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Five precepts

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The five precepts (Pali: pañcasīla; Sanskrit: pañcaśīla) or rules of training (Pali: sikkhapada; Sanskrit: śikṣapada[4]) constitute the basic code of ethics undertaken by upāsaka and upāsikā (lay followers) of Buddhism. The precepts in all the traditions are essentially identical and are commitments to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. They are commonly referred to as the śrāvakayāna precepts in the Mahāyāna school, contrasting them with the bodhisattva precepts.

Translations of
Five Precepts
Pali pañcasīla
Sanskrit pañcaśīla
Burmese ပဉ္စသီလ ငါးပါးသီလ
(IPA: [pjɪ̀ɴsa̰ θìla̰ ŋá bá θìla̰])
Chinese 五戒律[1] pinyin: wǔjiè
(Cantonese Jyutping: ng5 gaai3)
Japanese 五戒
(rōmaji: go kai)
Khmer បញ្ចសីល, និច្ចសីល, សិក្ខាបទ៥, សីល៥
(UNGEGN: Sel[2])
Korean 오계
(RR: ogye)
Mon သဳ မသုန်
([sɔe pəsɔn])
Sinhalese පන්සිල්
(pan sil[3])
Thai เบญจศีล, ศีล ๕
(RTGS: Benchasin, Sin Ha)
Vietnamese Ngũ giới
Indonesian Pancasila
Glossary of Buddhism

Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay devotional practice.


Role in Buddhist doctrineEdit

Buddhist scriptures explain the five precepts as the minimal standard of Buddhist morality.[5] It is the most important system of morality in Buddhism, together with the monastic rules.[6] Śīla (Sanskrit; Pali: sīla) is used to refer to Buddhist precepts,[7] including the five.[4] But the word also refers to the virtue and morality which lies at the foundation of the spiritual path to enlightenment, which is the first of the three forms of training on the path. Thus, the precepts are rules or guidelines to develop mind and character to make progress on the path to enlightenment.[4] The five precepts are part of the right speech, action and livelihood aspects of the eight-fold path, the core teaching of Buddhism.[8][4][note 1] Moreover, the practice of the five precepts and other parts of śīla are forms of merit-making, means to create good karma.[10][11] Finally, the five precepts have been described as social values that bring harmony to society.[12][13]

The eight-fold path, of which the five precepts are part.

Comparing different Buddhist teachings, the five precepts form the basis of the eight precepts, which are lay precepts stricter than the five precepts, similar to monastic precepts.[4][14] Secondly, the five precepts form the first half of the ten or eleven precepts for a person aiming to become a Buddha (bodhisattva), as mentioned in the Brahmajala Sūtra of the Mahāyāna school.[15] This text is believed to have been composed in China in the 5th century.[4][16] Contrasting these precepts with the five precepts, the latter were commonly referred to by Mahāyānists as the śrāvakayāna precepts, or the precepts of those aiming to become enlightened disciples of a Buddha, but not Buddhas themselves. The ten–eleven bodhisattva precepts presuppose the five precepts, and are partly based on them.[17] Finally, the five precepts are also partly found in the teaching called the ten good courses of action, referred to in Theravāda Buddhism (Pali: dasa-kusala-kammapatha) and Tibetan Buddhism (Sanskrit: daśa-kuśala-karmapatha; Wylie: dge ba bcu).[6][18]

In conclusion, the five precept lie at the foundation of all Buddhist practice, and in that respect, can be compared with the ten commandments in Christianity[19][20] or the ethical codes of Confucianism.[16]


Tang Dynasty, c. 700 CE

The five precepts were part of early Buddhism and are common to nearly all schools of Buddhism.[21] In early Buddhism, the five precepts were regarded as an ethic of restraint, to restraint unwholesome tendencies and thereby purify one's being to attain enlightenment.[22][23] Although the five precepts were common in many Indian religions of the time, the Buddha's emphasis on awareness (Pali: appamāda) was unique.[24]

In some schools of ancient Indic Buddhism, Buddhist devotees could choose to adhere to only a number of precepts, instead of the complete five. The schools that would survive in later periods, however, that is Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism, were both ambiguous about this practice. Some early Mahāyāna texts allowed it, but some did not; Theravāda texts did not discuss the practice at all.[25]

