Practical Application of the Five Precepts

The  purpose of Buddhist moral precepts – by Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

There  are three fundamental modes of training in Buddhist practice:  morality, mental culture, and wisdom. The English word morality  is used to translate the Pali term sila,  although the Buddhist term contains its own particular connotations. The word sila denotes a state of normalcy, a condition  which is basically unqualified and unadulterated. When one practices sila, one returns to one’s own basic  goodness, the original state of normalcy, unperturbed and unmodified. Killing a human being, for instance, is not basically human nature;  if it were, human beings would have ceased to exist a long time  ago. A person commits an act of killing because he or she is blinded by greed, rage or hatred. Such negative  qualities as  anger, hatred, greed, ill will, and jealousy are  factors that  alter people’s nature and make them into something other than their true self. To practice sila is thus to  train  in preserving one’s true nature, not allowing it to be modified or overpowered by negative forces.

This definition points to the objective of Buddhist morality rather  than to the practice itself, but it does give us an  idea of the underlying philosophy behind the training, as well as how  the Buddhist moral precepts should be followed. These precepts are a means to an end, they are observed for a specific objective.

On the personal level, the observance of precepts serves  as the  preliminary groundwork for the cultivation of higher  virtues or mental development. Sila is the most important step on the spiritual path. Without morality, right  concentration cannot be attained, and without right concentration, wisdom cannot be fully perfected. Thus, morality not only enhances people’s ethical values and fulfills their noble status as human  beings, but it is crucial to their efforts toward the highest  religious goal of Nibbana.

On the social level, sila contributes to  harmonious and  peaceful coexistence among community members and  consequently  helps to promote social growth and development. In a  society where morality prevails and members are conscious of their roles, there will be general security, mutual trust, and close cooperation, these in turn leading to greater progress and  prosperity. Without morality there will be corruption and disturbance, and all members of society are adversely affected. Most of the  problems that society experiences today are connected, directly or indirectly,  with a lack of good morality.

Questions  of morality always concern the issues of right and  wrong, good and evil. For a moral life to be meaningful these issues must  not remain mere theoretical principles, but translated into practice. Good must be performed, evil must be given up. It is not enough to know what is good or evil, we also  need to take proper action with respect to them. We need concrete guidelines  to follow, and these are provided by the Buddhist moral precepts.  Even the oft-quoted Buddhist ideals of abstention from evil, implementation of what is good, and perfect mental purification can be initially actualized through a consistent  practice of moral precepts. The precepts help us to live those  ideals; they  teach us to do the right things and to avoid the  wrong.

Buddhist moral precepts provide a wholesome foundation for  personal and  social growth. They are practical principles for a good life  and the cultivation of virtues. If we understand the  objectives  of sila and realize its benefits, we will see moral precepts as an integral part of life rather than as a  burden that we are compelled to shoulder. Buddhist moral  precepts are  not commandments imposed by force; they are a course  of training willingly undertaken in order to achieve a desired objective. We do not practice to please a supreme being, but for  our own good and the good of society. As individuals, we need to train in morality to lead a good and noble life. On the  social level,  we need to help maintain peace and harmony in society and facilitate the progress of the common good. The practice of moral precepts  is essential in this regard.

Distinguishing good and evil

The  problems of good and evil, right and wrong, have been dealt  with in the discussion on kamma. Here it may  suffice to give a brief summary on the subject.

To determine whether an action is good or evil, right or  wrong,  Buddhist ethics takes into account three components involved in a kammic action. The first is the intention that  motivates the action, the second is the effect the doer  experiences consequent  to the action, and the third is the effect that others experience as a result of that action. If the intention is good,  rooted  in positive mental qualities such as love, compassion, and wisdom,  if the result to the doer is wholesome (for instance, it helps him or her to become more compassionate and  unselfish), and if those to whom the action is directed also experience a positive  result thereof, then that action is good, wholesome,  or skillful (kusala). If, on the other hand, the action is rooted  in negative mental qualities such as hatred and selfishness, if the outcome experienced by the doer is negative and unpleasant, and if the recipients of the action also experience undesirable  effects from the action or become more hateful and  selfish,  then that action is unwholesome or unskillful (akusala).

