Buddhism · Spirituality

Spiritual Glossary: Buddhist Precepts

In Buddhism, the precepts form a basic code of ethics or minimum standard of morality. There are various numbers of precepts, depending on the teaching, but the most common are the Five Precepts found in the Paramitas. They’re designed to help you achieve liberation from suffering and illusion – if you can stick to them!

The Five Precepts are for lay practitioners and guide you along the Eightfold Path as part of your spiritual practice. But it’s important not to follow them too mechanically or dogmatically. They’re not like the Ten Commandments and you’re not weighed down with sin if you fail to uphold them. Following the precepts isn’t about making yourself feel guilty every time you fail. They’re more like guidelines – ideals of behaviour to aim for in your practice.

These are the Five Precepts:

  1. I undertake the precept not to kill
  2. I undertake the precept not to steal
  3. I undertake the precept not to be involved in sexual misconduct
  4. I undertake the precept not to have false speech
  5. I undertake the precept not to indulge in intoxicants that cloud the mind

Each precept needs to be understood within the context of the teachings and your daily life. You may think the first one is easy – most of us aren’t planning to kill anyone any time soon! But it refers to all sentient beings, not just other humans. So that means no fly swatting or ant squishing – pretty difficult to achieve, especially in summer.

Ideally, these precepts are about learning acceptance and how to not make things any worse for yourself or others. It’s about aiming to make living with others in society more harmonious. If you want to go hardcore, you might like to try following the full Ten Precepts, but personally, I wouldn’t recommend it – unless you’re a saint.

The Ten Precepts are the training rules for Buddhist monks and nuns, and build on the basic Five Precepts. These rules are for serious ascetics only. In fact, living by the Ten Precepts outside the walls of a monastery would be almost impossible and I doubt you’d have many friends. With that in mind, here they are:

  1. Refrain from killing
  2. Refrain from stealing
  3. Refrain from sexual activity (including sensuality and lust)
  4. Refrain from false speech
  5. Refrain from taking intoxicants
  6. Refrain from eating at inappropriate times (i.e. after noon)
  7. Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment performances
  8. Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and decorative accessories
  9. Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on soft beds
  10. Refrain from accepting money

Not much fun! Obviously these rules are designed to help build discipline and focus so you can concentrate on attaining enlightenment. But I don’t think I’ll be signing up to join a nunnery any time soon – I couldn’t handle it!

Zen Buddhism also has Ten Precepts but they’re a little easier to aspire to than the monastic rules. They build on the Five Precepts and form the ethical underpinning of Zen. The Ten Precepts of Zen are:

  1. Do not kill – affirm life
  2. Do not steal – be generous
  3. Do not misuse sexuality – honour the body
  4. Do not lie – be truthful
  5. Do not cloud the mind – cultivate clarity
  6. Do not speak ill of others – be respectful
  7. Do not elevate yourself above others – recognise we’re all one
  8. Do not be possessive – cultivate sharing
  9. Do not be angry – cultivate loving-kindness
  10. Do not defile the Three Jewels* – cultivate awakening

All the precepts arise directly from your Buddha Nature so aligning yourself with these principles brings you closer to liberation from illusion and suffering. A fully enlightened person would live in accordance with these precepts without giving it a second thought – it would simply be natural for them to be this way.

The precepts are there to help nudge you in the right direction. They’re not easy to follow, but that’s why you practice. Remember: there’s no need to be rigid or dogmatic or give yourself a hard time when you fall short. You only need to do your best.

*The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. You can read about those here.

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