In early Buddhism, the five precepts were a preliminary condition for the higher development of the mind. The precepts were often committed to by new followers as part of their installment, yet this was not yet very pronounced. However, in some countries like China, where Buddhism was not the only religion, the precepts became an ordination ceremony to initiate lay people into the Buddhist religion. In countries in which Buddhism was adopted as the main religion without much competition from other religious disciplines, such as Thailand, the relation between the initiation of a lay person and the five precepts became virtually non-existent, and the taking of the precepts became a sort of ritual cleansing ceremony.[26]

In China, it was mostly Buddhist teachers who promoted abstinence from alcohol (the fifth precept), since Daoism and other thought systems emphasized moderation rather than full abstinence. Chinese Buddhists interpreted the fifth precept strictly, even more so than in Indic Buddhism. For example, the monk Daoshi (c. 600–83) dedicated large sections of his encyclopedic writings to abstinence from alcohol. However, in some parts of China, such as Dunhuang, considerable evidence has been found of alcohol consumption among both lay people and monastics. Later, from the 8th century onward, strict attitudes of abstinence led to a development of a distinct tea culture among Chinese monastics and lay intellectuals, in which tea gatherings replaced gatherings with alcoholic beverages, and were advocated as such.[27][28] These strict attitudes were formed partly because of the religious writings, but may also have been affected by the bloody An Lushan Rebellion of 775, which had a sobering effect on 8th century Chinese Tang society.[29]


In Pāli traditionEdit

In the Theravāda tradition, the precepts are recited in similar fashion in different countries, using Pāli language. In Thailand, a leading 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 [the Buddha, his teaching, and the monastic community] for the sake of observing them, one by one, separately". (Mayaṃ bhante visuṃ visuṃ rakkhaṇatthāya tisaraṇena saha pañca sīlāniyācāma.)[30]

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 Buddha, his teaching and the monastic community, also known as the three refuges or triple gem.[31]

He then continues with reciting the five precepts, rendered in English and Pāli:[32][33]

  1. "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from onslaught on breathing beings." (Pali: Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  2. "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from taking what is not given." (Pali: Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  3. "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures." (Pali: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  4. "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from false speech." (Pali: Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)
  5. "I undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness." (Pali: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.)

In the fifth precept sura, meraya and majja are kinds of alcoholic beverages. In some modern translations, Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā, is rendered more broadly, variously, as, intoxicants or liquor and drugs, etc.

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 [I will] purify my behavior." (Imāni pañca sikkhāpadāni. Sīlena sugatiṃ yanti, sīlena bhogasampadā, sīlena nibbutiṃ yanti, tasmā sīlaṃ visodhaye.)[34]

In other textual traditionsEdit

The format of the ceremony for taking the precepts occurs several times in the Chinese Buddhist canon, in slightly different forms,[35] and each temple or tradition has different initiation ceremonies.

One formula of the precepts can be found in the Treatise on Taking Refuge and the Precepts (simplified Chinese: 归戒要集; traditional Chinese: 歸戒要集; pinyin: Guījiè Yāojí):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).[32]

Textual analysisEdit


The first of the five precepts includes abstention from killing small animals such as insects.

The five precepts are most likely derived from the early text Brahmajāla Sutta, which contains much information about monastic discipline. They can also be found in the Pāli Dhammapada.[1] The five precepts are regarded as means to building good character, or as an expression of such character. The Pāli Canon describes the precepts as ways for devotees to avoid harm to themselves and others.[36] It further describes the precepts as gifts toward oneself and others.[37] Moreover, the texts say that people who uphold the precepts will be confident in any gathering of people,[6] will have wealth and a good reputation, and will die a peaceful death, reborn in heaven[32] or as a human being. On the other hand, living a life in violation of the precepts is believed to lead to rebirth in an unhappy destination.[6] The precepts are understood in the Pāli tradition as what defines a person as human being in body and mind.[38]

The precepts are normative rules, but are formulated and understood as "undertakings"[39] rather than commandments enforced by a moral authority,[40][41] according to the voluntary and gradualist standards of Buddhist ethics.[42] They are forms of restraint formulated in negative terms, but are also accompanied by virtues and positive behaviors,[14][43][12] which are cultivated through the practice of the precepts.[7] The most important of these is non-harming (Pāli and Sanskrit: ahiṃsa),[44][45] which underlies all of the five precepts.[14] Precisely, the texts say that one should keep the precepts, adhering to the principle of comparing oneself with others:[46]

"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?"[47]

In other words, all living beings are alike in that they want to happy and not suffer. Comparing oneself with others, one should therefore not hurt others as one would not want to be hurt.[48] 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: anatta).[49]

A layperson who upholds the precepts is described in the texts as a "jewel among laymen".