It is quite probable that on the empirical level an action may appear to be a mixture of good and bad elements, in spite of the intention and the way it is performed. Thus, an  action committed  with the best of intentions may not bring the desired result for either the doer or the recipient. Sometimes an action based on negative intentions may produce seemingly positive  results (as stealing can produce wealth). Due to lack of knowledge and  understanding, people may confuse one set of actions with an  unrelated set of results and make wrong conclusions,  or simply misjudge them on account of social values and conventions. This  can lead to misconceptions about the law of kamma and loss of moral consciousness. This is why precepts are  necessary in the practice of moral discipline: they provide definite guidelines  and help to avoid some of the confusion that empirical observation  and social conventions may entail.

Buddhist moral precepts are based on the Dhamma, and they reflect such eternal values as compassion, respect, self-restraint, honesty,  and wisdom. These are values that are cherished by all civilizations, and their significance is universally recognized.  Moral precepts  that are based on such values or directed toward their realization will always be relevant to human society, no matter to what extent it has developed. Moreover, their validity can  be empirically  tested on the basis of one’s own sensitivity and  conscience, which are beyond factors of time and place. Killing, for instance,  is objectionable when considered from the perspective of oneself being the victim of the action (although when other  lives are subjected to the same act, its undesirability may not  be felt as strongly). The same is true with regard to  stealing, lying,  and sexual misconduct. Because Buddhist moral precepts are grounded on these factors, their practicality remains intact  even today, and their usefulness is beyond question.

Precepts for lay Buddhists

Observance of the five precepts constitutes the minimum moral obligation of a practicing lay Buddhist. These five precepts  enjoin against  killing living beings, taking what is not given (or stealing), sexual misconduct, false speech, and use of  intoxicating drink  or drugs.

The  practice of Buddhist moral precepts deeply affects  one’s personal  and social life. The fact that they represent a course of training  which one willingly undertakes rather than a set of commandments willfully imposed by a God or supreme being is likely  to have a positive bearing upon one’s conscience and  awareness. On the personal level, the precepts help one to lead a moral  life and  to advance further on the spiritual path. Moreover, popular  Buddhism believes that the practice of morality contributes  to the accumulation of merits that both support one in the present  life and ensure happiness and prosperity in the next. On the social level, observing the five precepts helps to  promote peaceful  coexistence, mutual trust, a cooperative spirit, and  general peace and harmony in society. It also helps to maintain an atmosphere which is conducive to social progress and development, as we  can see from the practical implications of each precept.

The  first precept admonishes against the destruction of life. This is based on the principle of goodwill and respect for the right  to life of all living beings. By observing this precept one  learns to cultivate loving kindness and compassion.  One sees  others’ suffering as one’s own and endeavors to do  what one  can to help alleviate their problems. Personally, one cultivates love and compassion; socially, one develops an  altruistic spirit for the welfare of others.

The  second precept, not to take things which are not  given, signifies  respect for others’ rights to possess wealth and property. Observing  the second precept, one refrains from earning one’s livelihood through wrongful means, such as by stealing or cheating. This precept also implies the cultivation of generosity, which on a personal level helps to free one from attachment and selfishness, and on a social level contributes to friendly  cooperation in  the community.

The  third precept, not to indulge in sexual misconduct, includes rape, adultery, sexual promiscuity, paraphilia, and  all forms of sexual aberration. This precept teaches one to  respect one’s own spouse as well as those of others, and encourages  the practice  of self-restraint, which is of utmost importance in  spiritual training. It is also interpreted by some scholars to mean the abstention from misuse of senses and includes, by  extension,  non-transgression on things that are dear to others,  or abstention  from intentionally hurting other’s feelings. For  example, a  young boy may practice this particular precept by  refraining  from intentionally damaging his sister’s dolls. If he does,  he may be said to have committed a breach of morality. This  precept is intended to instill in us a degree of  self-restraint and a sense of social propriety, with particular emphasis on  sexuality and sexual behavior.

