The broad category of moral conduct has been codified throughout the history of Buddhism, beginning in the Buddha’s time, into five precepts for conduct. The number of precepts for the behavior if monks has run into the hundreds in some sects. For laypeople, the Theravada tradition has five precepts.
These five precepts have common elements with most moral conducts in the other major traditions. Some aspects, especially the precept to refrain from taking life, have been a continuing focus of attention throughout the history of Buddhism. Today, we shall explore them in depth through teachings from between the fifth and the twentieth centuries.
The Five Precepts
I undertake to observe the rule:
1. to abstain from taking life
2. to abstain from taking what is not given
3. to abstain from sensuous misconduct
4. to abstain from false speech
5. to abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind
Abstain from taking life
In the five precepts, “taking life” means to murder anything that lives. It refers to the striking and killing of living beings. Taking life is the will to kill anything that one perceives as having life, to act so as to terminate the life-force in it, in so far as the will finds expression in bodily action or in speech. With regard to animals it is worse to kill large ones than small. Because a more extensive effort is involved. Even where the effort is the same, the difference in substance must be considered.
In the case of humans the killing is the more blameworthy the more virtuous they are. Apart from that, the extent of the offense is proportionate to the intensity of the wish to kill. Five factors are involved: a living being, the perception of a living being, a thought of murder, the action of carrying it out, and death as a result of it. And six are the ways in which the offense may be carried out: with one’s own hand, by instigation, by missiles, by slow poisoning, by sorcery, by psychic power.
Abstain from taking what is not given
“To take what is not given” means the appropriation of what is not given. It refers to the removing of someone else’s property, to the stealing of it, to theft. “What is not given” means that which belongs to someone else. “Taking what is not given” is then the will to steal anything that one perceives as belonging to someone else, and to act so as to appropriate it. Its blameworthiness depends partly on the value of the property stolen, partly on the worth of its owner. Five factors are involved: someone else’s belongings, the awareness that they are someone else’s, the thought of theft, the action of carrying it out, the taking away as a result of it. This sin, too, may be carried out in six ways. One may also distinguish unlawful acquisition by way of theft, robbery, underhand dealings, stratagems, and the casting of lots.
Abstain from sensuous misconduct
“Sensuous misconduct” – here “sensuous” means “sexual,” and “misconduct” is extremely blameworthy bad behavior. “Sensuous misconduct” is the will to transgress against those whom one should not go into, and the carrying out of this intention by unlawful physical action. By “those one should not go into,” first of all men are meant. And then also twenty kinds of women. Ten of them are under some form of protection, by their mother, father, parents, brother, sister, family, clan, co-religionists, by having been claimed from birth onwards, or by the king’s law.
The other ten kinds are: women bought with money, concubines for the fun of it, kept women, women bought by the gift of a garment, concubines who have been acquired by the ceremony which consists in dipping their hands into water, concubines who once carried burdens on their heads, slave girls who are also concubines, servants who are also concubines, girls captured in war, temporary wives. The offense is the more serious, the more moral and virtuous the person transgressed against. It involves four factors: someone who should not be gone into, the thought of cohabiting with that one, the actions which lead to such cohabitation, and its actual performance. There is only one way of carrying it out: with one’s own body.
Abstain from false speech
“False speech” is the will to deceive others by words or deeds. One can also explain: “False” means something which is not real, not true. “Speech” is the intimation that that is real or true. “False speech” is then the volition which leads to the deliberate intimation to someone else that something is so when it is not so.
The seriousness of the offense depends on the circumstances. If a householder, unwilling to give something, says that he has not got it, that is a small offense; but to represent something one has seen with one’s own eyes as other than one has seen it, that is a serious offense. If a mendicant has on his rounds got very little oil or butter, and if he then exclaims, “What a magnificent river flows along here, my friends!” that is only a rather stale joke, and the offense is small.
But to say that one has seen what one has not seen, that is a serious offense. Four factors are involved: something which is not so, the thought of deception, an effort to carry it out, the communication of the falsehood to someone else. There is only one way of doing it: with one’s own body.
Abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind
The last of the five precepts is to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness. This means drugs and alcohol (but not prescription medication). This precept is a traditional way of detoxifying our bodies and minds. And it can be challenging at events where alcohol is considered a means of socialization and relaxation. However, with commitment, these situations often prove to be less awkward than we had feared. The benefits of keeping the vow turn out to be even more fruitful than we had hoped.