The five lay precepts are more than a set of simple moral edicts: they serve as practical guidelines on the path to buddhahood. In the following section, six teachers discuss the precepts and their application in our daily lives.


The Buddha teaches the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, which serves as the basis for the lay precepts. © Honolulu Academy of Arts, Gift of Robert Allerton, 1952 (1673.1)
The Buddha teaches the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, which serves as the basis for the lay precepts. © Honolulu Academy of Arts, Gift of Robert Allerton, 1952 (1673.1)

The Buddhist Precepts: An Introduction
Martine Bachelor

The Buddhist precepts are essential to the path of liberation; we follow them to develop compassion toward ourselves and others. In Buddhist literature we read that to keep the precepts is like “seeing the light of a fire in a dark place,” “a poor man finding a jewel,” “a prisoner being released,” and “returning home.” The precepts are not regulations that must be adhered to for all time; rather, they are treasured as the foundation of an ethical lifestyle because they encourage us to reflect on our behavior and its impact on others.

The Buddhist precepts are not intended to force us into a particular way of behaving but to encourage us to reflect on our motivations and actions. Since the aim of a Buddhist life is to diminish suffering, Buddhist ethics are rooted in compassion and wisdom. We attend to our own suffering and the suffering of others, and we understand that our intentions and actions have consequences.

The precepts were developed by the Buddha over the course of his lifetime. As the monastic community grew and inevitable ethical dilemmas arose, the Buddha began to establish rules, which evolved into the precepts. After his death, the precepts were compiled, classified according to importance, commented upon, and given the collective name Vinaya (literally, “that which leads away from remorse”), the code of discipline that is included in the Buddhist canon.

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