The  fourth precept, not to tell lies or resort to falsehood, is  an important factor in social life and dealings. It concerns respect for truth. A respect for truth is a strong deterrent  to inclinations or temptation to commit wrongful  actions, while  disregard for the same will only serve to encourage evil deeds.  The Buddha has said:”There are few evil deeds that a  liar  is incapable of committing.” The practice of the  fourth  precept, therefore, helps to preserve one’s credibility, trustworthiness, and honor.

The  last of the five Buddhist moral precepts enjoins  against the use of intoxicants. On the personal level, abstention  from intoxicants  helps to maintain sobriety and a sense of responsibility. Socially,  it helps to prevent accidents, such as car accidents,  that can  easily take place under the influence of intoxicating drink  or drugs. Many crimes in society are committed under  the influence of these harmful substances. The negative effects they have on spiritual practice are too obvious to require any explanation.

The five precepts

Theravada  Buddhism preserves the Buddha’s teachings and conducts religious ceremonies mainly in the original Pali language. The five precepts  are also recited in Pali, and their meanings are generally known  to most Buddhists. In the following the original Pali text is  given in italics, and the corresponding English  translation is given side by side:

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami: I observe the precept of abstaining from the destruction of life.

2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami: I observe the precept of abstaining from taking that which is not given.

3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami: I observe the precept of abstaining from sexual  misconduct.

4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami: I  observe the precept of abstaining from falsehood.

5. Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami:  I observe the precept of abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause carelessness.

The  refrain “I observe the precept of abstaining from …” which begins every precept clearly shows that these are not  commandments. They are, indeed, moral codes of conduct that lay Buddhists willingly undertake out of clear understanding  and conviction that they are good for both themselves and for  society.

Practical application of the five precepts

Training is based on the axiomatic assumption that human beings have  the potential for development. In order that this  development may be realized, a concrete standard is needed by  which people may train themselves. The five precepts are meant to fulfill this need.

For  example, compassion is a spiritual quality that we all possess  to some degree. However, without a conscious and  persistent  effort to develop it, this important quality may  remain rudimentary  and weak. By consciously practicing the first precept, we bring this compassion to a higher level of development and  come a  step closer to the realization of the Dhamma. In the  process, our conduct becomes more refined and our mind becomes  more sensitive  to the problems and suffering of others. By practicing the second precept we not only purify our livelihood but train in generosity  and non-attachment. The third precept has a direct  connection  with the training in sense restraint, which is an essential  feature in higher spiritual development. In fact, enlightenment  is not possible without mastery over the senses. The  fourth  precept deals with training in truthfulness and virtuous speech. The objective of this precept is not only the  cultivation of  respect for truth, but a way of life that is sincere and free from falsehood in every respect. Even the fifth  precept, which  enjoins against the use of intoxicants, is not merely negative,  for the resultant effects that take place in the mind  in terms  of mental strength and moral integrity are very positive. The  observance of this precept is also a natural precursor to the cultivation of mindfulness and wisdom, which are the  essence of insight meditation. Each and every precept  increases our awareness of how we may skillfully conduct ourselves in body  and speech and helps us to see more clearly whether we are improving in this process of self-discipline.

We may summarize the five precepts in relation to the spiritual  qualities that they are likely to produce and promote  as follows. The first precept helps to promote goodwill, compassion, and  kindness. The second can be instrumental in developing generosity, service, altruism, non-attachment, contentment,  honesty, and  right livelihood. The third precept helps to cultivate self-restraint,  mastery over the emotions and senses, renunciation, and control  of sensual desire. The fourth precept leads to the  development of honesty, reliability, and moral integrity. The  fifth precept helps to promote mindfulness, clarity of mind, and wisdom.

Self-reliance and responsibility are important features of the practice of  Buddhist morality. Because these precepts are meant to be a course of training, it can hardly be expected that each and every practitioner will be able to follow them without committing  the slightest error, any more than it can be expected of a music student not to make a single mistake in the course of  his lessons.  For people with certain temperaments or occupations,  some precepts may appear more difficult to follow than the rest, but that should not be an obstacle to making an attempt to keep the precepts. If one is discouraged from practicing, one need simply consider  that these precepts are a course of training; and  training, by definition, implies imperfection and a gradual  process of  development.

