Five precepts

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Translations of
Five Precepts
Pali pañcasīla
Sanskrit pañcaśīla
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
(UNGEGN: Sel[1])
Korean 오계
(RR: ogye)
Mon သဳ မသုန်
([sɔe pəsɔn])
Sinhalese පන්සිල්
(pan sil[2])
Thai เบญจศีล, ศีล ๕
(RTGS: Benchasin, Sin Ha)
Vietnamese Ngũ giới
Indonesian Pancasila
Glossary of Buddhism

The five precepts (Pali: pañcasīla; Sanskrit: pañcaśīla) or rules of training (Pali: sikkhapada; Sanskrit: śikṣapada[3]) 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.

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

Role in Buddhist doctrine

Buddhist scriptures explain the five precepts as the minimal standard of Buddhist morality.[4] It is the most important system of morality in Buddhism, together with the monastic rules.[5] Śīla (Sanskrit; Pali: sīla) is used to refer to Buddhist precepts,[6] including the five.[3] 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.[3] The five precepts are part of the right speech, action and livelihood aspects of the eight-fold path, the core teaching of Buddhism.[7][3] Moreover, the practice of the five precepts and other parts of śīla are forms of merit-making, means to create good karma.[8][9] Finally, the five precepts have been described as social values that bring harmony to society.[10][11]

Wheel with eight spokes, with the different aspects of the Buddhist eight-fold written on them
The eight-fold path, of which the five precepts are part.

Comparing different Budhdist teachings, the five precepts form the basis of the eight precepts, which are lay precepts stricter than the five precepts, similar to monastic precepts.[3][12] Secondly, the five precepts form the first half of the ten or eleven Mahāyāna precepts, as mentioned in the Brahmajala Sūtra,[13] a text believed to have been composed in China.[3] 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).[5][14]

History

The five precepts were part of early Buddhism and are common to nearly all schools of Buddhism.[15] In early Buddhism, the five precepts were regarded as an ethic of restraint, to restraint unwholesome tendencies and thereby purify one's being.[16] Although the five precepts were common in the Indian religious milieu of the time, the Buddha's emphasis on awareness (Pali: appamāda) was unique.[17] When Buddhism was introduced in China, abstinence from alcohol was mostly promoted by Buddhist teachers, since Daoism and other thought systems emphasized moderation rather than full abstinence. This Buddhist abstinence was based on the teaching of the five precepts, and was interpreted strictly. The monk Daoshi (c. 600–83) dedicated large sections of his encyclopedic writings to abstinence from alcohol. These strict attitudes of abstinence indirectly led to a development of a distinct tea culture among Chinese monastics and lay intellectuals.[18]

Formulas

In Pāli tradition

The following are the five precepts, rendered in English and Pāli:[19][20]

  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.

In other textual traditions

The format of the ceremony for taking the precepts occurs several times in the Chinese Buddhist canon, in slightly different forms,[21] 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,[22] 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.[23]

Similarly, in the Mūla-Sarvāstivāda texts used in Tibetan Buddhism, a statement is included as part of the formula to the effect that one takes the precepts upon oneself for one's entire lifespan, following the examples of the enlightened disciples of the Buddha (arahant).[19]

Textual analysis

Principles

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

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.[24] It further describes the precepts as gifts toward oneself and others.[25] Moreover, the texts say that people who uphold the precepts will be confident in any gathering of people,[5] will have wealth and a good reputation, and will die a peaceful death, reborn in heaven[19] or as a human being. On the other side, living a life in violation of the precepts is believed to lead to rebirth in an unhappy destination.[5]

The precepts are normative rules, but are formulated and understood as "undertakings"[26] rather than commandments enforced by a moral authority,[27][28] according to the voluntary and gradualist standards of Buddhist ethics.[29] They are forms of restraint formulated in negative terms, but are also accompanied by virtues and positive behaviors,[12][30][10] which are cultivated through the practice of the precepts.[6] The most important of these is non-harming (Pāli and Sanskrit: ahiṃsa),[31][32] which underlies all of the five precepts.[12] Precisely, the texts say that one should keep the precepts, adhering to the principle of comparing oneself with others:[33]

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).[35]

Two pendants of amber
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. 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.[36] 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.[37]

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.[38] The latter refers to the arahant, who is understood to be morally incapable of violating the first four precepts.[39] A layperson who upholds the precepts is described in the texts as a "jewel among laymen".[40] 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.[12]

Each of the precepts

Couple on day of marriage
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.[37][41] Injury goes against the spirit of the precept, but does, technically speaking, not violate it.[42] 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 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.[43][37] The first precept is not motivated by a principle of preserving life, but rather by respect for dignity of life.[32] Other virtues that accompany this precept are kindness and compassion,[12] expressed as "trembling for the welfare of others".[44] A positive behavior that goes together with this precept is protecting living beings.[10]

The description of the first precept can be interpreted as a prohibition of abortion, since in an act of abortion, the criteria for violation are all met.[41] Ordering another person to kill is also included in this precept,[42][45] therefore requesting or administering euthanasia can be considered a violation of the precept.[45]

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.[37][46] Accompanying virtues are generosity and renunciation,[12][30] and a positive behavior is the protection of other people's property.[10]

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. Rape and incest are also breaches of this precept.[47] In later texts, details such as intercourse at an inappropriate time or inappropriate place are also counted as a breach of the third precept.[48] Masturbation goes against the spirit of the precept, though in the early texts it is not prohibited for laypeople.[49][50]

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.[49][50] Virtues that go hand-in-hand with the third precept are contentment, especially with one's partner,[12][44] and recognition and respect for faithfulness in a marriage.[10]

