By taking the precepts, we put our beliefs into practice. After Buddhist practitioners take refuge, they should take a further step by taking the precepts because these precepts are the root of all good things and the basis for all moral conduct. When we follow the precepts, it is like students following the rules of their school or citizens abiding by the law. The only difference is that rules and laws are external forces that regulate our behavior. They are, therefore, considered to be enforced discipline. However, the Buddhist precepts inspire the inner force of self-regulation. This is considered self-discipline. If we do not uphold the precepts, we may make mistakes all the time and bring ourselves misfortune. This is why it is important for Buddhist practitioners to take the precepts.
The five precepts are: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from lying, refrain from sexual misconduct, and refrain from consuming intoxicants. It is asked in the Samyukta Agama, what it means to fully uphold the lay precepts. The sutra says that laypeople “should stay away from killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, and consuming intoxicants. Furthermore, they should not wish to commit them. This is called ‘fully upholding the lay precepts.’”
Although the precepts in Buddhism are divided into different sets of monastic precepts and lay precepts, the five precepts are the basis of them all. The five precepts are also called the fundamental precepts of Buddhism.
Refrain from Killing
To refrain from killing, broadly speaking, is about not violating or harming the lives of others. Any taking of life is considered killing, from grave offenses such as killing a human being, to less serious cases such as killing ants or mice. However, Buddhism is a religion that emphasizes human beings, so the precept against killing most specifically refers to refraining from killing human beings. In the Vinaya, the monastic precepts, killing a human being is one of the most serious offenses, such that any monastic who commits such an offense is immediately expelled from the monastic community. Killing cockroaches, ants and the like is considered an act of wrongdoing, so while it still will carry with it negative karmic effects, it is not on the same level as killing a human being.
Other things like wasting time or squandering material resources can be considered “killing.” This is because life is the accumulation of time, so when we waste time, it is like taking a life. Similarly, when we casually destroy material resources, it is also taking away life. This is because material resources belong to all sentient beings, and require the effort of sentient beings to bring about the right conditions for them to come into being.
The main purpose of this precept to refrain from killing is to encourage us to nurture our compassion. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra says, “Those who eat meat cut off the seed of great compassion. Whether they are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, when other sentient beings smell the odor of meat on them, it causes fear and terror.” Some Buddhists become vegetarians because they cannot bear to harm chickens, ducks, pigs, lambs, cows, fish, and other animals. However, many also become vegetarians for the sake of cultivating compassion.
Refrain from Stealing
To refrain from stealing is to avoid taking the property and belongings of others. To put it simply, when we take things that do not belong to us without permission, it is stealing. Taking the property of others by force in broad daylight is a more serious violation of the precept. According to the Vinaya, if one takes something worth more than five coins (in ancient Magadha currency), it is a violation of the precept.
If we take paper, envelopes, pens, or other supplies from our workplace, or if we borrow things and do not return them, we are engaging in impure conduct. Although it does not break a fundamental precept, we still have to suffer the negative karmic effects and be held responsible for it. Of all the precepts, the hardest to uphold is the precept of not stealing, because we often borrow things for a short period of time and do not ask for permission, or we take others’ belongings and keep them as our own.
Refrain from Lying
To lie is to say words that are untrue. This includes being divisive, saying harsh words, and using flattery. Lying can be further divided into three kinds: a great lie, a little lie, and a lie of skillful means.
A “great lie” concerns serious matters, such as when someone who is not awakened claims that they are, or someone who has not realized supernatural powers claims that they have. In addition, gossiping about the faults of sangha members, especially the faults of monastics, is considered a violation of the fundamental precepts.
A “little lie” is committed when you see something but you say you have not, when you do not see something but you say you have seen it, when something is right but you say it is wrong, or when you know something but you claim not to know, and vice versa.
A “lie of skillful means” is more commonly known as a “white lie.” An example is when a doctor, considerate of the patient’s feelings, withholds information from the patient about the severity of an illness. This kind of lie that is told for the sake of others is a “lie of skillful means.”
Refrain from Sexual Misconduct
Sexual misconduct is sexual behavior that violates the law or the rights of others. For example, rape, prostitution, polygamy, pedophilia, sexual slavery, adultery, and other sexual acts that harm and negatively affect our society are all violations of the precept against sexual misconduct. In cases of unrequited love, if we do not commit any acts that harm the person whom we desire, it is not a violation of the precept. However, unrequited love often makes our thoughts unclear, and we become disturbed by our desires and anxieties. This causes us to lose peace of mind. Since the purpose of upholding the precepts is to purify the body and mind, this kind of behavior is contrary to the purpose.
Sexual misconduct is a fuse that ignites chaos in society. For example, the problems of incest and child prostitution are a disgrace to all of civilization. If all people could uphold the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct, these situations would not occur. If all couples resolved to uphold this precept, then families would be in harmony and society would be at peace.
Refrain from Consuming Intoxicants
Not consuming intoxicants refers to not taking substances that dull the senses, causing us to lose self-control and violate the morals of society. For example, alcohol, marijuana, opium, amphetamines, glue, and cocaine are all substances that we should abstain from. However, when the Buddha established this precept, it applied specifically to drinking alcohol.