However, for those who are new to Buddhism, it may be a good  idea to begin with greater emphasis on those precepts that are easier to follow, bearing the others in mind for later  development. For instance, the second and the third precepts  obviously need  to be practiced by virtue of necessity, for they are  supported by laws and are in perfect harmony with customs and  conventions  in all civilized societies. There is, therefore,  hardly an excuse  for not practicing them. Having dealt with these two  precepts  in this way, the remaining three present much lighter and less daunting a task. In fact, if we understand the contents and meaning of the five precepts correctly, we may come to feel that it is more natural to observe them than not to.

Moral precepts and livelihood

It is not true to say that fishermen, farmers, or hunters cannot  observe the first precept. Like people in other trades and occupations, they may not be able to observe all the precepts all the time or in all circumstances, given their family  obligations and livelihood, but they can certainly practice them on special  occasions, like holy days, or when they are not actually engaged in their professions. In fact, there may be more  opportunities to practice than at first seems possible. We observe the precepts in accordance with our abilities, training by degrees  until we are able to make the precepts part and parcel of  our lives.

In the time of the Buddha there were people engaged in  occupations that involved killing, such as hunters or fishermen.  Farmers,  too, were not free from killing, although the intention involved might not be as direct. For all of these people the  precepts  were there to be practiced, and some were better able  to do so than others. Each person has the opportunity to practice to the best of his or her abilities until they become  more mature and are spiritually ready to give up occupations or  trades that  involve unwholesome kamma.

One  difficulty for some people is the use of alcoholic  drinks: some  feel discouraged from keeping the fifth precept  because some  of their friends drink or because they have business  dealings  with people who drink. Peer pressure and business objectives may be an obstacle to the observance of this precept,  but this  is by no means insurmountable. Most people are  reasonable and  do understand religious conscience. Sometimes, citing physicians’  opinions may add weight to an excuse not to drink, but it is always best to be honest. In any case, a serious Dhamma practitioner  should not allow trivial things like this to prevent him or her from trying to keep the precepts. There is always an opportunity to exert oneself if one is earnest in the practice.

Moral precepts and passivity

If one carefully studies the foregoing discussion on the  five precepts,  one will see that, although the Pali texts are worded  in the  negative”… abstaining from …”, there is the positive commitment”I undertake to observe the precept …”  in all of them. Negative expressions do not necessarily represent  negative or passive attitudes of mind. Of course, misunderstandings  may result from misinterpretations of the Buddhist moral precepts (as they arise in regard to other Pali technical terms like Nibbana, dukkha, santutthi, and anatta).

From the practical perspective Buddhist moral precepts do contain  both positive and negative aspects. However, from the psychological  point of view it is important for practitioners to  first recognize  that which is bad or wrong and which should be  abstained from. Abstention from wrong or evil deeds is the most  significant step toward real development in spirituality.  Strangely enough, it often appears that people are so preoccupied with doing good,  they forget the most important duty of refraining from evil.  That is why even though one scientific accomplishment after  another is being achieved, crime rates are soaring  unchecked,  and thinking people begin to question the benefits of  those accomplishments. In religious circles, devotees  passionately  try to accumulate more and more merits without ever  pausing to reflect whether there are things that should be cleansed from their minds. As long as this negative aspect is not attended to on a practical level, spiritual progress will not  come about. On the other hand, consider a society in which people  were determined not to do evil and who abstained from that which is  bad and wrong; the result of such a ‘negative’ practice would  indeed  be most welcome. Even Nibbana is often  negatively described  as”the abandoning and destruction of desire and  craving,” and”the extinction of desire, the extinction of  hatred, and the extinction of delusion,” although it is  positively  the highest good.

