The Five Precepts

First Precept: Abstaining from the Taking of Life

Matthew Flickstein, from Swallowing the River Ganges

Avoid killing and act with reverence toward all forms of life.

This precept applies to the taking of our own life as well as to taking the lives of others. It means honoring and embracing all life forms including those of insects and other creatures we may consider threatening, bothersome, or insignificant.

On a more subtle level, we need to recognize that we press a lack of reverence toward others when we communicate using harsh words, or by displaying offensive gestures and facial expressions. Whenever we make judgments about people labeling them selfish, ignorant, arrogant, and so forth - we relate to those people as if they were fixed objects and "kill off" our connection to their individuality and inherently divine nature.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, from www.accesstoinsight.org

Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings.

"Abstaining from taking life" has a wider application than simply refraining from killing other human beings. The precept enjoins abstaining from killing any sentient being. A "sentient being" is a living being endowed with mind or consciousness; for practical purposes, this means human beings, animals, and insects. Plants are not considered to be sentient beings; though they exhibit some degree of sensitivity, they lack full-fledged consciousness, the defining attribute of a sentient being.

The "taking of life" that is to be avoided is intentional killing, the deliberate destruction of life of a being endowed with consciousness. The principle is grounded in the consideration that all beings love life and fear death, that all seek happiness and are averse to pain. The essential determinant of transgression is the volition to kill, issuing in an action that deprives a being of life. Suicide is also generally regarded as a violation, but not accidental killing as the intention to destroy life is absent. The abstinence may be taken to apply to two kinds of action, the primary and the secondary. The primary is the actual destruction of life; the secondary is deliberately harming or torturing another being without killing it.

While the Buddha's statement on non-injury is quite simple and straightforward, later commentaries give a detailed analysis of the principle. A treatise from Thailand, written by an erudite Thai patriarch, collates a mass of earlier material into an especially thorough treatment, which we shall briefly summarize here. The treatise points out that the taking of life may have varying degrees of moral weight entailing different consequences. The three primary variables governing moral weight are the object, the motive, and the effort. With regard to the object there is a difference in seriousness between killing a human being and killing an animal, the former being kammically heavier since man has a more highly developed moral sense and greater spiritual potential than animals. Among human beings, the degree of kammic weight depends on the qualities of the person killed and his relation to the killer; thus killing a person of superior spiritual qualities or a personal benefactor, such as a parent or a teacher, is an especially grave act.

The motive for killing also influences moral weight. Acts of killing can be driven by greed, hatred, or delusion. Of the three, killing motivated by hatred is the most serious, and the weight increases to the degree that the killing is premeditated. The force of effort involved also contributes, the unwholesome kamma being proportional to the force and the strength of the defilements.

The positive counterpart to abstaining from taking life, as the Buddha indicates, is the development of kindness and compassion for other beings. The disciple not only avoids destroying life; he dwells with a heart full of sympathy, desiring the welfare of all beings. The commitment to non-injury and concern for the welfare of others represent the practical application of the second path factor, right intention, in the form of good will and harmlessness.

Bhante Gunaratana, from Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

The inclination to harm or hurt other living beings generally arises out of hatred or fear. When we purposely kill living beings, even small creatures like insects, we diminish our respect for all life - and thus for our selves. Mindfulness helps us to recognize our own aversions and to take responsibility for them. As we examine our mental states, we see that hatred and fear lead to a cycle of cruelty and violence, actions that damage others and destroy our own peace of mind. Abstaining from killing makes the mind peaceful and free from hatred. This clarity helps us to refrain from destructive actions and to embrace actions motivated by generosity and compassion.

One of my students told me that she used to feel fear and revulsion toward certain small creatures, like mice, fleas, and ticks. Because of these feelings, she was willing to kill them. As her mindfulness practice helped her to become more gentle, she resolved not to kill these creatures. As a result, her feelings of fear and revulsion diminished. Not long ago she even managed to scoop up a large cockroach in her bare hands and carry it outdoors to safety.

