The Five Precepts

Many people have poor opinions of spiritual paths because of their rules. Parents may have applied those rules in a heavy-handed way. Some rules may have served a purpose at one time, but don’t any longer. Others seem to do little more than curb the enjoyment of life, and still others support the continuation of social practices that are immoral, such as discrimination.

People following the Buddha’s path to enlightenment are presented with rules of training that are known as precepts. They aren’t punitive, and serve the purpose of helping a meditator live with the kind of tranquility of life that is conducive to successful practice. Taking them on means you won’t have to be living with the anxiety of being caught having done something inappropriate – like stealing from an employer or passing along gossip. That kind of anxiety can preoccupy a meditator when they should be watching the rise and fall. Taking them on also means we live in relative harmony with those around us, and that helps create a more peaceful life as well.

For householders, there are five precepts. The first is to refrain from killing or harming. Most, if not all, societies treat these offences very seriously, and someone committing them often has to live on the run. It would be hard to imagine a killer fleeing from the police having the kind of mental life needed to make meditative progress.

The second is to refrain from stealing or, to set a higher standard, taking that which is not specifically given. People often ignore this in the workplace: taking photocopies for personal use, stealing food belonging to others in the fridge, and conducting personal business on company time. I once worked at a staffing agency that had an outside sales representative who wasn’t bringing in much business. The branch manager discovered that the rep was actually in the process of visiting prospective clients for his new import-export business when he was on agency time – drawing his salary, and having his expenses covered. The whole agency became quite angry when he was finally found out.

The third precept is to refrain from inappropriate sexual conduct. Clearly, adultery would fall into this category. Adulterers often have to go to great lengths to conceal their activities and live in fear of being caught. Such affairs do great harm, and many marriages do not survive them.

The fourth precept is to refrain from improper speech – lying, spreading rumours, slandering, gossip, and the like. While the child’s rhyme ends “but names will never hurt me,” words do have the ability to harm reputations and damage relationships. Further, people who don’t guard their speech are often burdened with the anxiety that they will be found out for what they’ve done. Exercising discretion in the first place makes one’s daily living much easier.

Finally, the fifth precept is to avoid intoxication. Alcoholics and addicts know the grip drugs and alcohol can have on a life. They impair the ability to meditate when in use, and the obsession for them can take over the mind even when they aren’t being consumed. As well, some people “black out” when they drink or use – continuing to function but with no ability to recall what happened to them later. They can experience a lot of fear when they “come to” realize they have no idea what has taken place, or even where they are.

When on retreat, meditators often undertake eight precepts. The eight include some modifications of the five mentioned above plus three additions. Again, the purpose is to contribute to the tranquility of the mind, and maintain harmony in the retreat setting.

Put into consistent practice, The Five Precepts lead to a life free of blame and shame. In addition to supporting meditative work, this freedom is a reward on its own, and is well worth pursuing.



Jason Smith is a Customer Analyst at Economical Insurance doing process analysis, business analysis and business consulting. He is also an insight meditation teacher and author currently taking on new students. Anyone who wants to learn about and practice the Buddha’s way to enlightenment can reach him at Jason lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and is willing to consider working with students from outside this area by phone or Internet.


2 comments so far

  1. Hels on

    Great blog.

    I have no problem at all with four of the five precepts and would hope that they would be the basis for most moral peoples’ ethics, regardless of their religious affiliation.

    But the first is to refrain from killing or harming. If it is only killing or harming human beings, it is a very limited precept. If it includes all animal life, most people would struggle to live up to the ideal and would, in the end, fail dismally.

  2. paxicab on

    The precept is not limited to human life. In fact, the Buddha identified five kinds of businesses that are harmful to undertake:

    1. Business in weapons: trading in all kinds of weapons and instruments for killing.

    2. Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.

    3. Business in meat: “meat” refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.

    4. Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.

    5. Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of toxic product designed to kill.

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