The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them

1. The five or eight precepts, of course with different meanings,  were there before the Buddha. It is said that on the day the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, was born his mother had observed the eight precepts.

  • The ancient kings banned the so-called five immoral acts in order to maintain a peaceful society. These were: killing (of probably other people), stealing, sexual misbehavior, lying, and getting intoxicated.
  • The vedic Brahmins expanded these to include killing of animals. They also expanded to eight precepts which enabled them to attain mundane jhanas.
  • By the way, except those referring to the God, the Ten Commandments also identify many of these “immoral acts”.

2. Just like he did with many existing terminology at that time (kamma, the four great elements of patavi, apo, tejo, vayo, etc), the Buddha adopted these precepts, but re-defined what he meant by them.

  • In Buddha Dhamma, all possible immoral acts are included in the dasa akusala; see, “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)”.
  • Therefore, all those are in the five precepts too. When one truly understands Buddha Dhamma, i.e., the nature of this world as embodied in anicca, dukkha, anatta, one sees that these precepts come out naturally from the nature’s laws. At that stage, one’s mind automatically rejects all dasa akusala and thus the five precepts are automatically obeyed; one does not even have to think about them.

3. For one embarking on the Path prescribed by the Buddha, the conventional five precepts (killing other beings intentionally, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication) are a good start.

  • Furthermore, one needs to recite the five precepts with the understanding that it is not a promise but one’s intention is to do the utmost (otherwise the act will itself be a musavada or a lie). This is because anyone other than an Arahant is bound to break some of them per their true meanings. 
  • But as one proceeds on the Path and experiences the benefits (peace of mind or the early stages of niramisa sukha), one should try to expand the scope of those five precepts from the conventional meanings. This can be done systematically: when one truly understand the meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta AND that our existence does not end with this life, one begins to have a more deeper insight.
  • When that happens, the precepts are not followed as a ritual or a set of rules. Rather, one realizes that there is no other moral way to live.

4. For example, when one realizes that one has been an animal or worse in previous lives, one stops thinking of animals as “mere things” that exist for our pleasure. Furthermore, understanding the laws of kamma i.e., taking any life has consequences will make one re-think of just wantonly taking another life.

  • But some people go to extremes. They start treating an animal life on the same level as a human life, and then freak out when they have to clear a spider web in cleaning their house. It is inevitable that we will unintentionally kill many small creatures while walking on the ground or even boiling some water. So, one need to get a sense of the relative weights of kamma; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kamma?”.
  • What needs to be avoided first is those “pleasure killings” like fishing, hunting, etc.

5. Stealing is not merely acts like shop lifting, but also includes gains by immoral means. In order to live a functional society, we have to do transactions with each other. We just need to make sure we do not take advantage of another person and becoming “morally indebted” to that person.

  • Vinaya rules (“vi” + “naya” where “naya” is debt and vinaya is becoming free debts) in Buddha Dhamma setup for the monks show how to live their lives by properly paying back for the sustenance they get from the lay people.
  • When the Buddha said to test any act or concept with “Dhamma and Vinaya“, he meant that the concept needs to be consistent with paticca samuppada (cause and effect) and also consistent with “raga vinaya, dosa vinaya, and moha vinaya“, i.e., not getting into debt via greed, hate, and ignorance.
  • If we gain from someone by unjust means, we will have to pay that debt if not in this life, but in future lives; see, “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation”.

6. The third precept, “kamesu miccacara veramani sikkha padan samadiyami”, is commonly translated as “avoiding sexual misconduct”. But “käma” is not just sexual activity; “käma” includes all sense pleasures that are available in the kama loka. And “miccacara” (pronounced “michchächära”) means “misbehavior” in the sense of “going to extremes”. Thus the real meaning is to not to over-indulge in sense pleasures.

  • In fact, excessive drinking, gambling etc are included in this precept.
  • We have to use all our five physical senses to live in this world. But we need to have restraints so that we do not abuse them to the extent that we will hurt ourselves or others. Even a simple example of over-eating leads to health problems, which will hurt not only oneself but the whole family.
  • The first three precepts include all three akusala kamma done with the body.