In the upholding or violation of the precepts, intention is crucial.[50][20] 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.[50] 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.[51]

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.[52] The latter refers to the arahant, who is understood to be morally incapable of violating the first four precepts.[53] A layperson who upholds the precepts is described in the texts as a "jewel among laymen".[54] 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 hell. These consist of injuring a Buddha, killing an arahant, killing one's father or mother, and causing the monastic community to have a schism.[14]

Each of the preceptsEdit

Virtues that go hand-in-hand with the third precept are contentment with one's partner, and recognition and respect for faithfulness in a marriage.

The first precept prohibits the taking of life of a sentient being. It is violated when someone intentionally and successfully kills such a sentient being, having understood it to be sentient and using effort in the process.[51][55] Injury goes against the spirit of the precept, but does, technically speaking, not violate it.[56] The first precept includes taking the lives of animals, even small insects. However, it has also been pointed out that the seriousness of taking life depends on the size, intelligence, benefits done and the spiritual attainments of that living being. Killing a large animal is worse than killing a small animal (because it costs more effort); killing a spiritually accomplished master is regarded as more severe than the killing of another "more average" human being; and killing a human being is more severe than the killing an animal. But all killing is condemned.[57][51][58] The first precept is not motivated by a principle of preserving life, but rather by respect for dignity of life.[45] Other virtues that accompany this precept are kindness and compassion,[14] expressed as "trembling for the welfare of others".[59] A positive behavior that goes together with this precept is protecting living beings.[12] Positive virtues like sympathy and respect for other living beings in this regard are based on a belief of the cycle of rebirth—that all living beings must be born and reborn.[60]

The description of the first precept can be interpreted as a prohibition of capital punishment.[61] Suicide is also also seen as part of the prohibition.[62] Moreover, abortion goes against the precept, since in an act of abortion, the criteria for violation are all met.[55][63] A prohibition of abortion is mentioned explicitly in the monastic precepts, and several Buddhist tales such as the Jātakas warn of the harmful karmic consequences of abortion. Bioethicist Damien Keown argues that Buddhists texts do not allow for exceptions with regard to abortion, as they consist of a "consistent pro-life position".[64] Nevertheless, some evidence can be found of Buddhist commentators in India from the 4th century onward that did not think abortion broke the precepts under all circumstances.[65]

Ordering another person to kill is also included in this precept,[56][66] therefore requesting or administering euthanasia can be considered a violation of the precept,[66] as well as advising another person to commit abortion.[67]

The second precept prohibits theft, and involves the intention to steal what one perceives as not belonging to oneself ("what is not given") and acting successfully upon that intention. The severity of the act of theft is judged by the worth of the owner and the worth of that which is stolen. Underhand dealings, fraud, cheating and forgery are also included in this precept.[51][68] Accompanying virtues are generosity, renunciation,[14][43] and right livelihood,[69] and a positive behavior is the protection of other people's property.[12]

The third precept condemns adultery with women that are "claimed" or "acquired", or, in other words, it condemns "going with the wife of another". The precept also includes women who are engaged with another man, young women that are still "protected by any relative", and women who are prostitutes. Moreover, rape and incest are also breaches of this precept.[70] In later texts, details such as intercourse at an inappropriate time or inappropriate place are also counted as breaches of the third precept.[71] Masturbation goes against the spirit of the precept, though in the early texts it is not prohibited for laypeople.[72][73]

The third precept is explained as leading to greed in oneself and harm to others. The transgression is regarded as more severe if the other person is a good person.[72][73] Virtues that go hand-in-hand with the third precept are contentment, especially with one's partner,[14][59] and recognition and respect for faithfulness in a marriage.[12]

The fifth precept prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs or other means.[43]

The fourth precept involves falsehood spoken or committed to by action.[72] Avoiding other forms of wrong speech are also considered part of this precept, consisting of malicious speech, harsh speech and gossip.[74][75] A breach of the precept is considered more serious if the falsehood is motivated by an ulterior motive[72] (rather than, for example, "a small white lie").[76] The accompanying virtue is being honest and dependable,[14][59] and involves honesty in work, truthfulness to others, loyalty to superiors and gratitude to benefactors.[69] In Buddhist texts, this precept is considered most important next to the first precept, because a lying person is regarded to have no shame, and therefore capable of many wrongs.[77] Truthfulness is not only to be avoided because it harms others, but also because it goes against the Buddhist ideal of finding the truth.[76][78]

