The Five Precepts

The Buddha’s teaching is not a system of salvation by faith but a path to enlightenment and liberation from suffering. The path unfolds in three main stages: moral discipline (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (pañña). These three divisions of the path rise up each in dependence upon its predecessor — concentration upon moral discipline and wisdom upon concentration. The foundation for the entire path, it can be seen, is the training in moral discipline. As the foundation for the path, moral virtue is internalized by observing precepts prescribed as guidelines to good conduct. The most basic ethical code found in the Buddha’s teaching is the Five Precepts (panchasila):

(1) I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life;
(2) I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given;
(3) I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct;
(4) I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech; and
(5) I undertake the training rule to abstain from liquors, wines, and other intoxicants, which are the basis for heedlessness.

The Five Precepts function as the core of the training in moral discipline. They are intended to produce, through methodical practice, an inner purity of will and motivation that comes to expression in wholesome bodily and verbal conduct. Like the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts should also be renewed each day as part of one’s daily recitation.

The Eight Precepts

In Buddhist countries, on Buddhist holidays it is common for lay Buddhists to observe a more stringent code of discipline consisting of eight precepts. These are modeled upon the ethical code of a novice monk or nun, but are generally taken for only a 24-hour period. The first five of the Eight Precepts are identical with the regular Five Precepts (see above), except that the third is changed to read: “I accept the training rule to abstain from all sexual behavior.” This requires abstinence even from actions like hugging, kissing, holding hands, etc. The additional three are as follows:

(6) “I accept the training rule to abstain from food at improper times.” This means that no solid food (including milk and milk products) should be consumed between twelve noon and dawn of the following day (roughly 6 am). After twelve noon, one may drink any beverage such as tea, coffee, cocoa, fruit juices, etc. A plain vegetable broth, without the pulp, is also permissible. Precept-holders should eat a more substantial lunch than usual (but without stuffing oneself!). With a little determination to resist the force of habit, one will find this suffices for the rest of the day.

(7) “I accept the training rule (a) to abstain from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and shows, and (b) from the use of jewelry, cosmetics, and beauty lotions.” Part (a) means that one refrains both from participating in such activities and attending performances at which they take place. Part (b) excludes personal ornamentation. On a liberal interpretation, the precept should not prohibit women from wearing earrings permanently secured on their ears or, if they so wish, from wearing their wedding bands. It does exclude perfumes, makeup, and other toiletries, but not deodorant or skin lotion needed to counter a dry-skin condition.

(8) “I accept the training rule to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.” During this day one should avoid sitting in especially soft, high, or luxurious seats. The typical American bed would not count as “high and luxurious,” but if one wishes to be extra scrupulous one might sleep in a sleeping bag, mat, or rug spread on the floor.

The Eight Precepts, if undertaken, should be observed until the following dawn. At dawn, one verbally relinquishes them – either to oneself or to another person, preferably before a Buddha image – and then undertakes the usual Five Precepts.