and makes sati and samādhi impossible. Whoever drinks alcohol irrevocably brings his mind into a state that is incompatible with the teachings of the Buddha.

The main purpose of this precept is to prevent your mind from becoming so weakened and losing control that you will break the other precepts. If your mind is no longer able to guarantee sati, there is a great risk that sīla will fall apart as well. Just look at how much harmful behavior is caused by alcohol and similar substances and you will understand the importance of this precept.

If you want to develop sīla down to the last detail, there are no exceptions. That is, not even that one glass of wine. The renunciation of this piece of Burgundian life-style is at the same time countering desire by not always doing what you feel like doing. If you do break this rule of life, at least don’t fool yourself with thoughts like ‘this should be possible’, don’t praise this kind of behavior with the illusion that you are then a ‘free spirit’ or as bizarre proof that you are still a part of normal society. If you are unable to keep this precept then just accept that you still have too much desire to adhere to it.

It is nice to look at the mental side of this precept as well. You could say that the mind can also become intoxicated without the use of external means. Think of a very strong longing or a deep aversion to something. If a very strong longing or aversion manifests itself in your mind you might as well lose internal peace and control.

It will come as no surprise that the active side of this rule of life emphasizes sati even more. It is the development of sati that keeps our minds in balance. It is sati that is at the basis of all precepts just as the lack of sati is at the basis of breaking all precepts.

Do you want to start meditating or deepen your practice?
We offer personal guidance, completely on a donation basis.

Free Meditation Course

You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the way

Buddha, Dhp 276