The fifth precept prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs or other means, and its virtues are mindfulness and responsibility,[43][12] applied to food, work, behavior, and with regard to the nature of life.[69] The importance of awareness, meditation and heedfulness in Buddhist doctrine is clarified by the last words ascribed to the Buddha, in which awareness of mind has a central role.[79] Medieval commentator Buddhaghosa writes that whereas violating the first four precepts may be more or less blamable depending on the person or animal affected, the fifth precept is always "greatly blamable", as it hinders one from understanding the Buddha's teaching and may lead one to "madness".[9] In ancient China, Daoshi described alcohol as the "doorway to laxity and idleness" and as a cause of suffering. Nevertheless, Daoshi did describe certain cases when drinking alcohol was considered less of a problem, such as in the case of a queen distracting the king by alcohol to prevent him from murder. However, Daoshi allowed medicinal use of alcohol only in extreme cases.[80] Early Chinese translations of the Tripitaka describe negative consequences for the person breaking the fifth precept, for himself and his family. The Chinese translation of the Upāsikaśila Sūtra, as well as the Pāli version of the Sigālovāda Sutta, speak of ill consequences such as loss of wealth, ill health, a bad reputation and "stupidity", concluding in a rebirth in hell.[81][9] The Dīrghāgama adds to that that alcohol leads to quarreling, negative states of mind and damage to one's intelligence. The Mahāyāna Brahmajāla Sūtra[note 2] describes the dangers of alcohol in very strong terms, including the selling of alcohol.[82] Similar arguments against alcohol can be found in Nāgārjuna's writings.[83] The strict interpretation of prohibition of alcohol consumption can be supported by the Upāli Sūtra's statement that a disciple of the Buddha should not drink any alcohol, "even a drop on the point of a blade of grass". However, in the writing of some Abhidharma commentators consumption was condemned, depending on the intention with which alcohol was consumed.[84]

In practiceEdit

Lay followers often undertake these training rules in the same ceremony as they take the refuges,[4][85] Monks administer the precepts to the laypeople, which creates an additional psychological effect.[86] In Theravāda Buddhism, this ceremony also implies that one is a Buddhist layperson, as there is no other ceremony for conversion.[3] Furthermore, Buddhist lay people may recite the precepts regularly at home, and before an important ceremony at the temple to prepare the mind for the ceremony.[86][87]

Thich Nhat Hanh has written about the five precepts in a wider scope, with regard to social and institutional relations.

The five precepts are at the core of Buddhist morality.[33] In field studies in some countries like Sri Lanka, villagers describe them as the core of the religion.[86] Anthropologist Barend Terwiel (de) found in his fieldwork that most Thai villagers knew the precepts by heart, and many, especially the elderly, could explain the implications of the precepts following traditional interpretations.[88]

Nevertheless, Buddhists do not all follow them with the same strictness.[33] Devotees who have just started keeping the precepts will typically have to exercise considerable restraint. When they become used to the precepts, they start to embody them more naturally.[89] Researchers doing field studies in traditional Buddhist societies have found that the five precepts are generally considered demanding and challenging.[90][86] For example, in a 1997 survey in Thailand, only 13.8% of the respondents indicated they adhered to the five precepts in their daily lives, with the fourth and fifth precept least likely to be adhered to.[91] Yet, people do consider the precepts worth striving for, and do uphold them out of fear of bad karma and being reborn in hell or because they believe in that the Buddha issued these rules, and that they therefore should be maintained.[92][93]

In East Asian Buddhism, the precepts are intrinsically connected with the initiation as a Buddhist lay person. Early Chinese translations such as the Upāsaka-śila Sūtra hold that the precepts should only be ritually transmitted by a monastic. The texts describe that in the ritual the power of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas is transmitted, and helps the initiate to keep the precepts. This "lay ordination" ritual usually occurs after a stay in a temple, and often after a monastic ordination has taken place. The ordained lay person is then given a religious name. Similar restrictions apply as in a monastic ordination, such as permission from parents.[94]