When we abstain from killing, our respect for life grows, and we begin to act with compassion toward all living beings. This same student told me of visiting a friend who lived at a certain meditation center. When she arrived, she noticed an insect trap hung up on the porch of the center's staff housing. Dozens of yellow jackets were in the trap, drawn by the sweet smell of apple juice. Once they entered the small opening in the trap, they could not get out. When they became exhausted by flying in the small space, they fell into the apple juice at the bottom of the trap and slowly drowned. The visiting student asked her friend about the trap. He agreed that such a device was a shameful thing to have at a meditation center, but he said that the higher-ups had put the trap there and that there was nothing he could do about it.

Though she tried to ignore the buzzing coming from the trap, the woman could not get the suffering of the yellow jackets out of her mind. Soon she felt she had to do something to give a few of them a chance to escape. She took a knife, poked a tiny hole at the top of the trap, and inserted the knife to hold it open. A few yellow jackets crawled up the knife blade and escaped to safety. Then she enlarged the hole a bit more, and a few more got out. Finally, she realized that she could not bear to leave even one to die in the trap. Though she was nervous about interfering, she took the trap to a nearby field and cut it completely open, releasing all the yellow jackets that remained alive. As she did so, she made the wish, "May I be released from my negative attitudes and behaviors even as these insects are released from the trap."

The student told me that since that time, she has had no fear of yellow jackets. Last spring, a nest of yellow jackets appeared under the main doorway of the Bhavana Society. People using that doorway got stung, and the area was roped off. However, this one woman continued to use that doorway, stepping over the nest without harm until it was removed. "I'll be very surprised if I'm ever stung by yellow jackets again," she said. "But if I do get stung, I'd be more worried about the poor yellow jacket who gets upset and may get injured by stinging me."

As you can see from this student's experience, refraining from killing creates the right atmosphere for compassionate action to grow in our lives. This is wonderful and a great aid to progress on the Buddha's path. But we shouldn't become militant in our support of non-harming! Skillful Action asks us to make our own decisions about moral behavior, not to insist adamantly that everyone follow our example.

Many laypeople ask me how to deal with insect pests in their homes and gardens. They want to be good Buddhists and not kill, but their flowers will wither or their homes deteriorate if they ignore the insects. I tell them that killing insects, even for a good reason, is still killing. However, not all killing has the same kammic (karmic) consequences. Killing an insect generally does not hinder one's progress as much as killing an animal, such as a dog. Killing a dog causes less impact to the mind than killing a human being. No act of killing causes more harm to oneself than killing one's parents or killing an enlightened being. This kind of killing would prevent the killer from attaining enlightenment in this life and lead to the worst kind of rebirth. Killing insects is not so grave a matter as this. Understanding that there are differing levels of impact, we make our choices and accept the consequences.

Second Precept: Abstaining from Taking What is Not Given

Matthew Flickstein, from Swallowing the River Ganges

Avoid stealing and cultivate generosity.

The precept not to steal requires close examination of all our behaviors so that we can adhere to this principle even in what appear to be trivial circumstances. Consider, for example, how you would respond to the following situations: If change were mistakenly returned after making a call at a pay phone, would you deposit it? If you needed a paper clip or another common office supply, would you take it from a co-workers desk without first asking for permission? If you found money lying in the street and are unsure whether the owner would return searching for it, would you leave the money where you found it? The decisions we face when confronted with these types of circumstances have a significant bearing on the development of our character and the purification of our virtue.

The counterpoint to stealing is generosity. Most people, if asked, would say that they consider themselves generous. In reality, however, most of us have a difficult time "letting go". The generosity we do express may often be limited to the members of our immediate family.

When we forgo an opportunity to express generosity, it is generally because we are attached to our possessions or resources. Since we believe ourselves to be generous, we tend to justify our selfish actions. We may say that we do not have enough even for ourselves, that we may need in the future what we are thinking of giving away, that the recipient would not appreciate the value of our gift, and so forth. To cultivate a generous heart we must begin by recognizing the depth of our attachments and by realizing what makes us resistant to opening our hearts in this way.

The following exercise will help to uncover any personal barriers to expressing generosity: Make a determination to give away one of your most cherished possessions. It could be a painting or sculpture that you created, a valuable coin that you purchased, or a book that cannot easily be replaced. It is important to be sure that you will no longer have access to the object once it is given away.

