The 5 Precepts Of Buddhism And Why They Matter

Category: Buddhist Meditation | Buddhist Path

An image of an incense burner, symbolizing the discipline of morality which permeates everywhere

The 5 Moral Precepts (Understanding The Basis of Buddhist Morality)

The 5 Buddhist precepts are ethical vows taken to promote good conduct and support spiritual practice. They are regarded as a first step in protecting the mind and establishing good karma for the purpose of individual liberation.

After having taken refuge in the three jewels, taking the five precepts is a natural next step for lay people who wish to formally continue along the Buddhist path. In fact, many lay Buddhists take the refuge vows and the 5 precept vows in the same ceremony.

The 5 precepts in Buddhism are sometimes compared with other foundational codes of ethics, such as the Ten Commandments. The Buddhist precepts, however, are not meant to be blindly followed as directives from a higher authority. Precepts are rules of practice. By following them, Buddhists lay a stable foundation for the three-fold training of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

These five virtues of Buddhism are commonly presented as follows:

  1. No Killing: The commitment to refrain from killing any living being
  2. No Stealing: The commitment to refrain from taking what has not been given
  3. No Sexual Misconduct: The commitment to refrain from harming with your sexual activity
  4. No Lying: The commitment to refrain from false speech
  5. No Intoxicants: The commitment to refrain from taking substances that cloud the mind

The intent of non-harming is at the root of these five virtues. When practicing the precepts, intent is of utmost importance. For example, there may be cases in which killing one being saves hundreds, or when stealing food or telling a small lie protects others. That said, only an enlightened being is capable of knowing for certain whether breaking a precept is the least harmful course of action.

A precept is considered broken when the one breaking the vow is aware of their commitment, intends to break it, acts upon that intention, and is successful. Buddhism offers varying means of repairing a vow that has been broken. This may include acknowledging and regretting the transgression, making amends, confessing to the one who gave you the vows or retaking the vow.

When we break a vow, no lightning strikes us from above. The consequence of breaking a vow is the loss of confidence and the negative karma that arises from having watched ourselves choose to harm others.

To help practitioners successfully keep their vows, some Buddhist sanghas allow for smaller or temporary commitments. For example, a teacher may suggest a student commit to just one vow or some of them, instead of all of them at once. Vows may also be taken for a short time, such as the period of one day or a retreat, instead of for a lifetime.

Why Are The 5 Precepts in Buddhism Important?

In Buddhism, the five precepts are important because they set the foundation for self-discipline. Non-harming is more than just a nice thing to do, it keeps the mind clear, allowing us to practice. When we harm others, the mind becomes preoccupied regarding the consequences we might face, regret, shame or general unease.

The basic resolve to avoid harming others, and thereby protect the mind, helps us to make progress along the spiritual path. Practicing this foundational morality allows us the focus we need for self-liberation. When we approach our meditation practice with a clear conscience, we’ve given ourselves a head start on making space for insight to arise.

By refraining from harming others, we also cease harming ourselves, thus minimizing suffering. When we think, speak and act in ways that harm others, we typically do so as a reaction to one or more of the three poisons of ignorance, craving or aversion. In our ignorance, we forget our connection to every living being and that what we do to another, we do to ourselves. We forget the law of karma, that harmful behavior can only move us further from nirvana, versus closer to it.

When we act with the intent to avoid harm, we move closer to nirvana. This is especially true if our actions are imbued with wisdom, the explicit understanding that kind and compassionate action is the method by which we are liberated from our pain.

As we practice the 5 precepts along with mindfulness and awareness meditation, we see why Buddhism and morality are so deeply intertwined. We discover the benefits of being good. Our goodness then becomes motivated by our experiential understanding. This, versus being good just because we were told to, is an effective means of sustaining ethical behavior.

The five precepts are vows of individual liberation. They concern our behavior and our own experience of freedom. As we become more content and joyful, however, a natural inclination might be to wish for all beings everywhere to experience the same. And so we seek to learn more about the bodhisattva vows, the eventual next step of our journey.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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