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The five precepts (Pali: pañcasīla; Sanskrit: pañcaśīla) or rules of training (Pali: sikkhapada; Sanskrit: śikṣapada[1]) 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 harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.

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

Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices. They are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that lay people undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice.[2]


Role in Buddhist doctrineEdit

Śīla (Sanskrit; Pali: sīla) is used to refer to Buddhist precepts,[3] including the five.[1] 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.[1] The five precepts are part of the right speech, action and livelihood aspects of the eight-fold path, the core teaching of Buddhism.[4][1] Moreover, the practice of the five precepts and other parts of śīla are forms of merit-making, means to create good karma.[5]

The five precepts also form the basis of the eight precepts, which are a stricter level of precepts for laypeople, similar to monastic precepts.[1][6] Secondly, the five precepts form the first half of the ten or eleven Mahāyāna precepts, as mentioned in the Brahmajala Sutra,[7] a text believed to have been composed in China.[1]


In Pāli traditionEdit

The following are the five precepts,[8] rendered in English and Pāli:[9][10][11]

1. I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing. Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
2. I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given. Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
3. I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct. Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
4. I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech. Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness. 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, liquor and drugs, etc. The monastic discipline allows the use of alcohol when taken as part of medicinal treatments.[12]

In Chinese Mahāyāna traditionEdit

The format of the ceremony for taking the precepts occurs several times in the Chinese texts, in slightly different forms,[13][14][15] and each temple or tradition has different ordination ceremonies.

One ceremonial version 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.

The same treatise outlines the option of undertaking fewer than all five precepts,[16] though nearly all modern ceremonies involve undertaking all five precepts.[citation needed] Some modern teachers, such as the Taiwanese teacher Yin-Shun, have used simplified formulas for the five precepts.[17]

Textual analysisEdit

Buddhist scriptures explain the five precepts as the minimal standards of Buddhist morality.[18] They are regarded as means to building good character, or as an expression of such character. The texts also describe the precepts as ways for devotees to avoid harm to themselves and others.[19] In the Pāli Canon, the five precepts are described as gifts toward oneself and others.[20] Moreover, the Buddha mentions the consequences of breaking the precepts.[21][22]

The precepts are normative rules, but are usually not understood as commandments enforced by a moral authority,[23][24] according to the voluntary and gradualist standards of Buddhist ethics.[25] The precepts are forms of restraint, but are also accompanied by virtues.[6][26] There are several virtues which are the principles behind the precepts, and are cultivated through them.[3] The most important of these is non-harming (Pāli and Sanskrit: ahiṃsa),[27][28] which underlies all of the five precepts.[6]

In the upholding or violation of the precepts, intention is crucial. In the Pāli scriptures, an example is mentioned of a person stealing an animal only to set it free, which was not seen as an offense of theft.[29] 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.[30]

The first precept prohibits the taking of life of a sentient being. It is violated when someone intentionally kills such a sentient being, having understood it to be sentient.[30] This includes taking the lives of animals, even small insects. Nevertheless, it has also been pointed out that the seriousness of taking life depends on the size, intelligence 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.[31][30] The first precept is not motivated by a principle of preserving life, but rather by respect for dignity of life.[28] Other virtues that accompany this precept are kindness and compassion.[6]

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 are also included in theft.[30] Accompanying virtues are generosity and renunciation.[6][26] The third precept involves bad sexual behavior against women that are "protected", "claimed" or "acquired". The transgression is regarded as more severe if the other person is a good person.[32] A virtue that goes hand-in-hand with the third precept is contentment with one's partner.[6] The fourth precept involves falsehood spoken or committed to by action, which is considered more serious if the falsehood is motivated by a serious ulterior motive (rather than, for example, spoken as a joke).[32] The accompanying virtue is honesty.[6][26] The fifth precept prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs or other means, and its virtue is mindfulness and responsibility.[26] The importance of awareness, meditation heedfulness in Buddhist doctrine is clarified by the last words ascribed to the Buddha, in which awareness of mind has a central role.[33]

Upholding the precepts is sometimes distinguished in three levels: to uphold them without having formally undertaken them, to uphold them formally, willing to sacrifice our own life for it, and finally, to spontaneously uphold them.[34] The latter refers to enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who are understood to be morally incapable of violating the first four precepts.[35]

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 enlightened disciple, killing one's father or mother, and causing the monastic community to have a schism.[6]