After you make the decision about what to give away and whom to give it to, watch for signs of resistance. Listen for subtle justifications for not completing the exercise. Finally, carefully observe any grief that may arise as a consequence of no longer having the possession to which you were attached.

The experience of resistance, justification, and grief are the mind states that need to be countered in order to increase our capacity to express generosity. The starting point is to become mindfully aware of these mental states whenever they arise.

For some individuals, giving of their time is more difficult than giving away material goods. To spend time with someone who is ill, in pain, or who frequently complains can be very trying. However, this form of generosity is closely associated with compassion and is extremely worthwhile to cultivate.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that he does not take away with thievish intent.

"Taking what is not given" means appropriating the rightful belongings of others with thievish intent. If one takes something that has no owner, such as unclaimed stones, wood, or even gems extracted from the earth, the act does not count as a violation even though these objects have not been given. But also implied as a transgression, though not expressly stated, is withholding from others what should rightfully be given to them.

Commentaries mention a number of ways in which "taking what is not given" can be committed. Some of the most common may be enumerated:

  1. stealing: taking the belongings of others secretly, as in housebreaking, pick pocketing, etc.
  2. robbery: taking what belongs to others openly by force or threats
  3. snatching: suddenly pulling away another's possession before he has time to resist
  4. fraudulence: gaining possession of another's belongings by falsely claiming them as one's own
  5. deceitfulness: using false weights and measures to cheat customers.

The degree of moral weight that attaches to the action is determined by three factors: the value of the object taken; the qualities of the victim of the theft; and the subjective state of the thief. Regarding the first, moral weight is directly proportional to the value of the object. Regarding the second, the weight varies according to the moral qualities of the deprived individual. Regarding the third, acts of theft may be motivated either by greed or hatred. While greed is the most common cause, hatred may also be responsible as when one person deprives another of his belongings not so much because he wants them for himself as because he wants to harm the latter. Between the two, acts motivated by hatred are kammically heavier than acts motivated by sheer greed.

The positive counterpart to abstaining from stealing is honesty, which implies respect for the belongings of others and for their right to use their belongings as they wish. Another related virtue is contentment, being satisfied with what one has without being inclined to increase one's wealth by unscrupulous means. The most eminent opposite virtue is generosity, giving away one's own wealth and possessions in order to benefit others.

Bhante Gunaratana, from Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

Stealing is an expression of our greed or envy. Taking what does not belong to us is a bad habit that is hard to break. Some people are so undisciplined in this area that even when they attend a meditation training course to try to gain some peace and happiness, they continue their stealing habit. At the Bhavana Society, we know of incidents of people stealing meditation cushions. I doubt anyone has ever attained enlightenment by practicing meditation on a stolen meditation cushion! Our library has a similar problem. Because the Bhavana Society is located in a forest without quick access to any major collection of Buddhist books, we maintain our own collection. Over time, some books have disappeared. Isn't it ironic that people who come to the center to meditate and study the Buddha's teachings can't see that taking things that do not belong to them can never help them toward an untroubled mind?

Practicing the Skillful Action of not stealing means making an effort to be honest and to respect the property of others. It means pointing out the error to a clerk in a store who has forgotten to charge you for something that you have bought or who has given you too much change. It means going out of your way to return what is not yours, with no expectation of being rewarded for your actions.

It's easy to see that taking someone's property or money is stealing, but we are often confronted with more subtle occasions to steal. Taking credit for someone else's ideas is also stealing. So is lifting small items from the office, such as pens, notebooks, or computer disks, and taking them home for your personal use. Often we justify such actions by telling ourselves, "I could have thought of that idea myself," or "The company owes me this stuff. I've been underpaid for years." Cheating on your income taxes, writing bad checks, taking bribes, and engaging in fraudulent business practices are also stealing. Even shoplifting groceries when you are hungry constitutes theft. Remember, it is never good to feed the body at the expense of the mind.

Our purpose in practicing the moral guidelines of Skillful Action is to make our lives happy. If we break them, misery is sure to follow, in this life or in the future. Happiness requires peace of mind and a clear conscience. Do not think that you are refraining from stealing to please the world. You are doing so for your own contentment, now and in the future.