Once wrong and evil deeds have been abandoned, it becomes more natural to do good. Since life means movement and action, any human  expression which rejects evil is bound to be good and positive.  If false speech is given up, whatever is spoken will  naturally be truthful. Giving up of falsehood, which is a  negative act, therefore constitutes in itself not only a negation, but a positive attitude and commitment. As the Buddha himself has admonished his followers:

“Abandoning  false speech, one speaks the truth, becomes dependable, trustworthy, and reliable, and does not mislead the world.  Abandoning malicious  speech, one does not repeat there what has been heard here,  nor does one repeat here what has been heard there, in order to sow the seeds of discord. One reconciles and  unites those  disunited and promotes closer bonds among friends. Unity is one’s delight and joy, unity is one’s love, it is the motive behind one’s verbal expression. Abandoning harsh speech, one  employs a speech which is blameless, pleasant,  acceptable, heart-touching, civilized, and agreeable. Abandoning frivolous  speech, one uses speech which is appropriate to the  occasion, correct, purposeful, and in accordance with the  Dhamma-Vinaya. One utters words that are worthy, opportune, reasonable, meaningful,  and straightforward.”

One  important reason why the Buddhist moral precepts are  phrased in negative terms is because the negative mode of expression tends to convey clearer and more specific injunctions  which can be followed with ease. From a practical point of view,”Do not kill” carries stronger impact and a clearer  definition  than”Be kind to animals” and can be more conveniently practiced. From experience, however, we will see that  anyone  who consciously and constantly observes the first precept will naturally develop kindness toward people and animals.  The second  precept, which says,”Do not take what is not given,”  covers all forms of wrong livelihood, whether by  deception,  fraud, bribery or theft. By earnestly observing this precept, one will naturally take a positive step in earning  one’s livelihood  in a righteous way. Through constant awareness and  direct control  of greed and avarice, which motivate wrong livelihood, one learns to develop generosity, altruism, and selfless service. These  and other positive virtues result from the so-called  negative  actions of observing the moral precepts, clearly  demonstrating how the precepts laid down by the Buddha can bear positive results,  despite their wording and expression.

Moral dilemmas

The  first of the five Buddhist moral precepts is based on the altruistic concept of universal love and compassion. It is not  only a way  of life and an exercise in personal morality, but also a part of the much larger scheme in spiritual discipline of  which purity  of body, speech, and mind are indispensable  ingredients. As such it makes no exception in its practice, given the  lofty ideal to which it is designed to lead. However, in  real life situations, we may need a more practical attitude of mind to  approach the problem in a more realistic manner.

First  of all, we must recognize the fact that destruction of life is a negative act and the volition involved is an unwholesome  one. By being honest with ourselves and by impartially contemplating  the results that such acts bring, we can realize the wisdom of the first precept and consequently try to abstain from killing in any form. Perfection in the practice comes with spiritual  maturity, and until perfection is attained, one needs  to be aware of possible imperfections in the practice and  try to improve  oneself accordingly.

Because  perfection in morality requires considerable effort and training,  few can achieve it in the beginning. One need not, therefore, feel discouraged, but should learn how progress in the practice  can be made through a systematized and graduated process of training. For instance, one may begin by resolving to  abandon any killing that is not absolutely necessary. There  are people  who find pleasure in destroying other creatures, such  as those  who fish or hunt for sport. This type of killing is quite unnecessary  and only demonstrates callousness. Others are engaged in sports  which involve pain and suffering to animals and may  even cost their lives, such as bull fights, cock fights, and  fish fights — all senseless practices designed to satisfy sadistic impulses. One who wishes to train in the Dhamma should avoid having anything  to do with this kind of entertainment. One may also resolve  to show kindness to other people and animals in an  objective and concrete way whenever it is possible to do so.  While circumstances may prevent absolute abstention from killing, this may help to refine the mind and develop more sensitivity to the suffering of other beings. Trying to look for an alternative  livelihood  that does not involve destruction of life is a further step to be considered.

Keeping  one’s home free of pests or bugs by not creating  conditions  for their infestation helps reduce the necessity for exterminating  them. Ecologically, this is a very commendable  practice, since  the adverse effects of chemical insecticides on the environment  are well known. Prevention is, indeed, better than  cure even concerning bugs and beetles. Cleanliness of habitat  makes killing in such cases unnecessary. Even in the field of  agriculture,  insecticide-free farming is becoming increasingly popular and  commercially competitive. If people are so inclined and compassion prevails, killing can be greatly avoided even in the real life  situations of an ordinary householder with full family obligations  and concerns.

