The Five Precepts – What the Buddha Meant by Them

Revised December 23, 2020

1. The five or eight precepts, of course with different meanings,  were there before the Buddha. On the day the future Buddha, Prince Siddhattha (Siddhārtha in Sanskrit), was born, his mother had observed the eight precepts.

  • Ancient kings banned the so-called five immoral acts 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 the killing of animals. They also expanded to eight precepts, which enabled them to attain mundane jhānā.
  • By the way, except those referring to God, the Ten Commandments in Christianity also identify many of these “immoral acts.”

2. Just like he did with many existing terminologies 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 fact, those concepts originated with Buddha Kassapa, who lived a long time before Buddha Gotama. The true meanings of many concepts were lost by the time of Buddha Gotama.)

  • 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, and anatta, one sees that these precepts come naturally from 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, understanding that it is not a promise, but one intends to do the utmost (otherwise, the act will itself be a musāvāda 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 nirāmisa sukha), one should try to expand the scope of those five precepts from the conventional meanings. This can be done systematically: when one truly understands the meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, AND that our existence does not end with this life, one begins to have a 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 animal life on the same level as human life and then freak out when they have to clear a spider web in cleaning their house. Inevitably, 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 acted like shoplifting, but also includes gains by immoral means. To live a functional society, we have to do transactions with each other. We 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 laypeople.
  • When the Buddha said to test any act or concept with “Dhamma and Vinaya,” he meant that the concept needs to be consistent with Paṭicca Samuppāda (cause and effect) and also consistent with “rāga 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, “kāmesu micchācārā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmī,” is commonly translated as “avoiding sexual misconduct.” But “kāma” is not just sexual activity. Kāma” includes all sense pleasures that are available in the kāma loka. And “micchācārā” (pronounced “michchāchārā”) means “misbehavior” in the sense of “going to extremes.” Thus the real meaning is 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 to 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 musāvāda (lying) in Buddha Dhamma includes all abuses done in 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, “urāmeraya veramaṇī..” That was probably the original verse.

But in Buddha Dhamma it is, “surāmeraya majjapamā daṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ……”.

In the word, “surā,” “” means “rāga” or excess greed. Thus “surā” means with excess greed; “meraya” is delicious. “Majja” means intoxication, and “majjapamā” is getting delayed via intoxication, and “daṭṭhānā” means that mindset. Of course, “veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmī” means “I decide 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 happens 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 micchā diṭṭhi or wrong views.
  • To put it another way, one should be careful not to get intoxicated by the five sense inputs or “kāma assāda“; see, “What is “Kāma”? It is not Just Sex.”
  • One believes that either, (i) one’s actions will not have future consequences, and (ii) therefore, one 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 to really obey the fifth precept, one needs to start working on one’s mind. All three akusala kamma done with the 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: Many people 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 older 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. She was reborn as 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 Nibbāna, then a cow or a horse living in isolation will be certain to attain Nibbāna. 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 Nibbāna.

10. The path to Nibbāna starts with the mundane Eightfold Path with sīla, samādhi, paññā in that order. Then, one will comprehend the Noble Truths/Tilakkhana/ Paṭicca Samuppāda and become a Sotapanna Anugāmi. That is when one starts on the lokottara or Noble Eightfold Path with lokottara Sammā Diṭṭhi. Now the sequence shifts to paññā, sīla, samādhi with wisdom (paññā) in front. See, “Sīla, Samādhi, Pannā to Pannā, Sīla, Samādhi.”

  • A key step in completing the mundane Eightfold Path is to get rid of the wrong views (micchā diṭṭhi), as explained in that post. Another is to understand that kamma is not deterministic.
  • A brahmin by the name of Nigaṇṭhanāṭaputta 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, INEVITABLY, such deeds lead to birth in the apāyā. He also preached that if someone did not break even a single precept, that person would NOT be born in the apāyā 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, attained the Arahantship in a week. And Buddha gave examples of those who lived a perfectly moral life but were born in the apāyā because they had bad kamma vipāka from previous lives. For details, see, “Mahā Kammavibhaṅga Sutta (MN 136).”
  • Furthermore, the Buddha said that if someone dies with such misconceptions, that is micchā diṭṭhi, and one WILL BE born in the apāyā just BECAUSE OF that micchā diṭṭhi. 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 micchā diṭṭhi. The only way to guarantee that one will be exempt from birth in the apāyā is to attain the Sotāpaññā stage of Nibbāna.

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

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