As we go beyond the coarse level of struggling against any form of stealing, we begin to refine our consideration for others' needs and become less self-centered in the way we regard material things. Using the rule against stealing as a guide, we become less envious of other people's possessions or good fortune. Instead we discover appreciative joy and rejoice in other peoples' happiness.

Third Precept: Abstaining From Sexual Misconduct

Matthew Flickstein, from Swallowing the River Ganges

Avoid sexual misconduct and be considerate in intimate relationships.

Sexual misconduct includes rape, adultery, and other obviously inappropriate sexual encounters. On a more subtle level, we need to avoid any activities in which we relate to others as objects of sexual desire-- such as watching pornography, talking about our physical attraction to others, and making sexual innuendoes through our words or actions.

Consideration in regard to our intimate relationships pertains to less obvious forms of sexual misbehavior. For example, if one person in a relationship is not inclined toward sexual intimacy, his or her partner needs to respect those wishes and act accordingly. Attempts to persuade one's partner to be intimate or to use sexual intimacy as a bargaining chip in the relationship demonstrates a lack of consideration and is regarded as a breach of this precept.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

He avoids sexual misconduct and abstains from it. He has no intercourse with such persons as are still under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister or relatives, nor with married women, nor with female convicts, nor lastly, with betrothed girls.

The guiding purposes of this precept, from the ethical standpoint, are to protect marital relations from outside disruption and to promote trust and fidelity within the marital union. From the spiritual standpoint it helps curb the expansive tendency of sexual desire and thus is a step in the direction of renunciation, which reaches its consummation in the observance of celibacy binding on monks and nuns. But for laypeople the precept enjoins abstaining from sexual relations with an illicit partner. The primary transgression is entering into full sexual union, but all other sexual involvements of a less complete kind may be considered secondary infringements. (Note: an "illicit partner" is someone married or in a committed relationship with someone else, a partner prohibited by convention, such as close relatives, monks and nuns under a vow of celibacy.)

Besides these, any case of forced, violent, or coercive sexual union constitutes a transgression. But in such a case the violation falls only on the offender, not on the one compelled to submit.

The essential purpose is to prevent sexual relations which are hurtful to others. When mature independent people, though unmarried, enter into a sexual relationship through free consent, so long as no other person is intentionally harmed, no breach of the training factor is involved.

Bhante Gunaratana, from Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

The Buddha's words usually translated as abstaining from "sexual misconduct" actually apply to more than just sexual behavior. The words that he used literally mean that one should abstain from "abuse of the senses" - all the senses. Sexual misconduct is one particularly damaging form of sensual abuse.

For the purpose of keeping precepts, it is traditionally assumed that by "abuse of the senses" the Buddha specifically meant abstention from sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct includes rape and manipulating someone into having sex against their wishes. The prohibition also refers to having sex with minors, animals, someone else's spouse or partner, or someone protected by parents or guardians. If one of the partners in a committed unmarried couple betrays the other, that can also be considered sexual misconduct. Having sex with an appropriate and consenting adult partner is not considered misconduct.

These definitions aside, people get into lot of trouble because of their sexual desires. The irony is that lust can never be completely satisfied. No matter how many risks people take or how much pain and suffering people go though to try to fulfill their desires, the wish to fulfill desires does not go away. Some people turn to meditation out of the pain and suffering caused by their sexual desires. Unfortunately, all too often, even during their efforts to gain some concentration and peace of mind, lust keeps bothering them.

The only solution to this problem is to begin with disciplining your sexual activity. If you are incapable of a bit of self-discipline, the path to happiness will forever remain elusive. Some very sincere meditators have made great strides in cleaning up bad habits such as drinking or lying, yet fail to see why they should rein in their sexual behavior. They say, "I don't see what's wrong with having a little fun." The traditional list of inappropriate partners seems to provide a loophole for them. They notice right away that nothing is said against having relations with many partners so long as they are appropriate and unmarried, or against seeking cheap thrills. But cheap thrills cheapen you and degrade your self-worth. Casual sex hurts you and can injure others.