In the Theravāda tradition, the precepts are usually taken "each separately" (Pali: visuṃ visuṃ), to indicate that if one precept should be broken, the other precepts are still intact. In very solemn occasions, or for very pious devotees, the precepts may be taken as a group rather than each separately.[95][96] This does not mean, however, that only some of the precepts can be undertaken; they are always committed to as a complete set.[97]

Several modern teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa have written about the five precepts in a wider scope, with regard to social and institutional relations. In these perspectives, mass production of weapons or spreading untruth through media and education also violate the precepts.[98][99] On a similar note, human rights organizations in Southeast Asia have attempted to advocate respect for human rights by referring to the five precepts as guiding principles.[100]

The first preceptEdit

The Dalai Lama has rejected forms of protest that are self-harming.[42]

Field studies in Cambodia and Burma have shown that many Buddhists considered the first precept the most important, or the most blamable.[33][56] In some traditional communities, such as in Kandal Province in Cambodia, it was uncommon for Buddhists to slaughter animals, to the extent that meat had to be bought from not-Buddhists.[33] In his field studies in Thailand in the 1960s, Terwiel found that villagers did tend to kill insects, but were reluctant and self-conflicted with regard to killing larger animals.[101] The prohibition on killing has motivated early Buddhists to form a stance against animal sacrifice, a common ritual practice in ancient India.[44][102] It did not, at least according to the Pāli Canon, lead them to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, however.[102][14] Indeed, in several Pāli texts vegetarianism is described as irrelevant in the spiritual purification of the mind. There are prohibitions on certain types of meat, however, especially those which are condemned by society. The idea of abstaining from killing animal life has also led to a prohibition on professions that involve trade in flesh or living beings, but not to a full prohibition of all agriculture that involves cattle.[103] In modern times, referring to the law of supply and demand or other principles, some Theravādin Buddhists have attempted to promote vegetarianism as part of the five precepts. For example, the Thai Santi Asoke movement practices vegetarianism.[41][104]

Furthermore, among some schools of Buddhism, there has been some debate with regard to a principle in the monastic discipline. This principle states that a Buddhist monk cannot accept meat if it comes from animals especially slaughtered for him. Some teachers have interpreted this to mean that when the recipient has no knowledge on whether the animal has been killed for him, he cannot accept the food either. Similarly, there has been debate as to whether laypeople should be vegetarian when adhering to the five precepts.[14]

Though vegetarianism among Theravādins is generally uncommon, it has been practiced much in East Asian countries,[14] as some Mahāyāna texts, such as the Mahāparanirvana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, condemn the eating of meat.[43][105] Nevertheless, even among Mahāyāna Buddhists—and East Asian Buddhists—there is disagreement on whether vegetarianism should be practiced. In the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, biological, social and hygienic reasons are given for a vegetarian diet; however, historically, a major factor in the development of a vegetarian lifestyle among Mahāyāna communities may have been that Mahāyāna monastics cultivated their own crops for food, rather than living from alms.[79] Already from the 4th century CE, Chinese writer Xi Chao understood the five precepts to include vegetarianism.[105]

In Buddhism, there are different opinions about whether vegetarianism should be practiced.[14]

Apart from trade in flesh or living beings, there are also other professions considered undesirable. Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh gives a list of examples, such as working in the arms industry, the military, police, producing or selling poison or drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.[106]

In general, the first precept has been interpreted by Buddhists as a call for non-violence and pacifism. In many Jātaka tales, such as that of Prince Temiya, as well as some historical documents, the virtue of non-violence is taken as an opposition to all war, both offensive and defensive. At the same time, though, the Buddha is often shown not to explicitly oppose war in his conversations with political figures. Buddhologist André Bareau points out that the Buddha was reserved in his involvement of the details of administrative policy, and concentrated on the moral and spiritual development of his disciples instead. He may have believed such involvement to be futile, or detrimental to Buddhism. Nevertheless, at least one case is known of someone interpreting his teachings as an opposition of retaliation, that is King Pasenadi (Sanskrit: Prasenajit), although the texts are ambiguous in explaining his motives.[107] There have been exceptions of this interpretation of opposition to war. For example, in the twentieth century, some Japanese Zen teachers wrote in support of violence in war, and some of them argued this should be seen as a means to uphold the first precept.[108]

There is some debate and controversy surrounding the problem whether a person can commit suicide, such as self-immolation, to reduce other people's suffering in the long run, such as in protest to improve a political situation in a country. Teachers like the Dalai Lama and Shengyan have rejected forms of protest like self-immolation, as well as other acts of self-harming or fasting as forms of protest.[42]

