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Buddhism and Me: The Five Precepts 
12th-Nov-2012 03:27 pm

1. Introduction
2. The Three Refuges
3. The Four Noble Truths
The Eightfold Path:
4. Right Understanding
5. Right Intent
6. Right Speech
7. Right Livelihood
8. Right Effort
9. Right Mindfulness
10. Right Concentration


So this was a long time coming, right?

Honestly, the reason that I took so long before completing this series was because I’m still caught up in my reaction to one specific precept, and the way I perceive social reactions to it. It’s one thing to decide to live one’s life a certain way, it’s another to work out the reasoning and justify it when people ask.

Especially when you make a choice for more or less moral reasons. I defy anyone to hear the words “I don’t do [x]  for moral reasons” without examining their own choices for doing [x]. Which more often than not leads to a conversation that’s not helpful for any one involved.

But that reason to not talk about the five precepts comes from aversion.

The Five Precepts

(All translated into English)

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

These are rules (well, guidelines) for lay people – monastic life takes things a little stricter, but in a lay life that seeks to be free from suffering involves commitment to these five abstentions.

Taking of Life

Show me a religion that doesn’t include an instruction to its followers that killing should be limited, and I’ll give you a funny look and tell you you’re looking too hard. Buddhism extends that instruction wider than human life. Part of this is because of the reincarnation mythology that suggests the chicken you eat for dinner might be your spouse from a previous life. More relevant to me is the cultivation of compassion. If I carelessly step on an ant, or set a glue trap, or eat a pig, I am contributing to a world that doesn’t respect these creatures as living beings, and more importantly, I am training my heart to think of these lives as worthless. So I abstain from killing more than absolutely necessary, and when it is necessary (I live in Brooklyn, and am used to cohabiting with pest species) I try to do so with as much respect as I can.

I have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since I was thirteen. I understand further ethical implications of farmed dairy products and eggs, but I do not think I could personally live a healthy life without those factoring in my diet. And that’s important: the precepts are not about self-deprivation but about balance. Many people cannot live a healthy life without eating meat, and were that the case for me I would change my diet.


More complicated that just ‘not stealing,’ but easily summed up in those words. By committing myself to not taking that which is not freely given, I devote myself to the counterpoint: not to hoard and to keep for myself what someone else genuinely needs.

If I am committed to the second precept, I am committed to generosity; to the best of my ability give my time and my resources to those who need it. Again, without harming or overspending myself, this means charitable donations, but it also means giving sympathy, compassion, and time when I have it to give.

Sexual Misconduct

Consent. Consent. Consent. Consent.

Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but I happen to believe I can’t say consent enough times.

For me, the third precept is about never using sex in a way that can cause suffering – and there are a lot of ways sex can be used to cause suffering. The emphasis can be placed on keeping sexual activity to within a safe, committed relationship. Many people may tell you this requires monogamy, but while for me it does, I know that for many healthy, skillful relationships it does not.

What it really means for me is to never take sexual contact where not freely given, to be open and communicative and to love and respect my sexual partners, as I do everyone, but particularly in this situation.

Harmful Speech

So important it has its own precept as well as being a specific part of the eightfold path. I undertake to tell only the truth, to speak at the right time and with benevolent intentions.

This actually includes white lies – there is no room in Buddhism for the idea that telling a lie is ever the right way to go. Buddhism is a path of knowledge and the truth. Even the smallest of lies has unskillful consequences. Sometimes there may still be more good than harm coming from speaking a lie – I’m sure you can come up with an example – but the lie itself still has negative consequences, and this is why we try to limit them.


This is the hardest one to defend in the society I live: I am asked about my choice not to drink much more often than my relatively mundane choice not to eat meat. And because I am always self conscious about admitting to being a Buddhist white woman, I usually say “because I’m a dick when I’m drunk.”

It’s true, I am.

One of my absolute favorite parables involves the monk who was told that he must choose to break one of the precepts. Reasoning that the fifth precept would harm only himself and until the alcohol wore off, he chose that one. The next morning, he discovered that while drunk he had broken all the other four.

To maintain a skillful lifestyle, I refrain from intoxicants that hinder my self control, from harmful substances that damage my health, and from toxic environments and activities that harden my heart.

Five Precepts Links

Access to Insight

Urban Dharma

Alan Khoo

The Big View


This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

12th-Nov-2012 11:03 pm (UTC)
I love all these posts so much. They are seriously helping me re-commit myself to Buddhism and helping me focus on being more mindful and aware of my thoughts and actions. Sometime I want to sit down with you and talk Buddhism.
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