In the unlikely event that killing is absolutely  inevitable, it  may be advisable to note the obvious distinction  between killing out of cruelty and killing out of necessity. A person  who goes  out fishing for pleasure is cruel. While he may love children or make big donations for charitable institutions, as  far as spirituality is concerned his mind is not refined  enough to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of the poor  creatures living in the river. A man who hunts for a living does so because  it is necessary to maintain himself and his family. It would seem quite understandable that in the latter case the unwholesome  effects would likely be much lighter than the former. The same thing is true in the case of killing for self defense. Killing dangerous animals, vermin, and insects accrues less  kammically unwholesome consequences than killing a human being or an animal that serves man (such as a horse, a dog, or an elephant).

Buddhism, capital punishment and war

As a student of Buddhism, one may realize that each person practices Dhamma according to his or her ability and the opportunities  that arise. A policeman on duty patrolling a  crime-infested  street or a soldier at a border outpost surveying  suspicious  movements inside hostile territory will experience totally different  circumstances in spiritual endeavor from a monk sitting peacefully in his cloistered cell. Yet, what they do have in common is  the opportunity to perform their duty. Each must therefore understand how the Dhamma can be best practiced, given the  situation he  is in. All of us are bounded up with certain duties,  one way or another. Where policemen and soldiers are concerned, it would  be naive to deny that their duties do include the possibility  of killing.

It cannot be overemphasized, however, that destruction of life  is, from a Buddhist standpoint, never justified. But in discussing  the issue under question it is hardly appropriate not to distinguish between spiritual objectives and those of national security and administration. Capital punishment, for instance,  is an instrument by which law and order may be effectively maintained for the common good of society, although Buddhism  would not advocate that such a measure is conducive to the police officers’ spiritual well-being. The principles and purposes on which the  police and military institutions were established are as far apart from those on which Buddhist spiritual training  was formulated as anything can be. Yet, Buddhism and those secular  institutions  do coexist now, as they did during the time of the Buddha. Important  military chiefs and dignitaries are known to have been the Buddha’s most devout followers. One does not, therefore, make the mistake  of concluding that a person cannot be a Buddhist, or  keep the  Buddhist moral precepts for that matter, if he serves in the armed forces or police establishment. As has been said before  there are more opportunities to practice the precepts than not to practice; this is true even where the above-mentioned professions are concerned.

Stealing from the rich to feed the poor

Helping  the poor is a commendable effort, but stealing from the rich to fulfill that commitment can hardly be justified. If this were made into a standard practice, society would be in turmoil.  Rights of possession would be ignored, and stealing  would become  the accepted norm. Finally, the practice would defeat itself,  and thievery would be recognized as a charitable act. This is  hardly a desirable state of affairs; it is something  not even  remotely resembling a moral condition.

One  of the distinct features of the Buddhist moral  precepts is the universal character in which they may be practiced with benefit by all members of society. For instance, non-stealing  (second precept) can be universally observed with desirable  results,  and the practice will help to promote coexistence, peace, and harmony in society. If this precept were reversed and  stealing  were made a moral principle, we can immediately see  that there  would be so much conflict and confusion that society  would eventually  cease to function. Thus, stealing can never be made a moral  act, no matter how ideal and noble the motivation.

Extramarital sex

This is a rather complex issue involving ramifications in emotional,  social, and moral fields. The problem is a cause for concern  in modern times, especially in the West where materialism has  for so long been the philosophy of life.

The  third moral precept advises against all forms of  sexual misconduct,  which include rape, adultery, promiscuity, paraphilia, and sexual  perversions. Actually, the Buddhist commentary  emphasizes adultery  more than anything else, but if we take into account  the purpose and intention of the precept, it is clear that the precept is intended to cover all improper behavior with regard to sex. The broadest interpretation even purports to mean  abstention  from the misuse of the senses. The expression”misuse  of  the senses” is somewhat vague. It could refer to any  morally unwholesome action committed under the influence of  sensual desire or to the inability to control one’s own  senses. In any  case there is no doubt that the third precept aims at promoting, among other things, proper sexual behavior and a sense of social decency in a human civilization where monogamy is  commonly practiced  and self-restraint is a cherished moral value.

