The five precepts (Skt. pañcaśīla; P. pañcasīla; T. bslab pa lnga; C. wujie; J. gokai; K. ogye 五戒) are five basic "training rules" or "codes of conduct" that all practicing Buddhists (lay and monastics) are encouraged to observe.
In brief, the five precepts are to refrain from:
- taking the life of a living being
- sexual misconduct
- false speech
For lay people, the five precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that lay people undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice. Peter Harvey states:
- Each precept is a ‘rule of training’ – as is each item of the monastic code – which is a promise or vow to oneself. They are not ‘commandments’ from without, though their difference from these, in practice, can be exaggerated. In societies where Buddhism is the dominant religion, they become broadly expected norms for people to seek to live by. Moreover, while the ‘taking’ of the precepts, by ritually chanting them, can be done by a layperson at any time, they are frequently ‘taken’ by chanting them after a monk, who fulfils the role of ‘administering’ them. In such a context, the resolve to keep the precepts has a greater psychological impact, and thus generates more karmic fruitfulness.
Ceremonies for taking the precepts
In the Theravāda tradition, precepts can be taken on in formal cermonies, during which the precepts are recited in the Pāli language. For example, in Thailand, a lay person will normally request the monk to administer the precepts by reciting the following three times:
"Venerables, we request the five precepts and the three refuges [i.e. the triple gem] for the sake of observing them, one by one, separately". (Mayaṃ bhante visuṃ visuṃ rakkhaṇatthāya tisaraṇena saha pañca sīlāniyācāma.)
After this, the monk administering the precepts will recite a reverential line of text to introduce the ceremony, after which he guides the lay people in declaring that they take their refuge in the three refuges or triple gem.
- "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings." (Pali: Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
- "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given." (Pali: Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
- "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures." (Pali: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
- "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech." (Pali: Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
- "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness." (Pali: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
After the lay people have repeated the five precepts after the monk, the monk will close the ceremony reciting:
"These five precepts lead with good behavior to bliss, with good behavior to wealth and success, they lead with good behavior to happiness, therefore purify behavior." (Imāni pañca sikkhāpadāni. Sīlena sugatiṃ yanti, sīlena bhogasampadā, sīlena nibbutiṃ yanti, tasmā sīlaṃ visodhaye.)
- As all Buddhas refrained from killing until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from killing until the end of my life.
- As all Buddhas refrained from stealing until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from stealing until the end of my life.
- As all Buddhas refrained from sexual misconduct until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from sexual misconduct until the end of my life.
- As all Buddhas refrained from false speech until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from false speech until the end of my life.
- As all Buddhas refrained from alcohol until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from alcohol until the end of my life.
Similarly, in the Mūla-Sarvāstivāda texts used in Tibetan Buddhism, the precepts are formulated such that one takes the precepts upon oneself for one's entire lifespan, following the examples of the enlightened disciples of the Buddha (arahant).
|1. Abstention from killing||Kindness and compassion|
|2. Abstention from theft||Generosity and renunciation|
|3. Abstention from sexual misconduct||Contentment and respect for faithfulness|
|4. Abstention from falsehood||Being honest and dependable|
|5. Abstention from intoxication||Mindfulness and responsibility|
The precepts are regarded as means to building good character, or as an expression of such character. The Pāli Canon describes them as means to avoid harm to oneself and others. It further describes them as gifts toward oneself and others. Moreover, the texts say that people who uphold them will be confident in any gathering of people,  will have wealth and a good reputation, and will die a peaceful death, reborn in heaven or as a human being. On the other hand, living a life in violation of the precepts is believed to lead to rebirth in the lower realms. They are understood as principles that define a person as human in body and mind.
The precepts are normative rules, but are formulated and understood as "undertakings" rather than commandments enforced by a moral authority, according to the voluntary and gradualist standards of Buddhist ethics. They are forms of restraint formulated in negative terms, but are also accompanied by virtues and positive behaviors, which are cultivated through the practice of the precepts.[note 1] The most important of these virtues is non-harming (Pāli and Sanskrit: ahiṃsa), which underlies all of the five precepts.[note 2] Precisely, the texts say that one should keep the precepts, adhering to the principle of comparing oneself with others:
"For a state that is not pleasant or delightful to me must be so to him also; and a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?"
In other words, all living beings are alike in that they want to be happy and not suffer. Comparing oneself with others, one should therefore not hurt others as one would not want to be hurt. Ethicist Pinit Ratanakul argues that the compassion which motivates upholding the precepts comes from an understanding that all living beings are equal and of a nature that they are 'not-self' (Pali: anattā). Another aspect that is fundamental to this is the belief in karmic retribution.
In the upholding or violation of the precepts, intention is crucial. In the Pāli scriptures, an example is mentioned of a person stealing an animal only to set it free, which was not seen as an offense of theft. In the Pāli commentaries, a precept is understood to be violated when the person violating it finds the object of the transgression (e.g. things to be stolen), is aware of the violation, has the intention to violate it, does actually act on that intention, and does so successfully.
Upholding the precepts is sometimes distinguished in three levels: to uphold them without having formally undertaken them; to uphold them formally, willing to sacrifice one's own life for it; and finally, to spontaneously uphold them. The latter refers to the arahant, who is understood to be morally incapable of violating the first four precepts. A layperson who upholds the precepts is described in the texts as a "jewel among laymen". On the other hand, the most serious violations of the precepts are the five actions of immediate retribution, which are believed to lead the perpetrator to an unavoidable rebirth in a hell realm. These consist of injuring a Buddha, killing an arahant, killing one's father or mother, and causing the monastic community to have a schism.
- Anagarika – one who keeps the Eight Precepts on a more permanent basis, or as preparation to ordain.
- Dhammika Sutta
- Patimokkha – 227 rules for monks (bhikkhus) and 311 for nuns (bhikkhunis)
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. pañcaśīla
- Access to Insight glosses these precepts as "training rules" (Five Precepts); Buswell uses "codes of conduct" (Buswell (2014), pañcaśīla)
- In Pali and Sanskrit, "five precepts" is more literally translated as pañca-sikkhāpada and pañca-sikśāpada, respectively. Thus, for instance, Harvey (2007, p. 199) translates pañca-sīla as "five virtues."
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- Eight precepts at Access to Insight website
- The Ten Precepts on Access to Insight website
- Buddhist Precepts, search for "Samanerasikkha"
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