In practiceEdit

Lay followers often undertake these training rules in the same ceremony as they take the refuges.[1][36] In Mahāyāna schools, a lay practitioner who has taken the precepts is called an upāsaka or upāsikā (layman or laywoman).[citation needed] In Theravāda Buddhism, any lay follower is in theory called an upāsaka or upāsikā; in practice, everyone is expected to take the precepts. Additionally, traditional Theravāda lay devotional practice (Pali: pūja) includes daily rituals taking refuge and undertaking to observe the five precepts. Thus, the five precepts are at the core of Buddhist morality. Nevertheless, Buddhists do not all follow them with the same strictness.[8] 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.[37]

The first preceptEdit

A 1966 survey in Cambodia showed that Buddhists considered the first precept the most important.[8] 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.[8] The prohibition on killing has motivated early Buddhists to form a stance against animal sacrifice, a common ritual practice in ancient India.[27][38] It did not, at least according to the Pāli Canon, lead them to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, however.[38][6] 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.[39] In modern times, however, referring to the law of supply and demand, some Theravādin Buddhists have attempted to promote vegetarianism as part of the five precepts.[24] 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 in accordance with the five precepts. Vegetarianism as part of the precepts has mostly been practiced in East Asian countries,[6] as some later Mahāyāna texts, such as the Mahāparanirvana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, condemn the eating of meat.[26] Nevertheless, even among Mahāyāna Buddhist—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 they cultivated their own crops for food, rather than living from alms.[33]

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 political 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 fasting or other acts of self-harming.[25]

The first precept does not include an absolute prohibition of termination of pregnancy, but this is considered very much unwanted.[40]

Other preceptsEdit

The second precept includes different ways of stealing and fraud. Borrowing without permission is sometimes also included.

The third precept is interpreted as harming another by using sensuality in the wrong way. It involves engaging with inappropriate partners, but also respecting one's commitment to a relationship.[24] 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.[41] The third precept is not connected with a stance against contraception.[40]

The fourth precept includes avoidance of lying and harmful speech.[42] Some practitioners view it as refraining from not just lying, but also idle chat and gossip.[citation needed]

As for the fifth precept, this is regarded as important, because drinking alcohol is condemned for the lack of self-control it leads to.[29] Nevertheless, in practice it is often disregarded.[43]

At the social and institutional levelEdit

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.[44][45] 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 a guiding principle.[46]


The five precepts were part of early Buddhism and are common to nearly all schools of Buddhism.[47] In Early Buddhism, the five precepts were regarded as an ethic of restraint, to restraint unwholesome tendencies and thereby purify one's being.[48]

Sometimes the five precepts were adapted in difficult circumstances. E.g. the Chinese Buddhist monk Wŏn'gwang (541 – 630?) developed a new interpretation of the five precepts, in which killing of certain people was allowed, and which included gratitude to parents and loyalty to authorities.[49]

Revival movementsEdit

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.[41] 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.[50][51]

