The Five Precepts

| November 9, 2017 | 10 Comments

The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist ethics, particularly as practiced in a lay context. What are the precepts, how should we think of them, and how should we use them as practice?

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Doug Smith

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Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I really can’t attach much importance to the 5 precepts for contemporaries looking for some sort of guidance in the dharma. Nothing wrong with them. All but (possibly) the last are good, basic morality — and that’s just the problem. Westerners don’t have to go (metaphorically) all the way to India to find them. Nor do the precepts, as usually presented, seem to have any particularly enlightening connection with specifically Buddhist insights that would make them more compelling in Buddhist than Judaeo-Christian guise. What do they add? I’d suggest the brahmavirhas are probably more important for us, and perhaps even more so, mindful reflection on what is and is not really important, on attachment, craving, the nature of the self.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Huh, interesting observations Michael. I’d say what makes them problematic for you is what makes them wise for me: that is, that they are generally speaking “good, basic morality”. Sometimes we look in philosophy too hard for something unique and surprising, when what is most wise is what is most good and basic.

      What makes them good and basic just is that they are compelling no matter your religious or non-religious background. (With the possible exception of #5, but even that is questionable independent of one’s cosmology; and for all we may disagree with #5 there is value in the warning). That is, as you note, they would be compelling for Judaeo-Christians (etc.) as well as Buddhists.

      Agreed that the Brahmavihāras are important too; but Brahmavihāras without precepts are not apt. One might argue that in some sense the Brahmavihāras are more basic, that the precepts come out of the Brahmavihāras. But nevertheless for many of us perfecting the Brahmavihāras is a difficult task, while at least the precepts are few and clear. They provide good guideposts while we’re on the path, I think.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
    Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
    The taste of the sea, just divine!
    Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.”
    —Ikkyu, “A Meal of fresh octopus.”

  3. Jason Malfatto says:

    It took me a couple of years of regular mindfulness practice (mind you, without ever taking Buddhist vows) before all five of the precepts made intuitive sense to me. That’s not to say that I don’t still struggle with them – after all, it’s far from obvious how far they extend: to veganism (#1)? to celibacy (#3)? to teetotaling (#5)? My take on each of these may differ from yours, as well as from Buddhist traditionalists, but my point is: to whatever extent that I now embody the precepts, it’s at least partly an unintentional organic by-product of Buddhist-style meditation and whatever neural rewiring follows from that.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks Jason. I think part of what makes the precepts valuable is that they initiate a kind of inner dialogue about how far they extend. That is, one knows intuitively that killing, stealing, and lying are bad, but thinking of them as precepts may prompt us to investigate further about what really counts as each. The Buddha didn’t believe that eating meat was the same as killing, for instance. We may disagree. We may feel that abortion or euthanasia aren’t killing in the relevant sense either. And so on. My point is that these are questions we have to answer for ourselves, and that considering them is valuable.

      As far as “vows” go, those aren’t so much a part of early practice; they come up more in the Mahāyāna bodhisattva vow and the like. For today’s practice I think one has to decide for oneself how one wants to approach something like the precepts. “Vows” seem religious in spirit, in the original sense of “religare” or “binding” oneself to a system of beliefs, and a bit too close to Judaeo-Christianity for me personally. Rather than vows I see them as a system of ongoing practices and investigations that one finds skillful in a general sense.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        Doug: I had loose intentions for that “Buddhist vows” reference, so as to encompass the language of “I abstain from X” that we find in the typical precept formula. However, your response prompted me to google for an early source, which turned up a different, less vow-like formula here.

        Also, you raise an interesting point about what it means to identify as a secular Buddhist. For example, I recall Ted’s saying that he “took lifetime precepts at Bhavana Society under Bhante Gunaratana, and have renewed them several times”, which sounds rather more vow-like, ritualistic, and religious for your and my comfort. Still, insofar as Buddhism traditionally features such practices, I must admit that it has continuity in its favor, historically and geographically speaking.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes. The early sources I think portray the precepts as practices whereby we abandon unskillful actions of certain kinds. “Right intention” is to make the intention to do such things as these, and “right effort” is to expend energy in carrying them out as best we can.

          As an aside, I’m not sure what the history of the five precept chant (“Panatipata …” etc.) is that is listed at the top of the page you linked to. I’ve been in groups where it’s chanted, and have no problem joining in, though I don’t see chanting as particularly germane to the effort.

          A vow however is a bit more of a formal undertaking in my mind, usually made before a group of some kind in order to establish cred. Some secular practitioners will have no problem with it, and that’s fine with me. Personally I see the precepts as having more to do with internal intentions and efforts (right intention, right effort) rather than related to saṅgha. (public vows). But I may be repeating myself here. 🙂

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    OK — maybe I didn’t explain myself very well. As I did say, the precepts are fine as ethical propositions. But if I wanted to persuade a friend of the value of a Buddist approach to ethics, I wouldn’t start with them. The response would be, I suspect, “that’s really not much different than what I try to follow now.” If the friend came from an Islamic background, even the 5th would be familiar. I’m not suggesting ignoring the precepts or similar moral guides …. just suggesting they don’t give good people from other religious or humanitarian backgrounds much wisdom they dodn’t already have access to.

    Having said that, there are some advantages to the precepts. As practices that contribute to leading to living the good life rather than absolute rules, they are more effective means of making us wiser and better. Understood this way, I think they do link to fundamental Buddhist concepts. Of course, they can become just rules for believers — but not so easily as the Ten Commandments, for example (which insist on — and incorporate – God the Rule Giver). Also, of course, because they are not absolutes, they allow, even perhaps require, an effort to adapt them to the situation to acheive the desired results.

    But still, if I was explaining Buddhist ethics, I think I might start with right intention and right effort rather than the precepts as a code of ethics.

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