In the first four precepts, the essential nature of the behaviors that we must abstain from is immoral. The essential nature of drinking alcohol is not itself immoral, but it can cause people to lose self-control and engage in killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.
According to the Treatise on the Great Compendium of the Abhidharma, there was once a layperson who, after getting drunk, stole his neighbor’s chicken and broke the precept against stealing. He then killed and cooked the chicken, violating the precept against killing. When his neighbor’s wife asked about it, he lied and said that he did not see the chicken, breaking the precept against lying. At this time, he noticed the beauty of the neighbor’s wife, so he raped her and violated the precept against sexual misconduct. From this story, we can see that when people drink too much, they may lose their sense of shame, remorse, and self-control. As a result, they may commit any of the four serious crimes of killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct. Therefore, in order to avoid causing harm to others or ourselves, it is best to also uphold this precept and abstain from consuming intoxicants.
The Meaning of the Five Precepts
Although the five precepts are different, their fundamental spirit is to not violate others. When we do not violate others but respect them, we will have freedom. For example, to refrain from killing is to not violate the lives of others, to refrain from stealing is to not violate the property of others, to refrain from engaging in sexual misconduct is to not violate the bodies of others, to refrain from lying is to not violate the reputation of others, and to refrain from consuming intoxicants is to not harm our own rational mind and thereby not violate others.
Many people think that the precepts are restrictive, and may wonder why they would want to place such restrictions upon themselves. Actually, upholding the precepts brings freedom and violating the precepts leads to restrictions. If we look carefully at why people have been imprisoned and lose their freedom, we will see that they have violated the five precepts. For example, murder, assault, and disfiguration are all violations of the precept against killing. Corruption, burglary, blackmail, robbery, and kidnapping are all violations of the precept against stealing. Rape, prostitution, abduction, and polygamy are all violations of the precept against sexual misconduct. Slander, breach of contract, and perjury are all violations of the precept against lying. Selling drugs, using drugs, trafficking in drugs, and abusing alcohol are all violations of the precept against consuming intoxicants. People who violate the five precepts will often be imprisoned and lose their freedom. Therefore, taking the precepts, in many cases, corresponds to abiding by the law. If we can uphold the five precepts and deeply understand them, we will have true freedom. For this reason, the true meaning of upholding the precepts is freedom, not restriction.
Some people think that when we take the precepts we will inevitably break them, but if we do not take the precepts we do not have to worry about breaking them. The truth is, after taking the precepts, even if we break a precept, we are more likely to repent because we have a remorseful heart. Through this act of repentance, we will still have the opportunity to be liberated. When those who do not take the precepts break a precept, they do not know to repent. People who do not feel sorry for harming others cannot improve upon their actions. As a result, they fall into the three lower realms. It is better to take the precepts and repent if we violate them, rather than to not take the precepts and break them. Yet, not taking the precepts does not mean we do not violate them when we do bad things. When we do not take the precepts and we violate them, we still have to bear the negative karmic effects.
The Benefits of Upholding the Five Precepts
The five precepts are the foundation of all humanity. When we take and uphold the five precepts, we gain endless benefits. According to the Abhisecana Sutra, when we uphold the five precepts we will receive the protection of the twenty-five Dharma guardians. The Moon Lamp Samadhi Sutra says that those who uphold the precepts with a pure mind will gain ten benefits:
They will have the fulfillment of all wisdom.
They will learn what the Buddha learned.
They will become wise, and not be slandered by others.
Their bodhi mind will not regress.
They will be settled in the state of cultivation.
They will be free from the cycle of birth and death.
They will be able to admire the tranquility of nirvana.
They will have an undefiled mind.
They will attain samadhi.
They will not be lacking in the Dharma.
If we do not take life but protect it, we will naturally have health and long life. If we do not steal and instead practice giving, we will enjoy wealth and good standing. If we do not engage in sexual misconduct and instead respect the integrity of others, we will have a happy and harmonious family. If we do not lie but praise others, we will gain a good reputation. If we do not drink and stay away from the temptation of drugs, we will naturally have good health and wisdom.
By upholding the five precepts, we can eliminate our suffering, afflictions, and fear in this lifetime, and gain the freedom, peace, harmony, and joy of body and mind. In the future, we can escape from falling into the three lower realms, be reborn in the realms of humans and heavenly beings, and even become a Buddha. Taking and upholding the five precepts is like planting seeds in the field of merit. Even if we do not seek it, we will still have many benefits and immeasurable merit.
Upholding the Five Precepts
When we take and uphold the precepts, we take and uphold them for life. We do not uphold them only for a day. We can take all five precepts at one time, or take only those that we can uphold. The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says, “There are five precepts. They begin with not killing and end with not consuming intoxicants. If one precept is taken, it is called ‘one step.’ If two or three precepts are taken, it is known as a ‘few steps.’ If four precepts are taken, it is known as ‘most steps.’ If five precepts are taken, it is called ‘full steps.’ How many steps you wish to take is based on your own conditions.”
From this, we see that laypeople can choose which precepts are easier for them to take according to their situation. They can take one, two, three, or four precepts, diligently uphold them, and gradually reach the state where they can uphold all five. In the future, they may also take the eight precepts or the bodhisattva precepts. Through this kind of practice, they will naturally be reborn in the higher realms, be able to reach the supreme states of cultivation, and finally attain Buddhahood.