For  one reason or another, many young people in love are  not able  to enter into married life as early as they wish.  While marriage  is still some distance in the future, or even an  uncertain quantity, these people enter into relationships, of which sex  forms a significant part. This happens not only among adults,  who must  legally answer to their own conduct, but also among teenagers  who are still immature, emotionally unstable, and tend to act  in irresponsible ways. Peer pressure and altered moral values are an important contributing factor to the escalation of the  problem. The trend toward extramarital sex has become so common  that it is now virtually taken for granted. Contubernal arrangements are becoming increasingly popular, and marriage is relegated  to a place of insignificance, jeopardizing in the process the  sanctity of family life.

In the context of these developments, the third precept becomes  all the more relevant and meaningful. Unlike killing,  which certain circumstances seem to warrant, there is hardly any plausible  excuse for sexual promiscuity, except human weaknesses and inability  to restrain the sexual urge. However, there is a distinction  between sexual promiscuity and sexual relationship  based on mutual trust and commitment, even if the latter were a relationship  between two single adults. Thus one may begin to  practice the  third precept by resolving not to be involved in  sexual activities without an earnest intention and serious commitment of both  parties. This means that sex should not be consummated merely for the sake of sexuality, but should be performed with full  understanding within the people involved and with  mutual responsibility for its consequences. A certain level of maturity and  emotional stability is necessary to ensure a healthy and productive sexual relationship between two partners. With the  realization that  there is a better and more noble path to follow than  promiscuity,  one may see the wisdom of self-restraint and the  benefit of  establishing a more lasting and meaningful relationship which,  rather than impeding one’s spiritual progress, may  enhance it.

Finally, if anything else fails to convince people of the danger and undesirability of sexual promiscuity, perhaps the phenomenal AIDS epidemic will. This may seem beside the point,  since moral  precepts and moral integrity are matters that concern inner  strength, fortitude, and conscientious practice, not  fear and  trepidation based on extraneous factors. It is, nevertheless,  worthwhile to consider the connection between  promiscuous behavior  and the AIDS epidemic and realize how strict observance of the  third Buddhist moral precept could greatly reduce the risk of  infection or spread of this deadly disease. Acceptance of this fact may also lead to an appreciation of the value of  morality  and moral precepts as laid down by the Buddha,  consequently  strengthening conviction in the Dhamma practice.

White lies

The  practice of the fourth precept aims at inculcating a  respect for truth in the mind, implying both one’s own  obligations as  well as the rights of other people to truth. This is  one of  the most important components in developing sound social relationships,  and it makes all documents, contracts, agreements, deeds, and business dealings meaningful. When we resort to  falsehood, we not only become dishonest but also show disrespect to  the truth.  People who tell lies discredit themselves and become  untrustworthy.

It is true that sometimes telling lies may prove more profitable than truth, especially from the material point of  view. Because such gains are unwholesome and may cause harm in the long run,  and because material profits are likely to lead to more falsehood and fabrication, it is imperative that the practice of the fourth  precept be duly emphasized. Where a person’s  reputation and  feelings are concerned, discretion should be exercised. Of course,  there are instances where silence is more appropriate  than speech,  and one may choose this as an alternative to  prevarication and  falsehood.

Motivation is an important element in determining if one is  transgressing the fourth precept and whether a given verbal expression constitutes a kammically unwholesome act. For instance, when an event is fictionalized for literary purposes, this may not be regarded as falsehood as such for the intention of the work is obvious  and there is no attempt at falsification involved.  Another example  is the case of an invective, where an abusive expression is  used (such as angrily calling someone a dog). This is a case of vituperation rather than fabrication or falsification, although  it is, nonetheless, a kammically unwholesome act. Also, there  is a clear distinction between expressing untruth with a selfish intention and with a well-meaning motive, as when a  concocted story is told for instructional purposes or a white  lie is told in order to keep an innocent child out of danger.