What is the point of this kind of fun? To give you pleasure? To fulfill your desires? Yet, we've been saying all along that craving-desire is the very root of our misery. The Buddha's second truth tells us that all suffering stems from desire. Confused sexual behavior is one of the easiest ways to trap the mind into a cycle of craving and aversion. Sexual pleasures are so alluring, and their downsides - rejection, embarrassment, frustration, jealousy, insecurity, remorse, loneliness, and craving for more - are so unbearable that they keep people running on an endless treadmill.

The problem is that lust cannot be eased by fulfilling it physically. Doing so is like scratching a poison ivy rash. Though scratching may bring a brief sense of relief, it spreads the poison and makes the underlying problem worse. Curing your condition requires restraint, holding back from doing things that will intensify your discomfort later.

The Buddha used a powerful metaphor to illustrate the common mistakes people make in thinking about sexuality. In his day, lepers could be seen gathered around fires, burning their wounds. Their disease gave them the most unbearable itching. Applying fire to their sores gave them some relief. But the fire did not heal their wounds or cure their disease. Instead, they burned themselves. Once the feeling of temporary ease left them, the sores swelled and festered from the burns. The poor sufferers were left with even more discomfort and itching than before. So, the lepers went back to the fire and burned themselves again.

People do the same thing when they seek relief from their lust, the Buddha said. When they go to the fire of sexual indulgence, they get a temporary sense of release from the pain and dissatisfaction of their sexual desire. But there is no healing power in indulgence. They only burn themselves. Then how much more maddening is the craving, the itching?

Now imagine, the Buddha continued, that a great physician comes along and brings healing medicine to a leper. The leper applies the medicine and is fully cured. Now what does the leper think of the fire? No power on earth can make him want to burn himself again. His former companions call to him to join them around the fire and to burn himself again. The healed leper remembers what that was like - the insanity of the craving and the short-lived release of the fire. Nothing can make him go back to it. He feels great compassion for his former companions and for his own previous suffering. (M 75)

Hearing this, you may wonder, "Must I choose between my partner and the path?" This misunderstanding causes concern for many people. But loving sexual behavior between committed partners is no obstacle to one's practice. In fact, a supportive relationship can be a great asset to progress through the Buddha's eight steps to happiness.

Moreover, to perfect the step of Skillful Action, the Buddha urged us to stop abusing any of our senses. Aside from sexual misconduct, what does this mean? When one indulges one's cravings by stimulating any senses to the point of weariness, it is sense abuse.

What areas of your behavior have you left unexamined, areas in which you push your mind or body beyond a reasonable point just for pleasure or escape? Ask yourself: "Am I indulging in hours of watching television or doing non-essential paperwork late into the night? Eating more than what is necessary to sustain my life? Going to clubs where the music is so loud that my ears ring when I leave? Using my body for pleasure in ways that make it tired, sore, and unfit for work the next day? Do I make use of the internet in ways that benefit my life and my community or am I simply entertaining myself until my eyes are bleary and my mind is numb?"

These kinds of activities are not right for the body and not right for a spiritual path. What would it be like to abandon them? Self-respect can grow in their place. The self-centeredness rooted in these activities can melt away, leaving room for a spirited, generous heart, no longer a slave to craving's call.

Fourth Precept: Abstaining From False Speech

Matthew Flickstein, from Swallowing the River Ganges

Avoid lying and relate what is true while remaining sensitive to the potential impact of all communication.

Following this precept is of key importance to our spiritual development. To fully keep this precept, we need to recognize the impact our words have on others. We need to avoid expressing what we consider to be "harmless" lies, to make sure that what we say is consistent with what we do, and to immediately communicate changes in circumstances that prevent us from keeping commitments we have previously made. Our lives must be in alignment with truth at every level for spiritual understanding to arise.

We also need to investigate how truthful we are when we listen to others. We compromise our integrity when we give the outward appearance of listening, but are actually thinking about something else. Although the individual speaking to us may not be consciously aware of what is occurring, by virtue of this subtle communication disparity, the speaker has an intuitive sense of not having really been heard. We need to train ourselves to remain as present and open as possible while listening to what others are saying.