Although capital punishment goes against the first precept, as of 2001, many countries in Asia still maintained the death penalty, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and Taiwan. In some Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, capital punishment was applied during some periods, while during other periods no capital punishment was used at all. In other countries with Buddhism, like China and Taiwan, Buddhism, or religion in general, has no influence in policy decisions of the government. Countries with Buddhism that have abolished capital punishment include Cambodia and Hong Kong.[109]

In general, Buddhist traditions oppose abortion.[65] In many countries with Buddhist traditions such as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, however, abortion is a widespread practice, whether legal or not. Many people in these countries consider abortion immoral, but also think it should be less prohibited. Ethicist Roy W. Perrett, following Ratanakul, argues that this field research data not so much indicates hypocrisy, but rather a "middle way" in application of Buddhist doctrine to solve a moral dilemma. Buddhists tend to take "both sides" on the pro-life–pro-choice debate, being against the taking of life of a fetus in principle, but also believing in compassion toward mothers. Similar attitudes may explain the Japanese mizuko kuyō ceremony, a Buddhist memorial service for aborted children, which has led to a debate in Japanese society concerning abortion, and finally brought the Japanese to a consensus that abortion should not be taken lightly, though legalized. This position, held by Buddhists, takes the middle ground between the Japanese neo-Shinto "pro-life" position, and the "liberationist", "pro-choice" arguments.[110]

Other preceptsEdit

The third precept is usually not connected with a stance against contraception.[111]

The second precept includes different ways of stealing and fraud. Borrowing without permission is sometimes included,[41][88] as well as gambling.[88][112] Psychologist Vanchai Ariyabuddhiphongs did studies in the 2000s and 2010s in Thailand and discovered that people who did not adhere to the five precepts more often tended to believe that money was the most important goal in life, and would more often pay bribes than people who did adhere to the precepts.[113][114] On the other hand, people who observed the five precepts regarded themselves as wealthier and happier than people who did not observe the precepts.[115]

Professions that are seen to violate the second precept are working in the gambling industry or marketing products that are not actually required for the customer.[116]

The third precept is interpreted as avoiding to harm another by using sensuality in the wrong way. This means not engaging with inappropriate partners, but also respecting one's personal commitment to a relationship.[41] In some traditions, the precept also condemns adultery with a woman when her husband agrees with the act, since the nature of the act itself is condemned. Furthermore, flirting with a married woman may also be regarded as a violation.[70][88] With regard to applications of the principles of the third precept, the precept, or any Buddhist principle for that matter, is usually not connected with a stance against contraception.[111][117] In traditional Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, pre-marital sex is considered to violate the precept, though some allowance is made for people who already intend to marry.[118][73] In the interpretation of modern teachers, the precept includes any person in a sexual relationship with another person, as they define the precept by terms such as "sexual responsibility" and "long-term commitment".[70] Some modern teachers include masturbation as a violation of the precept,[77] others include certain professions, such as those that involve sexual exploitation, prostitution or pornography, and professions that promote unhealthy sexual behavior, such as in the entertainment industry.[116]

The fourth precept includes avoidance of lying and harmful speech.[119] Some modern teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh interpret this to include avoiding spreading false news and uncertain information.[77] Work that involves data manipulation, false advertising or online scams can also be included as violations.[116] Terwiel reports that among Thai Buddhists, the fourth precept is also seen broken when people insinuate, exaggerate or speak abusively or deceitfully.[88]

As for the fifth precept, this is regarded as important, because drinking alcohol is condemned for the lack of self-control it leads to,[50] which might lead to breaking the other precepts.[9] In anthropologist Melford Spiro's field studies, violating the fifth precept was seen as the worst of all the five precepts by half of the monks interviewed, citing the harmful consequences.[9] Nevertheless, in practice it is often disregarded.[120] In Thailand, drinking alcohol is fairly common, even drunkenness.[121] Among Tibetans, drinking beer is common, though this is only slightly alcoholic.[83] Medicinal use of alcohol is generally not frowned upon,[118] and in some countries like Thailand and Laos, smoking is usually not regarded as a violation of the precept. Thai and Laotian monks have been known to to smoke, though monks who have received more training are less likely to smoke.[28][122] On a similar note, as of 2000, no Buddhist country prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol, though in Sri Lanka Buddhist revivalists attempted unsuccessfully to get a full prohibition passed in 1956.[28] Moreover, pre-Communist Tibet used to prohibit smoking in some areas of the capital. Monks were prohibited from smoking, and the import of tobacco was banned.[28]

Thich Nhat Hanh also includes the aspect of mindful consumption in this precept, which consists of unhealthy food, unhealthy entertainment and unhealthy conversations, among others.[116][123]

Present trendsEdit

Some scholars have proposed that the five precepts be introduced as a component in mindfulness training programs.