Glass of red wine
The fifth precept prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs or other means.[30]

The fourth precept involves falsehood spoken or committed to by action.[49] Avoiding other forms of wrong speech are also considered part of this precept,[51] consisting of malicious speech, harsh speech and gossip.[52] A breach of the precept is considered more serious if the falsehood is motivated by an ulterior motive[49] (rather than, for example, "a small white lie").[53] The accompanying virtue is being honest and dependable.[12][44] In Buddhist texts, this precept is considered most important next to the first one, because a lying person is regarded to have no shame, and therefore capable of many wrongs.[51] Truthfulness is not only to be avoided because it harms others, but also because it goes against the Buddhist ideal of finding the truth.[53]

The fifth precept prohibits intoxication through alcohol, drugs or other means, and its virtues are mindfulness and responsibility.[30][10] 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.[54] 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.[55] Early Chinese translations of the Tripitaka describe negative consequences for the person breaking the fifth precept, for himself and his family. The "Upāsikaśila Sūtra" speaks of ill consequences such as loss of wealth, ill health, a bad reputation and "stupidity", concluding in a rebirth in hell. The Dīrghāgama adds to that that alcohol leads to quarreling, negative states of mind and damage to one's intelligence. The Chinese version of the "Brahmajāla Sūtra" describes the dangers of alcohol in very strong terms, including the selling of alcohol.[56]

In practice

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh has written about the five precepts with regard to social and institutional relations.

Lay followers often undertake these training rules in the same ceremony as they take the refuges,[3][57] In Theravāda Buddhism, this ceremony also implies that one is a Buddhist layperson (upāsaka for a layman and upāsikā for a laywoman), as there is no other ceremony for conversion.[2]

The five precepts are at the core of Buddhist morality. Nevertheless, Buddhists do not all follow them with the same strictness.[20] 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.[58] Researchers doing field studies in traditional Buddhist societies have found that the five precepts are generally considered demanding and challenging.[59] 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.[60] Yet, people do uphold them out of fear of being reborn in hell or because they believe in that the Buddha issued these rules, and that they therefore should be maintained.[61]

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.[62][63] 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.[64]

The first precept

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama has rejected forms of protest that are self-harming.[29]

Field studies in Cambodia and Burma have shown that Buddhists considered the first precept the most important, or the most blamable.[20][42] 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.[20] The prohibition on killing has motivated early Buddhists to form a stance against animal sacrifice, a common ritual practice in ancient India.[31][65] It did not, at least according to the Pāli Canon, lead them to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, however.[65][12] 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.[66] In modern times, however, 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.[28][67]

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.[12]

Though vegetarianism among Theravādins is generally uncommon, it has been practiced much in East Asian countries,[12] as some Mahāyāna texts, such as the Mahāparanirvana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, condemn the eating of meat.[30][68] 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.[54] Already from the 4th century CE, Chinese writer Xi Chao understood the five precepts to include vegetarianism.[68]

Signals used to indicate vegetarian or non-vegetarian food
In Buddhism, there are different opinions about whether vegetarianism should be practiced.[12]

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.[69]

In general, the first precept has been interpreted by Buddhists as a call for non-violence. However, there have been exceptions. 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.[70] 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.[29]

The first precept does not include an absolute prohibition of termination of pregnancy, but this is considered very much unwanted.[71]

Other precepts

The second precept includes different ways of stealing and fraud. Borrowing without permission is sometimes included,[28][46] as well as gambling.[46][72] 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.[73][74] On the other hand, people who observed the five precepts regarded themselves as wealthier and happier than people who did not observe the precepts.[75]

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.[76]

Contraception pills
The third precept is usually not connected with a stance against contraception[71]

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.[28] 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.[47] With regard to applications of the principles of the third precept, the precept is usually not connected with a stance against contraception.[71] 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.[77][50] 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".[47] Some modern teachers include masturbation as a violation of the precept,[51] others include certain professions, such as working in a profession that involves sexual exploitation, prostitution or pornography, and professions that promote unhealthy sexual behavior, such as the entertainment industry.[76]

The fourth precept includes avoidance of lying and harmful speech.[78] Some modern teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh interpret this to include avoiding spreading false news and uncertain information.[51] Work that involves data manipulation, false advertising or online scams can also be included.[76]

As for the fifth precept, this is regarded as important, because drinking alcohol is condemned for the lack of self-control it leads to.[36] Nevertheless, in practice it is often disregarded.[79] Medicinal use of alcohol is generally not frowned upon,[77] and in some countries like Laos, smoking is usually not regarded as a violation. Laotian monks have been known to to smoke, though monks who have received more training are less likely to smoke.[80] 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.[76]

Present trends

Woman giving a workshop in a classroom
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.[81] 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.[81] 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.[82][83]

In many Western Buddhist organizations, the five precepts play a major role in developing ethical guidelines.[84] 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 an 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 origin and import.[85]

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".[86]

Implications for theory of ethics

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.[29] 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.[87][88] 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.[89][29]

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. Several Buddhist writers have drawn similar comparisons.[90]

See also

Citations

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References

External links

  • Aitken, Robert (1984). The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics. NY: North Point Press. ISBN 0-86547-158-4.
  • "Access to Insight: the Panca Sila (with Pali)". Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  • Bullitt, John T. (2005). The Five Precepts: Pañca-sila. Retrieved 2008-02-15 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/pancasila.html.
  • Khantipalo (1982). Lay Buddhist Practice: The Shrine Room, Uposatha Day, Rains Residence (Wheel No. 206/207). Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2008-02-15 from "Access to Insight" (1995) at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel206.html.
  • "Buddhist Ethics". buddhanet. Retrieved December 6, 2013. 
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