These  latter two instances are even accepted as illustrations of the employment of skillful means. A story is told of a mother who returns home to find her house on fire. Her little son is playing  in the house, unaware that its burning roof could collapse at  any moment. He is so engrossed that he pays no attention to his mother, who is now in great distress, being unable to get  into the house herself. So she calls out to her child,”Come  quickly, my little one, I have some wonderful toys for you. All the toys you ever wanted to have are here!” In this instance the mother is using a skillful means that eventually saves the boy’s life. Under certain circumstances, this may be the only alternative, but indiscriminate use of  such means  may lead to undesirable results. One needs to be  judicious,  therefore, in the practice of the precepts.

Sometimes  speaking the truth may cause more harm than good, especially if it is done with malicious intent. A vindictive neighbor who spreads the scandals about the family next door may be speaking the truth, but she is neither doing anyone a service,  nor is  she practicing the Dhamma. A spy who sells his  nation’s sensitive  classified information to an enemy may be speaking the truth, but he could cause much harm to his nation’s security  and jeopardize  many innocent lives. The Buddha says, therefore, that one should speak the truth which is useful and conducive to the Dhamma,  and should avoid that which is useless and is likely  to cause  unwholesome kamma to oneself and others.


The fifth precept covers all intoxicants, including narcotics, that  alter the state of consciousness and are physiologically addictive. The danger and negative effects of narcotics, such as cocaine and heroin, are too well known to need any further elaboration.  Today they represent a serious health and social problem around the world.

Drinking intoxicants is not part of the Buddhist culture, although it seems to have become a widespread phenomenon in modern society. It is true that alcoholic consumption was prevalent  before and during the time of the Buddha, but he never approved of the practice. The fact that something is commonly practiced does not necessarily mean that it is good and wholesome. Those who advocate drinking as a factor for promoting friendship forget to take account of the reality that so many friendships have been drowned in those intoxicants. The brawls, strife and unruly behavior that often follow the consumption of alcoholic beverages represent an unequivocal testimony of the ignoble state to which human beings can be reduced to under the influence of intoxicants.  Friendship founded on compassion and mutual understanding is much more desirable than that which is based on  alcohol. Social drinking may produce a general euphoric atmosphere among drinkers (and probably a nuisance for nondrinkers), but it is never a necessary condition for interpersonal relationship.  Often, people use this as an excuse to get drunk. The high rate of car accidents  connected with drunk driving should serve as a strong reminder of the danger and undesirability of alcoholic consumption. On the other hand, it may be mentioned in passing that liquor does contain certain medicinal properties and can be used for medical purposes. Such use, if genuine and under qualified supervision, does not entail transgression of the fifth precept and is not considered a morally unwholesome act.

The most obvious danger of intoxicants is the fact that they tend to distort the sensibilities and deprive people of their self-control and powers of judgment. Under alcoholic influences, a person is likely to act rashly and without due consideration or forethought. Otherwise decent people may even commit murder or rape under the influence of alcohol, or cause all kinds of damage (such as fire, accident, and vandalism) to people or property. The Buddha described addiction to intoxicants as one of the six causes of ruin. It brings about six main disadvantages: loss of wealth, quarrels and strife, a poor state of health (liability to diseases), a source of disgrace, shameless and indecent behavior, and weakened intelligence and mental faculties.

Other precepts

Occasionally, lay Buddhists may take the opportunity to observe the  eight precepts as a means of developing higher virtues and  self-control. Of course, these can be practiced as often as one  wishes, but  the special occasions on which they are normally  observed are  the holy days, especially the more important ones, the three  month period of rains retreat, and special events connected  with one’s life. Sometimes, a Buddhist may observe  them even as a token of gratitude and respect to a deceased  relative or on the occasion of a birth anniversary of a monk he  reveres.  Four of these eight precepts are identical with the  five precepts mentioned above. In order, they are as follows:

1. to abstain from the destruction of life
2. to abstain from stealing or taking what is not  given
3. to abstain from sexual intercourse (to practice celibacy)
4. to abstain from falsehood
5. to abstain from alcoholic drinks
6. to abstain from partaking of food from afternoon  till the  following daybreak
7. to abstain from singing and entertainments, from  decorating  oneself and use of perfumes
8. to abstain from the use of large and luxurious  beds.

[Originally  published in Sunthorn Plamintr’s Getting to Know  Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 133-154.]

This extract is derived from