The Buddha speaks of four categories of communication and our responsibility regarding each category: saying something that is untrue and displeasing to hear (such as false accusations) should never be done; voicing something that is untrue but pleasing to hear (such as flattery) should also be withheld; saying something that is true but displeasing to hear (such as constructive criticism) should only be spoken when the person is receptive to what is being said; and finally, communicating something that is true and pleasing to hear (such as positive feedback) should also be withheld until the timing is suitable. The Buddha's words point out that for communication to have integrity and to be effective, we need to consider both the content and timing of that communication.

Fifth Precept: Abstaining from Misusing Intoxicants

Matthew Flickstein, from Swallowing the River Ganges

Avoid intoxicants, which confuse the mind and cause heedless behavior, and ingest only those substances that are nourishing and supportive of peaceful abiding.

We need to abstain from using alcohol and drugs, which weaken our mental faculties and ultimately lead to unskillful actions. On a more subtle level, we need to avoid exposing our minds to less obvious intoxicants - such as movies, books, and television programs that are filled with images of sexuality, violence, and the search for sensual gratification. Allowing these images to run unimpeded through our minds affects our thinking process and can lead to unwholesome behaviors.

Bhante Gunaratana, from Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

The last of the five precepts says to avoid alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicants, and the same principle is implied in Skillful Action. In giving this precept, the Buddha used conditional wording. He did not tell lay followers to avoid all intoxicants, but only those that cause "negligence, infatuation, and heedlessness." In other words, the careful use of painkilling drugs and other narcotics prescribed by a doctor does not violate the prohibition. Nor does occasional, light use of alcohol, such as a glass of wine. We must use common sense.

Though light use of alcohol may be allowed, it is inadvisable. One drink tends to lead to another. Some people with sensitivity to alcohol may lose control and drink to excess after just one drink. Thus, the most effective time to exercise control is before that first drink, not after. Others develop an addictive habit more slowly, drinking a little more each time, unaware that their casual use of alcohol is becoming a serious problem. Moreover, the presence of alcohol in the house may tempt people to get drunk impulsively during a time of stress or sorrow. We can live quite healthily without alcohol, and it is better not to give it a chance to ruin our lives.

Over the years I have heard many stories of how alcohol leads to unhappiness. For instance, a resident at the Bhavana Society told me that many years ago she was indifferent to alcohol and drank only a little when others insisted. At parties where alcohol was served, she never finished even one beer. She just carried the bottle around all evening to fit in with those who were drinking. After graduating from college, she moved to another community. Her new friends drank frequently, and she developed a casual social drinking habit, which increased slowly. She told me that one night, when she was in a very bad mood, she drank one kind of hard drink and then another. When her friends expressed surprise at her having more than one drink, she swore at them, telling them to mind their own business. Suddenly, a strange feeling went through her body. Later she realized that it must have been a chemical change. From that moment on, she craved alcohol. Within two years she was drinking every day and getting drunk several times a week. Her personality changed in negative ways, and she suffered a great deal of unhappiness. Eventually, she sought help through an alcohol recovery program and now has been sober for many years.

People use intoxicants for many reasons. Young people want to feel more grown-up or sophisticated; shy or nervous people want to relax or feel more sociable; troubled people want to forget their problems. All of these motivations arise from dissatisfaction - from wanting to escape the reality of what is happening in the present moment.

Yet, when we think about it, running away never solved any problem or relieved any kind of suffering. Addiction to alcohol or drugs only makes your suffering worse. It can cause you to lose your sense of decency, your moral principles, your inhibitions. You may lie, commit sexual misconduct, steal, or worse. You may ruin your health, wealth, marriage, family, job, business. You may lose the respect of others and your respect for yourself. In the end you are left wallowing in misery and wondering why all these bad things happen to you. All in all, the best cure for addiction to intoxicants is not to use them in the first place!

For the purpose of the Eightfold Path, we can look beyond the words of the fifth precept to see what higher level of meaning we can find in abstaining from intoxicants. In what other ways do we drug ourselves, and why? Using this aspect of Skillful Action as a general guideline, question your motivations, ask whether you are trying to avoid being mindful. What are your escapes? Reading the newspaper? Engaging in unnecessary chatter? Mindfulness can help you identify the tricks you use to avoid continuous awareness of reality.