7. The fourth precept on musavada (lying) in Buddha Dhamma includes all abuses done my speech, including harsh speech, slandering, and gossip which WILL harm oneself and others.

  • Thus the fourth precept encompasses all four akusala kamma done with speech.

8. The fifth is a big one that is almost always misinterpreted. If it included just drinking, it would have been, “surameraya veramani……”. That was probably the original verse.

But in Buddha Dhamma it is, “surameraya majjapama dattana veramani……”.

In the word, “sura”, “ra” means “raga” or excess greed, thus “sura” means with excess greed; “meraya” is delicious. “Majja” means intoxication and “majjapama” is getting delayed via intoxication. “Dattana” means that mindset. Of course, “veramani sikkha padan samadiyami” means “I make a determination to avoid doing such things willingly”.

Thus it should be interpreted as, “avoid the mindset of getting intoxicated by alcohol, drugs, money, power, etc”, anything that can make you “fall behind”:

  • All this happen in one’s mind. One gets intoxicated with greedy thoughts and when one does not get one’s way with them, one generates hate. And all this happens because one does not understand the true nature of this world, i.e., one has micca ditthi or wrong views.
  • To put it another way, one should be careful not to get intoxicated by the five sense inputs or “kama äsvada“; see, “What is “Käma”? – It is not Sex
  • One believes that either, (i) one’s actions will not have future consequences, and (ii) therefore, one just needs to think about how to get what one wants (because there are so many tempting things out there to be had!); one does not realize all that is temporary.
  • Thus in order to really obey the fifth precept one needs to start working on one’s mind. All three akusala kamma done with mind are included in this fifth precept; see, Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)”.

9. The following scenario is given as an example to illustrate the futility of blindly following precepts: There are many people who live their entire lives without intentionally killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, or getting intoxicated. But their minds are burdened with greed, hate, or ignorance. Depending on the state of their minds, they may not even get a human birth next time around.

  • There is this story about an old woman who  followed those conventional five precepts to the letter. Even though she was poor, she was greedy and kept all her money under her pillow. It is said that she was reborn a louse (plural lice) on that pillow, because of her attachment to that money in the pillow.
  • And if keeping those precepts will take one to Nibbana, then a cow or a horse living in isolation will be certain to attain Nibbana. They do not kill, steal, lie, or get intoxicated, and if their owners do not have any other animal of that kind, then there is no chance of sexually misbehaving either.
  • It is all about purifying one’s mind. A pure mind gains wisdom, and will not allow any harmful action by speech or by deed. Such a mind is not burdened, but has “cooled down”; that is the happiness of Nibbana.

10. Another good example (which also clarifies an aspect of micca ditthi) is described in the Maha Kammavibhanga sutta in Majjima Nikaya.

  • A brahmin by the name of Nigantanathaputta in the days of the Buddha was preaching that everything happens due to kamma. He advised his followers to refrain from breaking the five precepts, because that would INEVITABLY lead to the birth in the apayas. He also preached that if someone did not break even a single precept, that person WILL NOT be born in the apayas in the next birth.
  • The Buddha said that both were wrong. We have done both good and bad kamma in our previous lives and the next birth will be determined by the relative strengths of those and what we do in this life. For example, Angulimala, who killed nearly 1000 people, was able to attain the Arahantship in a week. And Buddha gave examples of those lived a perfectly moral life, but were born in the apayas, because they had bad kamma vipaka from previous lives.
  • Furthermore, the Buddha said that if someone dies with such misconceptions, that is micca ditthi and one WILL BE born in the apayas just BECAUSE OF that micca ditthi. It is critically important to figure out this point. I meet many people (even Buddhists) who say, “I have not done anything bad to anyone; therefore, I do not think anything bad will happen to me”. That is a micca ditthi. The only way to guarantee that  one will be exempt from birth in the apayas is to attain the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana.

Next, “What is Kamma? – Is Everything Determined by Kamma?“, …

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