In modern times, adherence to the precepts among Buddhists is less strict than it traditionally was. This is especially true for the third precept. For example, in Cambodia in the 1990s and 2000s, standards with regard to sexual restraint were greatly relaxed.[124] Some Buddhist movements and communities have tried to go against the modern trend of less strict adherence to the precepts. In Cambodia, a millenarian movement led by Chan Yipon promoted the revival of the five precepts.[124] And in the 2010s, the Supreme Sangha Council in Thailand ran a nationwide program called "The Villages Practicing the Five Precepts", aiming to encourage keeping the precepts, with an extensive classification and reward system.[125][126]

In many Western Buddhist organizations, the five precepts play a major role in developing ethical guidelines.[127] Furthermore, Buddhist teachers such as Philip Kapleau, Thich Nhat Hanh and Robert Aitken have promoted mindful consumption in the West, based on the five precepts.[123] Another development in the West is that some scholars working in the field of mindfulness training have proposed that the five precepts be introduced as a component in mindfulness trainings. Specifically, to prevent organizations from using mindfulness training to further an economical agenda with harmful results to its employees, the economy or the environment, the precepts could be used as a standardized ethical framework in mindfulness training programs. As of 2015, several training programs made explicit use of the five precepts as secular, ethical guidelines. However, many mindfulness training specialists consider it problematic to teach the five precepts as part of training programs in secular contexts because of their religious origins and import.[128]

Peace studies scholar Theresa Der-lan Yeh notes that the five precepts address physical, economical, familial and verbal aspects of interaction, and remarks that many conflict prevention programs in schools and communities have integrated the five precepts in their curriculum. On a similar note, peace studies founder Johan Galtung describes the five precepts as the "basic contribution of Buddhism in the creation of peace".[129]

Theory of ethicsEdit

Peace studies founder Johan Galtung describes the five precepts as the "basic contribution of Buddhism in the creation of peace".[130]

Studying lay and monastic ethical practice in traditional Buddhist societies, Spiro argued ethical guidelines such as the five precepts are adhered to as a means to a higher end, that is, a better rebirth or enlightenment. He therefore concluded that Buddhist ethical principles like the five precepts are similar to Western utilitarianism.[42] Keown, however, has argued that the five precepts are regarded as rules that cannot be violated, and therefore may indicate a deontological perspective in Buddhist ethics.[131][132] On the other hand, he has suggested that Aristoteles' virtue ethics could apply as well, since the precepts are considered good in themselves, and mutually dependent on other aspects of the Buddhist path of practice.[133][42]

Keown has further argued that the five precepts are very similar to human rights, with regard to subject matter and with regard to their universal nature. Other scholars, as well as Buddhist writers and human rights advocates, have drawn similar comparisons.[134][135] For example, the following comparisons are drawn:

  1. Keown compares the first precept with the right to life.[136] The Buddhism-informed Cambodian Institute for Human Rights (CIHR) draws the same comparison.[137]
  2. The second precept is compared by Keown and the CIHR with the right of property.[136][137]
  3. The third precept is compared by Keown to the "right to fidelity in marriage";[136] the CIHR construes this broadly as "right of individuals and the rights of society".[138]
  4. The fourth precept Keown compares with the "right not to be lied to";[136] the CIHR writes "the right of human dignity".[138]
  5. Finally, the fifth precept the CIHR compares with the right of individual security and a safe society.[138]

Keown summarizes the relationship between Buddhist precepts and human rights with "look[ing] both ways along the juridical relationship, both what one is due to do, and to what is due to one".[139][138] On a similar note, Cambodian human rights advocates have argued that for human rights to be fully implemented in society, the strengthening of individual morality must also be addressed.[138]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The fifth precept has also been connected with right mindfulness.[9]
  2. ^ Not to be confused with the early Buddhist Brahmajala Sutta.


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External linksEdit