Implications for theory of ethicsEdit

Studying lay and monastic ethical practice in traditional Buddhist societies, anthropologist Melford 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.[25] Bioethicist Damien Keown, however, has observed that the five precepts are regarded as rules that cannot be violated, and therefore may indicate a deontological perspective in Buddhist ethics.[52] 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.[53][25] Philosopher William Edelglass points out that the precepts are based on virtues.[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Getz, Daniel A. (2004). "Precepts". In Buswell, Robert E. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson Gale. p. 673. ISBN 0-02-865720-9. 
  2. ^ McFarlane, Stewart (2001). Harvey, Peter, ed. Buddhism. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 187. 
  3. ^ a b c Edelglass 2013, p. 479.
  4. ^ Powers 2013, āryāṣtāṅga-mārga.
  5. ^ Osto, Douglas (2015). "Merit". In Powers, John. The Buddhist World. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-42016-3. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Cozort, Daniel (2015). "Ethics". In Powers, John. The Buddhist World. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-42016-3. 
  7. ^ Cozort & Shields 2018, Dōgen, The Bodhisattva Path according to the Ugra.
  8. ^ a b c d Ledgerwood 2008, p. 152.
  9. ^ "Access to Insight: the Panca Sila (with Pali)". Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  10. ^ "Buddhist Ethics". buddhanet. Retrieved December 6, 2013. 
  11. ^ Elgiriye Indaratana (2002), p. 2.
  12. ^ Horner, I.B. (1969). The Book of the discipline. (Vinaya-Piṭaka). Sacred books of the Buddhists. 13. Luzac. pp. 385–6. 
  13. ^ "CBETA T18 No. 916". Archived from the original on 2012-07-31. Retrieved 2012-12-10. 
  14. ^ "CBETA T24 No. 1488". 2008-08-30. Archived from the original on 2012-07-31. Retrieved 2012-12-10. 
  15. ^ "CBETA X60 No. 1129¡mÂk§Ùn¶°¡n¨÷3". 2008-08-30. Archived from the original on 2012-07-31. Retrieved 2012-12-10. 
  16. ^ starting on line 0682c05(07) Archived 2008-11-23 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Yin-Shun, Venerable (1998). Wing H. Yeung, M.D., ed. The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master. Translated by Wing H. Yeung. Wisdom Publications. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-231-11286-6. 
  18. ^ Gowans, Christopher W. (2013). "Ethical Thought in Indian Buddhism" (PDF). In Emmanuel, Steven M. A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (1st ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-470-65877-2. 
  19. ^ MacKenzie 2017, p. 2.
  20. ^ "Abhisanda Sutta" [Rewards]. Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight. 1997. AN 8.39. Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  21. ^ AN 8.40 (Thanissaro, 1997c).
  22. ^ AN 4.111 "Kesi Sutta: To Kesi the Horsetrainer" (Thanissaro, 1997)
  23. ^ Keown 2003, p. 268.
  24. ^ a b c Meadow 2006, p. 88.
  25. ^ a b c d Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2004). "Ethics". Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson Gale. ISBN 0-02-865720-9 – via 
  26. ^ a b c d e Gwynne, Paul (2017). "The Buddhist Pancasila". World Religions in Practice: A Comparative Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-97227-4. 
  27. ^ a b "Ahiṃsā". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press. 1997 – via 
  28. ^ a b Keown 2013, p. 616.
  29. ^ a b Mcdermott 1989, p. 275.
  30. ^ a b c d Leaman 2000, p. 139.
  31. ^ Mcdermott 1989, pp. 271–2.
  32. ^ a b Leaman 2000, p. 140.
  33. ^ a b Gwynne, Paul (2017). "Ahiṃsa and Samādhi". World Religions in Practice: A Comparative Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-97227-4. 
  34. ^ Leaman 2000, p. 141.
  35. ^ Keown 2003, p. 1.
  36. ^ "Festivals and Calendrical Rituals". Encyclopedia of Buddhism. The Gale Group. 2004 – via 
  37. ^ MacKenzie 2017, p. 10.
  38. ^ a b Mcdermott 1989, p. 273.
  39. ^ Mcdermott 1989, pp. 273–4, 276.
  40. ^ a b Eugenics and Religious Law: IV. Hinduism and Buddhism. Encyclopedia of Bioethics. The Gale Group. 2004 – via 
  41. ^ a b Ledgerwood 2008, p. 153.
  42. ^ Powers 2013, pañca-śīla.
  43. ^ Neumaier, Eva (2006). Riggs, Thomas, ed. Buddhism: Māhayāna Buddhism. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Thomson Gale. p. 78. ISBN 0-7876-9390-1. 
  44. ^ Queen, Christopher S. (2013). "Socially Engaged Buddhism: Emerging Patterns of Theory and Practice" (PDF). In Emmanuel, Steven M. A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (1st ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 532. ISBN 978-0-470-65877-2. 
  45. ^ "Engaged Buddhism". Encyclopedia of Religion. Thomson Gale. 2005 – via 
  46. ^ Ledgerwood 2008, p. 154.
  47. ^ Keown 2003, p. 210.
  48. ^ Cozort & Shields 2018, Precepts in Early and Theravāda Buddhism.
  49. ^ Hee-Sung Keel (2004). "Korea" (PDF). In Buswell, Robert E. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Macmillan Reference USA, Thomson Gale. p. 431. ISBN 0-02-865720-9. 
  50. ^ สมเด็จวัดปากน้ำชงหมูบ้านรักษาศีล 5 ให้อปท.ชวนประชาชนยึดปฎิบัติ  [Wat Paknam's Somdet proposes the Five Precept Village for local administrators to persuade the public to practice]. Khao Sod (in Thai). Matichon Publishing. 15 October 2013. p. 31. Retrieved 18 January 2017 – via Matichon E-library. 
  51. ^ 39 ล้านคนร่วมหมู่บ้านศีล 5 สมเด็จพระมหารัชมังคลาจารย์ ย้ำทำต่อเนื่อง [39 million people have joined Villages Practicing Five Precepts, Somdet Phra Maharatchamangalacharn affirms it should be continued]. Thai Rath (in Thai). Wacharapol. 11 March 2017. Archived from the original on 21 November 2017. 
  52. ^ Keown 2013, p. 618.
  53. ^ Edelglass 2013, p. 481.


External linksEdit