The 5 Precepts
The 5 Precepts are the basic moral code of conduct for Buddhist practitioners, they provide guidance on how to live a life conducive to one's long term benefit and well-being by reducing any potential harm we may cause whether intentionally or not.
A Brief Overview
The Five Precepts are:
1. Refrain from killing
2. Refrain from stealing
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
4. Refrain from lying
5. Refrain from intoxicants
The Precepts as Traffic Lights
You can think of the precepts like traffic lights, they aren't there to limit you, they are there to protect both you and those around you, and to help you cultivate strength of will.
While you don't have to stop at a red light you probably should. Why? Because anything could happen, sure you may run the light and have nothing happen, but more likely you may get a ticket, you may total your car, or you may injure or kill somebody. None of which would have happened if you just didn't run the light in the first place.
Just as we are able to be more at ease while driving when we learn and pay attention to the rules of the road, we become able to live life more at ease when we make an effort to pay attention to how we are living and begin following the precepts.
In short, by observing the precepts, not only do you cultivate your awareness and moral strength, but you also perform a great service to your fellow beings, by being resolved to not perform actions that may cause harm.
An Exploration of the Precepts
1. Refrain from Killing
One must not deliberately harm or kill any living creatures of any kind, either by committing the act oneself, instructing others to kill, or approving of or participating in the act of killing. Coming from a place of respect for all creatures' lives.
In observing the first precept, one tries to protect life whenever possible. Furthermore, one cultivates the attitude of loving kindness to all beings by wishing that they may be happy and free from harm.
Some karmic effects of killing are: a shortened life, ill health, and fear.
2. Refrain from Stealing
One must not take something that is not given, neither by stealing, by force, nor by fraud or deception. Besides these, one should avoid misusing money or property belonging to the public or other persons. Instead coming from a place of respecting others property and their right to own things.
In a broader sense, the second precept also means that one should not evade one’s responsibilities. If an employee is lazy and neglects the duties or tasks assigned to him, they are, in a way, "stealing" time that should have been spent on their work.
In its broadest sense, observing the second precept also means cultivating the virtue of generosity, giving to those in need. Offering sympathy and encouragement to those who are hurt or discouraged. Being generous in gifts to friends and loved ones repaying the advice, guidance, and kindness they have received from them.
It is said, however, that the most profound of all gifts is the gift of the Dharma in the form of embodying it.
Some karmic effects of stealing are: poverty, misery, and disappointment.
3. Refrain from Sexual Misconduct
One abstains from causing harm through their sexual behavior including the more obvious acts of sexual assault, rape, adultery, and encouraging someone to break a vow of celibacy.
In a broader sense, the third precept also requires us to take a closer look at how we are pursuing our sexual craving, are we taking advantage of someone? Does the other party perceive the act in the same way that we do? Are we relying on a misunderstanding? Are we being manipulative to get what we want? Is this meaningful? Is this something that we will eventually regret or be ashamed of?
There are many questions we can ask centered around our intentions when pursuing and engaging in sexual activities to get a clearer picture of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and if we are causing any harm to either ourselves or the other party whether directly or indirectly.
It's a matter of having respect for people and personal relationships.
Some karmic effects of sexual misconduct are: having enemies, being hated, and having unhealthy relationships.
4. Refrain from Lying
One abstains from telling lies while showing respect for the truth.
Noticing the ways we go about lying to ourselves is one of the main aspects of the practice.
If we make a habit out of lying to others, it also makes it more difficult for us to be honest with ourselves, when we are not honest with ourselves we don’t notice the ways in which we cause pain to both ourselves and the people close to us. As we find ourselves making all sorts of excuses and justifications for our unskillful and harmful actions, it gradually becomes more and more difficult to take accountability, to really look at what we’re saying and doing.
Positive lasting change in our lives starts with honest self reflection, no good comes from telling lies, be it out of fun or malice. When one observes the fourth precept, they refrain from telling lies or half-truths that exaggerate or understate, and instead cultivate the virtue of truthfulness.
By practicing truthfulness we begin to know ourselves, by knowing ourselves we learn more deeply what we need to work on, and what changes we need to make in our lives
Some Karmic effects of lying are: Indecisiveness, self-deception, and being seen as untrustworthy.
5. Refrain from Taking Intoxicants
One abstains from taking Intoxicants such as: ‘recreational’ drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and anything else that muddies the mind.
Buddhism places an emphasis on clear-mindedness and discernment, while taking intoxicants has the opposite effect, descending the mind into dullness and confusion.
Although It can sometimes seem like taking intoxicants is not hurting anyone, it is all too easy to take things too far, for example if we are drunk and blackout we may easily commit harmful deeds and hurt others. One who breaks this precept will tend to break most if not all of the other precepts along with it.
Not to mention a majority of these substances are not only harmful for the mind, they are also harmful to our health.
The fifth precept is based on respect for physical and mental health and well being. It guards against the loss of control over one’s mind. It is particularly important to those who meditate because, by refraining from altering the state of the mind, they can more easily and consistently cultivate awareness, attention and clarity of mind. Thus the observance of the fifth precept not only contributes to happiness in the family and peace in society, it also prepares a person for the practice of Mental Development.
Some Karmic effects of taking intoxicants are: confusion, addiction, and ill health.
For the question “what about psychedelics though?” see this excerpt from: It’s the Journey, Not the Trip
For an alternate interpretation of the precepts see: Thich Nath Hanh's Five Mindfulness Trainings
The Eight Precepts
The 8 Precepts are an expansion of the 5 precepts, and are intended to be observed by a lay-practitioner (someone who isn't a nun or monk) during certain ‘observance days’ or if they are at a monastery or on a meditation retreat.
They are aimed at supporting a deeper level of practice by temporarily reducing outside influences and creature comforts.
They are as follows:
3. Sexual misconduct temporarily gets changed to celibacy. - In order to maintain internal focus and reduce sensory desire.
6. Refraining from eating after noon & before dawn. - To practice moderation, and to cut down on obsessing over food.
7a. Refraining from dancing, singing, music, watching shows - To reduce outside narratives and perceptions in order to be with our own thoughts, and to prevent disturbing or distracting other meditators.
7b. Wearing garlands, beautifying with perfumes & cosmetics. - To set aside thoughts and worries of how we look and present ourselves, to practice restraint of the senses, and to prevent disturbing or distracting other meditators who may have sensory sensitivities.
8. Refraining from high & luxurious seats & beds. - To reduce laziness and make it easier to wake up for morning meditation, as monasteries tend to have particularly early mornings.
The Precepts of Nuns and Monks
A fully ordained monk observes 227 precepts, while a fully ordained nun observes 311.
These precepts span over a range of activities, they include guidelines for supporting individual practice, personal safety, interacting with lay-people, and cultivating a safe and well functioning community setting.
When visiting a monastery it is worth keeping this in mind, being respectful of the nuns or monks boundaries - especially physical ones - and understanding that certain behaviors may be due to these guidelines and are not necessarily a reflection of the monastics preference or bias as some may assume.
When the Buddha ordained the first monks and nuns he didn’t set out with this long list of rules, almost all of these precepts arose in response to a detrimental situation that occurred in order to guard against that situation happening again.
These precepts along with the stories that led to them are recorded In the Vinaya (Buddhist Monastic Code) for anyone curious about exploring them further there is a online version of the Monastic Code available at dhammatalks.org